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.”

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)

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.

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)

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


William Penn

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

English Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1681, when King Charles II granted him a charter for over 45,000 square miles of land. Penn had previously helped found Quaker settlements in West New Jersey and was eager to expand his Quaker colony. In order to generate interest in his new land holdings, Penn wrote a promotional tract, Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, outlining how these tracts of land could be purchased and promising to clear Indian titles to them. In July of that year, he issued his “Conditions and Concessions,” solidifying the rules of purchase. Among these were that all tracts must be settled within three years of purchase or else they could be offered to another buyer, and that a quitrent of four shillings was to be paid to Penn for each servant held on a purchase. Penn, in turn, agreed to reserve 10 acres of every 500 sold to create a “greene country towne.”

Within a year, over 560,000 acres of Pennsylvania had been sold. About a dozen of the first purchases were sold to land speculation firms. The Free Society of Traders purchased 20,000 acres and the Frankfort Land Company, 25,000. Most tracts were much smaller, with 500 acres being the most popular size purchased. Nearly all of the first purchasers were Quakers, though a few parcels of land were sold to sympathetic Dutch and Welsh settlers. By 1685, some 600 individual tracts were sold making up 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania's land.

Thomas Holme's "Mapp of the Improved Part of Pennsylvania in America," 1687

Library Company of Philadelphia

William Penn arrived in Pennsylvania accompanied by surveyor Thomas Holme. Holme drafted this map of Pennsylvania in 1687 delineating the land bought by the first purchasers. Though Penn's original plans were to sell off large tracts, most of the purchases were for 500 acres and plots as small as 125 acres could be purchased. Almost all of these land purchases were made by Quakers. Penn's “Conditions and Concessions” for these purchases stipulated that the tracts had to be settled within three years of purchase, which led to rapid settlement of the Philadelphia area.

Francis Daniel Pastorius

Library of Congress

One of the largest First Purchasers was the Frankfort Land Company, which bought 15,000 acres. The Frankfort Land Company was a conglomeration of German Mennonites and Quakers whose intent was to form a settlement in America. To this end, they hired Francis Daniel Pastorius, a lawyer from Windsheim, Germany, to oversee the purchase and manage the new settlement on their behalf. Pastorius reached the new settlement in June 1683 and christened it Germantown. He remained active in the Germantown community, serving as a teacher for the Friends School of Philadelphia and later the Germantown Friends School. He held numerous public offices in Germantown including bailiff and rent collector. In 1688, Pastorius began the anti-slavery movement in Germantown by writing the first protest against the practice and cosigning the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery.

Farmar Mill

Library of Congress

One of the first purchasers was Jaspar Farmar, an Irish officer for the British Army who died before he could visit Pennsylvania. His son, William, built this water-powered gristmill on the 5,000-acre plot in modern-day Whitemarsh, Montgomery County, around 1690. It was powered by water from the Wissahickon Creek and used to produce lime for the construction of the area's brick and mortar buildings. The mill and surrounding land were sold in the 1740s to Samuel Morris, justice of the peace for Whitemarsh, who built his Whitemarsh Estate, now known as the Hope Lodge, beginning in 1743. On Morris's death in 1770, the tract was purchased by Isaac Mathar, whose son demolished the original mill and replaced it with a modern one in 1820. This second mill and the Hope Lodge remain standing and serve as a museum.

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Related Reading

Dunn, Mary Maples and Richard S. Dunn et al., eds. The Papers of William Penn. 5 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981-1987.

Dunn, Richard S. “Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: Penn as a Businessman.” In The World of William Penn, edited by Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, 37-54. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Pomfret, John E. “The First Purchasers of Pennsylvania, 1681-1700.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 8 (1956): 137-163.

Soderlund, Jean R. et al., eds. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, 1680-1684: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

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