The First Purchasers

People who bought land from Penn in England before 1685 are called First Purchasers. In July 1681 Penn signed a formal agreement promising them special privileges, the Conditions or Concessions.  For every 50 acres they were to receive a one-acre lot in the city. (This was later modified, as there was not enough land in the site chosen for the city. Instead they got a smaller city lot and a larger lot in the Liberties, an area just north of the city.) Penn wanted settlers, not land held vacant for speculation, so he stipulated that tracts over 1000 acres would not be laid out unless they were settled within three years. 1

The purchasers were buying rights to land, not a specific tract. When the deed was signed no one, neither Penn nor the buyer, knew where it would be located. This would be determined by the buyer on the spot after he emigrated (or sent an agent to represent him). Many of the First Purchasers did not emigrate and sold their rights to others, even years later in the 1700’s. The ones who appear on Thomas Holme’s map are those who exercised their rights by having their land surveyed. Of the 589 First Purchasers on the best available list, 234 of them appear on Holme’s map, fewer than half. 2

Most of the First Purchasers were Quakers. Penn’s network of agents were Quakers—men like James Harrison in Lancashire, Robert Turner in Dublin, Philip Ford in London. They publicized and marketed the colony as a Quaker settlement. A few non-Quaker relatives and friends of Penn like Herbert Springett, Sir William Petty, and Sir Henry Ingoldsby bought as a favor to Penn or as an investment. Large tracts were set aside for the Penn family including William’s children Letitia and William. 3

Most of them were English. “The First Purchasers were primarily Quaker merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and farmers. Some of them came from Ireland, Wales. Scotland, Holland, France, Germany, the West Indies, and North America, but the great majority lived in the country districts of southern and western England, and in the cities of London and Bristol. About half of them actually migrated to Pennsylvania, bringing their families as well as many servants, and making possible the rapid development of the new colony.” 4

The First Purchasers bought tracts of land ranging from 125 acres to 10,000 acres, with the most common size as 500 acres. Five hundred acres was more than enough for a family farm, and any tract larger than that would almost certainly be settled by more than one family. Some of the largest tracts, in the northern edges, were sparsely settled if at all, contrary to Penn’s policy, but these were the exception.

The First Purchasers were vitally important to Penn and the settlement of Pennsylvania. They gave him an infusion of money that he needed, much of which he plowed into the province to support the government in its early years. And those who emigrated provided people to clear the land and begin the process of settlement.


  1. Soderlund, William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, pp. 72-75
  2. The best available list was published by Richard Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn in the Papers of William Penn 1680-1684.  John Pomfret discussed the First Purchasers in 1956, summarized their origins and stated that about half of them emigrated, but he was working from less complete lists. John Pomfret, “The First Purchasers of Pennsylvania”, PMHB, 1956, volume 80.
  3. Pomfret, p. 149
  4. Soderlund, p. 75.

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