The Continuing Relevance of William Penn


Mr. Kenny is Professor of History, Boston College. His latest book is Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn's Holy Experiment (Oxford University Press, 2009).

William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1682 as a “holy experiment,” a place where European colonists of all religious backgrounds could live together in harmony with the region’s Native Americans. What relevance does his utopian experiment retain today?

Penn was a committed Quaker, imprisoned several times for his religious beliefs. Quakerism was the heart of his social and political vision. His respect for Native American cultures was rooted in his belief in the inherent worth of all individuals, though this humanitarianism did not extend to African-American slaves, of whom he owned several. Unlike many Quakers who came after him, Penn was also a conscientious pacifist. He made treaties with the Indians – Delawares, Susquehannocks, Iroquois, and others – rather than simply seizing their land. He treated them as members of sovereign nations, referring to them as “little commonwealths.”

But while Penn was uncommonly decent by the standards of his time, his holy experiment was flawed from the start, and almost certainly doomed to failure. Penn’s undoubted benevolence went hand-in-hand with a hard-headed colonialism. There would have been no Pennsylvania, after all, if Charles II had not given Penn a gift of 29 million acres – a gift that made him the largest individual landlord in the British Empire. The native inhabitants of the region had no say in the matter.

Penn’s decision to pay Indians for their land rested on self-interest as much as benevolence. Only by clearing the land of encumbrances could he sell it to European settlers and recoup the expenses incurred in setting up his colony. And by treating the Indians in his province well, Penn secured their military support in the event of an attack on his Quaker colony, which had no militia of its own.

Yet, while Native Americans would have been better off if Penn had never set up his colony, they fared better under his administration than at any subsequent time in Pennsylvania’s history. The period from Penn’s death in 1718 through the American Revolution saw the disintegration, at first slowly and then with terrifying violence, of the Peaceable Kingdom.

William Penn’s son Thomas ruled the province as an imperious absentee landlord until his death in 1775. Casting off his father’s Quaker faith, he resorted to fraud and intimidation. In the so-called Walking Purchase of 1737 he sent out long-distance runners to determine the boundaries of land the Delaware Indians believed had already been measured by “a man’s walk,” tricking them into giving up a tract almost the size of Rhode Island. Driven westward across the Susquehanna River, the Delawares attacked Pennsylvania in 1755 and when the province reciprocated the Peaceable Kingdom came to an end.

In December 1763 a group of frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys laid to rest any lingering doubts about the future of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. In two extraordinarily brutal acts of symbolic violence they exterminated the last twenty Conestoga Indians. A peaceful remnant of the once proud Susquehannock nation, the Conestogas lived on land reserved for them by the Penn family in Lancaster County. The Paxton Boys, declaring that all Indians were enemies and all were deserving of annihilation, killed the first six Conestoga Indians at home on their farm and, two weeks later, they slaughtered the fourteen survivors at Lancaster jail, where they had been removed for their protection.

On both occasions the Paxton Boys killed the Indians on government property in broad daylight. Having done so, they claimed the Conestogas’ land by right of conquest. They did not succeed in this goal but they were never prosecuted for the massacres. They acted with the connivance of local officials and they emerged directly from a frontier militia that exceeded its defensive mandate and launched offensive operations against local, usually defenseless, Indians.

What the Paxton Boys did was anomalous in Pennsylvania as late as 1763, but it became commonplace during the American Revolution. Similar outrages had taken place in New England more than a century earlier, but not in the Peaceable Kingdom. The Penn family’s failure to pursue the Paxton Boys gave carte blanche to other, like-minded frontier settlers, and the frontier soon descended into anarchy, with Native Americans the principal victims.

During the Revolution, exterminating Indians became an act of patriotism. American forces devastated Iroquoia and the Delaware strongholds west of the Susquehanna. In 1783 the Iroquois forfeited their lands to the new American nation by right of conquest.

Over the next two centuries Pennsylvanians insisted that were no Native Americans living in their state. The few who survived the Revolution appear to have fled to the hills and forests. Yet, while only about 5,000 Indians lived in the province in 1700 almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians identify themselves as Native American today and another 30,000 identify themselves as partly so. They belong to more than twenty different tribes and nations. Pennsylvania is an extreme case of the myth of “the vanishing Indian” – the belief that Native Americans were destined to die out in the face of Western Civilization.

William Penn talked to the Indians, listened to them, respected their cultures, made treaties with them, and agreed on boundaries setting aside the territory where they lived. He wanted most of their land but he saw a permanent place for their “little commonwealths” in his colony. Today the United States recognizes the sovereignty of more than 500 Indian tribes and nations –
“little commonwealths” that exist within the dual sovereignty of state and federal power and enjoy extensive territorial rights and powers of self-government.

But Pennsylvania is one of only six states where no Indian tribe is recognized by either the state or the federal government and one of twelve states without a Native American reservation. Perhaps the time has come when Pennsylvanians can look back on the Peaceable Kingdom and, for all its flaws, find some insights for the present.

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Nancy REYES - 8/16/2009

It's good to remember the history of eastern Pennsylvania...but the state is larger.

Western and central Pennsylvania was essentially "Indian free" since the Iroquois made war against the natives there, keeping the area free of others so that they could use it as a hunting ground.

Later I believe that Pennsylvania refused to "punish" those who attacked white settlers, and so the Virginia militia came up and did the dirty work.

But all of this has to be placed into perspective, including what was going on in New York and Canada.

Years before the revolution, Indians fought the British who tried to take over Fort Dusquene from the French...and alsmost killed Washington.

And one has to remember that the British used the Iroquois to fight Americans...so a lot of Washington's atrocities (i.e. burning crops and villages) against that tribe was to make them flee to Canada...

Lots of guilt on all sides...