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William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania

Written by: Thomas Kidd, Baylor University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why various European colonies developed and expanded from 1607 to 1754
  • Explain how and why environmental and other factors shaped the development and expansion of various British colonies that developed and expanded from 1607 to 1754
  • Explain how and why interactions between various European nations and American Indians changed over time
  • Explain how and why the movement of a variety of people and ideas across the Atlantic contributed to the development of American culture over time

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative should be assigned to students at the beginning of Chapter 2, following The English Come to America and The Founding of Maryland Narratives. After reading this Narrative, students can further explore the development of the Pennsylvania colony in the following Primary Sources: Penn’s Letter Recruiting Colonists, 1683 and the Germantown Friends’ Antislavery Petition, 1688.


As he disembarked from his ship onto the western shore of the Delaware River in 1682, William Penn surveyed the green country in front of him. The thirty-eight-year-old Englishman could not help contrasting this strange, expansive land with memories of the cramped prison cell he had occupied twenty years earlier back in England.

Penn was part of a religious sect known as the Society of Friends. Its members were called “Quakers” by their enemies because their intense meetings sometimes led members to shake in fits of spiritual fervor. During the 1660s, Englishmen harshly persecuted the Quakers, whom they considered to be dangerous radicals because of their teachings on social and religious equality. Even though he was an English aristocrat, the young Penn had been imprisoned for his illegal preaching and publication of Quaker doctrines. As a result, he became an ardent activist for religious freedom. During the 1670s, he began to dream of a colony where Quakers – and all kinds of Christians – would be free to worship as they saw fit. This dream became a reality when King Charles II offered him title to a large expanse of land in the New World to pay off a substantial debt the crown owed to Penn’s family. Now, in 1682, Penn finally stood on the shores of the colony of Pennsylvania.

Penn had high hopes that the colony would enjoy religious freedom, as well as peace with the Lenni Lenapes and other American Indians who had lived in this land for centuries. Like all Quakers, he was a pacifist, and he was adamant that his new colony would avoid the bloodshed and war between Indians and other English colonists that had occurred in New England and Virginia. One year before his trip across the Atlantic Ocean, Penn had written a letter to the “Kings of the Indians,” explaining that he was coming to settle in their land. He regretted the “unkindness and injustice” that Indians had experienced from other Europeans and promised that Pennsylvania would be different. Because God commanded his people to love others, his colony would treat the Indians with honesty, fairness, and peace.

Having arrived, Penn worked on bringing his plans to fruition. The Quakers refused to take any land unless the Indians agreed to it. During the first couple of years, Penn purchased land from the Lenape and Susquehannock leaders, including large areas along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. As he stood side by side with the Indian leaders and signed the purchase contracts, he may have felt a measure of pride that his land was being honestly bought rather than stolen from the Indians. However, he did not realize that these peaceful transactions were being aided by forces beyond his control. Since Europeans had arrived in the New World, disease and war had reduced the Lenni Lenapes to a mere five thousand people. Their alliance with the English thus provided much-needed protection from their rivals, the Iroquois League, the most powerful Indian alliance in the region, and contributed to their willingness to sell their land.

A painting of settlers with Indians, peacefully talking in a village.

Benjamin West painted The Treaty of Penn with the Indians in the early 1770s. How does West portray the relationship between the Quaker settlers and the Lenni Lenapes?

Not long after the ink on the purchase agreement was dry, the Quakers began to build a city on the land between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. They optimistically proclaimed that their capital would be a “City of Brotherly Love.” The capital’s grid-patterned streets were soon bustling. Only four years after Penn landed, the colony was home to a diverse group of more than eight thousand settlers of many different religions and ethnicities: Quakers, Anglicans, Dutch Calvinists, German Lutherans, and many Christians who had been persecuted in England – including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Catholics. These colonists had to obey Pennsylvania’s moral laws – no swearing, no “wildness,” and certainly no “whoredom or fornication”, to promote a healthy civic society. However, they were free to practice their own religion as long as they believed in “the one Almighty and eternal God.”

The first map depicting Philadelphia as a grid of streets and squares is shown.

Created by Thomas Holme in 1863, A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia was the first map that depicted the Pennsylvania city founded by William Penn and his fellow Quakers. Holme was a surveyor who worked with Penn to devise a system of grid-patterned streets.

In spite of good intentions to foster religious harmony and toleration, the City of Brotherly Love was not entirely peaceful. In the early 1690s, a Quaker missionary and pastor named George Keith grew concerned that Philadelphia’s Quakers had departed from the teaching of the Bible, relying too much on the “inward light” of the Spirit. The leading Quakers thought him too divisive and removed him as pastor. Keith ignored this judgment and increased his criticism, arguing that Quaker ministers had been corrupted by their own political influence. After he proclaimed that the top Quaker magistrate’s “name would stink,” Keith was indicted for libel. The dispute culminated in an attempt by Keith and his followers to set up their own gallery in the Philadelphia meetinghouse, at which point a brawl broke out and both galleries were destroyed. Keith’s followers eventually dwindled in number, and he returned to England. This dispute showed the difficulty Quakers had in maintaining authority and religious orthodoxy in their own city. Even though Pennsylvania aspired to harmony between Christians of all kinds, it still experienced strife and rivalry within its own denominations.

Nonetheless, Penn’s colony was undoubtedly a religious and commercial success. The prospect of religious freedom attracted many middle-class merchants, farmers, and traders from Europe, and Philadelphia’s population quickly surpassed that of the much older New York City. Commerce flourished as Philadelphia’s Quakers engaged in a profitable trade with their fellow Quakers in Boston, New York, and the West Indies. In spite of many Quakers’ reservations about slavery, slaves and slave trading did become common in Philadelphia. Moreover, many poor whites from Britain and Europe migrated as indentured servants and owed their labor for a time to their masters. However, the climate of the colony’s western backcountry favored the growing of wheat over the much more labor-intensive tobacco. As a result, fewer slaves were needed, and small, independent farms thrived.

William Penn’s experiment in religious and political liberty paid dividends for his colony. Philadelphia became a place where Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians all practiced their religion freely without an established church. The capital also had a growing economy. Pennsylvania treated American Indians with justice even as the settlers moved west and established prosperous small farms. The colony became a model of religious liberty and justice in British North America.


Review Questions

1. The federal income tax created in 1913 was meant to

  1. considered dangerous radicals by many religious groups
  2. largely left to worship in peace
  3. supported by the monarchy
  4. responsible for reform in Parliament

2. When granted a tract of land, William Penn founded the English colony of

  1. New York
  2. Massachusetts
  3. Virginia
  4. Pennsylvania

3. All the following were reasons American Indian groups were willing to engage with William Penn except

  1. decades of disease had reduced their numbers
  2. they sought an alliance to protect them from larger nearby tribes
  3. Penn conducted fair business transactions with the American Indians
  4. they saw an opportunity for conquest over the English colonizers

4. The prospect of religious freedom had what result on the Pennsylvania colony?

  1. Slow population growth and competition with larger cities
  2. Diverse immigrants coming to the colony in large numbers
  3. Consistent persecution from surrounding colonies
  4. Uniformity in government

5. The economy of the Pennsylvania colony can primarily be described as

  1. a diversified combination of agriculture and commerce
  2. funded entirely by religious fees and taxes
  3. subsistence farming of cash crops
  4. consisting solely of trade with other European colonies

6. Which of the following was not part of William Penn’s vision for his colony?

  1. The opportunity for religious freedom
  2. Consistent peace between the American Indians and the settlers
  3. Ideas for a progressive government
  4. The exclusion of groups based on sex and race

7. The cornerstone of William Penn’s religiously tolerant colony was the

  1. representation of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths in government
  2. rejection of one true God as a requirement for residence
  3. lack of an established church
  4. acceptance of multiple preachers in positions of power

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the motivation for immigration to Pennsylvania during the late seventeenth century and the impact that immigration had on the development of the British North American colonies.
  2. Explain the different principles about religious beliefs that guided the governments of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

AP Practice Questions

A painting of settlers with Indians, peacefully talking in a village.

Penn’s Treaty with the Indians when he founded the colony of Pennsylvania in North America, painted in 1771 by Benjamin West.

Refer to the image provided.

1. Which of the following could a historian use to describe William Penn’s inspiration for the action in the scene depicted?

  1. Penn’s Quaker beliefs in equality and fair treatment
  2. The future economic success of Penn’s colony
  3. The perceived racial superiority of Europeans that existed in Penn’s colony
  4. The desire to convert American Indians to the “one true God”

2. The actions portrayed in the image provided challenge which prevailing norm of the seventeenth century?

  1. Reliance on forced labor for agricultural work
  2. Conquest of American Indians’ land with violence or economic pressure
  3. Consistent cooperation between American Indians and European settlers
  4. Equality among all European and American Indian groups

Primary Sources

William Penn Advertises Pennsylvania: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/7440

Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges: http://www.ushistory.org/documents/charter.htm

Suggested Resources

Moretta, John A. William Penn and the Quaker Legacy. New York: Pearson, 2006.

Nash, Gary B. Quakers And Politics: Pennsylvania 1681-1726. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.

Soderlund, Jean R., ed. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Taylor, Alan. Colonial America: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.