Penn’s acquisition of the land west of the Susquehanna “to the setting of the sun” from the Indians


Based on his Christian disposition and convictions, William Penn sought to fairly compensate the appropriate Indian tribes for the land within his province of Pennsylvania.  This often proved to be a challenging endeavor.  It was not always perfectly clear which Native American tribe “owned” a given portion of land Penn sought to acquire.  Nevertheless, he did not waiver in his charitable approach of fairly compensating the natives for lands the King of England had given to Penn free and clear. 


The concept of individual property ownership was unknown to Native Americans.  Ownership of territory was on a communal tribal basis.  Furthermore, Indian tribes struggled among each other to gain control over property.  Shifting claims over land ownership were an ongoing situation prior to the arrival of the “white man” in North America.  Control often changed based on warfare among competing Indian tribes and groups.  To the victor went the spoils.


In the area of Pennsylvania which was to become York County, Penn acquired title to the area in a roundabout manner.   Various Indian tribes had different opinions about which group had the legal right to sell the land on both sides of the Susquehanna River to William Penn and his agents.  The issue basically boiled down to a dispute as to whether the local tribes inhabiting the areas on the River were the groups to be bargained with or whether the tribes represented within the “Five Nations” were the de facto owners of the land along the Susquehanna River. 


The ambiguity stemmed from the fact that an Indian tribe known as the Susquehanna had previously occupied and controlled the land along the river for hundreds of years.  However, the “Five Nations” from the distant area of New York had recently conquered and utterly destroyed this ancient tribe of local inhabitants.  They, therefore, contended that the area in question was theirs to sell by right of conquest.  However, local Indian tribes like the Conestoga who actually occupied part of the area along the river challenged the claim of ownership by the “Five Nations.”


The sequence of events began in 1684 when Col. Thomas Dongan was the Governor of New York.  He negotiated a treaty with the “Five Nations” representatives at Albany and obtained all their rights to the lands of the Susquehanna.  Dongan was an agent for William Penn at the time and after obtaining title from the “Five Nations” representatives, he transferred ownership to William Penn on January 3, 1696 for the sum of one hundred pounds. 


The description of what was acquired from the “Five Nations” by Dongan and then sold to William Penn is recited in John Gibson’s History of York County, Chicago: F.A. Battey Publishing Co.
1886 as follows:


“…that tract of land, lying upon both sides of the river, commonly called or known by the name of the Susquehanna, and the lakes adjacent, in or near the province of Pennsylvania in America, beginning at the mountains or head of the said river, and running as far as and into the bay of Chesapeake,…”


In later years the validity of the acquisition of the land along the Susquehanna including area later to be York County by Dongan from the “Five Nations” was challenged on several grounds.  One problem resulted from the lack of documentation for the acquisition.  When called into question, the written agreement could not be produced substantiating the transfer from the “Five Nations” to Dongan when he was Governor of New York.


Another point of dispute arose about the nature of the consideration for the transfer.  Did Dongan pay the Indians any compensation for the property which he then sold to William Penn for 100 pounds?  Because no agreement could be found when challenges were made in the early 1700’s it could not be determined whether the property was a gift from the Indians or whether material goods were given to them by Dongan which would have been the typical consideration offered.


Additional challenges continued to be made addressing whether the “Five Nations” representatives with whom Dongan dealt were the legitimate owners or not of the land supposedly sold to him in Pennsylvania.  Matters were further complicated by the death of William Penn in 1718.  In spite of these uncertainties, the relationship between the aboriginal Indian tribes along the Susquehanna and Penn and his representatives and heirs in the early 1700’s generally continued on an amicable basis.  The Indians, particularly the Conestoga tribe, trusted and respected William Penn.


In the first two decades of the 1700’s various treaties and agreements of mutual respect, protection and cooperation were entered into by Penn, his agents, Pennsylvania government officials and Penn’s heirs with the Indian tribes along the Susquehanna including the Conestoga, Shawanese, and Ganawese tribes.  In the early 1720’s several incursions by unauthorized white settlers were made on the west side of the Susquehanna. 


Some of these wildcat settlers were from Maryland and claimed to be surveying and\or claiming land later to become York County under authority of Maryland officials.  These “Maryland intruders” greatly disturbed the local Indian tribes, especially the Conestoga who used the future York County area as their hunting grounds.  The Conestoga appealed to Pennsylvania government officials to thwart the influx of unauthorized intruders especially those from Maryland. 


In 1722 the Governor of Pennsylvania, William Keith, took several measures to stop the unauthorized settlement by those who had not obtained legal right to settle from Penn or his agents on land west of the river.  Maryland government officials were confronted.  Unauthorized settlers were evicted by force and subjected to fines and imprisonment.  Also, the Indians agreed to permit land to be surveyed for a manor on behalf of William Penn’s grandson, Springet Penn, which became Springetsbury as a buffer to discourage other unauthorized incursions of settlers not approved by Penn’s heirs west of the Susquehanna. 


These and other tactics successfully addressed the intruder problem and set the stage for finally accomplishing all legal steps to clear the title passing from the Indians to William Penn’s heirs once and for all.  (However, the final legal resolution on the border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland would drag out for many more years until it was finally settled in the late 1760’s with the establishment of the border based on Mason & Dixon’s surveys).


In John Gibson’s History of York County cited above the final resolution of the passage of title from the aboriginal tribes to Penn’s heirs is discussed as follows:


“On the 11th of October, 1736, in the tenth year of the reign of King George the Second, a deed was executed by the Sachems or Chiefs of the nations of the Onondagoes, Senecas, Cayugas, Oneidas and the Tuscaroroes, to John, Thomas and Richard Penn, after reciting in the preamble as follows:


WHEREAS, the late Proprietary of the Province of Pennsylvania, Wm. Penn, Esqr., soon after his first arrival in his said province, took measures to have the River Susquehanna, with all the Lands lying on both sides of the same, purchased for him and his heirs of those Indians of the five Nations, and accordingly did purchase them of Coll. Thomas Dongan, & pay for the same, Notwithstanding which the Indians of the five Nations aforesaid, have continued to claim a Right in & to the said River and Land; nor have these claims been hitherto adjusted; whereupon the Sachems of Chiefs having with all the Others of the said Nations met the last Summer at their great Council, held in ye Country of the said Onondagoes, did Resolve & Conclude that a final Period and Conclusion should be put to all disputes that might possibly arise on that Occasion.”


“And having appointed the aforesaid sachems or chiefs as plenipotentiaries of all those nations to repair to Philadelphia, in order to confirm the several treaties of peace which have hitherto been concluded between them and the said province, and also to settle and adjust all demands and claims that have been heretofore made touching or concerning the aforesaid Susquehanna and the lands lying on both sides thereof; In consideration of the premises and “500 lbs powder, 600 lbs. lead, 45 guns, 60 strouds water match coats, 100 blankets, 100 duffle match coats, 200 yds. of half thick, 100 shirts, 40 hats, 40 prs. of shoes and buckles, 40 prs. stockings, 100 hatchets, 500 knives, 100 houghs (hoes), 60 kettles, 100 tobacco tongs, 100 scissors, 500 awl blades, 120 combs, 2,000 needles, 1,000 flints, 24 looking-glasses, 2 lbs. vermillion, 100 tin pots, 200 lbs. tobacco, 25 glls. rum, 1,000 pipes, 24 dozen of gartering.”


“Conveyed to the said proprietaries, “all the said river Susquehanna, with the lands lying on both sides thereof, to extend eastwardly as far as the head of the branches or springs which run into the said Susquehanna, and all the lands lying on the west side of the said river to the setting of the sun, and to extend from the mouth of the said river northward, up the same to the hills or mountains called in the language of the said nations, the Tyannuntasacta, or endless hills, and by the Delaware Indians, the Kekkachtananin Hills.”


“On the 25th of October, 1736, a release was executed by the several chiefs on behalf of the same nations, and also of the Mohawks, of the lands conveyed by the preceding deed, described more particularly as follows:  Lands on both sides of the river Susquehanna, from the mouth thereof as far northward or up the said river as the ridge of hills called the Tyoninhasachta, or Endless Mountains, westward to the setting sun, and eastward to the furthest springs of the waters running into the said river.  Releasing all right, claim and pretensions to all the lands lying within the bounds and limits of the government of Pennsylvania, beginning eastward on the river Delaware, as far northward as the said ridge or chain of endless mountains as they cross the country of Pennsylvania from eastward to the west.  That neither they nor any in authority in their nations, would sell to any person, white men or Indians, other than the children of William Penn, or persons authorized by them, any lands within the limits of Pennsylvania.”


With this final legal resolution of the passage of title for the land area which included the future county of York, the way was paved for legitimate and authorized settlement of the land west of the Susquehanna.  William Penn’s sons were able to set about the process of issuing warrants to settlers and investors west of the river.




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