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The Charter: The story of Pennsylvania’s “birth certificate”

March 1, 2016

Filed under Collections, Exhibits, Pennsylvania State Archives, Pennsylvania Treasures

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The Pennsylvania Charter

The Pennsylvania Charter is four pages on parchment. The upper left corner of the first page bears the portrait, or cartouche, of King Charles II. Pennsylvania was created when King Charles II granted this Charter to William Penn in 1681.

This month, the Pennsylvania Charter will briefly leave its climate-controlled, high-security vault at the Pennsylvania State Archives for a limited stint at The State Museum. For one week, the public will have the chance to view Pennsylvania’s “birth certificate” and discover the story behind the granting of the Pennsylvania Colony to William Penn by King Charles II.

So, what’s the history behind the Charter? Why is this record so important that it’s kept in a specially-designed repository?

In this special edition of Pennsylvania Treasures, we’ll explore the story of the Charter and its journey to the care of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Born October 24, 1644, William Penn grew up in England amidst a turbulent political, religious and social climate: the English Civil War, the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.

As a young man, Penn questioned the rigid doctrines of the Church of England and embrace the teachings of the enlightenment philosophers. Intrigued by the teachings of Thomas Loe, Penn converted to Quakerism in late 1667 and quickly became an outspoken advocate.

He longed to colonize a haven in the New World for persecuted protestant sects, emphasizing toleration and pacifism.

In May of 1680, Penn petitioned King Charles II for land in the New World. The crown owed William’s late father, Admiral Sir William Penn, for using his own wealth to outfit and feed the British Navy. Penn approached the King with an offer: Penn would forgive the debt in exchange for land in America. King Charles agreed and granted Penn a Charter on March 4, 1681. Penn wished to call the land “New Wales,” or simply “Sylvania,” Latin for “woods.” King Charles II insisted that “Penn” precede the word “Sylvania”, in honor of William’s late father to create “Pennsylvania”, or “Penn’s Woods.”

Pennsylvania was not a royal colony directly administered by King Charles II. Instead, the Province of Pennsylvania was a proprietary/feudal agreement between the King and Penn. At age 36, William Penn was proprietor of the largest piece of privately owned land in the world at that time, more than 28 million acres.

In 1812, a lawyer for the Penn family donated the Charter, William Penn’s personal copy, to the commonwealth. The historic document remained with the Department of State until it was transferred to the State Archives in the early 1900s. The State Museum displayed the Charter until 1984. Concerned about the document’s fragility and security, the State Archives replaced the Charter with full-scale facsimiles. Currently, the Pennsylvania State Archives exhibits the Charter once a year to coincide with the “birthday” of the commonwealth.

Stop by The State Museum on Sunday, March 13, and join the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in celebrating the commonwealth’s 335th birthday on Charter Day. Pennsylvania was created when England’s King Charles II granted a charter to William Penn in 1681. Once each year the Pennsylvania State Archives exhibits the original document, for a limited time, at the State Museum.

For more history about William Penn, please visit Pennsbury Manor, Penn’s colonial estate in Bucks County and a stop along the Pennsylvania Trails of History.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.