Benjamin West’s William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians

Benjamin West’s famous painting of William Penn’s reported 1682 treaty with the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, as English called them hangs in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Traditions hold that the treaty was signed under an elm tree at Shackamaxon, a Delaware Indian town once located near present-day Kensington, Pennsylvania. For the local Unami tribe, Shackamaxon appears to have been a major settlement and ceremonial area.

In 1771, Benjamin West was commissioned by Penn’s son, Thomas, to capture the moment of the treaty on canvas. No treaty exchange has been authenticated by historians, but Penn’s purchases of the Native land are well documented.

This engraving [shown in the full article, and based on West's painting] is one of many representations in eighteenth and nineteenth century popular culture of Penn’s Treaty and the so-called Treaty Elm. It shows Penn, as the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, standing on the shore of the Delaware River. He is surrounded by three cultures: Lenape, recently-arrived Quakers, and Swedes who had already settled in the vicinity and may have served as translators.

The engraving tells a story that has been interpreted as one of peace and welcome. One Native man in the foreground holds a peace pipe. A bow and quiver of arrows lay on the ground nearby. Behind him, a woman nurses her child; one Native boy holds a bow, while in the background another boy practices with his bow. The Lenape seem focused on the moment and the exchange, as are Penn and his men. However, there is another unspoken story: the ships in the harbor and the European buildings under construction behind the gathering. As European settlement rapidly advanced in Pennsylvania and the other American colonies, the Lenape and all Eastern Woodland Indian peoples experienced conflicts far removed from this peaceful image.

Source: Benjamin West’s William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians
©2017 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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