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Image The Quaker Canaan: The Delaware Valley

European colonists in the Delaware Valley described the dimensions of their new world with a sense of awe. Even today, the great river startles the most jaded modern traveler by its breadth and majesty. In the seventeenth century it was thought to be a wonder of the world. Francis Daniel Pastorius wrote in 1700, “ … the Delaware River is so grand that it has no equal in Europe.” Inside its twin capes, the river opens to form a bay forty miles wide. One hundred miles upstream at Newcastle it is still nearly two miles across. The largest ships in the seventeenth century could sail inland as far as Trenton, 165 miles from the sea.1

The ecology of the Delaware Valley was exceptionally well suited to the cultural purposes of its Quaker colonists. Of all the environments of the Atlantic coast it was uniquely favorable to commercial and industrial development. The river and bay became a great common, lined with flourishing settlements. The Welsh Quaker Gabriel Thomas wrote that “between these towns, the watermen constantly Ply their Wherries, likewise all these towns have fairs in them.”2

Both banks of the Delaware River were laced with small rivers and creeks “in number hardly credible,” wrote Penn. On the western shore, the fall line lay only a few miles inland. Streams such as Brandywine Creek and Chester Creek offered many fine mill sites within easy reach of the sea. Close to Philadelphia were large deposits of building stone, coal, copper, iron ore, dense stands of oak, and walnut and chestnut. The soil was rich and fertile, a “good and fruitful land,” Penn called it, “in some places a fast fat earth, like to our best vales in England.”

Another feature of the Delaware Valley was specially important to the Quakers. The natives were friendly, and very different from the more militant tribes of the lower Chesapeake and upper New England. The Delaware Indians as the English called them, or Lenni Lenape as they called themselves, were as distinct from the bellicose Abnaki, the ferocious Pequots and the warlike Powhatan Confederacy as the Quakers were unlike Puritans and cavaliers.3 William Penn’s Indian policy would have been a disastrous failure in Massachusetts or Virginia, just as it later failed in western Pennsylvania. In the valley of the Delaware, it succeeded splendidly, not only because of the Quakers themselves, but also because of the Indians.4

A third environmental factor was the temperate climate, which tended to be favorable to European settlement. Levels of mortality were high by modern standards, and also highly unstable, but the first generation found the Delaware Valley to be healthier than England or Virginia, and not much inferior to Massachusetts. This pattern changed for the worse during the eighteenth century when malaria infested the lower Delaware Valley, and yellow fever became a great killer in Philadelphia. Death rates rose generally throughout the region, but the higher ground of Pennsylvania remained exceptionally healthy. Throughout most of the Delaware Valley, moderate levels of mortality supported stable family life—a material fact of high importance for the Quakers.5

The settlement of the Delaware Valley by members of the Society of Friends did not happen merely by historical accident. The Quakers had long looked with interest upon this region. As early as the year 1660, George Fox and a consortium of English Friends dispatched an agent named Josiah Coale to buy land from the Indians in what is now southeastern Pennsylvania. His mission failed, but he later informed William Penn about the region. George Fox himself also made a personal reconnaissance of the Delaware Valley in 1672 and found the Indians “very loving.”6 He urged Penn to plant his colony there.7

In this environment, English Quakers deliberately acquired no fewer than three American colonies—West Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. For a time they also owned East Jersey, and parts of Carolina. Some of these acquisitions were made in very strange ways. In 1674, New Jersey had been given by the Duke of York (the future King James II) to his boon companions John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, who divided it in two parts which they inaccurately called East Jersey and West Jersey. In the same year, Lord Berkeley promptly sold West Jersey to Edward Byllinge, a London Quaker who may have been acting for the Society at large and later resold it to a consortium of Quakers. Much of the land in West Jersey was distributed to 1,400 Quaker colonists who arrived between 1677 and 1681.8

In 1682, the colony of East Jersey was bought at auction from the widow of Sir George Carteret by another group of Quakers who included the ubiquitous William Penn. The colonists of East Jersey were people of many faiths—including many Dutch settlers from New Netherlands, and a large number of New Englanders whose major settlement was named New Ark (now Newark). Largely as a consequence of incessant complaints by Puritan settlers against Quaker proprietors, imperial authorities in 1702 took over both provinces and combined them in a single royal colony called New Jersey.9

In 1681, the Duke of York was instrumental in the creation of Pennsylvania, the largest and most important of the Quaker colonies. This great province was granted to William Penn in nominal payment of a debt which the Crown had owed his father. But


that was not the leading motive. The founding of Pennsylvania was a serious effort to settle the “Quaker problem,” by a monarch who sympathized with their plight. The original grant was larger than the present state of Pennsylvania. Altogether, Penn’s province covered about 600,000 square miles, stretching from sea to sea between the 40th and the 43rd parallels, an area six times the size of Great Britain. It later grew a little larger when William Penn was allowed to buy the colony of Delaware from the Duke of York. For many years Delaware was governed as a separate part of Pennsylvania.

From the start, the Delaware colonies were generally perceived as parts of a single region. Quakers throughout the Delaware Valley organized themselves into a single yearly meeting which met alternately on each bank of the river. When the Anglicans attempted to rescue the inhabitants from “Quakerism or heathenism” in the eighteenth century, they organized the valley into a “single missionary field.”10 The valley also became an economic unit which sent its produce to Philadelphia.11 Historian Frederick Tolles writes:

The colonial Pennsylvanian knew without being told that he lived in the valley of the Delaware. He first saw his new home from the deck of a ship sailing up the great river. … The Delaware united West Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Lower Counties (which eventually became the state of Delaware) into a single economic province, and linked it with the rest of the Atlantic community. It also unified the valley into a single “culture area.”12

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