Inside Pennslyvania's Controversial 1737 Land Transfer
Stories abound about what is known as Pennsylvania’s 1737 “Walking Purchase.” In the nearly three centuries since the purchase, the events have become shrouded in myth and legend until it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
The land conveyed by the purchase is just outside Philadelphia in fashionable Bucks County. One story has it that William Penn asked King Charles ll where his northern boundary was located. One legend suggests King Charles replied, “Wherever you’d like it to be.” Another story says King Charles responded, “It’s as far as a white man can walk in three days.”
In today’s terms, those two storylines would most likely both be considered “fake news.” After all, Penn was totally aware of the Commonwealth’s outer boundaries.
Despite the boundaries being defined, many inner parts of Pennsylvania had to be purchased from various Indian tribes. This particular purchase – from Philadelphia to the site of today’s Jim Thorpe – was negotiated by the Lenape Indian tribe, which was connected to the Delaware Nation. According to legend, and here again the facts are hazy, the Penns produced a document and map from 1686 with William Penn’s signature as well as various tribal chiefs describing the new area of purchase. Accordingly, the length of the purchase was to be the distance a man could walk in one and one-half days. The length of walking time has been referred to as what the Indians considered to be “measurement of space.” This, too, is a likely candidate for the title of fake news.
Even though the Lenape tribe disagreed with the entire process, they had no choice – the settlers were moving in regardless of their dislike of the situation or the forged and/or altered document(s).
It has been reported that the Penns hired three professional walkers from Scotland to pace off the agreed-upon boundary. That, of course, has been found to be totally false. The three men hired by Penns factor (James Logan) were actually locals: James Yates, Edward Marshall and Solomon Jennings.
Preparing for the “Race”
The walk was set for Sep. 19, 1737 and could only occur from dawn to dusk, between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. The Lenape chiefs and the witnesses thought the walk would be of a casual nature. They fully expected the walkers to walk for a while, sit a while, smoke the peace pipe, talk for a bit, eat something and then walk a little more.
The signed agreement the Penns produced indicated that the purchase was to begin at a point near the Delaware River close to Wrightstown. The starting point was agreed to be a large chestnut tree at Pennsville and Durham Roads. It was from here that the walk was to take a northwesterly direction and proceed as far as one could walk in a day and a half, then extend east to the Delaware River. The walkers were scrutinized by the local constable, Timothy Smith, who was probably on Penns’ payroll. The Penns employed four witnesses and the Indians three.
The walk became a run. In the first three hours, the walkers reached close to Tinicum, which was about 19 miles from the start. This is where walker Jennings dropped out from exhaustion.
The Penns had already sent their people along the prescribed route days earlier to clear the path of brush and smaller trees making the walk (or run) less obstructed. Stories suggest walker Marshall carried a hatchet as he ran, both for chopping branches in his way and, as one other report has it, using it for balance. Either way, the image is immortalized in one silver medallion commemorating the event that shows one of the runners swinging a hatchet.
By the end of the day, the two remaining walkers – Marshall and Yates – reached Bethlehem. On the start of the second day, no Indians came out to view the walk. The Penn entourage stopped the walk to find them. The Lenape refused to witness the rest of the race and said the Penns had already gotten the best of the lands. The remainder of the route took the last two runners through Hellertown, Bethlehem, Northampton and the Lehigh Gap.
In the end, Marshall was the only man left standing out of the original three walkers. The Penns gave Marshall an extra two hours of walking time because of the time spent trying to locate the Indian witnesses at the start of the second day. The walk ended near what is today known as the town of Jim Thorpe. The total miles walked were between 67 and 70. The end of the journey was marked at five oak trees with Penn’s name and the date carved in each. Instead of running due east to the River Delaware, the Penns decided the line should run perpendicular to the entire course and end about five miles south of the Lackawaxen River – adding as much, if not more, than the original walked area. The total area seems to be calculated all over the place. One has it as 1,110 square miles and one at 1,200,000 acres.
In 2004, the Delaware Nation filed suit against the State of Pennsylvania seeking the return of 314 acres taken within the area of the original “Walking Purchase.” The area is known as Tatamy’s Place in the Lehigh Valley of Northampton County. The case was dismissed.
Historic markers represent the walk in Springfield Township, Bucks County where the trio stopped for lunch the first day. Other markers are in Wrightstown, Gallows Hill, Northampton and Edelman Mill. It appears the initial monument could be a 10-foot-tall brown stone in Bucks County on Penn Park Road at Friend’s Meeting House, and the last monument is located near Jim Thorpe in Carbon County at Penn 903 Maury Road (State Road 2017) about two miles northeast of town. A list of markers related to this walk are easily found in the state’s register of historical markers.
Lastly, Penn's son, Thomas Penn, promised the fastest runner (Marshall) that he would receive 5 pounds sterling and 500 acres. He received neither. That is probably not “fake news.” Marshall was also instrumental in the war of 1776, where he helped collect boats at Valley Forge for Washington’s crossing.
The Indians never forgot the injustices of the Penn’s 1737 “Walking Purchase” fiasco. They responded both by periodic uprisings and involvement in the French and Indian wars. By 1755, more than 50 settlers had been killed in attacks inside the walking purchase area, including Marshall’s wife, daughter and son. Some articles written about the events suggest his wife was shot in the shoulder and lived, adding one more conflicting report to the mix.