February 14, 2014

William Penn's Treaty Expressed in Art and Textiles (Part 1)

The English Quaker William Penn first visited the New World in 1682 after receiving a grant of 45,000 acres of land from King Charles II in payment of a debt owed Penn's father.  The grant took place in 1681 and Penn's land would become the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

William Penn (1644-1718).  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Penn's intention upon arriving in the New World was to create a "Holy Experiment" -- a colony based on Quaker principles and dedicated to religious tolerance, participation by members of the population in governance, and brotherly love amongst men.  The result of his vision was a growing population of people with diverse religious beliefs and practices who sought the freedom to worship as they chose while living among the native population whose land they occupied.

While freedom of religion remained key to the colonial experience Penn created, equality among members of the various religions was not.  Government participation in the form of office-holding and voting was restricted to those Christians who believed in "Jesus Christ as the son of God and the Savior of the World".  (Kashatus.)  Jewish settlers were denied the vote and participation in government by Catholics was restricted because of their perceived allegiance to the Pope.

In promoting "brotherly love", Penn was particularly concerned about relations with the Native American population.,  He wanted his government and fellow-colonists to treat the native population with respect and as friends.  At the same time, he insisted that they give their consent to the occupation of their territory.  Penn established conditions that colonists and Quaker officials were to follow when dealing with the Native Americans.  According to Kashatus, these included "sharing the land, trading goods of the same quality sold in the marketplace, and trial by jury."  But, believing that Native Americans lacked the necessary intellect to constructively participate in government, they too were denied the opportunity to vote and hold office.

Penn entered into a number of treaties with local Native Americans in an attempt to ensure the peace and promote good will.  Not all of these transactions treated the Native Americans fairly or honestly, and promises given by the colonists weren't always kept.  However, Penn's persistent attempt to maintain peace and harmony through treaty agreements because a legendary subject for artists.

An allegorical painting by the English artist Benjamin West was commissioned by Penn's son, Thomas, in 1770 or 1771 to commemorate the meetings Penn held with local tribesmen.  This painting depicts a meeting involving Penn, colonial merchants, and members of the Lenni Lanape tribe at Shackamaxon on the Delaware River.

"Penn's Treaty with the Indians" by Benjamin West (1738-1820).  A holding of the 
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Of particular note is the object of trade being examined by the tribesmen.  It is a bolt of white cloth, offered in exchange for occupying the land that gave rise to Philadelphia and its suburbs.  In the recent publication Interwoven Globe, Amy Bogansky speculates that the cloth may represent all trade goods since weapons, alcohol, and tobacco were also traded at the time.  (Peck, 287.)  The cloth certainly presents a more "respectful" and peaceful image than would the portrayal of these other goods.

This fictional depiction of Penn's interactions with the local Native Americans was copied by engravers, repeated as a motif in paintings into the next century, and became the topic of scenic textiles.  The best-known textiles based on West's painting are furnishing fabrics produced in England during the late 1780s.

Copper-plate printed, cotton textile depicting "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" produced in England
c. 1785.  A holding of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.  Photograph courtesy of the
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Delaware.

Another textile of the same date printed in red.  Also a holding of the Winterthur
Museum, Garden and Library. Photograph courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, 
Garden and Library, Winterthur, Delaware.

Whole cloth quilt comprised of panels of the "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" fabric,
1780-1800.  A holding of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library.  Photograph 
courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Delaware.

Another holding of the Winterthur Museum is a piece of fabric depicting the Penn's Treaty theme probably printed in England in the early twentieth century.  It is based on the English fabrics printed earlier in the 1780s.

Photograph courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library,
Winterthur, Delaware.

According to Florence Montgomery, at least three versions of the Penn's Treaty scene are know, all "taken from John Hall's print published by John Boydell in London in 1775."  (Montgomery, 285.)  This print by English engraver John Hall will be discussed in our next post -- one that leads to the description of a quilt attributed to Martha Washington that features a Penn's Treaty textile as its central panel.

Special thanks to Catharine Dann Roeber and Linda Eaton at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library for so generously sharing photographs and information about the Museum's Penn's Treaty textiles.


William C. Kashatus.  "William Penn's Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity" in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Volume XXXVII, Number 2, Spring 2011.

Florence M. Montgomery.  Printed Textiles, English and American Cottons and Linens, 1700-1850.  A Winterthur Book.  New York: The Viking Press, 1970.

Object Reports, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, 2014.

Amelia Peck, ed.  Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2014.


  1. Wonderful post. Visiting the Winterthur Museum in April, (antique quilt road trip with 2 quilting friends)....so excited. Thank you!

  2. I liked all the design and great art..