The early days of ‘Penn’s Woods’


Penn’s Charter.
Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives

Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association


March 1st through the 8th marks the week-long celebration of Pennsylvania’s birth. In 1681, King Charles II of England granted William Penn a charter to establish a colony in the New World, and it seems appropriate now to take a short look at the man and his colony.

William Penn was born October 14, 1644 and was the son of royalist Sir William Penn, a famous Admiral who served in the British Navy. Young William was raised during the unstable time in England of Oliver Cromwell’s reign and the Glorious Revolution. At the age of 15, Penn met Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary who taught him the Quaker beliefs of pacifism and equality. A few years later, while at school in Oxford, Penn developed his individuality and philosophy of life and became sympathetic to the Quaker religion. Raised an Anglican, Penn converted to Quakerism at the age of 22, much to the extreme disapproval of his father.

The King of England owed William Penn’s father
16,000. To repay his debt, King Charles II granted the young Penn 45,000 square miles of land to establish a colony in “regard to the memorie and merits of his late father” on March 4, 1681. The land for this colony was to be located between the 39th and 42nd degrees north latitude and from the start of the Delaware River continuing westward 5 degrees longitude.

Penn first referred to his land as “New Wales” and then “Sylvania” (meaning woods or forest in Latin). King Charles added “Penn” to the title in honor of Admiral Penn. The younger William Penn was only 37 years old when he gained sovereign rule of the new territory known as Pennsylvania.

Penn worked quickly to establish a colony like no other in the New World. He recruited fellow Englishmen of every trade and skill to join him. From simple farmers to wealthy businessmen, Penn needed every type of settler (or “adventurer,” as he called them) to help create a successful colony. In 1682, with his strong Quaker ideals in place, Penn left England for Pennsylvania onboard the ship named the Welcome.

Penn created a town at the mouth of the Delaware River to promote commerce and government; he named the town, Philadelphia which was Greek for "city of brotherly love." To ensure his colony would remain peaceful, Penn purchased the land from the local Native Americans. He also comforted groups of Dutch settlers who had already lived along the Delaware River that his colony was one of acceptance and that they would be free from religious persecution.

One of the first issues facing Penn was a boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lord Baltimore of Maryland claimed that his charter included the area now known as the state of Delaware and a large portion of land in southern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia. Lord Baltimore asserted that Philadelphia should belong to Maryland. Penn, of course, rejected this notion. Penn and Baltimore never reached a resolution to the land issue. It wasn’t until 1732, when the next generation of rulers, Penn’s sons and Charles Calvert, compromised by diving the land in two. Interestingly, the dispute regarding the boundary wasn’t completely resolved until the surveying of the Mason-Dixon line in 1763, eighty-one years after the initial disagreement between Penn and Lord Baltimore.

Establishing laws and a sound government was crucial to the survival of Pennsylvania. An Assembly was formed in order to develop a government created by the people with laws embodying Quaker ideals, quite a different approach from the laws established in England. Having an Assembly would ensure that power did not fall into the hands of only one person – including Penn himself. This government was based on Quaker ethics. Two legislative houses would protect citizens’ property and business ventures and would impose taxes fairly. All cases were to be heard before a jury, and prisons were designed to focus on correcting behavior rather than merely holding captives. The death penalty was still applicable in cases of treason and murder. After many drafts, Penn wrote The Charter of Privileges in 1701; this document lasted until the start of the American Revolution, when it was replaced by the State Constitution.

Penn never spent much time in his beloved Pennsylvania. Official duties regarding the protection of Pennsylvania (laws, boarder disputes, etc.) often called him back to England. In his last visit to Pennsylvania in 1699 (after a 15 year absence), Penn was greeted with large crowds of supporters. Philadelphia was a tolerant and bustling city of 3,000 with merchants, tree-lined streets, and schools. His dream to create a successful colony had been realized.

In less than a year, Penn had to return to England never to revisit Pennsylvania. William Penn died in 1718 at age 73 and is buried in a Quaker cemetery in Buckinghamshire, England. For all that he had done to establish Penn’s Woods, William Penn resided in Pennsylvania for fewer than four years over his lifetime.



Pennsylvania State Facts:
  • Entered into Union: Dec. 12, 1787 (Second state to join – Delaware was first)
    Motto: Virtue, liberty, and independence
    Nickname: Keystone State
    State bird: Ruffed Grouse
    State flower: Mountain laurel
    State tree: Hemlock
    State dog: Great Dane
    State colors: Blue and gold
    State animal: White-tailed deer
    State insect: Firefly
    State drink: Milk

Some Pennsylvania Firsts:
  • Zoo
  • Hospital
  • Library
  • Newspaper
  • All motion-picture theater
  • Television broadcast
  • Radio broadcast
  • Educational public-television station
  • Paper mill
  • Druggist
  • Locomotive for railroad use
  • High-speed multi-lane highway (Pennsylvania Turnpike)
  • Banana split
  • Electronic computer built
  • Cable television

Pennsylvania ranks first in:
  • Rural population
  • Number of licensed hunters
  • State game lands
  • Covered bridges
  • Potato chip production
  • Pretzel bakeries
  • Licensed bakeries
  • Meat packing plants
  • Mushroom production
  • Sausage production
  • Scrapple production

Source: Pennsylvania Visitors Network