Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Of all the stories and accounts relating to the significant role Quakers played in the settlement of the New World, none better illustrates their extraordinary determina­tion and capacity to endure and live for freedom than the way they approached the housing shortage in Philadel­phia in the 1680s. They simply resolved the problem by living in caves along the banks of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers for several harsh years before their homes were built be­tween the two. An early histo­rian accurately described the Quakers as being generally regarded in the Old World as “a despised, eccentric, street­ – and field – preaching, wander­ing sect, continually punished by fine and imprisonment under the Jaw.” He should have added that, in America, they were uniquely successful masters of their own fate.

In 1680, only one relatively uninhabited area remained in English territory on the North American Continent. The coastline between Maine and Carolina was occupied, but inland, in the Delaware Valley, lay an area which was largely wilderness – the area now Pennsylvania, inhabited by no more than four hundred white persons. The countryside along the Delaware River had been claimed by the Dutch, Swedes and English, and not until 1664 had the Dutch dis­possessed the Swedes, and the English, in turn, dispossessed the Dutch. “A fine and fertile land,” it was a likely place for Quakers to establish a “free colony for all mankind, a place of contentment and prosperity for those escaping from religious perse­cution.” As soon as William Penn finally obtained the Char­ter for Pennsylvania from England’s King Charles II in March 1681, he began recruiting prospective colonists and attempting to solve the multitude of problems associated with planting such a colony in a vast wilderness, not the least of which was the building of the proprietary capital, Penn’s “City of Broth­erly Love,” of which he proudly wrote: “And Thou, Philadelphia, the Virgin Settle­ment of this Province, Named before Thou wert Born …. ”

The first two groups sent by Penn consisted mostly of his representatives and the ser­vants of individuals who had purchased land with the un­derstanding that at least two percent of their purchase would be located in the “grand, large town” of Phila­delphia, which was “to be laid out on the finest site in the colony.” An individual who purchased five thousand acres – and sixty-nine of the six hundred and fifty-seven “First Purchasers in Pennsylvania” did buy that much – would acquire one hundred acres in the new town. Each individual who bought five hundred acres – and two hundred and thirty-five did – would receive ten acres within the city limits. Servants were dispatched to clear land and build houses for the landowners on their Phila­delphia acreage; they arrived on the John and Sarah and one other small vessel in late 1681, after winter had set in and the winds were cold and cutting, laced with flurries of snow. Almost all of the arriving pas­sengers were forced to winter in caves beneath the steep bluffs along the Delaware. Only a few cabins were erected, and those were primitive huts of stakes, bark and brushwood. In fact, they were less comfortable than the caves.

In 1682, Penn sent over other colonists, and on Octo­ber 29, shortly after his thirty­-eighth birthday, the founder arrived at New Castle, at the head of Delaware Bay, on the little ship Welcome with seventy-one immigrants. He left England in early Septem­ber with one hundred passen­gers, but thirty died en route from smallpox. A baby, chris­tened Seaborn Oliver, had been born just before the ship reached port. The party moved up the Delaware River to the site Penn’s commissioners had chosen for Philadelphia. By the end of the year, twenty­-three vessels had arrived and there were about two thou­sand subscribers to William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in the wilderness along the Dela­ware. Many of these early settlers could not afford to purchase land but Penn, ever beneficent, had provided that they could rent up to two hundred acres at one penny an acre per year.

The few Swedish and Dutch settlers were friendly enough, as were the Indians. Fish and game were abundant, but there existed a major prob­lem: housing. There simply was no lodging except of the crudest kind for at least half of the newcomers. It was esti­mated that more than a third of Philadelphia’s population was living underground as 1683 opened. Perhaps most remarkable is that those cave dwellers apparently managed to live comfortably and some­what happily in their caverns along the river, leaving no complaining record of severe privation or dangerous hard­ship. Certainly no such cries of distress went up from William Penn’s first settlers as had been heard from Jamestown and Plymouth colonists during their first winters.

The cave homes varied greatly in size and shape, partially depending on whether they were natural openings in the river bank or newly-created tunnels. Ac­cording to an old Indian leg­end, cave-dwelling along the Delaware began with the muskrats, some of which “bur­rowed deep and sure, but some just threw mud.” Indians enlarged many of the muskrat holes and used them for tem­porary winter shelter or for hiding. At the time of the Quakers arrival in Pennsylva­nia, one large cave was called “The Robbers’ Nest” because a band of outlaw Indians had hidden there until other Indi­ans came near to hunt or fish, and then ambushed them. A few of the Swedes who pre­ceded the Quakers lived in caves, either dug in the bank or enlarged from existing holes.

But it was the Quakers who first made real homes of the caves. A number had been quite affluent in the Old World, and they brought with them many of the items they had lived with for years, as well as money they had ac­quired from the sale of prop­erty. They had warm clothes and blankets in abundance; from the Native Americans they bought furs and some provisions. Richard Townsend, one of the Welcome‘s passen­gers, wrote that the “Swedes and Indians found provisions for us at very reasonable rates.” Townsend credited the gentle attitude of the Quakers toward the Indians with foster­ing the “mildness of the na­tives. And as our worthy Proprietor treated the Indians with extraordinary humanity,” he wrote, “they became very civil and loving to us, and brought in abundance of veni­son.” Many of the colonists, including Penn, had brought quantities of provisions from England. The founder had made arrangements for all those who were not so well supplied to be given whatever they needed in the way of blankets and food. In time, Penn’s generosity inevitably reduced him from a wealthy man to one beleaguered with financial problems, but that was not until the colony was well established.

Many of the Quaker caves were made by enlarging a hole in the river bluff or bank to a desired breadth and a depth of four or more feet, and then building a high earth wall around the part of the excava­tion that extended out from the side of the bluff, forming a sizable chamber, partly above and partly below ground. The open part of the roof was cov­ered with layers of tree limbs and topped with sod or bark, or thatched with straw or river rushes. In the front of each was a chimney made of stones mortared with a mixture of clay, reeds and pebbles. Eng­lish women, unaccustomed to hard labor, rallied and helped their husbands by carrying the hod, handling one end of the saw or gathering sod and rushes. They hung their pots and pans and kettles on im­provised hooks, arranged their household goods and settled in.

By the time Penn and his fellow Welcome colonists ar­rived, his commissioners, following his plans, had built a small house facing the Dela­ware for him and, according to Townsend, “set up one boarded meetinghouse near the Delaware, where we had comfortable meetings from time to time, as we had noth­ing but love and good-will in our hearts.” The surveying and laying out of the lots which were to comprise Philadelphia had not progressed nearly as far as Penn had hoped, parti­ally because clearing the land was requiring more time and labor than had been antici­pated. The woods and swamps between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers were so deep and thick that a span of fet­tered horses lost there was not found for several months.

Penn was extremely busy with many things, in addition to laying out the city and set­ting up a government for the province. His charter granted by the Crown compelled him to adopt an essentially demo­cratic form of government, since it stipulated that he share with the people the power of making laws. He had surveyed and allotted to purchasers the outlying lands; arranged for the establishment of Penns­bury, his Governor’s Residence and county seat; presided over Quaker Meetings and Provin­cial Council Meetings; ex­plained Assembly procedures and set up courts; made trea­ties with the Indians and spread trinkets among them to insure future good relations. But he found time to visit the cave dwellers frequently, and they rejoiced each time they spotted him approaching on horseback.

It was in one of the water­front caves in 1682 that John Key, the first child born to English parents within the original limits of Philadelphia, “made joyous arrival.” Some years later, William Penn hon­ored “First Born Key” with a gift of a fine lot on Sassafras Street. Key lived to be eighty­-five and died only thirty miles from Philadelphia.

In August 1683, a little band of religious refugees from the lower Rhine were among those who arrived on the ship Con­cord, accompanied by a friend of Penn’s. Their leader, thirty­-one year old Francis Daniel Pastorius, a highly-educated German immigrant organizer, had reached America a few weeks earlier and negotiated with Penn for the purchase of a large tract of Pennsylvania land, which was then a few miles from Philadelphia. Pas­torius had moved into a cave overlooking the Delaware, and it was there that he received the immigrants and let them cast lots for plots of land in the tract. After a few days camp­ing in caves, these new arrivals – thirteen families, thirty-three persons in all – set off along an Indian trail to clear land and build log huts in which to spend the winter in what was to become the ex­ceedingly prosperous settle­ment of Germantown.

Pastorius wrote that he and the other cave dwellers were living “more contentedly than many nowadays in their painted and wainscoted pal­aces.” He was visited often by Penn, whose sense of humor delighted in the Latin inscrip­tion over the entrance to Pasto­rius’s cave. Translated, it read:

A Little House
But a Friend to the Good;
Keep away, Ye Profane.

About ten years after the first settlement of German­town, forty mystical German monks led by Johannes Kelpius – a group known vari­ously as Rosicrucians, Pietists, and members of the “Society of the Woman of the Wilderness” – arrived at Ger­mantown and settled on the heavily wooded banks of the Wissahickon Creek, not far from Pastorius’s colonists, “to await The Coming of The Lord.” Most of the monks lived in caves they hollowed out along the Wissahickon. Kel­pius, described as the “mad­dest of good men,” occupied the choicest cavern, a natural grotto, the opening to which was hidden by a heavy growth of flowering hemlock, and which was near a spring of pure water. The cave-dwelling “Hermits of the Wissahickon,” as they were called, lived qui­etly with their books and mu­sic, as many were well educated and a few were excel­lent musicians. They waited for something to happen for a decade, but Kelpius, at the age of thirty-four, died suddenly in the garden near his cave re­treat. His loss proved to be a blow which left his followers without the strength to adhere to one of the society’s main rules: “Refrain from marriage, according to the advice of Saint Paul.” Several monks, “those who had been most zealous against marrying, now betook themselves to women again.” The marriages failed, and the monks slipped quietly away to parts unknown. Grad­ually, the colony of cave­-dwelling hermits disintegrated.

Tales about Quaker life in the caves of early Philadelphia were legion. One of the less prosperous families repeatedly ran out of food, but, remem­bering that the move to the New World was “for liberty of conscience, not stuffed stom­achs,” did not ask for help from fellow colonists. Each time, according to legend, before the family suffered real hunger, the wife’s pet cat brought in a rabbit or squirrel and dropped it at her feet; each time, she dressed and cooked the animal in the Eng­lish manner; and each time, the family, after kneeling and praying in thankfulness, en­joyed dinner – along with the pet cat, of course. One woman whose husband had died of smallpox on the voyage from England found a snake in her cave, made a pet of it, and shared her porridge with it each day.

Several families busied themselves two autumn days killing and preserving wild pigeons. The migrating birds flew over in such numbers and so low that the colonists knocked them down with sticks and stones, and salted for winter all that were not cooked immediately.

In a cave where a pine torch was being used for illumination, blankets somehow caught on fire and the family barely escaped death, “only because, being Quakers, all remained prayerfully calm and were helped by a Powerful Hand through smoke and flame.”

Some of the old tales recount romantic rendezvous in hidden, uninhabited riverbank caverns, while Indian legends tell of Indian warriors meeting Quaker women in the dark caverns. But, if there were secret romantic meetings in these caves, the participants more likely were courting Quaker boys and girls.

Marriages took place among the cave dwellers, but they were simple affairs with a ritual that was mostly silence, with few words said and no music. The early Pennsylvania Quakers, following William Penn’s explicit belief that fine churches, showy dress, exces­sive living, music and other worldly amusements wrought evil in human life, did not include music in any kind of service. (However, William Penn could adjust his beliefs to alleviate the pressures of colo­nial survival. In 1683, in com­pleting a difficult deal with the music-loving Indians, he gave them one hundred jew’s-harps and a barrel of beer.)

In 1703, while the colony of the Hermits of the Wissa­hickon was still intact, the monks left their caves in Ger­mantown long enough to take an orchestra of viols, oboes, kettledrums and trumpets to Philadelphia’s Old Swedes’ Church and present the first public concert of which there is any record in the history of Pennsylvania. No Quakers attended.

In 1684, after two years in Pennsylvania, William Penn was compelled to return to England to argue in behalf of bis colony in a controversy disputing its boundaries. He left control in the hands of the Council and Assembly but specified that he was to be kept well informed about all colonial affairs. He expected to return with his family in a relatively short time, but he did not return until 1699.

When Penn sailed for Eng­land in 1684, the building of Philadelphia was well under way. Many of the cave-dwellers had built houses on their town lots and moved into them. The majority of the houses were “thirty foot long and eighteen foot broad, with a partition near the middle and another partition to divide one end of the House into two small Rooms, and with a Loft.” Each had a large fireplace with a stone hearth and windows that closed with shutters.

By mid-1685, Penn, hearing “much complaint about the number of drinking-houses and of loose conduct in the caves,” immediately instructed that the caves by purged. He had only agreed for persons to occupy them “for limited times – three years or about­ – while building, that they might not be houseless.” Now the time of occupancy for first settlers was up, and the caves should be held for the use of other deserving persons immi­grating under similar circum­stances. “Whatever ye do,” Penn wrote the Council, “let vertue be cherisht.”

Those who operated tav­erns in caves were ordered by the Council to vacate immedi­ately; one was told to “seek some other way for livelihood forthwith.” and the others compelled to “furnish security to keep good order” before renewing business elsewhere. All the “low resorts” were filled up by pushing the river bank down into them.

The families still living in caves were given notice to complete their houses and vacate their underground quarters. But not much atten­tion was paid to the order. Many of the caves were still in use in the 1730’s, and not all were occupied by new immi­grants.

In time, with the non­-Quaker population of Pennsylvania fast increasing, the Quakers recognized that they could no longer hold the reins of government and also main­tain the principles of their religion. “Governing is ill­-fitted to our principles, “one said. Of their own free will, they chose to maintain those principles. They repeated the original Quaker purpose in the “Holy Experiment” as prof­fered by one of Penn’s dose associates in the early days: “Our business in this new land is not so much to build houses and establish factories, and promote trade and manufacto­ries that may enrich ourselves (though all these things, in their due place, are not to be neglected), as to erect temples of holiness and righteousness, which God may delight in.” With that, Quaker rule in Pennsylvania ended not by defeat but by abdication.

Quakers did not withdraw from communal concerns; their devotion to humanitarian endeavors grew stronger as their political ties weakened. They led movements against slavery and for improved con­ditions in prisons and insane­-asylums, and the like, with the same enthusiasm and determi­nation that their forefathers had made first homes in the New World in craggy caves.


For Further Reading

Brandt, Francis Burke. The Wis­sahickon Valley. Philadelphia: Corn Exchange National Bank, 1927.

Fiske, John. The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1903.

Hinds, William Alfred. The American Communities. New York: Corinth Books, 1961.


Peggy Robbins of Gulfport, Mis­sissippi, was born and raised in Tennessee. She is a graduate of Martin College, Pulaski, Tennes­see. For the past thirty years she has written numerous social and popularly styled history articles for national and regional maga­zines, including Smithsonian, American Heritage, Civil War Times Illustrated, Southwest Art, American History Illus­trated, South Carolina Wild­life, San Francisco Magazine, Mankind and Sporting Clas­sics. Her work has also appeared in a wide variety of educational publications and state history and cultural magazines. The history of Pennsylvania is one of her favorite subjects. This is her first contri­bution to Pennsylvania Heri­tage.