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5.4.2 Penn's Treaty with the Indians

Commissioned by Thomas Penn, son of Pennsylvania's founder, this painting depicts a legendary meeting between William Penn and members of the Lennie Lenape tribe at Shackamaxon on the Delaware River. Native Americans, Quakers, and merchants are all present in this allegorical scene.
West, Benjamin
West, Benjamin. Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Painting. 1771-1772. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection, Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison.
In the 1680s, in gratitude for the help that William Penn's father had given King Charles II to recover his throne in the 1650s and 1660s, the king granted Penn a large amount of land between New York and Virginia. It was named "Penn's Forest," or Pennsylvania. Penn himself was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), a religious group that emphasized the personal relationships of each member of the congregation with each other and with their God. Penn believed that the Native peoples of the area were the true owners of the land and that if he wanted to do anything with the land or allow other people to settle on it, he first had to purchase it from the Natives. As proof of the good relations between Pennsylvania and the local indigenous group, the Lenni Lenape, treaties were signed and no wars were recorded between the two until the regional French and Indian War (1754 – 1763). This painting, produced almost a century later, gives a view of the way in which Penn and his Quaker friends negotiated with the Native people. Notice how much the two groups are dressed differently, and how Penn seems to have genuine respect for the people. Unfortunately, Penn's attitude toward Native peoples was not widespread in colonial America. What do you think the Indians were thinking when William Penn and the Quakers wanted to buy their land? Why would the Indians have agreed to let the settlers purchase some of their lands? Did most English settlers think that the Indians “owned” their lands? Why or why not?
Pennsylvania was a "proprietary" colony, in which the proprietor generally retained ownership of much of the land and either sold it or rented it to tenants. The relationship between the Penn family and the rest of the colony hit some very hard times over the course of the eighteenth century. Settlers, especially ones who went farther and farther west, tended to become much more independent and resented the attempts of the proprietors or their people to assert control. These tensions between frontier and more settled areas occurred in a number of other colonies as well, and sometimes even gave rise to violent encounters between the two groups. Also, Philadelphia quickly became the major port for many immigrants coming to America, especially people coming from Germany and Ireland (the so-called Scots Irish). By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was the largest city in the British colonies and from 1790 until 1800 served as the national capital of the new republic.

Additional Resources for Teachers

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia: Native American-Pennsylvania Relations 1681 1753 (Good treatment of overall relations. For the period after 1753, see this entry.)

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission:1681 – 1776, the Quaker Province: 

(Good overall view.)

Pennsylvania Heritage: Our First Friends, the Early Quakers: 


(Good survey of Quaker history in early Pennsylvania.)