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Penn's sons twice stole Pennsylvania

  • (Courtesy: The Library of Congress) The Landing of William Penn by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. William Penn spent less than a total of three years in the province of Pennsylvania, was sued, placed in debtor's prison, died penniless, and with a…
    (Courtesy: The Library of Congress) The Landing of William Penn by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. William Penn spent less than a total of three years in the province of Pennsylvania, was sued, placed in debtor's prison, died penniless, and with a contested will that led to his sons twice stealing Pennsylvania.
Published June 08. 2013 09:02AM

Sound familiar? The children of the second wife tried to manipulate a contract to take away what would normally be the rights of the children of the first wife. The second wife had three surviving boys two were named John and Richard. Through their manipulation of the system, they set about creating a rift between the European Americans and the Native Americans.

The story could have been about the Jim Thorpe lawsuit, but it's not. It's about the early days of Pennsylvania, and it's about a story that may have been glossed over in history class how William Penn's sons twice stole Pennsylvania.

In 1680, William Penn received title to the Province of Pennsylvania as repayment for a debt of £16,000 owed to his late father, Admiral Sir William Penn, by King Charles II of England.

In 1672, William married Gulielma Springett. They have eight children, only one child, William Jr., lived to adulthood making him by convention William Penn's legal heir. Leaving his family in England, Penn left for the Province of Pennsylvania, arriving there in Oct. 1682. He organized the colony. signed a treaty with the Lenape, and left 22 months later in Aug. 1684.

Gulielma Springett Penn, died in 1694. Two years later, William Penn remarried. His second wife, Hannah Callowhill, was 25;. Penn was 62. They had eight children. Three boys survived to adulthood: John, Thomas and Richard.

While focusing on his new world province, Penn delegated administration of his old world inherited properties to his manager, Philip Ford. Besides embezzling from Penn's estates, Ford tricked Penn into signing, unread, a deed transferring ownership of Pennsylvania to Ford. Penn asked Ford to keep this deed secret and agreed to pay him rent for his province.

Unable to pay the rent, and before the deed became public, Penn tried to sell the Province of Pennsylvania back to the Crown, but because Penn was not willing to give up the religious freedoms of the province, the deal fell through. Penn returned to Pennsylvania in Dec. 1699 and left in Feb. 1701. He spent less than a total of three years in the province. After Ford's death in 1702, his wife, Bridget, had Penn placed in debtor's prison, but when the case came to trail. the court returned the province to Penn.

Meanwhile, William and Gulielma's son, William Jr., became a burden to his father. He was cashiered out of the army, the navy, and in an attempted political career, ran up a debt of £10,000, which William Senior felt obligated to pay, plunging himself into further debt.

In 1704, hoping to set William Jr. on a path towards a simpler life, Penn sent him and his new governor, John Evans, to Pennsylvania. William Jr. and Evans became drinking companions, and on more than one occasion were arrested for rowdy behavior once beating a constable. The Assembly demanded the recall of Evans and that William Penn be relieved of the absolute power over the province which shielded William Jr. from punishment. William Jr. and Evans returned to England. Impoverished from William Jr.'s debts, William Sr. again tried to sell the Province of Pennsylvania back to the Crown which again was unsuccessful.

In 1712, William Penn had the first of a series of strokes leading to dementia. During this weakened period, his wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn, had him sign a will making her executrix and giving full control of the colony and his fortune to her and her children.

When William Penn died at age 73 in 1718, and under the terms of the will, Hannah Callowhill Penn's progeny inherited the Province of Pennsylvania, and until they attained the age of majority, she served as regent, acting as the first women governor of a new world province.

William Penn, Jr., William Penn's surviving son by his first marriage, sought to dismiss his father's will in order to obtain control of the colony. But after William Penn, Jr. died at the age of 39 in 1720, his first born son, Springett Penn (II), continued the suit. Hannah Callowhill Penn died in 1727 at the age of 55, and the government and property remained under the control of trustees until Richard Penn attained his majority in 1730.

Springett Penn (II), the Founder's grandson and, by convention, William Penn's legal heir for the governorship of Pennsylvania, conveniently died in 1731. Within the year, his younger brother, William Penn (III), sold his claims to both government and lands of Pennsylvania to the sons of Hannah Callowhill Penn for £5,500. This was the first time the Penn brothers stole Pennsylvania.

According to law, the sons of Hannah Callowhill Penn John, Thomas and Richard were to divid the estate with one half going to the eldest, John, and one quarter going each to Thomas and Richard. Thomas became the leader of the family interests, known as the Proprietors. One of his objectives was to pay off the enormous debts the family had inherited from their father.

They began selling by all the land that their father had purchased from the Lenape, and by 1727, they began selling land to William Allen, future namesake of Allentown, in areas up to and beyond the Blue Mountain that had not been purchased from the Lenape.

In a plan to to justify seizing the land from the Lenape, the Proprietors surveyed the land, created a trail, and negotiated with the Iroquois to create a fake treaty called the Walking Purchase, In 1737, the walk began a day and a half later, an area of 1,200,000 acres were taken by the Proprietors from the Lenape. This was the second time the Penn brothers stole Pennsylvania.

In 2004, the Delaware Nation filed suit against Pennsylvania in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, seeking 314 acres included in the 1737 Walking Purchase which was known as "Tatamy's Place". The court dismissed the suit on the grounds that Thomas Penn had "sovereign authority," even though the transaction was fraudulent.

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