William Penn Indenture

Items that are truly ephemeral in nature exist for a period of time, customarily as long as it takes for them to do their job, and then are discarded or disappear. A few, however, manage to survive the years. A seventeenth century indenture from England that has recently surfaced is a splendid example.

William Penn’s name is synonymous with Pennsylvania and has been since 1681 when King Charles II of England granted him the province that bears his name. Charles owed the estate of Penn’s father, an admiral in the Royal Navy, £15,000 and to settle the debt, Penn petitioned the king for land in America where he hoped to establish a colony that would emphasize religious freedom and toleration. Charles, never a wealthy man in monetary terms it is said, quickly acceded, figuring that a land grant was an easy and expeditious way for him to satisfy his obligation. As well, he hoped that Penn would promote trade between America and Britain to the benefit of the English and introduce Christianity to the native population. History tells us that Penn first wanted to call the colony New Wales and then, because of objections within the Royal circle, Sylvania; however, Charles insisted on honoring Penn’s father by naming it Pennsylvania.

After considering what he had been given, Penn realized that if his colony were to survive and prosper, he would need direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently, he asked for peninsular land southeast of Pennsylvania, amounting to what is now the state of Delaware. The king’s brother, James, Duke of York and Albany and Earl of Ulster and Britain’s future King (1685-1688), owned this expanse of real estate due to his military victories over the Dutch, who had earlier populated the area. Because James was also beholden to Penn’s father for helping him during wartime, he accommodated Penn’s request.

Eager to see his new land Penn set sail for America on August 31, 1682 and arrived about eight weeks later, on October 27. Just before he left, James turned over Delaware--familiarly called the lower counties of Pennsylvania in colonial times--to Penn, using four separate documents: a Royal Patent, a deed of feoffment, and two indentures of lease. All were executed on August 24, 1682. They are now at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover.

However, for some inexplicable reason, a fifth document relating to the transfer of Delaware has survived the years, an indenture that James signed on August 21, 1682, giving Penn “the town of New Castle otherwise called Delaware and All that tract of Land lying within the compass or Circle of twelve miles about the same situate lying and being upon the River Delaware in America and all Islands in the said River Delaware.... In other words, through this indenture James intended to give Penn northern Delaware.

Written on parchment, the indenture is about 550 words long and is a document typical of its time and kind. It is headed with a calligraphic flourish so that no one could question its importance. The heraldic device in the upper left corner identifies it as a Royal document with a crown over a shield bearing the words: HONI SOIT QUI MALY PENSE (shame on him who thinks evil). The person who wrote it used a careful hand, though modern readers may have some difficulty deciphering some of his letters, words, and sentences. In addition, spelling and capitalization are inventive compared to today’s standards. At the bottom is a signature, just one name, James, and what appears to be the remnant of a cord that once held the official red-colored wax seal that has been lost to time.

The indenture begins with a date--”the one and twentieth day of August In the four and thirtieth year of the Raigne of Our Soveraigne Lord Charles the Second”--and continues by identifying James and William Penn as the dramatis personae. Penn’s father is then singled out for special regard and memory. Next, the territory of the land grant is identified and the terms of the transfer are explained, including the payment “yearly & every year to his said Royall Highness his heirs and Assigns the Rent or Sume of five shillings of Lawfull money of England at the feast of St. Michael th’ archangel.” Apart from some legal terminology that follows, the substance of the indenture ends here. It was entered in the Office of Records for the province of New York on November 21, 1682--New York because the Crown administered Delaware from there.

Curiously enough, the indenture had a second life a century later. On the back someone wrote: “Inrolled in the Rolls Office of the State of Pennsylvania In Patent Book No. 1 page 480 Witness my Hand & Seal of Office the 7th Day of February 1783 John Morris.” This patent book, used to record clear title and rights to property owners in Pennsylvania, still exists and is in the state archives of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. Perhaps someone was acting on behalf of Penn’s descendants, attempting to claim land ownership on the eve of American independence? During the Revolutionary War, though, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Divestiture Act, which relieved the Penn family, loyalists to the Crown, of all lands not already surveyed and deeded to them.

What was this document, then? How did it get to America? Why does it exist? We may never know the answers to these questions. Conjecture suggests, though, that it was a rough draft or an early version of one of the agreements between James and Penn that was promulgated on August 24, a week before Penn left England for America. James signed it, there are remnants of a seal, and presumably it was ready to be entered into the official record, but it was not. There are several differences between this indenture and the one signed on August 24 that may help explain why. Perhaps James and Penn rethought the agreement and, independently of one another, decided to add luster to it for their own purposes? The later version says that Penn would have the land “forever,” while the earlier one makes no mention of any period of time. The later version gives the English monarch “free use of all ports wais and passages into through and out of the bargained prmises,” but this is not mentioned in the earlier version. Finally, in the August 24 indenture, His Royal Highness appointed lawyers John Moll and Ephraim Marman to represent his interests in Delaware; there were no attorneys named in the August 21 document. There is no way of knowing when or how the indenture got to America. The series of four documents now housed at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover remained in England with succeeding generations of members of the Penn family at their countryseat, Stoke Pogis, until 1811. In that year, John Penn, William’s great-grandson, gave them and perhaps other documents to Philadelphian John R. Coates, an agent of the Penn family who represented their estate interests in America. Coates brought them to the United States and they passed through his descendants until 1909, when they were donated to the state of Delaware. But, the August 21 indenture was in America in 1783. How did it get out of England? Was it here all the while? Was it used in Harrisburg in 1783 and then returned to the Penns in England, finding its way to America with Coates?

This indenture is a true piece of ephemera. It should not have survived, though it has. An unnamed scribe created it for a specific purpose on August 21, 1682, but that purpose was soon invalidated by further deliberations between the Royal Family and William Penn. Did the scribe use it as the basis for what he wrote on August 24? Did he simply neglect to discard it, or was there another reason why it was never thrown away? Why did the state of Pennsylvania consider it a legal document in 1783 when the actual indenture was at Stoke Pogis? Though definite conclusions are impossible to make, we are nonetheless very grateful that it has survived the years. It is now in the library collection of Ephemera Society institutional member Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, near Wilmington, Delaware.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

Substantial portions of this article originally appeared in the fall 2001 issue of Winterthur Magazine.

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America