William Penn to the Kings of the Indians in Pennsylvania, October 18, 1681
In the 1600s, the eastern seaboard of North America was inhabited by many different people—diverse Native American groups who had been there for centuries and smaller groups of Europeans. The Delaware Indians, also called Lenni Lenape (meaning "Original People") were the dominant Native American group living in a wide area encompassing much of modern-day Delaware and New Jersey as well as parts of what would become Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. They had been in contact with Europeans, including Scandinavian and Dutch settlers who had established their own communities in the mid-Atlantic region, since around 1600.
In 1681, events were unfolding across the Atlantic Ocean that would have long-lasting impacts on this region and its inhabitants. In March of that year, William Penn, the scion of a respected English family and a prominent member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), received a charter for a large tract of land in North America from the king of England, who had owed a great debt to Penn's father. With this charter, Penn became the sole owner and ruler of a territory of over 45,000 square miles. He intended to use this land to establish a province in which religious dissenters such as Quakers could live freely according to the dictates of their conscience. His province, "Pennsylvania," meaning "Penn's woods," would be a "Holy Experiment" defined by Quaker principles of nonviolence, democracy, religious and personal freedom, and acceptance of people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Penn set to work corresponding with his agents in the province, advertising the new colony to potential settlers, selling land to investors, and making contact with the people who already inhabited the land. On April 8, he wrote a letter introducing himself to the settlers then living in the area and assuring them: "You shall be governed by laws of your own making, and live a free . . . people." On October 18, he likewise wrote his first communication to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania.
Current European settlements in the region Penn had received lived mostly in small settlements fortified against potential Indian attacks. Penn, a staunch pacifist, intended to do without such armaments as he planned his colony. By introducing himself as a man of peace and as a colonial leader who would negotiate with everyone justly and respectfully, he hoped to establish a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship with the original inhabitants of the land. As he stresses in this letter, fair dealings were essential to fostering this peaceful alliance. Penn insisted on negotiating and paying a fair price for the land granted to him by the king, not just because doing so aligned with his religious morals but because to do otherwise would give the Delawares good cause to resent him and the colonists who would soon begin arriving in great numbers, encroaching on the land and liberties that the Native peoples of the area had long enjoyed. Such resentments between Native Americans and European colonists had recently boiled over into widespread and bloody warfare in the New England colonies during King Philip's War (1675-1678). Penn wanted his colony to be different. By making peaceful overtures and initiating procedures to make sure that all the land of his province was legally purchased, he hoped to make Pennsylvania a place where all would be able to live free from coercion, violence, and fear.
Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, eds., The Papers of William Penn, vol. 2, 1680-1684 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 127-129.
Jean R. Soderlund, ed., William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, 1680-1684: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 3-10, 53-56, 86-88.