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"William Penn's Treaty with the Indians . . ., " engraved by John Hall after a painting by Benjamin West, London, England, 1775. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
"William Penn's Treaty with the Indians . . ., " engraved by John Hall after a painting by Benjamin West, London, England, 1775. From the collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


This hand-colored 1775 engraving by John Hall was based on Benjamin West's famous painting of William Penn's reported 1682 treaty with the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, as English colonists called them. West's original painting hangs in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Tradition holds that the treaty was signed under an elm tree at Shackamaxon, a Delaware Indian town once located near present-day Kensington, Pennsylvania. For the local Unami ("people down river") tribe, Shackamaxon appears to have been a major settlement and ceremonial area.

In 1771, Benjamin West was commissioned by Penn's son, Thomas, to capture the moment of the treaty on canvas. No treaty exchange has been authenticated by historians, but several wampum belts descending in the Penn family have been linked by family tradition to the event. However, Penn's purchases of Native land are well documented.

This engraving is one of many representations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture of "Penn's Treaty" and the so-called "Treaty Elm." It shows Penn, as the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, standing on the shore of the Delaware River. He is surrounded by three cultures: Lenape, recently-arrived Quakers, and Swedes who had already settled in the vicinity and may have served as translators. As others look on, Penn gestures toward trade goods being offered in peace. Lenape leaders and their people are gathered at the border of woods and meadows.

The engraving tells a story that has been often interpreted as one of peace and welcome. One Native man in the foreground holds a lowered peace pipe. A bow and quiver of arrows lay on the ground nearby. Behind him, a woman nurses her child; one Native boy holds a bow, while in the background another boy practices with his bow. The Lenape seem focused on the moment and the exchange, as are Penn and his men. However, there is another unspoken story: the ships in the harbor and the European buildings under construction behind the gathering. As European settlement rapidly advanced in Pennsylvania and the other American colonies, the Lenape and all Eastern Woodland Indian peoples experienced conflicts far removed from this iconic image. Historians estimate that there were approximately 20,000 Lenape in 1600. Intertribal wars and epidemics resulting from European contact may have diminished their numbers to about 4,000 by the time Penn arrived. Today, an estimated 20,000 Lenape live in the United States, mainly in Oklahoma.

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