1682 Three Hundred Years Ago

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DEAL, ENGLAND: On August 30 the Quaker leader William Penn set sail for America, the “True and Absolute Proprietor” of the province of Pennsylvania, an awesome tract of forty-five thousand square miles of unsurveyed and largely unexplored territory.

The proprietorship had been granted by King Charles II in payment of a debt owed to Penn’s father—and also, it is suspected, because the King found Quakers something of a strain on his tolerance and was glad to have some of them move to the far-distant New World. As for Penn, he had given up his search for acceptance in England, sadly concluding that “the deaf adder cannot be charmed.” He had planned his new colony as a “holy experiment” embodying his beliefs in religious freedom, trial by jury, and the right of petition.

The crossing aboard the bark Welcome was a particularly deadly one. The hundred Quakers who sailed with Penn, “Industrious Husbandmen” and people who have been “much clogg’d and oppress’d about a Livelyhood,” were struck down with smallpox during the crossing; thirty-one of them died. But the reception of the survivors in their new land was heartening. The Dutch, Swedish, and English settlers who lived along the shores of the Delaware welcomed the battered travelers pleasantly, and the local dignitaries of the town of New Castle presented Penn with symbols of his ownership—a bit of turf, a twig, and a bowl of river water.

The new arrivals saw few Indians, though Penn had previously sent word to the Delawares informing them of his coming and expressing the hope “that we may always live together as neighbors and friends.” Penn’s personal pleasure was also dampened by the fact that his wife, Gulielma, pregnant with her seventh child, had decided not to accompany him and was not there to share his joy.

Fearing—not unrealistically—that he might not live to return, he had left behind secretly written letters of farewell to his wife and children: “My love, that neither sea, nor land, nor death itself, can extinguish or lessen toward you,” he told Gulielma, “most endearedly visits you with eternal embraces, and will abide with you forever.”

His letter was long and fond, full of strictures and advice about raising their children: “I love sweetness, mixed with gravity, and cheerfulness tempered with sobriety. … Breed them up in a love one of another. …” Happily, however, his solicitude turned out to be unnecessary; he was back in England with his family in less than two years.