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Marking Pennsylvania History

Fame, Respect and Posterity

Could Europeans and Native Americans live in peace, side by side? History assures us that they could not, but once upon a time, that outcome was not a foregone conclusion.

"An example may be sett up to the nations...for an holy experiment," wrote William Penn to one of his land agents on August 16, 1681. Although Penn never again wrote of this idea in these exact words, his respect for the Native Americans was a unique and welcome change from decades of conflict along the Delaware River.

A half-century earlier, the Dutch West India Company had established a whaling settlement near what is now Lewes Delaware. Backers believed that whales wintered in the Delaware Bay. In 1632 they deployed an 18-gun ship, called the Walvis, to establish 32 settlers along the banks of the Delaware Bay. Under the leadership of Gillis Hossitt, the Dutch would harpoon and render the giant mammals.

The fort called Swannendael - Valley of the Swans - included a two-story house of yellow brick imported from Holland, a cookhouse for reducing whale blubber to oil, and a protective palisade. In the center of the small complex, mounted on a post, was a metal panel painted with the Dutch coat of arms.

If the Delaware Bay had any whales at all, the Dutch harpooned none from Swannendael. Within a few months, an Indian unaware of the symbolic importance of the coat of arms, removed it. When the Dutch complained, the head of the offender was presented as a peace offering. The Dutch misinterpreted the gesture and in an all too familiar example of escalating violence, the settlers were all killed and Swannendael was reduced to smoldering ruins.

Penn's institutionalized tolerance and respect was, so long as it lasted, a breath of fresh air for the Delaware Valley. And those values were so integral to the Founder's identity and legacy that when Penn's family and allies opted to lie, cheat, and steal to acquire land they risked not only the peace, but much more.

The Walking Purchase effectively put at end to Penn's "holy experiment."

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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