Early History of Philadelphia – Part 1


The recorded history of Philadelphia begins in 1682 when William Penn founded the city in the English Crown Province of Pennsylvania around the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.

Before then, the area was occupied by the Lenape (Delaware) Indians and Swedish settlers who appeared in the early 1600s. Philadelphia quickly evolved into a famous colonial city and during the American Revolution, was the site of the Primary and Second Continental Congresses. After the Revolution, the city was preferred to be the temporary capital of the United States. At the beginning of the 19th Century, the federal and state governments left Philadelphia, but the city remained the country’s cultural and financial centre. Philadelphia became one of the first U.S. industrial centres and the city checked a variety of industries – the most significant being textiles.

After the American Civil War, Philadelphia’s government was ruled by the crooked political machine, and by the inception of the 20th Century Philadelphia was reported as “corrupt and contented.” Several reform efforts slowly changed the city government, with the most notable in 1950, where a new city charter strengthened the mayor’s position and weakened the Philadelphia City Council.

The city began a population decline in the 1950s as mostly white and middle-class families left for the neighborhoods. Many of Philadelphia’s houses were miserable and lacked proper facilities, and the gang and mafia warfare plagued the city. Revitalization and upscaling of specific neighborhoods started drawing people back to the city. Promotions and incentives in the 1990s and the early 21st Century have enhanced the city’s image and designed a condominium boom in Centre City and the surrounding areas that have slowed the population drop.

Early Growth

Philadelphia rose from a few hundred inhabitants in 1683 to over 2,500 in 1701. The population was principally English, Welsh, Irish, Germans, Swedes, Finns, and Dutch. Before William Penn left Philadelphia for the last time on October 25, 1701, he issued the Charter of 1701. The charter placed Philadelphia as a city and gave the Mayor, council members, and councilors the jurisdiction to issue laws and mandates and regulate markets and fairs.

Philadelphia became an important trading centre and a major port. Initially, the city’s primary source of trade was with the West Indies, which had instituted sugar cane plantations. It was part of the Triangle Trade, associated with Africa and the British Isles. During Queen Anne’s War (1702 and 1713) with the French, trade was cut off to the West Indies, hurting Philadelphia economically. The end of the war brought a brief accomplishment to all of the British territories, but a depression in the 1720s stunted Philadelphia’s growth. The 1720s and ’30s saw the migration from mostly Germany and northern Ireland to Philadelphia and the surrounding countryside. The region was exploited for agriculture, and Philadelphia exported grains, lumber stocks, and flax seeds to Europe and elsewhere in the American colonies; this uprooted the city out of the depression.


In the 1760s, the British Parliament’s corridor of the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, coupled with other frustrations, raised political tension and anger against England in the colonies. Philadelphia residents joined boycotts of British goods. After the Tea Act in 1773, there were threats against anyone who would store tea and any ships that brought tea up, Delaware. After the Boston Tea Party, a shipment of tea had arrived in December, on the ship the Polly. A committee told the captain to leave without unloading his cargo.

A series of acts in 1774 further provoked the colonies; activists called for a general congress and agreed to meet in Philadelphia. The First Continental Congress was held in September in Carpenters’ Hall.

The port city was defenceless to attack by the British by sea. Officials enlisted soldiers and studied defences for attack from Delaware Bay, but built no forts or other establishments. In March 1776, two British frigates began a siege of the mouth of Delaware Bay; British soldiers marched south through New Jersey from New York. In December, fear of invasion provoked half the population to flee the city, including the Continental Congress, which moved to Baltimore. General George Washington pushed back the British advance at Princeton and Trenton’s battles, and the refugees and Congress returned. In September 1777, the British invaded Philadelphia from the south. Washington blocked them at the Battle of Brandywine but was driven back. Thousands fled north into Pennsylvania and east into New Jersey; Congress moved to Lancaster then to York. British troops advanced into the half-empty Philadelphia on September 23 to praising Loyalist crowds.

The seizure lasted ten months. After the French penetrated the war on the side of the Continentals, the last British troops pulled out of Philadelphia on June 18, 1778, to help fortify New York City. Continentals entered the same day and reoccupied the city overseen by Major General Benedict Arnold, who appointed the city’s military commander. The city government returned a week later, and the Continental Congress returned in early July.

Gary B. Nash, a historian, records the role of the working class, and their hatred of their betters, in northern ports. He writes that working-class artisans and experienced craftsmen made up a radical element in Philadelphia that took control of the city starting about 1770 and preferred a radical Democratic form of government during the Revolution. They held power for a while and used their control of the local militia to disseminate their ideology to the working class and stay in power until the businessmen staged a conservative counterrevolution. Philadelphia suffered severe inflation, creating problems, especially for the poor, who were incompetent to buy needed goods. It led to unrest in 1779, with people accusing the upper class and Patriots. A riot in January by sailors thumping for higher wages ended up with their attacking and demolishing ships. In the Fort Wilson Riot of October 4, men assaulted James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was indicted in being a Loyalist sympathizer. Soldiers broke up the riot, but half a dozen people died.

As the American War of Independence, many soldiers had not been paid their salaries for their assistance during the war. Congress denied the soldiers’ demand for reimbursement of their salaries. In what is known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, hundreds of veterans of the war who were owed back pay advanced with their weapons on the Pennsylvania statehouse in Philadelphia. Congress, lacking in funds, fled from Philadelphia to Princeton, New Jersey. With their exit and the departure of their families and staffs, Philadelphia was left all but deserted.

In Part-2 we will explore the independence, great depression, Spanish Flu, World War and Modern Era.

Source: The American Heritage Book of Indians. American Heritage Publishing Company., Instruction for Johan Printz, Governor of New Sweden, The First Constitution or Supreme Law of the States of Pennsylvania and Delaware. (translated from the Swedish. Philadelphia: The Swedish Colonial Society, 1930), Wiki, American History Society, Britannica

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