The Pennsylvania Colony: A Quaker Experiment in America

William Penn's "Holy Experiment" on the Delaware River

Engraving of William Penn's Treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1681.
Engraving of William Penn's Treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1681. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-2583

The Pennsylvania colony was one of the 13 original colonies of what would become the United States of America, founded in 1682 by the English Quaker William Penn.

Escape From European Persecution

In 1681, William Penn, a Quaker, was given a land grant from King Charles II who owed money to Penn's deceased father. Immediately, Penn sent his cousin William Markham to the territory to take control of it and be its governor. Penn's goal with Pennsylvania was to create a colony that allowed for freedom of religion. The Quakers were among the most radical of the English Protestant sects that had sprung up in the 17th century, and Penn sought a colony in America—what he called a "holy experiment"—to protect himself and fellow Quakers from persecution.

When Markham arrived on the western shore of the Delaware River, however, he found that the region was already inhabited by Europeans. Part of present-day Pennsylvania was actually included in the territory named New Sweden that had been founded by Swedish settlers in 1638. This territory was then surrendered to the Dutch in 1655 when Peter Stuyvesant sent a large force to invade. Swedes and Finns continued to arrive and settle in what would become Pennsylvania. 

Arrival of William Penn

In 1682, William Penn arrived in Pennsylvania on a ship called the Welcome. He quickly instituted the First Frame of Government and created three counties: Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks. When he called a General Assembly to meet in Chester, the assembled body decided that the Delaware counties should be joined with those of Pennsylvania and the Governor to preside over both areas. It would not be until 1703 that Delaware would separate itself from Pennsylvania. In addition, the General Assembly adopted the Great Law which provided for the liberty of conscience in terms of religious affiliations.

By 1683, the Second General Assembly created the Second Frame of Government. Any Swedish settlers were to become English subjects seeing that the English were now in a majority in the colony. 

Pennsylvania During the American Revolution

Pennsylvania played an extremely important role in the American Revolution. The First and Second Continental Congresses were convened in Philadelphia. This is where the Declaration of Independence was written and signed. Numerous key battles and events of the war occurred in the colony including the crossing of the Delaware, the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Germantown, and the winter encampment at Valley Forge. The Articles of Confederation were also drafted in Pennsylvania, the document that would form the basis of the new Confederation that resulted at the end of the Revolutionary War. 

Significant Events

  • In 1688, the first written protest against slavery in North America was created and signed by the Quakers in Germantown. In 1712, the slave trade is outlawed in Pennsylvania. 
  • The colony was well advertised and by 1700 was the third biggest and richest colony in the New World.
  • Penn allowed for a representative assembly elected by landowners.
  • Freedom of worship and religion was granted to all citizens.
  • n 1737, Benjamin Franklin was named the postmaster of Philadelphia. Previous to this, he had set up his own printing shop and started publishing Poor Richard's Almanack. Over the coming years, he will be named the first president of the Academy, perform his famous electricity experiments, and become central to the fight for American independence.