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Penn's Venture in Pennsylvania

In the two hundred years that followed the founding of Philadelphia, the area now encompassed by Independence National Historical Park changed greatly, from a virtual wilderness to a densely developed, decaying urban neighborhood. William Penn first saw the wooded site where he intended to plant a new city in the fall of 1682. Penn's venture in Pennsylvania was a curious blend of religious utopianism and real estate speculation. Penn's idealism led him to retain a surveyor to lay out a model city. It stretched from the Delaware to the Schuylkill. Laid out as a rectangular grid, its straight streets defined large squares and five public spaces. It was a vision of Philadelphia as a country town of ample open space, "in which each hath room enough for House, Garden and Small Orchard." He hoped to provide a haven for fellow dissenters and at the same time enlarge his family's fortune.

When Penn received the grant of Pennsylvania from Charles II in 1681, he was already familiar with the resources and needs of the New World through his participation in the proprietorships of East and West New Jersey. Through personal tours and publications, he moved quickly to promote Pennsylvania to prospective immigrants, offering the twin enticements of personal liberty and economic opportunity. Penn's promotional campaign achieved its goal of attracting settlers, although his hopes for financial aggrandizement proved vain. In 1692 alone, twenty-three ships brought immigrants to Pennsylvania, many of whom remained in Philadelphia. By the time Penn returned to England in 1694, there were "Three hundred and fifty-seven Houses; divers of them large, well built, with good Cellars, three stories, and some with Balconies."

By the beginning of the new century, Philadelphia was established as a thriving town. Estimates that the number of houses had risen to 1,400 by 1690 and more than 2,000 by 1698 were probably exaggerated; nevertheless, Philadelphia's population had outstripped that of every city in the colonies but Boston. Two Quaker meeting houses had been joined by several other churches: the Swede's church south of the town and, within its bounds, buildings for Anglican, Presbyterian, and Baptist congregations. However, the Proprietor's idealistic vision for the city had not been realized. Penn had expected development to begin along the fronts and move inland toward the center square, where the major public buildings would be located. Instead the early buildings were tightly packed along the Delaware from Spruce to Vine Streets. Warehouses, stores, and residences elbowed one another along Bank and Front Streets. The Philadelphia that Benjamin Franklin saw when he disembarked at the public dock at the foot of High Street in 1723 was a long, narrow town, strung out along the river, its streets and alleys closely hemmed with buildings. The skyline was low, unpunctuated by towers or spires, although a few of the town's wealthy merchants lived in what can only be described as suburban splendor on its outskirts from Third to Seventh Street.



©1995-2014 by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, PA founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as ushistory.org.; online since July 4, 1995.
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