Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Matthew A. Zimmerman

Trails (Indian)

[caption id="attachment_20106" align="aligncenter" width="533"]map showing Indian trails in the Colonial period. By the time Europeans reached North America, the Lenape and other Indians had a complex system of overland paths that crisscrossed the region. Eventually the newcomers used the trails, too, and gave them names that reflected the native trailblazers. (Map by Michael Siegel, Department of Geography, Rutgers University.) Click here to expand and enlarge the map.[/caption]

In the Philadelphia region prior to European settlement and during the colonial period, the Lenapes and other Indians used their knowledge of the landscape to engineer the most efficient routes through forests, mountains, and often shallow, treacherous waterways. Their complex system of overland paths crisscrossed the region to reach east to the shell fisheries on the Atlantic coast and west into the Wyoming Valley. While Euro-Americans later developed some of these trails into wagon and automobile routes centered on Philadelphia, the Indians’ trails promoted trade and communication with people in many directions within and outside the region.

The Indians who engineered trails took full advantage of the mid-Atlantic landscape to overcome difficult travel conditions. By locating trails above flood levels and along mountain ridges, Lenapes and other natives ensured the routes remained accessible and dry. To avoid excessive ascents through higher elevations, travelers followed trails through mountain gaps or along ridges, such as the stretch of the Great Warriors Path through Greene County, Pennsylvania.

Indian travelers often trekked single-file along relatively narrow paths. Lenape leaders, with a political system based upon autonomous communities, could not command the labor needed to undertake monumental road construction and public works projects like those of the Incas of Peru. The Tulpehocken Path, from Shamokin to Philadelphia, extended only about eighteen inches across in places. Other trails permitted two travelers to walk side-by-side. The European introduction of horses gradually led to widening of many routes.

Along the network of paths, travelers frequently encountered other people, stopped to converse, and shared news of recent events or the fruits of a recent hunt. In wartime, trails could be crowded with warriors, both Indian and European, intent on violence. In peacetime, however, hunters, traders, messengers, diplomats, and those visiting relatives and friends used the paths. Hospitality and fellowship governed life on the trail during such times. Food could be easily found at the many Indian villages and cabins located along the trails or by hunting the abundant game of the forests. Traveling primarily in the spring or fall, voyagers avoided the icy cold of winter and the heat and harassing insects of summer. As darkness approached, those trekking along well-worn trails could typically find overnight accommodations with fellow travelers in shelters built by those who had spent previous nights in the area.

In an extensive study, historian Paul A.W. Wallace (1891-1967) identified 131 distinct Indian trails in Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Path, a primary trail leading out of the Delaware Valley, ran from the future location of Allegheny Avenue in Philadelphia, through Paoli to Harrisburg, across the Susquehanna and into Carlisle, where it forked into the Raystown and Frankstown paths. The Perkiomen Path ran from Philadelphia to Norristown, crossed Perkiomen Creek, and extended into Reading, where it joined the Allegheny Path.

[caption id="attachment_20201" align="alignright" width="179"]a black and white engraving of General John Sullivan in military uniform holding a spear Major General John Sullivan took advantage of Native American trails during the American Revolution, when he led his troops from Easton, Pennsylvania, to New York along the Great Warriors Path. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Ironically, the best evidence for Lenape accomplishment in trail-making comes from extensive use of the system by Europeans. Individuals and armies ranging from Moravian John Heckewelder (1743-1823) to diplomat Conrad Weiser (1696-1760) and General John Sullivan (1740-95) used established Indian trails. Perhaps most famously, in 1779 Sullivan marched from Easton along the Great Warriors Path to exact revenge on the Iroquois in New York for their attacks the previous year. Less famously, but likely more importantly, Indian and European traders journeyed along the Great Minquas Path, from the Susquehanna River to the Forks of the Brandywine then to the Philadelphia area, to exchange animal pelts at posts along the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. This exchange, and thereby this trail, proved vital in giving early Pennsylvania access to the fur trade.

The Lenapes and other Indians plotted courses that accommodated both the landscape and their needs. These trails were not simply carved by hunters following game, but were thoughtfully arrayed routes designed to facilitate travel. Engineered to accommodate people traveling on foot, the trails provided the most efficient routes across difficult terrain. Over time, many evolved into roads and highways, where historical markers recalled the precedents of the Indian trails.

Matthew A. Zimmerman earned his Ph.D. in History at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia.

First Purchasers of Pennsylvania

Upon receiving his grant for Pennsylvania in March 1681, William Penn (1644-1718) immediately set about attracting investors and settlers. To pay expenses and realize a profit from his enterprise, Penn had to sell land. The “First Purchasers” who responded to his promotional tracts provided essential economic support for Penn’s “Holy Experiment.”

[caption id="attachment_19710" align="alignright" width="253"]A black and white painted portrait of William Penn wearing armor William Penn received a generous land charter from King Charles II of England to create a Quaker settlement in North America. By 1685, he had sold 600 individual tracts making up 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania's land. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Penn sought to attract individuals who would settle the colony, or send servants or tenants to do so, and who had the capital or expertise to establish commercial and agricultural foundations for the province. Penn’s first promotional tract, Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania, set out the terms for obtaining land and promised to clear all Indian titles. In July 1681, he refined these terms in the document titled “Conditions or Concessions,” issued during a meeting with several First Purchasers. In this agreement, Penn promised to reserve ten acres of land in Philadelphia for each 500 acres purchased, planning a “greene country towne” that would extend for miles along the Delaware River. In order to promote the settlement of the colony and hinder speculation, Penn stipulated that purchasers seeking 1,000 acres or more would have to settle a family on each 1,000 acre lot within three years. He also encouraged purchasers to bring servants by offering a bonus of fifty acres, with an annual quitrent (rent due to Penn) of four shillings, for each servant settled in the colony. Upon completion of the term of service, each servant would receive fifty acres at an annual quitrent of two shillings.

This agreement proved quite effective. Three key groups of investors immediately involved themselves in the project. In 1681, a group of Welsh Quakers purchased a 30,000-acre tract in the hopes of ensuring their religious freedom and preserving their language, customs, and laws. Settling in the area of Merion, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford, these settlers began arriving in advance of the proprietor. Penn granted the Free Society of Traders 20,000 acres and three seats on the Provincial Council in exchange for its investment in developing the province’s economy. Composed of Quakers and other wealthy merchants, landowners, and Penn’s personal contacts, this group fell into bankruptcy within a couple of years. In 1683, the Frankfort Land Company, a group of German investors represented by Daniel Francis Pastorius (1651-c. 1720), received 15,000 acres. Since the members of this group did not emigrate, thirteen Quaker families acquired its acreage and settled under the guidance of Pastorius.

[caption id="attachment_19712" align="alignright" width="575"]A map of Pennsylvania in 1687 showing land purchases and town and county borders Thomas Holme's 1687 map of Pennsylvania shows the tracts of land acquired by the First Purchasers. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Three Hundred Purchasers

Within four months of issuing the “Conditions or Concessions,” Penn sold more than 300,000 acres to about 300 purchasers, and sales continued assiduously. By 1685, Penn had sold over 700,000 acres to roughly 600 purchasers, which earned him about £9,000. After that, sales slowed somewhat, and, by 1700, he had sold approximately 800,000 acres. Although Penn did not earn as much as he expected from these First Purchasers, they provided the project with a solid foundation. Thomas Holme (1624-95), Penn’s surveyor general, in his Map of the Improved Part of the Province of Pennsilvania in America (1687), delineated lands taken up by First Purchasers during the first years after settlement in the region that became Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and southern Bucks Counties.

While Penn’s fellow Englishmen comprised most of the First Purchasers, his advertising efforts in continental Europe also attracted individual investors from Germany, Holland, and France. Within England, most of the First Purchasers resided in the areas around London and Bristol, where the Society of Friends had met with considerable missionary success and Penn was well known. Quakers of various economic backgrounds took advantage of the opportunity that he created to worship free of the persecution persistent in England. While those purchasing larger tracts hailed from the Quaker mercantile elite, Penn’s offerings to sell plots as small as 125 acres attracted people of more humble circumstances.

The majority of the First Purchasers came from the urban middling ranks of English society, primarily artisans and shopkeepers. These individuals, with entrepreneurial ambitions, played a vital role in developing Philadelphia as a major commercial center. That at least one-half of the First Purchasers eventually settled in Pennsylvania also contributed significantly to the speedy establishment and development of the colony. Although Penn would face multiple financial challenges, from nonpayment by some purchasers and refusal of settlers to pay quitrents, to inflated demands by his business agent Philip Ford (c. 1631-1702) for payment of debts, the First Purchasers supplied the impetus needed to get the “Holy Experiment” started.


Matthew A. Zimmerman earned his Ph.D. in History at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia.

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