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

How it all started

In 1682 William Penn was in the business of selling land. He had a lot to sell, having received the province of Pennsylvania as a grant from King George the year before. Penn needed to raise money to cover his debts, and he wanted settlers for the land, especially Quakers, who were battered by persecution in England. Hauled into court, thrown into prison, and pestered by fines and seizure of their goods and crops, many were eager to leave for the freedom of Penn’s province.

Others were intrigued by Pennsylvania land as an investment. Wealthy merchants, some Quakers and some not, did not plan to emigrate themselves, but wanted land to place settlers on or as a base for commerce. A few had dreams of commercial empires based on fur trading and whaling.

The buyers, whatever their motivation, wanted to see what they were getting. Penn needed something to show them, and after a few years’ delay he finally got what he needed—a map. His surveyor general, Thomas Holme, drafted it and sent it to England to be printed. Penn and his business agents were pleased, and future historians were delighted, for this map was unique and wonderful. It showed the geography of the province, with its rivers, the mighty Delaware and flowing Schuylkill, and many streams. But it also laid out the land owners. By 1685 much of the lower counties, Chester, Philadelphia, and Bucks, had been bought from the Indians and sold to the settlers. The map showed their holdings, in tidy blocks, each one labelled with a name.

Who are the names on the map? With some digging through records it is possible to pin down their identity, find whether they were Quaker or not, see whether they emigrated and what they did for a living. This paints a rich and fine-grained portrait of the early landowners. But there is something missing — the people who are not on the map. Holme lumped the Germans together into the German township without naming them, did the same with the Welsh in Radnor and Haverford, and did the same with the Swedes along the Delaware River. This had the effect of making the province seem more homogeneous and English, whether Holme intended this or not. More seriously, the map largely omits the women, the servants, the slaves, and the native peoples. They are the faces hiding behind the white male landowners.

This study will look at everyone: the landowners, the unnamed Germans and Swedes and Welsh, the women, the slaves and indentured servants, the native Lenni Lenape. It will use data to tell a collective story, and individual stories to bring characters to life, like Elizabeth Shorter, cheated by her son-in-law, or Philip Theodore Lehnmann, Penn’s hapless private secretary, who almost caused him to lose the city of Philadelphia in the boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore.