History: It’s Complicated

History surprises us sometimes. It is hard to grow up in the U.S. without learning about Pennsylvania. After all, it was one of the thirteen original colonies. Most people know William Penn founded it, and they may know he negotiated to buy it from the native peoples who lived along the Delaware River or the story that he purchased land “as far west as a man could walk in a day and a half.” They may even know Penn himself laid out the city of Philadelphia. A forty-foot statue of Billy Penn holds court over the top of city hall. So I moved to the area from Ohio content that I knew the history of the English origins of my adopted city. Little did I know.

The Simple Story—The Treaty of Penn With the Indians by Benjamin West , 1771

The Simple Story—The Treaty of Penn With the Indians by Benjamin West , 1771

My first clue that I it might be a tad more complicated came when I learned the name of Philadelphia’s other river. I knew the Delaware was named after Lord De La Warr—English, right? But Philadelphia is a promontory between two rivers and the other one is the Schuylkill. Not English. There are many words in the area derived from the Leni Lenape. Not that either. The name is Dutch.

Wait. Dutch?

When Europeans began grabbing up land along the Atlantic coast the Delaware valley, river and bay, had to be a delectable prize. Henry Hudson checked it out. So did so did John Smith of Jamestown fame. So did Samuel Argall who named it after his boss, Lord De La Warr, on one of his trips to supply Jamestown. It was a Dutchman, however, who first surveyed and explored the Delaware Valley in 1620. Cornelis Jacobszoon May did so under a patent from New Netherlands. He ordered the building of Fort Nassau across the Delaware from the later site of Philadelphia near the mouth of the Schuylkill. He also gave his name to Cape May. Soon Dutch trading posts popped up along the bay and the river. They called the Delaware the Zuidt (South) River. In the naming game, they lost that one, but they won the other. Schuylkill means (roughly) hidden river.

It took a while to learn to say School-Kill instead of Skoogle, and longer to know how to spell it but I got it. River. Dutch. Got it. Then one day I passed Old Swedes Church. Quick research told me the building dates to 1700 but the congregation was founded during the Swedish settlement period.

New Sweden along the "South" River

New Sweden along the “South” River

Wait. Swedish?

Ships from the New Sweden Company arrived in 1638 and began setting up actual settlements. Perhaps because there were Dutch stockholders, or perhaps because the Dutch had not gotten around to building towns and farms as yet, they were able to settle unmolested. At least eleven ships brought over 600 Swedish and Finnish settlers who settled and created farms long creeks and rivers. The Swedes built Fort Christina on the site of what is now Wilmington Delaware. The Dutch hadn’t exactly left; their Fort Casimir lay downriver from Christina, but the two groups coexisted peacefully for over a decade until an ambitious governor of New Sweden tried to oust the Dutch from Fort Casimir and brought on swift retribution from Peter Stuyvesant who sent seven ships and a army up the Delaware and effectively ended Swedish sovereignty over the area in 1654. So Dutch. Again.

Lower Swedish Cabin, 1937

Lower Swedish Cabin, 1937

The oldest existing structure in Pennsylvania is in Drexel Hill, just west of Philadelphia near the Darby Creek. It’s called the Lower Swedes Cabin and dates to the 1640s. It turns out the Swedes brought that most “American” of all building types, the log cabin to North American. They came and put down roots.

I began to find more buildings. Old Swedes Church in Wilmington turned out to be even older than the one in Philadelphia and other old Swedish buildings exist in Delaware. Christ Church in Swedesburg along the Schuylkill dates to 1760 but it replaced an earlier log structure. The churches appear to have been shared by Dutch and Swedish Settlers who got on better than their governors long before William Penn arrived.

Wait. Penn. What about the English?


William Penn, Quaker and Founder

The seventeenth century powers competed and waged war globally. A fleet ordered by the Duke of York (later James II) had sailed into New Amsterdam in 1674 and took it easily when the settlers showed little interest in rallying around the much-despised Stuyvesant. The invasion was at least one of the causes of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. In the Treaty of Breda, which followed, Netherlands gave their North American claims up in return for Suriname. They took it back briefly, but lost it permanently in the Third Anglo-Dutch War. New Amsterdam became New York and Charles II acquired a valuable piece of land to use to pay his war debts to Admiral Sir William Penn. In 1681 he awarded the place to the admiral’s son William, insisting it be called Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania instead of Penn’s first choice: New Wales.

Penn came to his new land the following year, laid out his city, made treaty with the Leni Lenape and sailed home two years later. The Swedish/Dutch/English /Protestant/Quaker settlers were left to their own devices. Penn returned one other time, stayed long enough to agree to the Charter of Privileges which was the Frame of Government for the duration of the colonial period and which among other things set about providing true religious and political freedom.  Brotherly love and toleration. Right?

Right. But the Leni Lanape? They were here first.

They were, and Penn did indeed buy the land, including that on which Philadelphia is built, from the

The area of the Walking Purchase

The area of the Walking Purchase

Lenape as had the Swedes and Dutch before him. By all accounts he did deal fairly with them. The so-called Walking Purchase is a different story. A document surfaced in 1737 that Penn’s heirs claimed had been signed in 1682. It was either an unsigned and unratified idea or an outright forgery. They cheated on “how far a man could walk in a day,” also by clearing a road and hiring three fast runners, one of which made it 70 miles before sundown. They effectively forced the Lenape out of eastern Pennsylvania into territory already crowded with other tribes. Lenape who made their way into Ohio were known as the Delaware. I wonder if being called an English name wasn’t some sort of final insult. In 2004 the Delaware Nation tried to claim 314 acres of the Walking Purchase. U.S. District Court dismissed the case and the Supreme Court refused to hear it.

By 1730 Philadelphia was well on its way to being a major world city and its history was about to get even more complicated: competition, commerce and revolution. When we try to distill history to simple stories it resists. People are messy as are their stories. Reality is never simple.

For more information see

Penn and the Indians http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/penn/pnind.html

A Brief History of New Sweden http://colonialswedes.net/History/History.html

Lower Swedish Cabin Marker http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-22

New Amsterdam Becomes New York http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-amsterdam-becomes-new-york

The Walking Purchase http://delawaretribe.org/blog/2013/06/27/the-walking-purchase/

The Dutch in America http://international.loc.gov/intldl/awkbhtml/kb-1/kb-1.html

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