When Penn arrived, many of the early residents in Philadelphia lived in caves dug out of the Delaware River banks. Penn made an unprecedented move in buying, rather than taking, land already claimed, setting a new standard for colonial settlers’ treatment of indigenous peoples. Popular legend has it that Penn made a treaty of friendship with the Lenape chief Tammany under an elm tree at Shackamaxon, present-day Kensington.
The famous painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West immortalized the scene. The giant statue of William Penn that stands on top of City Hall was positioned to point to the location of the signing of the treaty. Whether or not the exact event took place in that spot is debatable, but what it represents—Penn’s peaceful relationship with the natives—is well supported. Documents show that he wrote to the Indians, asking for peaceful relations and acknowledging the mistakes of previous European settlers. Penn even learned their language so he wouldn’t need a translator to communicate with them.
Penn advertised for the purchase of large tracts of land at reasonable prices all over Europe, and people came to the city in droves seeking economic opportunity and religious freedom. In 1683, there were just a few hundred inhabitants and by 1701, there were around 2,500. The freedom of religion brought not only English, Welsh, German, and Dutch Quakers to the colony, but also Huguenots (French Protestants), Mennonites, Amish, Lutherans from Catholic German states, Irish Catholics, and Jews, among others. A group of German Quakers established the first German settlement in America in present-day Germantown.
The vast majority of those first land purchasers settled along the Delaware River, concentrated in what is today known as Old City and Society Hill. Despite Penn’s hope for westward expansion and plans for large lots surrounded by gardens, nearly all the lots were subdivided multiple times and resold. Smaller alleys were built in between the main streets to accommodate additional homes and people. While his goals were admirable, he had to compete with the reality of a city’s natural growth, and immigrants from other large cities who were inclined to replicate what they were accustomed to. Until 1704, few people lived west of Fourth Street, and it would be many more years before they spread west towards the Schuylkill River.
While Penn was largely responsible for the way Philadelphia would eventually develop due to careful, conscious planning, he barely spent any time here. While a visionary, he was not the best businessman and spent much of his life trying to get his finances in order in England. Penn’s final significant act before returning to England for good on October 25, 1701, was issuing the Charter of Privileges, also known as the Charter of 1701. This established Philadelphia as a city and gave the mayor, aldermen, and councilmen the authority to issue laws and ordinances and to regulate markets and fairs. It also officially granted the religious freedom that was already practiced. Penn attempted to sell Pennsylvania back to the English Crown, but in 1712 he had a stroke and could no longer speak. The deal was never made and the colony remained his property, under the control of his mostly ineffective, uninvolved offspring, in the years until the Revolutionary War.
© Karrie Gavin from Moon Philadelphia, 1st Edition