Before William Penn arrived, the area that would become Philadelphia  was inhabited by Native Americans, and later by other European settlers. The Lenni-Lenapes, also known as “the Delaware Indians,” were the earliest known residents. Many were pushed west by the advance of Swedish, Dutch, and English settlers in the early 1600s, but others remained. In the 1630s and 1640s, the Swedes and Dutch spent approximately 17 years arguing over claims to land along the Delaware River, but the dispute over ownership was never resolved, and it ultimately fell under British rule.
William Penn negotiated to take ownership of the land west of the Delaware from King Charles II of England, as partial payment for a debt owed to Penn’s deceased father, who was a wealthy, high-ranking naval officer, admiral, and courtier. The 45,000 square miles that would become Pennsylvania were primarily woodlands, stretching from the Allegheny Mountains to the Delaware River. The king was happy to pay off his debt with land that was not of major importance to him, but perhaps even happier to see the rebellious young Quaker and many of his followers leave England.
Quakers were not generally well regarded by proper English society, as their rejection of a hierarchal system clashed with the lavish wealth and strict monarchy of English society and government. Penn was imprisoned several times in England for expressing his religious beliefs and insisting on religious freedom as a moral right. In 1661, he was expelled from Oxford for failing to properly honor the Church of England, and shortly thereafter, he became a Quaker, much to the displeasure of his wealthy, traditional family. He was purportedly beaten by his father, whom he fiercely battled when it came to religion.
Penn wanted to found a society where not only Quakers, but people of all religions, could practice without persecution. This was an unprecedented idea for the colonies of the time, and a stark contrast to the Puritanical zeal of the settlers in Boston and New England, who longed for stricter religious control over settlers in their communities. Penn began to carry out his “holy experiment” in his new city of Philadelphia . His ship, the Welcome, was one of 23 shiploads of immigrants to arrive in the first year of Philadelphia’s founding.
Penn hired his cousin William Markam to help him plan “a large Towne or City in the most Convenient place upon the [Delaware] River for health & Navigation.” He hoped for a “greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome.” Penn envisioned a city that bore a closer resemblance to some of the rural towns of England, which he preferred to the overcrowded cities he knew such as London, which were more susceptible to disease and fire damage because of people living in such close proximity. Exhibiting one of the first examples of thoughtful city planning in the New World, Penn and his helpers laid out a grid with large lots, wide streets, and space for gardens and orchards, including the five central city parks that remain an important part of life in Philadelphia today. His design served as an example for numerous cities to follow.
In the spring of 1682, Penn wrote the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania. He consulted with Algernon Sidney and John Locke; the former complained he was keeping too much power for himself and the latter that he was giving too much to the people. Penn’s Frame survived and was later studied by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and others. Parts of it were used as a model for many state governments to follow, and many of its principles influenced the content of the United States Constitution. Useful features of this early document include the call for religious liberty, an assembly elected by the people to make the laws, trial by jury, and a penal system designed to reform, not just to punish.