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

If it happened, it happened in Philadelphia,” so goes an old adage. And one not terribly far from the truth, either.

Philadelphia has witnessed much of the history of the early United States. The sign­ing of the Declaration of Inde­pendence, probably the nation’s most hallowed docu­ment, drew the colonies’ lead­ing statesmen – including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – to the eighteenth century center of commerce and cul­ture. Several years later, the drafting of the United States Constitution again beckoned leaders to Philadelphia. Throughout the years, four presidents were nominated at political conventions held in Philadelphia: Zachary Taylor in 1848, Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, William McKinley in 1900, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936. (That’s not to mention that two unsuc­cessful Republican candidates, John Fremont and Wendell Willkie, were also endorsed at conventions in Philadelphia in 1856 and 1940, respectively.) Even the litany of “firsts” for Philadelphia seems endless.

The first magazine in Amer­ica was published in Philadel­phia in 1741, followed in 1784 by the country’s first daily newspaper. The first vessels of the United States Navy were built in Philadelphia during the American Revolution. The first American play – written by a Philadelphian – was first performed in the city. Philadel­phia was home to the first United States Mint. The first insurance company, the first trust company, and the first building and loan company were established in Philadel­phia. The first bank – the Bank of Pennsylvania – was also claimed by Philadelphia. And the list continues.

The first hospital in Amer­ica. The first learned society. The first music club in the country. The first American novel. The first permanent theater. The first paper mill. The first dispensary. The first medical school. The first wom­en’s medical college. And so on ….

The site of Pennsylvania’s first “great town” – christened Philadelphia for the Biblical city in Asia Minor – was de­termined by a survey under­taken along the Delaware River by Capt. William Mark­ham, William Penn’s cousin and Deputy Governor. Markam, who had arrived in October 1681, was assisted by Thomas Fairman. The plan of the city was designed by Thomas Holme. An entrepre­neur as well as an idealist, Penn issued two promotional pieces, A Brief Account of the Province of Pennsylvania and Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania, designed not only to describe his “Holy Experiment,” but to advertise it to potential land buyers. Little did his audience realize it, but Penn had not even visited North America before writing his glowing reports!

John B. B. Trussell, Jr., au­thor of William Penn: Architect of a Nation, succinctly summa­rized Penn’s plan for Philadelphia.

The city which Penn visualized was to be the fulfillment of a concept to which he had devoted particular attention. It would avoid the congestion of crowded cities of Europe with their narrow, twisting streets, their lack of fresh air and vegetation, and their susceptibility to epidemics, crime and spreading conflagrations. The space from the waterfront for a quarter of a mile inland was to be kept free of buildings. There would be two broad, straight, tree-lined avenues, one running north and south and the other east and west, with a park at their intersection. Paralleling these in a regular grid would be streets (also lined with trees) which, while narrower than the avenues, would still be much wider than was normal in Europe. Each quarter of the city would have its awn park. Houses were to be sited in a straight line along the streets, but each was to be located in the center of its lot so as to leave space on either side “for gardens or orchards, or fields, that it may be a green country town, which will never be burned, and always be wholesome.” In the event, the population of the city would grow too rapidly to permit leaving open the amount of space Penn had intended, but important elements of his concept were preserved. And although Perm cannot be said to have originated the idea of a regular grid arrange­ment of streets, he certainly re­vived it after centuries of disuse, thereby setting an example which left a permanent imprint in its influence on cities that have since come into being.

During his initial visit to North America in October 1682 – the first of only two he would make during his proprietorship – Penn created Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester counties, and in De­cember presented his Great Law in Chester (formerly the village of Upland) to free­holders, granting them citizen­ship. In Philadelphia on March 12, 1683, William Penn’s popular government convened its first session, but it proved not to be the ideal of which the disappointed founder dreamed. Debates soured, sparking disputes and fueling discord. To remedy the unten­able situation, the Second Frame of Government was drafted, but this document, too, created controversy con­cerning the powers of the Assembly and the financial obligations of Pennsylvania to Penn. In the midst of the heated dissension, Penn dis­patched a letter to the Marquis of Halifax, in which he claimed, “I must, without vanity, say that I have led the greatest colony into America that ever any man did upon private credit, and the most prosperous beginnings that ever were in it are to be found among us.”

To those oppressed in Eu­rope, Penn’s Woods, particu­larly the thriving settlement of Philadelphia, seemed promis­ing. It was inevitable that both the colony and city would become a haven for all seeking relief from religious, social, and political persecution: ” … all persons living in this province who confess and acknowledge the one Al­mighty and Eternal God to be the creator, upholder and ruler of the world, and that hold themselves obliged in con­science to live peaceably and justly in civil society shall in no ways be molested, or preju­diced for their religious per­suasion or practice in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.”

Meanwhile, in and around Philadelphia, settlers con­structed dwellings and estab­lished businesses with fervor. It was not long before city streets were lined by tanneries, bakeries, inns, breweries, coopers’ shops, and brick factories, and the waterfront punctuated by wharves and warehouses. Upon Penn’s return to England in 1684, Philadelphia boasted three hundred and fifty-seven struc­tures and claimed six hundred buildings by the following year. Indeed, Philadelphia was off to a grand and glorious beginning.

As he departed his beloved Philadelphia in August 1684, William Penn issued a message to those who chose to help him settle Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

Dear Friends:

My love and my life is to you, and with you; and no water can quench it, nor distance wear it out, or, bring it to an end: – I have been with you, cared over you, and served you with un­feigned love; and you are beloved of me, and near to me, beyond utterance. I bless you, in the name and power of the Lord; and may God bless you. with his righteous­ness, peace and plenty, all the land over. Oh, that you would eye him, in all, through all, and above all the works of your hands; and let it be your first care, how you may glorify God in your undertakings; for to a blessed end are you brought hither; and if you see and keep but in the sense of that Providence, your coming, staying and improving will be sanctified; but if any forget God, and call not upon his name, in truth, he will pour out his plagues upon them; and they shall know who it is, that judgeth the children of men.

Oh, now you are come to a quiet land, provoke not the Lord to trouble it: And now liberty and authority are with you, and in your hands, let the government be upon his shoulders, in all your spirits; that you may rule for him, under whom the princes of this world will, one day, esteem it their honor to govern and serve, in their places. I cannot but say, when these things come mightily upon my mind, as the Apostles did, of old, “What manner of persons ought we to be, in all godly conversation!” Truly, the name and honour of the Lord are deeply concerned in you, as to the discharge of yourselves, in your present stations; many eyes being upon you; and remember, that, as we have been belied about disown­ing the true religion, so, of all government, to behold us exem­plary and christian, in the use of that, will not only stop our ene­mies, but minister conviction to many, on that account, preju­diced. Oh, that you may see and know that service, and do it, for the Lord, in this your day:-

And thou, Philadelphia, the virgin settlement of this province, named before thou wert born, what love, what care, what serv­ice, and what travail has there been to bring thee forth, and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee.

Oh, that thou mayst be kept from the evil, that would over­whelm thee; that, faithful to the God of thy mercies, in the life of righteousness, thou may be pre­served to the end: – My soul prays to God for thee, that thou mayst stand in the day of tryal, that thy children may be blessed of the Lord, and thy people saved by his power; – my love to thee has been great, and the remembrance of thee affects mine heart and mine eye! – the God of eternal strength keep and preserve thee, to his glory and thy peace.

So, dear friends, my love again salutes you all, wishing that grace, mercy and peace, with all temporal blessings, may abound richly among you; – so says, so prays, your friend and lover in the truth.

William Penn.
From on board the Ketch Endeavour, the Sixth month, 1684.

During Penn’s absence both city and colony burgeoned, despite constant problems with the proprietor’s govern­ment. Around Philadelphia, ingenious entrepreneurs and stalwart settlers cleared land and established industries. William Rittenhouse erected a small paper mill in 1690 at Rittenhousetown. German and Dutch immigrants flocked to Germantown, where a grist mill was built by English mill­wright Richard Townsend in 1683. Not long afterward, the linen weaving industry was established. Small villages were settled on the outskirts of the city, including Passyunk (“a place below the hills”), Shackamaxon (“a place of eels”), Pennypack (“deep, dead water”), and Tacony (“a wood, or uninhabited place”). In Philadelphia proper, build­ings became more substantial and appeared even sturdier. Edward Shippen, first mayor of Philadelphia, and Samuel Carpenter erected residences on Second Street. Richard Whitpain’s “great house” graced Front Street, as did the residences of Robert Turner, a prosperous merchant, and Anthony Morris, a Quaker brewer.

Because the fledgling com­munity suffered several fires, each householder was, in 1697, ordered to keep “a swab at least 12 or 14 feet long, as also two leathern buckets, to be ready in case of accident by fire.” They were also warned to keep all chimneys clean and free from soot and debris.

A bustling port city, Phila­delphia attracted merchants and shopkeepers, butchers, carpenters, tailors, tanners, curriers, chandlers, pewterers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, weavers, coopers, brickmakers and bricklayers, painters, barbers, and tradesmen. Town life centered about the market held initially at High and Front streets and, after 1693, at Sec­ond Street, where wooden stalls were built. Markets were held regularly on Sundays and Wednesdays, although ven­dors were able to offer their wares throughout the week. However, nothing could be sold elsewhere in Philadelphia under penalty of forfeiture of the goods, of which one-half was distributed to the poor and the balance claimed by the market clerk.

When William Penn re­turned on his second – and final – visit in December 1699, he discovered that Philadelphia had, indeed, changed considerably. Upon arriving after his arduous journey, which consumed three months, he stayed at Shippen’s “great house” for a month and later moved to Carpenter’s “Slate Roof House.” It was not, however, an auspicious winter. An epi­demic, which had been plagu­ing the city since summer, claimed hundreds of lives, prompting Isaac Norris to write, “There is not a day or night has passed for several weeks but we have the account of the death or sickness of some friend or neighbor. It hath been sometimes very sickly, but I never before knew it so mortal as now. About ten days ago, there were reckoned nine persons lay dead at the same time and I think seven or eight this day lay dead to­gether …. All business and trade down. This is quite the Barbadoes distemper; they void and vomit blood.” The epidemic caused the Assembly to pass an act the following year to prevent “sickly vessels ” from docking in Philadelphia until both passengers and cargo “lain some time to be purified.”

And Penn’s troublesome domestic problems contin­ued…

Col. Robert Quarry, op­posed to the founder’s form of popular government, was appointed as judge of the admiralty, an independent royal court solely responsible to the crown, and charged that Pennsylvania had become the “greatest refuge for pirates and rogues in America.” The weary Penn, tired of the allegations of widespread piracy, or what he called “the horrid scandal of the English nation,” effected a strict law against piracy, order­ing masters of vessels to iden­tify their passengers before docking their ships. Despite numerous meetings and con­ferences, Penn, his second wife, and daughter were able to move to the family country house, Pennsbury, which overlooked the Delaware River twenty-six miles north of the city. Even at his beloved Pennsbury, William Penn could find no peace; not only did his family grow increasingly dis­content with life in North America, but he was forced again to return to London to settle the question of piracy before King William ill. Before he departed, Penn granted a charter to Philadelphia.

Actually, efforts to incorpo­rate Philadelphia as a borough were made nearly two decades earlier. Extant council records indicate that as early as July 1684 Thomas Holme, William Haigue, and Thomas Lloyd were asked to “draw up a charter for Philadelphia to be made a Burrough, consisting of a mayor and six aldermen.” A charter for Philadelphia, written in 1691 but only dis­covered after nearly a century, was executed while Lloyd served as deputy governor and served as the foundation for Penn’s 1701 charter. Penn’s charter provided for a mayor, a recorder, eight aldermen, twelve common councilmen, as well as for the appointment of a sheriff, town clerk, and clerk of the courts. The mayor, recorder, aldermen and mem­bers of the council met each year to elect their own succes­sors and assumed the respon­sibilities of trial justices “to hear and inquire into all and all manerr of treasons, mur­ders, manslaughters, and all manner of felonies and other crimes and offences, capital and criminal, whatsoever, according to the laws of this province and of the kingdom of England, with power also to hear and determine all petty larcencies, routs, riots, unlaw­ful assemblies; and to try and punish all persons that shall be convicted of drunkenness, swearing, scolding, breaking the peace or such like offences which are by the laws of this province to be punished by fine, imprisonment or whip­ping.” This city charter re­mained in place until the Revolutionary War.

As the eighteenth century opened, Philadelphia’s role as the center of commerce, gov­ernment, and society contin­ued to blossom. Residents began paving the streets with “pibble stones” gathered from river beds. Regulations to safeguard the city from fire were constantly revised, as were procedures for the dock­ing of ships at the city’s many wharves. New market laws were enacted. A larger prison was erected. More settlers arrived. The impact and influ­ence of Quakerism began to wane. The generation of founding fathers began to disappear with the deaths of Shippen in 1712, Samuel Car­penter in 1714, William Penn in 1718, and Anthony Morris in V22, giving way to new lead­ers, including Andrew Hamil­ton and Benjamin Franklin. A new era for Philadelphia was dawning.

And an unforgettable era it proved to be.

Eighteenth century Phila­delphia witnessed the rise and fall of statesmen and diplo­mats. The emergence of truly American artists. The erection of buildings and structures -including Carpenters’ Hall and Independence Hall – which have become revered as land­marks. The founding of schools and colleges. Charita­ble institutions. Banks and savings institutions. All unde­niable hallmarks of a great city and a brave, new nation.

Had it not been for William Penn, who sacrificed both health and wealth for his be­loved Philadelphia, the city of countless “firsts” might not have risen to be the great
city it has become.


“Philadelphia, First,” a brief over­view of the early history of Phila­delphia County, concludes Pennsylvania Heritage‘s series of county history feature articles. Forthcoming editions will feature interviews with individuals who have taken part in, researched and interpreted, or witnessed various facets of the Keystone State’s fascinating history and heritage.


For Further Reading

Baltzell, E. Digby. An American Business Aristocracy. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Bridenbaugh, Carl, and Jessica Bridenbaugh. Rebels and Gen­tlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy. Boston: Little, Brown and Com­pany, 1963.

Burt, Struthers. Philadelphia, Holy Experiment. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1945.

Cohen, Charles J. Rittenhouse Square, Past and Present. Philadelphia: Privately Printed, 1922.

Eberlein, Harold Donaldson, and Cortlandt Van Dyke Hubbard. Diary of Independence Hall. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1948.

Eberlein, Harold Donaldson, and Horace Mather Lippincott. The Colonial Homes of Philadel­phia. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippin­cott Company, 1912.

Eisenhart, Luther P., ed. His­toric Philadelphia: From the Founding Until the Early Nine­teenth Century. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1953.

Faris, John T. Old Churches and Meeting Houses In and Around Philadelphia. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1926.

Gallman, J. Matthew. Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia During the Civil War. New York: Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 1990.

Hotchkin, S.F. Ancient and Modern Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill. Phila­delphia: P. W. Ziegler and Com­pany, 1889.

Jackson, Joseph. America’s Most Historic Highway: Market Street, Philadelphia. Philadel­phia: John Wanamaker, 1926.

Johnson, Gerald W. Pattern for Liberty: The Story of Old Phil­adelphia. New York: McGraw­-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952.

Keyser, Naaman. History of Old Germantown. Germantown, Pa.: Horace F. McCann, 1907.

Lippincott, Horace Mather. Early Philadelphia: Its People, Life and Progress. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1917.

____. Philadelphia. Philadel­phia: McCrae, Smith Company, 1926.

Mease, James. The Picture of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: B. and T. Kite, 1811.

Miller, Frederic M. et al. Still Philadelphia: A Photographic History, 1890-1940. Philadel­phia: Temple University Press, 1983.

Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson. Phila­delphia: A History of the City and Its People. Philadelphia: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912.

Pennypacker, Samuel Whitaker. The Settlement of German­town, Pennsylvania. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1970.

Tatum, George B. Penn’s Great Town. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.

Teitelman, S. Robert. Views of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: The Free Library of Philadelphia, 1982.

Wainwright, Nicholas B. Colo­nial Grandeur in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964.

Warner, Sam Bass. The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth. Philadel­phia: University of Pennsylvania, 1968.

Wolf, Edwin. Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1975.


The author wishes to thank David Dutcher, chief historian, Indepen­dence National Historical Park, for his generous assistance in identifying, locating, and provid­ing illustrations for this article.


Michael J. O’Malley III is editor of this magazine.