Philadelphia - Our First Capital

Philadelphia coat of arms

Philadelphia is rich with history, but even today, most do not know that Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies for a long time.  Many do not know it also acted as the capital of our struggling country during the American Revolution.  How did the city of Philadelphia, certainly not the first settlement in the fledgling country, become “the place to be” during the 1700s?  Williamsburg was a bustling metropolis.  New York City was ideally located.  What made Philadelphia the place for the delegates to gather all those years ago?  In order to understand that, we must go back and look at its history.

William Penn
In 1646, the first church was built on Tinicum Island by the Swedish.  This group came to the area first, although that did not stop King Charles II from giving a land grant to William Penn in 1681. Before the Swedes and the Dutch arrived, the area was inhabited by the Lenape Indians.  The land we know of as Philadelphia and Pennsylvania was actually part of New Netherland when it was settled by the Dutch.  The English did try to establish a settlement in the area in 1642 near the Schuylkill River but the Swedes and Dutch burned their homes, so the settlers evacuated the area.
The Old Courthouse

As stated above, King Charles II of England gave the land grant to William Penn.  Only 50 Europeans were still surviving in the area by 1682.  The land called Pennsylvania by King Charles, was as repayment for William’s father’s loyalty to the Crown during the English Civil War when the Roundheads took over, kicking out King Charles’ father.  William Penn did not want the land named after him, but the king insisted.  When Penn arrived in the New World, he went about purchasing the land from the Lenape.  He was a Quaker and believed in peace.  He felt if he purchased the land from the native tribe, they would not attack the settlers for taking away the land.  This was a historic decision.  No other Englishman purchased the land from the native tribes, just taking what the kings had given them or taking what they wanted and calling it their own.
King Charles II

When William Penn planned the city of Philadelphia, he used a grid pattern because he wanted a uniformity that reminded him of London. He liked having the streets running north and south and east and west. The city itself got the name from “philos” for love/friendship and “adelphos” for brother.  The streets were first named for prominent landowners, but later were named for trees.   The city originally ran from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River (east and west) and from South Street to Vine Street (north and south).  As more and more people settled around the city, it incorporated those areas into the city as well.  William Penn wanted the city wide and with orchards. Obviously if you walk the streets today, there certainly does not appear to be room for orchards.
Congress Hall and New Theater
First Bank
Library and Surgeon's Hall
Corner of Market
Second Street North

State's House

(Pictures from a display at Independence Center in Philadelphia.  I took them while traveling to that great city in 2011.)

By 1701, the city had grown to over 2500 people.  That was quite an explosion in only 20 years!  It wasn’t just English – it was Welsh, Irish, German, Swedes, Finns, Dutch, and African slaves who made up the population.  William Penn’s idea of religious freedom and a home for all.  Of course, at the time, slaves were arriving by ships from Africa, and while later Pennsylvania would abolish slavery, at this time, slavery was allowed.  James Logan became the first mayor in 1701.
Independence Hall

William Penn established a charter to make Philadelphia a city with aldermen, councilmen, and a mayor.  He felt it was important that everyone was represented by the government.  Philadelphia was ideally situated along the Delaware River, making it a perfect port for exporting and importing goods.  This also made it important for settlers.  They could arrive by ship here and then migrate to other areas in the colonies.  The main trade in Philadelphia was with the West Indies.  Sugar cane arrived as part of the Triangular Trading route.  As the surrounding areas of Philadelphia became agricultural, the people began to export grains, lumber, and flax seed.  While many first moved to Philadelphia seeking religious freedom, others arrived in search of opportunity.  After all, as a growing city – think of all the jobs which would need filling or even creating – bakers, cobblers, coopers, blacksmiths, etc.
William White

By 1750, Philadelphia was a major city.  Christ Church was the main place of worship although there were many other churches.  Men of all faiths often gathered at Christ Church to worship (remember the freedom of religion? Well, no one ever said – no you cannot worship here because it’s not your faith.)  The Pennsylvania State House was built here (we know it as Independence Hall).  Soon the streets were paved.  Schools were built as children were born and the families grew.  Even libraries, thanks to Benjamin Franklin, were established in the city.
Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 seeking his own fortune.  While he worked for his brother in Boston, he could not publish his writings.  He traveled to Philadelphia and soon had his own printing press and newspaper.  He was responsible for Philadelphia’s first firehouse, first library, first hospital, and many more places!!!  He was quite the forward thinking man!
In 1752 the first hospital opened.  The College of Philadelphia, which later became the University of Pennsylvania was established here.  Even a militia was formed to protect the city as tensions began to rise against the British.  The First AND Second Continental Congresses were both held in Philadelphia.  And of course, we all know that the Declaration of Independence was signed here in 1776.

A few other important Philadelphia men include:
Robert Morris – he began his life in Maryland in 1734.  He was a shipping partner with Thomas Willig.  He helped smuggle supplies to the city during the Revolutionary War.  He owned the President’s House and let George Washington live there.  It was the grandest house in the city after all and was perfect for our first president.

John Bartram – was born in 1699.  He was a botanist.  In 1765 he became the King’s botanist but later was known to discover many plants.  A high school in the city is named after him.  He founded the American Philosophical Society.
Benjamin Franklin – he may not have been born in Philadelphia but he spent most of his life there. Besides discovering the presence of electricity in lightning, he created bifocals, the Franklin stove, and the armonica. He helped write the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson and three other notable men.
Betsy Ross – she sewed our first flag – the famous flag with thirteen stripes and thirteen stars on a blue field.
Peggy Shippen – she married Benedict Arnold and many believe she convinced Arnold to become a traitor while he was residing in Philadelphia.  Of course, no one knows for certain, but she was a prominent lady during the occupancy of Philadelphia by the British.
Gilbert Stuart – most of you don’t know this – but he is person who painted the picture you see every day of George Washington – his face on the dollar bill.
Bishop White – William White was the head of the Anglican Church in Philadelphia.  He took over when Jacob Duche was recalled to Britain. He became the rector at Christ and St. Peter’s Churches.  His brother –in-law was Robert Morris.  He was the Chaplain of the Continental Congress and then the US Senate.
Samuel Powel was the first colonial mayor of Philadelphia.  He came from a wealthy family and entertained George and Martha Washington.  During the Revolution he was one of the few wealthy families who sided with the colonials.
John Dickinson - was born in 1732.  He was a lawyer and fought during the Revolutionary War. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress.  He signed the Articles of Confederation.  Dickinson College is named after him.

Many more famous Americans passed through Philadelphia while it was becoming a country.  Philadelphia was centrally located at the time of the Revolution and because of its location along the Delaware River, made it easily accessible.

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