Who was William Penn? Why do we care?

William Penn not just the founder of Pennsylvania but was the forward thinking, radical, and original creator of the policies of a proprietary colony. These policies affected the way land was distributed, and so he is of interest to those of us who want to understand how to research our ancestors in Pennsylvania.
Like many colonists William Penn was born in England, and fortunately for him into a relatively wealthy family. In order to understand him we need to know a little about William Penn’s father.
William Penn’s father was an Admiral in the Navy during the Civil War in England, and during Cromwell’s rule. For his efforts he was rewarded with land in Ireland. After Cromwell’s death William Sr. allied himself with the royalists and sailed off on a covert mission to return Prince Charles to England and his crown. This endeared him to the royal family and would later prove important to William Jr. and Pennsylvania.
Growing up in Englan72913_williampenn_600d and Ireland William Penn became sympathetic to the Quakers and other religious “dissenters” who were being persecuted. He eventually joined in their dissent and was imprisoned in the Tower of London – not a nice place to be. He neg
otiated his release but continued in his dissent and was again imprisoned in Newgate Prison – a worse place than the Tower. He was tried and released. This was a pretty important trial, setting precedents in law, but not a part of our topic today.
His dying father took advantage of his friendship with the royal family and got their promise to look after young William. Dad was understandably worried about his son’s continued defiance of the law. Charles II and the Duke of York, the heir to the throne, both indulged William Jr. when he got into trouble and allowed him access to the royal personages.
Penn came up with a plan and put it to the King: The King would allow the Quakers to immigrate to North America, solving persecution problems for the Quakers and taking the Quakers off his hands. The King agreed and, in a very generous mood, gave Penn a HUGE tract of land in what would become Pennsylvania.
Excited by this new opportunity Penn touted it all over Europe, attracting Quakers and other religious sects who were also being persecuted. His efforts were successful, and religious tolerance was officially sanctioned in the new land.
William Penn was now the largest land owner outside of the royal family, with sovereign rule as the sole proprietor. He created a Proprietary Colony and had the right to dispose of the land as he saw fit. His policy was to purchase land from the Native Indians before releasing it for purchase to the colonists. This policy was carried on by his heirs for about a hundred years, but later abandoned by them. Eventually they stole land from the Indians through the Walking Purchase of of 1737. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
The Frame of Government for Pennsylvania he created was very democratic and considered radical for the times. Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin were later impressed. Included in this framework was his policy on land distribution.
The Land Office was established in 1682 and a land distribution system developed by the proprietors of the colony. While unique, the system did not satisfy the land thirst of the colonists. Many “squatted” where they wanted to, including on Indian land, without going through the legal steps to obtain a title.
Next time: the process a colonial used to get title to land in Pennsylvania.

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