Quotable Pennsylvania: Early European Immigrants

When the English crown granted the Province of Pennsylvania to William Penn in 1681, it wasn’t long before boats brought new immigrants to its shores. Widely publicized as the “best poor man’s country” and a place for religious freedom, the colony attracted more than its fair share of voluntary and involuntary settlers.

What was a population of less than a thousand in 1682 ballooned to over 20,000 by 1700. By 1776 Pennsylvania was one of the largest colonies in North America and Philadelphia was the largest city on the continent.

We usually think of Pennsylvania as a land of English Quakers, Germans, and Scotch-Irish immigrants, but the truth is there were also thousands from places like Wales, Sweden, the Caribbean, and Africa as well (not to mention the many indigenous people who were forced to migrate away as Europeans encroached on their homes). Immigration helped make Pennsylvania the diverse, cosmopolitan state is still is today.

As you’ll see below, there were common themes among many early immigrants when they wrote about Pennsylvania: the purity and richness of the land, its boundless possibilities for a hardworking immigrant, and its untouched wild state. This wasn’t accurate. Its also important to keep in mind that many of these voices belonged to immigration boosters who had a financial stake in encouraging new settlers to come to Pennsylvania.

You may also be surprised to see Benjamin Franklin appearing on this list as a critic of unchecked immigration to Pennsylvania. In 1751 he wrote a harsh tract calling for a limit on German immigration to ensure the colony would not become a “Colony of Aliens.” Penn and other immigrants didn’t explicitly say who they wanted to move to Pennsylvania, I wonder what they would have made of Franklin’s attitude?

Recommended listening: “John Riley” by Peggy Seeger. This song is an old, old ballad that might have originally been sung in Ireland in the 18th century. Maybe some early immigrants sang it when they arrived in Pennsylvania! Regardless, it has a few stanzas about lovers debating to sail to Pennsylvania and has a place here.

Letter from Penn
Penn’s promotional pamphlets were widely distributed in Europe and helped spur immigration to Pennsylvania. Library of the Society of Friends.

“The country itself in its soil, air, water, seasons, and produce, both natural and artificial, is not to be despised. The land contains divers sorts of earth, as sand, yellow and black, poor and rich; also gravel, both loamy and dusty; and in some places a fast fat earth, like to our best vales in England, especially by inland brooks and rivers. God in His wisdom having ordered it so, that the advantages of the country are divided, the back lands being generally three to one richer than those that lie by navigable waters. We have much of another soil, and that is a black hazel mold upon a stony or rocky bottom.”

“The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the south parts of France, rarely overcast; and as the woods come by numbers of people to be more cleared, that itself will refine.”

-William Penn, 1683
Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London

“What pleases me here is that one can be a peasant, scholar, priest, and nobleman at the same time without interference, which of all modes of living has been found to be the best and most satisfactory since patriarchal times.”

-Johannes Kelpius, 1695
Letter (Translated in an article “The Hermits of Wissahickon, page 439)

“At our arrival we found it a wilderness; the chief inhabitants were Indians and some Swedes, who received us in a friendly manner; and altho’ there was a great number of us, the good hand of Providence was seen in a particular manner, in that Provisions were found for us by the Swedes and Indians at very reasonable rates, as well as provisions brought from divers and other parts that were inhabited before.”

“As people began to spread and improve their lands, the country became more fruitful, that those which came in after us were plentifully supplied, and with what we abounded began a small trade abroad, and as Philadelphia increased vessels were built, and many employed. Both country and trade have been wonderfully increasing to this day; that from a wilderness, the Lord by his good hand of providence, hath made it a fruitful field; on which to look back and observe all the steps, would exceed my present purpose; yet being now in the eighty fourth year of my age, and having been in this country near forty six years, and my memory pretty clear concerning the rise and progress of this province, I can do no less than return praises to the almighty…”

-Richard Townsend, 1727
“Richard Townsend’s Testimony” printed in the Register of Pennsylvania, 1830

Richard Townsend House
This house actually belonged to Townsend’s neighbor, Caleb Pusey, and still stands in Upland (Delaware County). It is the only house still standing William Penn is known to have visited. Free Library of Philadelphia.

“Work and labor in this new and wild land are very hard and manifold, and many a one who came there in his old age must work very hard to his end for his bread…In this hot land they fully experience in their own persons what God has imposed on man for his sin and disobedience….Besides I say that those who suffer themselves to be persuaded and enticed away by the man-thieves, are very foolish if they believe that roasted pigeons will fly into their mouths in America or Pennsylvania without their working for them.”

“Pennsylvania is the heaven of the farmers, the paradise of the mechanics, and the hell of the officials and preachers.”

-Gottlieb Mittelberger, 1750
“Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750,” page 29-31, second quote from page 63

“Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

-Benjamin Franklin, 1751
“Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind”


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