Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Tim Hayburn


Philadelphia, like many cities throughout the Atlantic world, encountered a new threat in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries from pirates who raided the numerous merchant vessels in the region. Several historians have labeled this era as the golden age of piracy. Pirates also remained active after 1730, using the city as a staging ground, especially during conflicts such as the Revolutionary War. While Pennsylvania authorities sought to end piracy throughout the colonial and early national periods, their policy appears ambivalent as they sometimes extended leniency toward pirates rather than confront them with the full force of the law.

[caption id="attachment_17227" align="alignright" width="300"]Pirates attempting to lure a merchant vessel into a trap. Pirates spent their booty freely in port cities such as Philadelphia and contributed to the region’s economic development. In this painting, The Pirates’ Ruse, a pirate crew obscures itself until close enough to attack a merchant ship. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Pirates were outlaws on the sea who attacked all ships, regardless of their nation of origin. They plagued shipping routes, which had at times a devastating effect on trade in Philadelphia. Many pirates first served as privateers, who were employed by nations such as England as alternatives or in addition to a formal navy during times of war.  Privateers received a letter of marque, or commission, to raid enemy ships. When the conflicts came to an end, however, many of the privateers became pirates, continuing to rob ships of their cargoes, which the pirates shared.

Soon after Philadelphia’s founding, the city’s growing population and economic importance attracted pirates who threatened the region’s thriving trade. Piracy offered local sailors the opportunity to earn higher profits and benefits that they would not receive on merchant or naval vessels. Life on board pirate ships tended to be much more democratic than on other ships as pirates could even depose an unpopular captain and discipline was much more lax.

[caption id="attachment_17225" align="alignright" width="300"]A romaticized deptiction of Captain Kidd entertaining guests on his ship. In 1699, the Pennsylvania colony arrested four men believed to serve under the notorious pirate Captain William Kidd. The pirate is depicted in this 1932 painting, Captain Kidd in New York Harbor. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Pirates regularly operated around the Delaware River by the late seventeenth century, which fueled fears about the safety of the local waterways. In 1699, the colony arrested four men believed to serve under the notorious pirate Captain William Kidd (c. 1645-1701). The Pennsylvania Assembly enacted several statutes to prevent pirates from moving freely in society and to keep others from collaborating with them. Some merchants in the Delaware Valley willingly tolerated piracy, however, because of its economic benefits. Pirates spent their booty freely in port cities such as Philadelphia and contributed to the region’s economic development. William Markham (1635-1704), Pennsylvania’s deputy governor, even allegedly received a bribe from the pirate John Avery (1659-c. 1696), who raided ships throughout the Indian Ocean and was subject to an English manhunt. Markham’s relationship with Avery extended beyond simply accepting a bribe as he also allowed one of his daughters to marry the infamous pirate captain.

Piracy continued to be a major concern for many merchants in the early 1700s, despite the unofficial toleration of some officials and the potential benefits of piracy for some segments of the Delaware Valley economy. Lieutenant Governor William Keith (1669-1749) issued a warrant for the arrest of Edward Teach (c. 1680-1718), better known as Blackbeard, for his attacks on merchant ships. Keith feared that Blackbeard maintained contact with former pirates, who now lived in Philadelphia and aided him in his raids against Philadelphia’s merchants. The local newspaper provided periodic reports of pirate activity in the Philadelphia region by the early 1720s. Pirates even managed to prevent ships from leaving Philadelphia for an entire week in 1722. The Pennsylvania Assembly sought to eliminate property crimes such as robbery by making them subject to capital punishment, which could be used in cases against pirates.

A Trial for Piracy

Perhaps because local authorities realized the financial contribution of pirates to the region, Philadelphia witnessed only one trial for piracy in the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1730, English sailors serving on board a Portuguese ship mutinied and became pirates before finally being arrested and condemned to death in Philadelphia.  During an era when pirates could hope for little mercy, four of these condemned pirates surprisingly received a pardon from Pennsylvania authorities after their ringleader escaped. Indeed, many Philadelphians may have supported pirates, as testimony in a 1718 case alleged that Pennsylvania merchants provided pirates with ammunition and supplies. 

[caption id="attachment_17267" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photo of the Sea Dogs singing shanties at the annual pirate weekend at Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia. Good-humored pirate reenactors sing sea shanties during the annual pirate day at Fort Mifflin. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

After 1730, piracy ceased to be a major problem for Philadelphia although privateers occasionally disrupted the city’s shipping. Both colonial officials and the British government sought to reduce the threat of piracy. The Revolutionary War, however, allowed for a resurgence of pirates by the 1780s. When the Continental Congress employed privateers to supplement its meager naval forces, several crews turned to piracy. Local newspapers complained about these “villains” who disrupted the Revolutionary War effort, but Pennsylvania’s courts condemned only four men for piracy in the 1780s. One condemned pirate was even sentenced to have his body gibbeted to deter other potential pirates. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s government again surprisingly opted for leniency in his case as well as most of the other condemned pirates and executed only one convicted pirate during this time.

By the 1790s, the Pennsylvania legislature removed piracy from the list of capital crimes. Cases of piracy declined into the nineteenth century. The state did witness several cases of piracy in the early nineteenth century, but applied the death penalty only in cases in which the pirates committed murder as well. Indeed, in 1837, convicted pirate James Moran was the last individual publicly executed in Pennsylvania for any crime. Although Philadelphia merchants could occasionally fall victim to pirates in other corners of the globe such as the Mediterranean Sea, piracy ceased to be a major concern in the Delaware Valley, thus ending Pennsylvania’s ambivalent policy towards piracy as well. 

Tim Hayburn received his doctorate in Colonial American History from Lehigh University.  

Walking Purchase

[caption id="attachment_13736" align="alignright" width="239"]A color image of a map, that shows a small triangular piece of land, with boundaries, mountains, and small animals drawn on the page. Soon after the Walking Purchase was complete, John Chapman surveyed the area and created this map. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

With the Walking Purchase of 1737, Pennsylvania officials defrauded the Delaware Indians out of a vast amount of land, perhaps over one million acres, in the Delaware and Lehigh Valleys. John Penn (1700-46) and Thomas Penn (1702-75), the sons of William Penn (1644-1718), with James Logan (1674-1751), the provincial secretary of Pennsylvania, devised the land grab by using an unsigned draft of a 1686 deed, obtaining support from the Iroquois and using trickery to take much more land than specified in the draft deed.  The Walking Purchase represented a shift from earlier land transactions between William Penn’s government and the Delawares (also known as the Lenapes and Munsees) and paved the way for tensions that contributed to the Seven Years’ War.

After receiving a charter for Pennsylvania in 1681, William Penn sought to purchase the land in southeastern Pennsylvania from the Delawares, obtaining much of the territory before leaving the colony in 1684. His agents negotiated the purchase of land in central Bucks County in 1686, but the deed was unsigned because Penn failed to send enough trade goods to complete the sale. Penn had left the colony in part to address his financial problems and the purchase was never fully consummated.

By the 1730s, the increasing population of Pennsylvania coupled with the growing debt of Penn’s heirs led the Penns and Logan to defraud the Delawares. Speculators, including Logan, had already purchased tracts of land in northern Bucks County and the Lehigh Valley, but needed an agreement with the Delawares before allowing settlement.  Logan produced the unsigned copy of the 1686 deed, claiming that the Delawares had agreed to sell territory that a man could walk in a day and a half north from the boundary at Wrightstown. While the Delawares believed the new boundary would be Tohickon Creek in central Bucks County, Logan and the Penns aimed to obtain territory well beyond the Lehigh River. Historian Stephen Harper pointed out that the alleged deed lacked any signatures or evidence of payment, which weakened the proprietors’ claims to the land.  Nevertheless, Logan met with Delaware sachems at Pennsbury and continued to press the proprietors’ claims. 

Misleading Map

Logan worked for a rapid resolution to this situation at a series of meetings with Delaware sachems.  Logan and Thomas Penn met with Nutimus, Manawkyhickon, Lapowinzo, and Tishcohan at Stenton, Logan’s county seat outside of Philadelphia, in August 1737.  Manawkyhickon expressed a willingness to agree to the transaction if the sachems could learn how much land had been ceded to the proprietor in the draft deed. Andrew Hamilton, an agent for the provincial government, produced a map, which misled the sachems into thinking that the purchase involved only territory south of Tohickon Creek.  The sachems finally agreed to the transaction after being assured that the Delawares would not be removed from their settlements.

[caption id="attachment_13737" align="alignright" width="179"]A color map of the eastern side of Pennsylvania, with parts of Western New Jersey. The map is shaded to show the size of the Walking Purchase. Some areas are labeled. The shaded area in this modern map of eastern Pennsylvania shows the total area claimed through the Walking Purchase. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Unbeknownst to the Delawares, colonial agents had already performed a reconnaissance of the territory and cleared a path for the walkers.  On September 19, 1737, three colonial walkers set off at a rapid pace; after one and one-half days one man covered over 60 miles.  Surveyors acquired even more territory by angling the boundary to the confluence of the Delaware and Lackawaxen Rivers. 

When the Delaware Indians protested the amount of land they lost in the Walking Purchase and refused to leave the region north of Tohickon Creek, the Pennsylvania government appealed to the Iroquois to help justify the transaction. Canassatego, an Iroquois spokesman, rebuked the Delawares for not complying with the purchase at a conference in Philadelphia in 1742.  Over subsequent years, most Delawares in eastern Pennsylvania moved west to the Ohio River Valley and developed trade relations with the French.  With the onset of hostilities in the Seven Years’ War, many Delawares sided with the French after General Edward Braddock (1695-1755) rejected their attempt to forge an alliance with the British.  Consequently, the Walking Purchase reflected a shift from William Penn’s early diplomacy with the Delawares, alienating them from the British colonists by the mid-eighteenth century.

Tim Hayburn received his doctorate in colonial American history from Lehigh University.  

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