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17th Century Pennsylvania

Early Settlement

Pennsylvania as described in 1843. [1]

The earliest settlements made by Europeans within the limits of Pennsylvania were by a colony of Swedes, who in the year 1638 purchased from the natives the land upon the western shore of Delaware River and Bay, from Cape Henlopen to the falls opposite the present city of Trenton. In 1642, John Prinz, the Swedish governor, erected for his own use a handsome and convenient mansion on Tinicum island, below the mouth of the Schuylkill, and also caused a church to be built, which was consecrated in 1646. In this neighborhood the principal settlers established themselves. The Dutch West India Company, however, also laid claim to this territory under a grant from the government of Holland, and in 1654 they subdued the Swedes, and brought them under the dominion of the government of New Netherlands, now New York, which then belonged to the Dutch.

When the English conquered New Netherlands in 1664, the Dutch possessions on the Delaware also fell into their hands, and the whole country remained for several years subject to the English governors of New York.

William Penn, the son of Sir William Penn, a distinguished admiral in the British navy, having embraced the religious sentiments of the people called Friends, or Quakers, suffered much persecution on that account, and seems to have looked towards the new settlements in America, as a place where he might found a colony as an asylum for his persecuted brethren. Accordingly, in 1680, he petitioned King Charles II for a tract of land lying north of the patent previously granted to Lord Baltimore, and west of the Delaware. This was readily granted to him in consideration of a debt of sixteen thousand pounds, due to him in right of his father, from the government. The charter was dated March 4, 1681, and constituted William Penn and his heirs true and absolute proprietaries of the province of Pennsylvania, saving to the crown their allegiance and the sovereignty. (This Charter is yet preserved and hangs in a frame in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth at Harrisburg.) He and his heirs and deputies were empowered to enact laws with the assent of the freemen of the province, to erect courts of justice, and generally to administer the government, provided that nothing should be done repugnant to the laws or sovereignty of England. No tax or duty was to be laid on the people or their property by the king, unless by consent of the proprietary, governor or assembly, or by act of parliament.

Soon after this, Penn published an account of his newly acquired territory, and offered the land to purchasers at the rate of forty shillings per hundred acres, with a quit rent of one shilling per annum forever. His offers were soon embraced and several companies of emigrants sailed from London and Bristol to take possession, landing in December 1681, at Upland, now Chester. They were chiefly of the society of Friends, and being temperate, industrious and economical, conducted themselves in the difficulties and hardships of their new situation with so much prudence and circumspection as to avoid most of the dangers to which a new colony is usually subject. Their success induced others to follow, and so early as August 1683, the population was estimated at four thousand. Penn himself soon followed the first colonists, and landed at New Castle, October 24, 1682.

He immediately proceeded to establish his government over the infant province, and convened an assembly which met at Chester on the 4th of December. This first legislature of Pennsylvania, during a session of three days, enacted three laws. 1) An act annexing the Lower Counties to the province. 2) An act naturalizing the Swedes, Dutch, and other foreigners in the province. 3) The "great law," comprising the laws agreed on in England as a general system of jurisprudence.

The conscientious Penn still regarded the Indians as the rightful possessors of the soil, and invited them to a conference at Shackamaxon, (now Kensington,) where they assembled in great numbers. Here a formal treaty of peace and amity was made; they were paid for their lands, and departed for their forest homes full of love and admiration for the great and good Onas, as they called Penn. This treaty, simple but sincere, remained inviolate for seventy years. Voltaire says," It was the only treaty between these people and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and which was never broken."

The City of Philadelphia was laid out at a place called by the Indians Coaqiumnock, between Wicacoa, now Southwark, and Shackamaxon. During the first year eighty houses were erected, and the establishment of various mechanical arts, as well as a profitable trade soon gave strength to the infant city. Fresh arrivals of emigrants poured into the province from England, Wales, and Germany. The Welsh settled upon the Schuylkill some miles above Philadelphia, and the Germans, establishing themselves on the north, founded the village of Germantown. Four years after the grant of the charter to Penn, the province contained twenty settlements, and Philadelphia two thousand inhabitants.

In August 1684, Penn having received intelligence that his presence was necessary in England, concluded to leave the colony for a time, and return to the mother country. He had established a government, and beheld his people happy and prosperous in their civil and religious liberty. He appointed five commissioners of the provincial council, with Thomas Lloyd as president, to administer the government during his absence. Shortly after his arrival in England, King Charles II died, and was succeeded by James II. The troubles in England, during the reign of that prince, involved Penn and his colony in difficulty, and after the revolution of 1688, which placed William and Mary on the throne, Penn was several times imprisoned, in consequence of his religion and his supposed adherence to the cause of the fallen monarch. The government of Pennsylvania was taken into the hands of the king, who appointed Colonel Fletcher, at that time governor of New York, to administer the affairs of the province. There seems to have been little cordiality of feeling between Governor Fletcher and the people of the province, and with the provincial assembly he was continually engaged in disputes and contentions.

The suspicions which had so long rendered the king unfriendly to Penn, were at last removed. He had friends among the leading men who were in the confidence of the sovereign ; he was heard before the privy council, honorably acquitted, and restored to his proprietary rights by patent dated August 1694. He now desired again to visit Pennsylvania, but being prevented by pecuniary difficulties, he continued William Markham as deputy governor. The colonial assembly differing with the Governor, and complaining that their chartered privileges had been broken, a new frame of government was agreed upon, more democratic than the former, and defining more explicitly the powers of the assembly, and the duties of the several officers. This, however, does not seem to have been sanctioned by Penn, and continued in force only until he arrived in the province in 1699.

On this second visit he was accompanied by his family, and probably designed to spend the remainder of his life in Pennsylvania.

The house which he occupied, and in which his son John Penn was born, is still standing at the southeast corner of Second Street and Morris Alley. The front has since undergone some alterations, but enough of the old fashioned peculiarity of the structure is still visible, to distinguish it as a relic of the olden time.

  1. Trego, Charles B., A Geography of Pennsylvania, C. Sherman, Printer, Philadelphia, 1843.

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