Tag Archives: Holme

How people got their land

New arrivals in Pennsylvania could not just ride out into the countryside and claim a tract for their own. Penn set up an orderly process for laying out land purchases. Many of the emigrants had bought rights to land from him in England as First Purchasers. Others had bought up the rights from a First Purchaser. 1 Once they got off the boat, they went to Penn in Philadelphia and requested a survey, asking for all or part of their purchase to be laid out. Penn sent a warrant to Thomas Holme, asking him to have the land surveyed. Here is a typical warrant from Penn to Holme:

William Penn proprietary and Governor of the province of Pennsylvania and the territories thereunto belonging. At the request of Nicholas Rendal late purchaser one hundred and fifty acres that I would grant him to take up the said land in the county of Philadelphia. These are to will and require thee forthwith to survey or cause to be surveyed onto him the said number of acres in the aforementioned County where not already taken up according to the method of townships appointed by me, he seating  the same according to regulation and make returns thereof into my secretary’s office. Given at Philadelphia the 12th of the fourth month 1684.

For Thomas Holme Surveyor General.

[Holme added a note at the bottom.] 18th ordered T.F. [Thomas Fairman] to lay it out in Warminster Township if room there, to join to his father’s acres. 2

Holme might do the survey himself, or more often would delegate one of his assistants: typically Charles Ashcom for Chester County, Thomas Fairman for Philadelphia County, Israel Taylor for Bucks County. These men would direct the survey, which required a team of men — the surveyor and his chainmen. 3 The chainmen carried heavy chains, of known length, which they laid out according to directions from the surveyor. He used a compass, and possibly other tools such as a theodolite (for measuring angles), a protractor (for drawing angles), and a quadrant (for measuring altitude). 4 The survey was supposed to include an extra 6 percent allowance for roads that might be run through it at some time, although a shady surveyor might add extra land to please the purchaser and increase his fee. The fee was supposed to be shared, with one-third to the surveyor and two-thirds for Holme. 5 In practice the deputy surveyors tried to avoid sending Holme his fees, leading to several lawsuits. 6

Once the land was surveyed the purchaser could live on it, rent it out or sell it. If he did not settle on it in a reasonable amount of time, it could be forfeit to Penn, as in the warrant above, “….seating the same according to regulation.” In practice this was rare.

The final step in the purchase process was the patent. The owner could apply to the land office for a patent giving him full title to the land. After paying a fee he would receive a paper describing the property and documenting his right to it. Because there was a fee for this, owners often didn’t get a patent, and sold the land without one. But a cautious buyer would insist on it, and often a patent was dated just before the sale of the land.

  1. They could also buy land from Penn once they arrived.
  2. Warrant #2071. Warrant and Survey Book 1, Philadelphia City Archives
  3. In later years the team also included axmen, who cleared trees and brush along the boundaries of the tract. In the early years when Holme had fewer helpers, the chainmen probably doubled as axmen.
  4. Corcoran, Thomas Holme, p. 35
  5. Munger, Guide to Pennsylvania Land Records.
  6. Holme sued Taylor in 10th month 1686 (Court records of Bucks County) and Ashcom in 7th month 1690 (Court records of Chester County).

Laying out the countryside

William Penn had definite ideas for how Philadelphia should look. He also knew how his countryside should look. Instead of scattered farms on widely separated plots, he wanted the people grouped together into communities, for “Society, assistance, Busy Commerce, Instruction of Youth, Government of Peoples manners, Conveniency of Religious Assembing, Encouragement of Mechanicks, distinct and beaten roads”. 1

Penn specified one way to accomplish this.  “We have another Method … “Five hundred acres are allotted for the Village, which among ten families, comes to fifty acres each. This lies square, and on the outside of the Square stand the houses, with their fifty acres running back, where ends meeting make the Centre of the 500 acres as they are to the whole. Before the doors of the Houses lies the High way, and cross it, every man’s 450 acres of Land that makes up his complement of 500, so that the Conveniency of neighborhood is made agreeable with that of the Land.” 2

This is not very clear, but the idea might be something like the layout of Newtown township in Bucks County.

Newtown in sepia

You see the plots radiating out from the center. You also see that the neat geometry that Penn imagined was interrupted by the natural geography, in this case Neshaminy Creek. Other factors could also interfere with the idea of neat rectangles. The townships along the Delaware River had tracts that were particularly long and skinny, to give more settlers access to the valuable river frontage. Germantown grew up as a linear village, strung out along an existing road. 3 Some land in Chester and Philadelphia Counties had to accommodate existing rights of the Swedes, whose lands were sometimes irregular in shape.

The three counties — Philadelphia, Chester and Bucks– were laid out early, although their precise boundaries were not specified at first. Some of the townships were laid out and named early as well, especially those in the southern part of each county, where settlement was densest. Penn wanted a one-tenth share in each township reserved for him, but Holme admitted to Penn that he had neglected this under pressure from settlers who wanted the land.

The other requirement for Penn was for contiguous settlement, with no gaps between tracts as the land was laid out. His surveyors were to start with existing lots like the ones along the rivers and to proceed inland in an orderly way. For the most part, settlement proceeded as he wished, with one notorious exception that almost cost Holme his job. In 1686 Charles Pickering, a Philadelphia merchant who had been convicted of counterfeiting in 1683, learned from an Indian of mineral deposits in northern Chester County. The word got around, and John Gray, a colorful character who may have been a lapsed Benedictine monk, tried to get a survey for the deposits. He persuaded Thomas Fairman, one of Holme’s assistants who looked out for his own interests, to lay out the survey, far beyond any existing surveyed land. Holme found out and determined to follow Penn’s instructions. He ran a series of surveys in a chain, leading north from existing tracts and ending up in Pickering’s site. When Penn found out, he was furious at the irregular survey, partly because he wanted land with lucrative mineral deposits reserved for him. He wrote to the commissioners that “Thomas deserves … to loose his office if I am rightly informed.” 4 Holme wrote to Penn (who was back in England at this time) and placated him. In any case, after all the furor, the mine came to nothing.

  1.  Albert Cook Myers, Narratives of Early Pennsylvania West New Jersey and Delaware, “A Further Account of Pennsylvania”, p. 263.
  2. Myers, p. 263
  3. S. G. Wolf, Urban Village
  4. Minutes of the Board of Property, Book C, in Penna. Archives, series 2, volume XIX, p. 7.

The grid of the city

When Thomas Holme arrived in the fall of 1682, the site for Philadelphia was already chosen. It was a fine location, 300 acres on the Delaware River, with abundant streams, a high bank, and a cove where small ships could land.

“Rising from either side of a natural, apparently centrally located watershed, many-branched steams flowed east and west into each river. At the southern end of the Delaware side, two of these streams emptied into the north and south extremities of the cove. Their water then coursed out into the Delaware through a narrow channel at the cove’s southern edge… Between the low sandy beach of the cove to the south… the Delaware’s banks rose gradually to a height of about thirty feet above the river, then shelved down abruptly to the Coaquannock.” 1

With the site chosen, the next step, and a tricky one, was to choose where different purchasers would have their land. At first the city lots were not for sale to “the general public”; they were a bonus for the First Purchasers, people who bought from Penn in England. There were 50 groups of First Purchasers, with each group paying for 10,000 acres. Each group was to receive a large city lot; if there were more than one buyer in a group, as there typically was, the lots would be subdivided. The plan was that the lots would be chosen and laid out by random drawing. The drawing was held on September 19, 1682. But before these lots could be laid out, word came that Penn was on his way from England and would arrive the next month. The layout could wait for his approval.

When he arrived, he found that many of the First Purchasers, including the majority of the largest ones, had not emigrated. This meant that, “Until these absentees came over, or sent agents or servants to develop their share of purchased land, eighty per cent of the town, as well as of the country land, would remain unimproved.” 2 This was undesirable from Penn’s standpoint; he wanted a thriving town as quickly as possible. The random drawing was probably not appealing to the purchasers as well, since they had no say in the location of their lots. So the plan was modified. Penn bought more land from the Swedes Peter Cock and Peter Rambo to open up a second river frontage on the Schuylkill. This expanded the city to 1200 acres and gave Penn a place to put purchasers who did not emigrate, “where their absence would be less noticeable.” 3

Thomas Holme’s next step was to lay out the grid of streets. The street facing the river Delaware was called Front Street, and this set the pattern for the other north-south streets — Second Street, Third Street, and so forth. The east-west streets were initially named for prominent men like the merchant James Claypoole, Thomas Holme and Thomas Wynne, a Welsh physician. These were soon renamed, as it was not in the Quaker spirit to honor individual men in this way. Today those are Walnut, Mulberry and Chestnut Streets.

Five open squares were cut into the grid, one in the center and one in each quadrant. The center square was to be for public buildings; in fact it still serves that purpose, as the site of City Hall. The other four squares were for public use. They were later named for Franklin, Washington, Rittenhouse and Logan, and still serve as parks today, although Logan Square turned into a circle when the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was laid out.

Now the lots could be laid out for purchasers. While he supervised this process, Holme also worked on drawing a map of the city, showing the rivers, the Dock, streets, and the five squares. Numbers on the map showed where lots were laid out. This map was called A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia. It was published in 1683 as part of Penn’s letter to the Free Society, a group of investors, and was widely circulated. 4

Portraiture of the city of Philadelphia

The map was well-received in England. Philip Ford, one of Penn’s agents, wrote to Holme that, “As for the map of the city, it was needful it should be printed; it will do us a kindness, as we were at a loss for want of something to show the people.”

  1. Roach, “The Planting of Philadelphia, part 1, pp. 32-33
  2. Roach, p. 30.
  3. Roach, p. 30. Soderlund, William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, p. 205.
  4. The map did not include the names of the lot-holders; there was an accompanying list. This should correspond to a list of First Purchasers, but there are many discrepancies.

The green country town that never was

In 1681 William Penn was “extraordinarily busy” on behalf of his new colony, but he was not yet ready to leave England. He needed someone to deal with the land in his place, so he appointed commissioners. They had to select a site for the town, negotiate with the Indians and buy the land, begin to sell and lay out land to the purchasers. It was a big responsibility and he chose men he trusted, seasoned older men with experience—his cousin William Crispin, Nathaniel Allen, John Bezer, and William Haige. They prepared to sail to Pennsylvania and assume their new job. 1

“His Philadelphia was to be a city such as the world had never seen (and never would see).” 2

Penn had a vision for his town. It would be as unlike London as possible. A line of country houses, each one on its spacious plot, surrounded by orchards and fields, set well back from river — this was his idea, “a green country town which will never be burnt and always be wholesome.” Any Londoner Penn’s age would remember the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. His spacious green city would not suffer such a fate. 3


He had promised the First Purchasers that they would get a bonus lot in the city, one acre for every fifty acres purchased. To keep his promise if all 500,000 acres were sold, he would need 10,000 acres. He sent the commissioners with detailed instructions for picking out a suitable tract. It was to be in a place where the Delaware was navigable, and the bank “high, dry and healthy”. Marshy places would breed disease and offer poor moorage for ships. Ships should be able to load and unload at the river bank, and there should be a creek for smaller boats to unload. Preferably it would be open land, not taken up and settled already, but if the most convenient place was already taken up, the commissioners were to persuade the owners to trade some waterside land for land further back. This was the charge Penn gave the commissioners as he sent them on their way in the fall of 1681. 4

As it turned out, being one of Penn’s commissioners was not a healthy thing. William Crispin never reached Pennsylvania and died on the way. To replace him, Penn turned to Thomas Holme, an Englishman who had fought in Cromwell’s army when it subdued Ireland. Holme stayed on after the campaign ended in 1653 and became a Quaker. As a soldier he worked as an engineer and a surveyor. As a Quaker he spent time in Dublin prison with Quaker merchants like Samuel Claridge and Robert Turner. Penn made Holme his Surveyor General, with broad responsibility. Holme sailed in the summer of 1682 on the Amity with his children and servants, ready to join the other three commissioners and to lay out the province. 5

When the commissioners arrived and looked for sites for the town, they did not find virgin land on the river. The land on the Delaware had been settled for almost fifty years by a mix of Swedes and Finns, part of a little colony sent out from Sweden in the 1630s. There were only a few hundred of them when the Quakers arrived, but their lands were spread out along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, leaving no large tract unsettled between New Castle and the falls of the Delaware near later-day Trenton. To get a large tract on the Delaware the commissioners would have to bargain with landowners. Looking for the best option, the commissioners chose a site owned by Swan Swanson and his sons, on the Delaware north of Upland. It was well provided with small streams, heavily wooded and had a high bank. In addition it had a cove where small boats could be moored. To buy out the Swansons the commissioners offered twice as much land up the Schuylkill. This would give Penn 300 acres for his city, with a fine high bank along the Delaware. Another purchase, from Peter Cock and Peter Rambo, extended the tract to 1200 acres. Why didn’t the commissioners buy more land? The answer was probably in Penn’s instructions to them, where he urged them to “Be as sparing as ever you can.” Penn did not want to spend more than he needed to, and buying 10,000 acres on the Delaware would have meant buying out many more owners. 6

Because the tract was smaller than the 10,000 that Penn originally planned, he could not give the First Purchasers the bonus lots he had promised them.  The solution to this problem was to give the bonus land in two pieces — a city lot and a larger tract north and west of the city, in what is now the Northern Liberties. There is no record of what the First Purchasers thought of this compromise, but their actions spoke for them. Many of them sold their rights in the Liberties to others, keeping the valuable city lots instead.

With the site chosen and the promise of bonus land kept,  the plan of the city was set, and the way was clear for people to claim their lots, build houses and wharves and warehouses, and begin the process of making Penn’s green town into a bustling center of trade and commerce.

  1. Jean Soderlund, William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, p. 82.
  2. Richard Ryerson, “William Penn’s Commissioners”, PA Genealogical Magazine, 1981-82, vol. 32.
  3. Soderlund, p. 85. The image is from the Wikipedia entry for the Great Fire. The painting is by an unknown artist.
  4. Soderlund, pp. 83-85.
  5. Silvio Bedini, Thomas Holme (1624-1695) Pennsylvania’s First Surveyor-General
  6. Hannah Benner Roach, “The Planting of Philadelphia part 1”, PA Magazine of History & Biography, 1968, volume 92, pp. 13-15, 23. Soderlund, p. 204.

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.