How Penn got his province

In 1680 William Penn needed money to support his life as a gentleman and to pay his debts.  Most of his income came from rents paid by tenants on his lands, and many of them were in default. 1

Penn was well-connected, with personal ties to King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York. Even more important for the future of Pennsylvania, Charles owed a debt to Penn’s late father Admiral William Penn. The older Penn had spent £11,000 of his own money to feed the navy in 1667 during the Second Anglo-Dutch war. This debt had never been repaid, and in 1680 the younger Penn petitioned Charles for a grant of land in America as repayment for the loan.

Charles referred the petition to his Lords of Trade, who laid out the boundaries for the new province.  It was to be 45,000 square miles, five degrees of longitude and three degrees of latitude. On the south it would sit next to Lord Baltimore’s Maryland and the lands on the Delaware owned by James, the Duke of York. There was little difficulty with James. He was a friend of the Penns and readily agreed to set the boundary with Delaware at twelve miles north of the town of New Castle. (Two years later he granted all of Delaware to Penn.) 2

The rest of the southern boundary was set at the 40th degree of latitude, supposedly about the same latitude at the boundary with Delaware. This was important to Penn because he believed this would give him access to the Susquehanna River in addition to the Delaware. But the geography was poorly known at the time, and the 40th parallel was actually miles north of the Delaware boundary and ran through present-day northern Philadelphia. This confusion would cause much trouble in years to come, in a long-running boundary dispute, as the proprietors of Maryland did not wish to concede any of their land. 3

Charles signed the charter in early 1681. Penn wrote to Robert Turner. “This day my country was confirmed to me under the Great Seal of England with large powers and privileges, by the name of Pennsylvania, a name the king would give it in honor to my father… Thou may communicate my grant to Friends, and expect shortly my proposals. It is a clear and just thing, and my God that has given it me through many difficulties will I believe bless and make it the seed of a nation.” 4

Penn wanted to call the colony New-Wales, because he had heard that it was hilly like Wales, but the king made it Pennsylvania. Penn tried to bribe the secretaries to change it. “I much opposed it and went to the king to have it struck out and altered, he said it was passed and he would take it upon him. Nor could twenty guineas move the undersecretaries to vary the name for I feared lest it should be looked upon as a vanity in me and not as a respect in the king, as it truly was, to my father whom he often mentions with praise.” 5 How many people now remember that Pennsylvania was actually named for Penn’s father?

  1. Jean R. Soderlund, William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania 1680-1684, pp. 19-21
  2. Soderlund, p. 31. Penn’s father had been the captain of the Duke’s flagship during the war with the Dutch.
  3. Soderlund, pp. 22-25, 41
  4. Soderlund, p. 54
  5. Soderlund, p. 55

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