Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Treaty of Shackamaxon

a color painting portraying the traditional meeting between William Penn and the Lenni-Lenape on the bank of the Delaware River.

Benjamin West’s 1771 painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, portrays the traditional story of William Penn’s peaceful treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

The Treaty of Shackamaxon, otherwise known as William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians or “Great Treaty,” is Pennsylvania’s most longstanding historical tradition, a counterpart to the foundation stories of Virginia (John Smith and Pocahontas) and New England (the first Thanksgiving). According to the tradition, soon after William Penn (1644-1718) arrived in Pennsylvania in late October 1682, he met with Lenni Lenape Indians in the riverside town of Shackamaxon (present-day Fishtown). There, beneath a majestic elm, they exchanged promises of perpetual friendship. The tradition may well have a historical basis in an actual treaty meeting in Shackamaxon; however, as the term “tradition” indicates, the event is not recorded in original primary source documents, and its details and very occurrence have been debated.

The treaty’s renown was amplified through literature and art. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) famously declared it “the only treaty between those people [the Indians] and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and was never infring’d.” (Quaker doctrine prohibited Penn from making oaths.) The painter Benjamin West (1738-1820), commissioned by Penn’s son Thomas (1702-75), created the ubiquitous emblem of colonial Pennsylvania and American Quakerism in William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians When He Founded the Province of Pennsylvania in North America (1771-72). West’s tableau (now at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) informed early historical accounts of the treaty. It was adapted, and further popularized, in the Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks’s (1780-1845) Penn’s Treaty and Peaceable Kingdom paintings. To this day it illustrates history textbooks.

In eighteenth-century diplomatic records, Native Americans frequently invoke their original relations with William Penn. These references, however, are more consistent with the general idea of a treaty than the specifics of the Treaty tradition. In 1857, Granville John Penn donated to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania a belt of wampum (shell beads) depicting two men joining hands; the Lenapes had purportedly presented it to his great grandfather at the Treaty (it is now at the Philadelphia History Museum).

However, without a paper record issuing from the event itself, proponents of the tradition were unable to substantiate the location of the Treaty in Shackamaxon. Moreover, the traditional date, 1682, is unlikely because Penn’s crowded schedule in the months after his arrival is otherwise well documented. Nevertheless, in 1827 the Penn Society erected an obelisk where the Great Elm had once stood. Its inscription reads:

TREATY GROUND

of

WILLIAM PENN

and the

INDIAN NATIVES

1682

UNBROKEN FAITH

Considered Philadelphia’s first public monument, the obelisk has since been joined by other memorials in what is now Penn Treaty Park (1341 N. Delaware Avenue, in Fishtown).

photograph of the exterior of Tammany Hall

Tammany Hall, New York City, 1914. The name Tammany derived from the Lenape leader Tamanend, with whom William Penn was said to have agreed to the “Great Treaty.” (Library of Congress)

Some academic commentators, especially critics of West’s painting, argue that the tradition was invented to idealize Pennsylvania’s past. Others suggest that it combines the memories of many documented treaties and land purchases, or that it aggrandizes a single such meeting into a Great Treaty. One possible basis is a treaty in June 1683 that resulted in several land deeds signed by Penn and the Lenape leader Tamanend (the legendary “Tammany”), among others. The location is unspecified, but it may have been Shackamaxon. Formal promises of friendship were likely exchanged, perhaps under the Great Elm. There is no evidence to the contrary.

Andrew Newman is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director for the Department of English at Stony Brook University. He is the author of On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).


Copyright 2013, Rutgers University.

Related Reading

Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, and Joshua Francis Fisher. A Memoir on the History of the Celebrated Treaty Made by William Penn with the Indians: Under the Elm Tree at Shackamaxon, in the Year 1682. Philadelphia: Printed for M’Carty & Davis, 1836.

Jennings, Francis. “Brother Miquon: Good Lord!” In The World of William Penn, edited by Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, 195–214. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Milano, Kenneth W. The History of Penn Treaty Park. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2009.

Newman, Andrew. On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Symbols of Peace: William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians: An Exhibition Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Dickinson College: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 12-September 26. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1976.

Speck, Frank G. The Penn Wampum Belts. Leaflets of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. New York: De Vinne press], 1925.

Stone, Frederick D. “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians: Did It Take Place in 1682 or 1683?” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 6, no. 2 (1882): 217–238.

Vaux, Roberts. “A Memoir on the Locality of the Great Treaty Between William Penn, and the Indian Natives in 1682.” In Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, edited by Edward Armstrong, 1:87–106. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864.

Voltaire. Letters Concerning the English Nation. London: Reprinted by and for George Faulkner, 1733.

Collections

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Philadephia History Museum, 15 S. Seventh Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Penn Treaty Park, 1199 N. Delaware Avenue, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. Andrew Newman has done a wonderful job of presenting what may be , ” the oldest story in town”.
    Penn lived at Fairmen’s Mansion where the Shackamaxon Treaty Tree stood in all its splendor. The Great Elm was at the site for another 128 years. The memory of the Treaty of Friendship has been passed down in the oral history of Native Americans and was unquestioned by the earlest settlers. George Washington had the image of Penn’s Treaty at Mount Vernon. John Marshall expressed in a letter to Roberts Vaux the special significance of this event.
    However, the significance of the story may be that it has been passed down from generation to generation. First in the heart and mind, later in art, poetry, objects from the fallen Elm and later the first public monument and finally a permanent Park.
    It is a story that represents the best of the Human spirit.

    John Connors Posted November 22, 2013 at 10:51 am

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