Novel Update – May 2022: William Penn and Tammany

The Hole in Philadelphia is an active project. I still plan to publish by April of next year and release a sample this October at the latest. That’s the update. Read on for an anecdote.

Most of the novel’s plot occurs in Philadelphia in the early 20th century, but I recently decided that some historic differences in this alternate history were best explained by adding a scene at the birth of the city itself. And the mythic birth of Philadelphia and all Pennsylvania was the signing of the great treaty at Shackamaxon by William Penn and Tammany.

An American living two hundred years ago would probably recognize those names. They used to be a big deal. For younger readers, William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania and owned Delaware for a while. Penn was an English Quaker, a persecuted sect of pacifist egalitarians. He was from a rich, well-connected family, but he was so radical that he spent part of his youth in prison. He made it his mission to found a safe home for Quakers and other oppressed religious groups. Fortunately, the King of England owed a big debt to Penn’s dad, a famous admiral who helped fund the navy, so when Penn asked the King about setting up a colony, the King gave Penn a much larger grant than he could have hoped, making him the largest private landowner on the planet. He was short, scholarly, earnest, and a great sprinter.

Tammany (or Tamanend) was a sachem (elected leader or spokesman) of the Turtle Clan of the Lenni-Lenape living in the Delaware River Valley. He was probably a friendly guy.

If one of these summaries seems less detailed or verifiable than the other, keep that in mind. It will come up again soon.

The legend goes that when William Penn landed in his new colony in 1682, he met Tammany and other Lenni-Lenape leaders under a large elm tree at a place called Shackamaxon, in the land that is now Philadelphia, and they signed a treaty so their two peoples would forever live in peace [1]. 

The legend grew because it was seen as the one time colonists did right by the Native Americans. Penn came unarmed, respected local customs, made deals in good faith, paid well, and kept his promises, and Tammany and the Lenni-Lenape were gracious and peaceful in return. Tammany’s conduct was so admired by the colonists they called him the patron saint of America. Social clubs and holidays were named after him. Voltaire called Shackamaxon “the only treaty between those people [the Indians] and the Christians that was … never infring’d.” Other tribes cited the treaty in diplomatic disputes generations later. An image of the event is carved in the Capitol rotunda, the greatest shrine in American hagiography.

Here’s the problem: the great treaty at Shackamaxon is a legend. We don’t know how much is true. The two men probably met, but it isn’t clear when, where, under what expectations, or what they discussed.

At least Penn really was honest. As far as I can tell, he behaved as ethically as you could hope for in his position [2]. But Shackamaxon would not have been not Penn’s first dealing with the Lenni-Lenape. I’ve found conflicting accounts of his first contact, and even conflicting accounts of the month and location of his arrival in America. One source has Penn writing letters to the local tribes when he was still in England [3]. 

If such a meeting happened at Shackamaxon, the “treaty” may have been verbal, not written as the paintings like to show.

Most critically, the Lenni-Lenape were not a centralized nation, so it would have been difficult to deal with an entire colony-sized chunk of land in one meeting, even if many sachems attended. Colonial leaders often negotiated village by village. It would have been one of many treaties. It doesn’t help that Europeans were bad at understanding the political organization of these tribes or the authority held by particular leaders.

This chapter in the novel will be very different from the actual meeting of Penn and Tammany, whatever that looked like. However, these were real men, and I feel responsible for mimicking their actual personalities as best I can. 

William Penn is easy to imagine. There are many contemporary accounts of him, and he was neighbors with the most famous diarist of the era, Samuel Pepys. Penn even kept a journal for a time [4]. 

Meanwhile, Tammany is an enigma. That isn’t to say we know nothing. Every source agrees his name means “easy to talk to” or “the affable one”, and that he was personable and charismatic (though if all my sources are drawing from the same few primary sources, that’s a fragile foundation). But even if we take this claim at face value, there are many ways to be affable. Jim Carrey and Patrick Stewart are both affable, but have very different personalities.

One source claimed Tammany had sons who grew to be great leaders and warriors, so perhaps he had a family, and perhaps he was an inspiring father. But another source said the Lenni-Lenape were matrilocal, meaning children live with the mother’s family, physically apart and with less influence from the father[5]. What was family life like in that society?

As I’ve said, the sources do not agree, or at least do a poor job at articulating, just how much authority he had. I won’t describe the different arrangements of tribal power I’ve read, but I do wonder how actively distant tribes communicated. Was Tammany aware of colonial-native relations in other colonies when he met with Penn? In New England, King Phillip’s War[6] had ended in 1678, only four years prior to Penn’s arrival. I suspect news traveled far, if vaguely. How aware was Tammany about the differences between the Englishmen and Swedes and Dutch who variously claimed his land? Were they, in the language of the Crusades, all Franks to him (or all Saracens)?

Of course, the Lenni-Lenape had suffered great death from waves of smallpox since the early 1600s. I’m sure they made a connection between the sickness and the European newcomers, even if the disease arrived in advance of the strangers. Did they believe it was intentional? When the groups met, did this suspicion color those encounters? And what was it like, having several generations succumb to a mystery disease in the same lifetime? The survivors would have been living in the aftermath of a holocaust. How many loved ones had Tammany lost? How many lived on with scars? How many lived on under a cloud of grief? Did his good humor come naturally, or was his affability a mask to cheer others up, or maybe to cheer himself?

The Lenni-Lenape had no written language, and I assume that any oral translation was as imperfect as that medium always is (moreso, given the obscurity of the language). Even if Tammany’s few attributed quotes really happened, I assume a lot was lost in translation. I guess I’ll continue to study and speculate what he was like. I’m committed to writing him, and I’ll do him as much justice as I can.


William Penn’s “memorable treaty with Tamanend and other Delaware chiefs, of the Turtle Clan, under the great elm at Shackamaxon, within the limits of Philadelphia,” is full of romantic interest. Unarmed, clad in his somber Quaker garb, he addressed the assembled Native Americans, uttering the following which will be admired throughout the ages: “We meet on the broad pathway of good faith and good-will; no advantage shall be taken on either side, but all shall be openness and love. We are the same as if one man’s body was to be divided into two parts; we are of one flesh and one blood.”

The reply of Tamanend, is equally noble: “We will live in love with William Penn and his children as long as the creeks and rivers run, and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.”

[2] I acknowledge there may be no such thing as an ethical colonizer. But I don’t know anything in Penn’s actions to accuse him of specific wrongdoing, and I’m open to the idea that two parties can make a voluntary, informed exchange to mutual benefit, even with such haunted precedents. I think it’s worth noting that Penn’s partners and his own king accused him of being too unselfish and gentle, and one website of the modern Lenni-Lenape tribe seems to hold William Penn in high regard[7].

That said, William Penn’s sons were despicable. When they took over the colony, they cheated and bullied Pennsylvania’s tribes for their own profit. I’ve seen several sources share a cynical theory that one reason the treaty at Shackamaxon became such a popular legend was because Penn’s sons waged a propaganda campaign to bolster their father’s reputation, redeeming their own reputations in the process. The treaty’s most famous artistic depiction, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians by the great painter Benjamin West, was commissioned by a son, Thomas Penn.


“1681-1682 … [Penn] writes to the Indians, asking for peaceful relations, acknowledging wrongs done them by previous European immigrants in other colonies. His instructions on dealing with the Indians: “Be tender of offending the Indians…To soften them to me, and the people, let them know you are come to sit down lovingly with them…Be grave, they like not to be smiled on.”



“The children born into the mother’s clan gained both their social identity and status through that system of kinship. All members of the mother’s side were considered more significant in the upbringing and education of the children than was their father and father’s side. Within their society, women made a large percentage of the decision making in affairs considering who was sent into battle and who stayed home, property rights, leadership for the community, etc.”


I recommend this video on King Phillip’s War. More generally, I recommend the entire YouTube channel of the creator Atun-Shei Films if you like American history.


“William Penn had always dealt fairly with the Lenape…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close