“Pennsylvania” actually means “Penn’s Woods,” referring to the holder of the founding colonial charter, William Penn. He received the charter in 1681 from England’s King Charles II as a gift in thanks for the service that Penn’s father, Sir William Penn, had rendered England as an admiral in the Royal Navy. As a Quaker, Penn was committed to founding a colony where religious freedom would be a crucial tenet.

Initial Founding

The first ships headed from England to “Penn’s Woods” left in 1681, with three vessels full of settlers. Penn did not come at this time, but he did send a letter to the Native Americans living on that land indicating his desire to live peacefully with them. He established a republican government in 1682, and he arrived in November of that year, exchanging presents with the native tribes in a ceremony. As a result of Penn’s diplomacy, no wars were fought with the Native Americans while Quakers governed the colony.


Initially, Penn wanted an assembly that consisted of 72 delegates. However, when he convened assemblies, only a handful showed up, so he reduced that number to nine, with a presiding council of three. In 1683, he bumped that number to 18 and, interestingly, named three “peace-makers” to hear “small differences between man and man,” so that the colonists would not file lawsuits against one another.

Ethnic Groups in the Colony

Even before the English granted William Penn his first charter, the Delaware River had hosted New Sweden, a settlement of Swedes that had arrived in the 1630s. Because of Penn’s diplomacy, the English and Swedes were able to live in peace. Welsh Quakers also settled in Pennsylvania, as did Quaker converts from Germany and Holland. Germans, Scotch-Irish and French Huguenots also found their way to this tolerant haven in the New World.

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Innovations in Communication and Education

The first newspaper in the colonies was founded in Philadelphia in 1719 on the press that William Bradford had brought from England. The first mail routes connected Philadelphia with Boston and Virginia, with the first post office actually opening in 1683. The Friends’ Public Grammar School, founded in 1689, is still open today, renamed the William Penn Charter School.