The First 300

The Earliest Settlers

Far and away the best pioneers and precursors of Penn’s Holy Experiment were the Swedes and their then-compatriots the Finns, who, as Penn observed, were settlers, not mere traders. The Dutch laid claim to the Delaware Bay region via Henry Hudson’s explorations in 1609, but their desultory stabs into the wilderness to trade with the Indians for furs left little of permanence. Their early town Swanendael at the site of Lewes, Delaware, lasted about one year, was burned and the residents killed by Indians.

woodcut illustrates people in caves hollowed out of a riverbank
Until free-standing cabins could be built, newly arrived settlers dug into the river banks and cut saplings to reinforce walls and improvised roofs with branches, thus creating decent shelters that lasted for years.

Peter Minuit lost his job running New Amsterdam up on the “North River” (the Hudson…”South River” was the Delaware) and was ordered home by the Dutch West India Company, whereupon the Swedish government hired him to lead an expedition to Delaware Bay. This venture resulted in founding, in 1638, New Sweden based at Fort Christina near present day Wilmington.

The farmers of New Sweden, some fleeing the uproar of the Thirty Years War, and unlike the volatile Dutch of New Netherland (where shouting matches were the norm), built their log cabins, were friendly toward Indians and prepared a solid foundation for the sort of society William Penn had in mind.

Swedish governor John Printz negotiated with local natives to claim all the western shore of the Delaware from Cape Henlopen to the Falls of Sanhickan (Trenton), and Scandinavians spread north into small farms and settlements at Upland (Chester), Wicaco (now part of Philadelphia) and Kingsessing (“a place where there is a meadow”) between Cobbs Creek and the Schuylkill.

But all this bucolic peace was terminated by two major events: Peter Stuyvesant (whose name translated means “stir up sand”) stormed down from Man-a-hatta to chase out the interlopers of New Sweden in 1655, thus igniting skirmishes between Dutch and Swedes for the next nine years.

Then, in 1664, a second military adventure had an impact that ended all arguments once and for all: the British navy arrived. John and Sebastian Cabots’ exploration of 1497 planted in the British mind the notion that North America belonged to them and, by St. George, they intended to keep it, though lenience had prevailed almost 200 years.

Far from flinging out the foreign residents, the British encouraged existing settlers to stay, indeed gave them extra land in some cases.

Of the 2000 Europeans living in the area (fifty families within the modern limits of Philadelphia), almost half were Swedish/Finnish folk.

So it was that, to begin the Holy Experiment and build a city on the Delaware River, Penn’s commissioners had to purchase about a mile of waterfront, high firm ground (between today’s South and Vine Streets) from owners Sven, Olaf and Andrew, sons of Sven Gunnasson.