Cover image for A Greene Country Towne: Philadelphia’s Ecology in the Cultural Imagination Edited by Alan C. Braddock and Laura  Turner Igoe

A Greene Country Towne

Philadelphia’s Ecology in the Cultural Imagination

Edited by Alan C. Braddock and Laura Turner Igoe

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$84.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07713-0

248 pages
7" × 10"
45 b&w illustrations
2016

A Greene Country Towne

Philadelphia’s Ecology in the Cultural Imagination

Edited by Alan C. Braddock and Laura Turner Igoe

“Performing remarkable syntheses of environmental history and recent materialist cultural theory, the essays in A Greene Country Towne confirm Philadelphia’s centrality to the political, commercial, scientific, artistic, and natural history of the United States. A milestone in the multidisciplinary environmental humanities.”

 

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An unconventional history of Philadelphia that operates at the threshold of cultural and environmental studies, A Greene Country Towne expands the meaning of community beyond people to encompass nonhuman beings, things, and forces.

By examining a diverse range of cultural acts and material objects created in Philadelphia—from Native American artifacts, early stoves, and literary works to public parks, photographs, and paintings—through the lens of new materialism, the essays in A Greene Country Towne ask us to consider an urban environmental history in which humans are not the only protagonists. This collection reimagines the city as a system of constantly evolving constituents and agencies that have interacted over time, a system powerfully captured by Philadelphia artists, writers, architects, and planners since the seventeenth century.

In addition to the editors, contributors to this volume are Maria Farland, Nate Gabriel, Andrea L. M. Hansen, Scott Hicks, Michael Dean Mackintosh, Amy E. Menzer, Stephen Nepa, John Ott, Sue Ann Prince, and Mary I. Unger.

“Performing remarkable syntheses of environmental history and recent materialist cultural theory, the essays in A Greene Country Towne confirm Philadelphia’s centrality to the political, commercial, scientific, artistic, and natural history of the United States. A milestone in the multidisciplinary environmental humanities.”

Alan C. Braddock is Ralph H. Wark Associate Professor of Art History and American Studies at the College of William and Mary as well as Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities at Princeton University. He is the author of Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity (2009) and coeditor of A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (2009).

Laura Turner Igoe is the Maher Curatorial Fellow of American Art at Harvard Art Museums. She is completing a book manuscript titled Art and Ecology in the Early Republic.

Table of Contents

List of illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Imagining Urban Ecology

Alan C. Braddock and Laura Turner Igoe

Chapter 1: Ink and Paper, Clamshells and Leather: Power, Environmental Perception, and Materiality in the Lenape-European Encounter at Philadelphia

Michael Dean Mackintosh

Chapter 2: “Processes of Nature and Art”: The Ecology of Charles Willson Peale’s Smoke-Eaters and Stoves

Laura Turner Igoe

Chapter 3: Mapping The Quaker City’s Queer Ecology

Mary I. Unger

Chapter 4: Visualizing Urban Nature in Fairmount Park: Economic Diversity, History, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia

Nate Gabriel

Chapter 5: Netted Together: Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion at the Dawn of Comparative Biology

John Ott

Chapter 6: Expansive Exhibitions: Agriculture and Environment in Walt Whitman’s Camden-Philadelphia Region

Maria Farland

Chapter 7: “Our yard looks something like a zoological garden”: Thomas Eakins, Philadelphia, and Domestic Animality

Alan C. Braddock

Chapter 8: “A Thorough Study of Causes”: W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro, and Progressive Era Materiality

Scott Hicks

Chapter 9: Exhibiting Philadelphia’s Vital Center: Negotiating Environmental and Civic Reform in a Popular Postwar Planning Vision

Amy E. Menzer

Chapter 10: “Entertainment for all of the senses”: Stephen Starr’s Experience Dining and the Revitalization of Postindustrial Philadelphia

Stephen Nepa

Chapter 11: “The water flows beneath it still. . .”: Remembering and Re-imagining Philadelphia’s Old Dock Creek

Sue Ann Prince

Chapter 12: Remapping Philadelphia’s Post-Industrial Terrain: A Network in Flux

Andrea Hansen

Notes

Index

Ink and Paper, Clamshells and Leather: Power, Environmental Perception, and Materiality in the Lenape-European Encounter at Philadelphia

Michael Dean Mackintosh

Philadelphia is a city with a powerful founding myth. As the story goes, chiefs of the Lenape Indians, the native inhabitants of the land, and William Penn, newly arrived from England to establish a city and a colony, met beneath the green leaves of a graceful elm on the banks of the Delaware River at Shackamaxon in 1683 and forged a Great Treaty of peace and friendship. This legend, which was amplified by the trans-Atlantic popularity of Benjamin West’s 1771 painting Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (Fig. 1.1), portrays the founding of Philadelphia as a crucial moment that initiated a golden age of cooperation and harmony between Indians and Europeans. The importance of the elm tree in the telling of the tale conveyed the idea that the new friends enjoyed gentle harmony not just with each other but also with the natural environment they shared. <INSERT FIGURE 1.1 ABOUT HERE>

This legend became important later in Philadelphia’s history, especially as nineteenth-century population growth, massive immigration, urbanization, and industrialization brought rapid change to the region. Philadelphians looked to their city’s remarkable history in response and rediscovered several significant material artifacts created at the time of the city’s founding. A popular 1812 re-publication, for instance, of the Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia (see Introduction, Fig. i.1) sparked renewed interest in the founder’s original vision for the city. The Portraiture, drawn in 1682 by Penn’s surveyor, Thomas Holme, had presented a plan for an orderly new city and served as an enticement to prospective settlers. Romantically-inclined nineteenth-century Philadelphians saw the trees and open spaces of the Portraiture as indications that a restorative and benign nature had been part of their city since its genesis. William Penn’s lyrical description of an early and subsequently abandoned plan for the city as “a greene country towne” further convinced them that this was so. The idea that Philadelphia had a special historical relationship with nature proved especially potent when combined with the related notion that the city’s past was also rooted in a peaceful relationship with Indians. William Penn’s great grandson John Granville Penn validated this potent myth in 1859, when he presented the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a wampum belt that he said had been a gift from the Lenapes to his famous ancestor at their legendary treaty (Fig. 1.2). <INSERT FIGURE 1.2 ABOUT HERE> The belt, which shows an Indian and a Quaker holding hands in an unambiguous posture of friendship, seemed to corroborate and validate the legend of peace from a Native point of view. Together, the Portraiture and the wampum belt helped advance a mythical version of Philadelphia’s origins that was especially useful to its white citizens as they asserted their moral and ecological virtues in response to nineteenth-century urban stresses. The currents of the romantic movement, which popularized Indians as symbols of the noble purity of American origins and of the “unchanged” natural world that was now threatened by the exploitations of industrial capitalism and population growth, only strengthened the appeal of this myth.

Like all folktales, this mythic interpretation of the city’s origins obscures our understanding of the actual encounter between the first generation of Philadelphians and the Native Americans who lived there before. However, a close look at the material artifacts of the encounter—the Portraiture and the wampum belt—divested of their accreted myth, reveals important dimensions of the historical meeting of Indians and Europeans at the founding of Philadelphia. Such an examination is especially helpful in illuminating the role of the Lenape people as an ecological vector in the origins of the city, a dimension that even the most recent scholarly examination of the environmental history of Philadelphia largely overlooked.

These artifacts are not inert objects that merely reflect the experiences and expectations of their makers; both the Portraiture and the belt projected power, remade their environments (in the case of the Portraiture) or shaped social relationships among peoples (in the case of both). They illustrate and illuminate aspects of the encounter, but they also helped to shape that encounter. The Portraiture facilitated (as it was facilitated by) colonial goals of acquisition, permanent possession, and the rationalization of nature into ordered space and economically useful commodities. The wampum belt propelled (as it was propelled by) Lenape practices of exchange, mobility, flexibility, and reciprocal negotiation. Good intentions of friendship on either side of the encounter, however sincerely held, were less powerful than the divergent environmental perceptions and expectations that the Portraiture and the wampum belt embody.

The wampum belt is one of the few extant depictions by Indians of their encounter with colonists during Philadelphia’s founding. The belt’s provenance is murky: it was unknown outside of the Penn family until John Granville Penn brought it to the public’s attention in 1859. Its connection to a specific meeting between the Lenapes and William Penn, under an elm at Shackamaxon or otherwise, is unclear. Marshall Joseph Becker makes the sensible suggestion, followed herein, that “[u]ntil a specific reference can be found which describes the … belt and the original context of its presentation, we only can assume that at best this belt was but one of many received by the Proprietor or his heirs over the years.” While its association with a Great Treaty testifies more to the enduring appeal of the myth of Shackamaxon than it does to the treaty’s reality, the belt almost certainly was created by Lenape hands and given to Penn around the time of Philadelphia’s founding, or soon thereafter. It is not only a historical artifact that illustrates aspects of a long-ago event; as a material object created in response to the encounter between Lenapes and Quakers, it had a role in influencing the outcome of that encounter.

The wampum belt is more than an articulation of a purely indigenous Native American view of the colonists. Its form hints at the hybridity of its origins. While historians have made much of the grid that Thomas Holme drew with ink on paper for the Portraiture, fewer have commented on the fact that the wampum belt is also an orderly grid, creating a meaningful image of purple and white clamshell beads in neat alignments of rows and columns. The knowledge that the wampum belt was not a purely indigenous mode of communication complicates a founding myth that claims Penn was welcomed and accepted by pure representatives of an untouched American nature. The belt was instead the product of mingled European and American expectations, economics, craftsmanship, and materials: strips of leather from animal bodies, iron drill bits, hand-shaped chunks of calcium carbonate that Indians and colonists alike agreed had significance. The entities responsible for it were constituents of a hybrid world.

Waves of change that thoroughly engulfed the Lenapes even before Penn’s arrival created this admixed cultural environment, of which the belt was a part. These transformations were so significant that the Lenapes found they were living in a cultural, economic, and ecological “new world” that fundamentally reordered (and perhaps even helped to create) the communal identity and ethnic composition of the people who first appear to Europeans as the “Lenape.”

Trade with Europeans, especially the Dutch, Finnish, and Swedish farmers who settled along the Delaware River in the early seventeenth century, and with Native neighbors through long-established routes of exchange, brought a material revolution to Lenape life. Wampum was both a product and agent of change that propelled the creation of this material new world. Before the arrival of Europeans, Indians valued rougher clam-shell beads as ornamental objects, but iron tools made with European technology allowed for the creation of finely-detailed weavings of small beads like the Penn wampum belt. In the early seventeenth century, Indians in clam-abundant coastal New England took advantage of this new technology and created a virtual industry of wampum-making. They sold it to European traders, who used it to facilitate exchange in the developing fur trade. Massive quantities of beads spread through webs of trade, reaching much of eastern North America and spurring the widespread use of wampum belts in rituals, spiritual ceremonies, and diplomatic treaties.

The material exchange of which wampum was such an important part bound Indians to trading relationships with the Europeans. Natives came to rely on new materials like iron, copper, brass, glass, cotton, wool, and linen. The properties of these new materials—their hardness, their shininess, their durability, their rarity—often intersected with Indian cultural practices in ways that changed the trajectories of Native societies. Indians found that a copper pot, for instance, could withstand direct heat better than any clay cooking vessel, and so they had an incentive to trade with the newcomers for materials they could not craft themselves. But Indian social norms prescribed gift-giving as a path to status; the most powerful people were those who were most generous with powerful gifts. The rarity of new European materials and their remarkable physical qualities—the brittle hardness of clear glass, the red flush of beaten copper, the gleam of brass, the sharp edge that an iron blade could hold—gave them power and even spiritual agency in Indian cosmology, bringing prestige to those who distributed them as gifts. The desire for these goods and the status they conferred ignited competition among Indian groups. Early in the seventeenth century, Susquehannock Indians, who were eager to bring furs to the European settlers in the Delaware Valley, pressured the Lenapes of Philadelphia with waves of attacks.

These new and desirable materials shaped the human habitation of the place that would become Philadelphia. The Swedish geographer Peter Lindeström, in his survey of the Delaware River three decades before Penn’s arrival, found a great concentration of Lenape settlements at the future site of the city. Lindeström reported that “six different places are settled, under six sachems or chiefs” near where the Schuylkill River flows into the Delaware and he reckoned the population as “being several hundred men strong, under each chief, counting men and women.” This concentration of peoples was the result of geography, the economic forces of exchange, and the cultural forces that created a demand for European trade goods. The confluence of the two rivers was a critical point of interface; the Schuylkill provided access to the trade goods interior of the American continent, especially the thick and valuable furs of the Great Lakes region, while the Delaware River connected ocean-going vessels with the entire Atlantic world. The Lenapes who chose to live at the confluence of these waters may have been driven by more cosmopolitan motives than Lindeström perceived, as they positioned themselves to take advantage of the same physical factors that would eventually help to make Philadelphia the wealthiest and most populous city in North America.

As influential as the effects of material goods were in shaping demographics and settlement patterns, trade also facilitated an exchange of another kind. Microbes and germs that had devastating effects on Native Americans came along with wampum and iron wool. Native populations, who had no previous exposure to diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza, were “virgin soil” for these viral perils and suffered catastrophic mortality.

The effects of disease on the Philadelphia-area Lenapes specifically, however, are ambiguous. Contemporary European observers mention several seventeenth-century epidemics that devastated the Lenape populations, but Becker finds no archaeological evidence of a demographic collapse caused by European diseases. Low population density and dispersed settlement patterns might have helped to protect the Lenapes from annihilation by disease, but conclusive historical evidence for this is unavailable. At the very least, European germs would have caused demographic, ecological, and spiritual turmoil in Lenape communities. To a people accustomed to negotiating with the forces of the world, this turmoil would have given them good cause to cultivate a powerful figure like Penn as an ally.

The wampum belt’s depiction in white and purple shell beads of an Indian and colonist holding hands carries meanings about such power relationships. The world, as seen by the Lenapes, was animated with autonomous spirits. The community had to negotiate with rocks, rivers, trees, turtles, birds, and bears that were alive with personalities and potencies. Although power in this universe flowed in a lateral web of flexible and interconnected relationships, the Lenapes knew that they had to negotiate carefully with those spirits (and people) who were stronger than others. The Lenapes who presented the wampum to Penn would have recognized him as a particularly potent new force in their world. In a view that accords with Philadelphia’s founding legend, the belt can be interpreted as an Indian version of Benjamin West’s painting, an expression by the Lenapes of some degree of acceptance of the settlement of their land by whites. From an Indian perspective of negotiated relationships, however, it depicts an effort by the Lenapes to appropriate Penn’s power and enlist him as a useful ally and protector against the uncertainties of their changing world, a logical reaction to the difficult circumstances they faced.

This is not to suggest, however, that in acknowledging Penn’s power the Lenapes meant to portray themselves as subordinate to it. In fact, the ambiguities of the belt leave its intended meaning open to a broad range of interpretation. In 1925, for instance, two Canadian Iroquois experts in the history of wampum suggested to the anthropologists W.C. Orchard and Frank Speck that the larger figure in the belt actually represents the Indian, wearing not a hat but a feather, and that his size portrays him as the dominant figure in the encounter. Although Orchard and Speck caution that theirs is “a feeble attempt, at so late a date,” to discover the meaning of the belt, “when the associations have been forgotten,” the literary scholar Andrew Newman embraces this interpretation, noting that seeing the larger figure as “an Indian is certainly in keeping with a ‘Facing East’ revision of our Eurocentric readings of colonial relations.”

However, the Eurocentric (or modern) perspective that perhaps needs to be overturned is the notion that body size alone indicates the relative power of the figures. Even if we maintain the more widely-held view that the larger figure is identified as a Quaker by his broad-brimmed hat, we can look at other elements of the depiction to see a Lenape assertion of strength in the relationship. The hat-wearing colonist is indeed larger, but not necessarily more vital or healthy: in contrast to the Indian, the colonist is asymmetrical and thick, his head noticeably offset on his shoulders, and perhaps even hefting a pot belly. The grain-rich European system of agriculture that provided colonists with a regular supply of abundant calories may have also promoted chronic diseases and physical infirmities that did not seem to plague the Lenapes. From their earliest encounters, European observers commented on the impressive physiques of Native Americans, and William Penn himself described the Lenapes as notably “tall, straight, well built, and of singular proportion.” If it was apparent to the Europeans, the Indians no doubt also noticed the contrast in the health of their physical forms, and the image on the belt may be an Indian acknowledgment of this European vulnerability. To the Lenapes, strength and weakness may well have been a more complicated matter than mere physical size.

The rarity of the belt as an extant artifact lets us understand still more about Lenape environmental experiences. The Lenapes had a rich material culture, but their most common media of wood, hide, fiber, and leather were not long-lasting. They also treated more durable items as ephemera rather than as permanent objects. Although wampum was at the center of the cultural complex that combined ceremonial practices with diplomatic proceedings among Native Americans in eastern North America, the belts were often disassembled for re-use once the belts had served their purposes in the rituals. Again, cultural practices intersect with the material nature of their artifacts; to Native negotiators, beads of clamshell endure against time, but treaties do not. The Lenapes would have seen no point in preserving a physical commemoration of an agreement that would, like all other social, political, and spiritual relationships, need to be constantly renewed and renegotiated. The Penn wampum belt survived because it was removed from the context of its creation when it passed into the Penn family’s hands, and the proprietor’s descendants treated it as a significant heirloom. Otherwise, the beads of the belt would have been scattered back into the diplomatic milieu of the colonial frontier.

The relative scarcity of other extant Lenape material artifacts underscores the ephemerality of much of their material culture and the flexibility with which they engaged their environment. To invoke an environmentalist cliché that is nonetheless pertinent here, the Lenapes lived lightly on the land of the future Philadelphia, in part because it was an exceptionally amenable place for human habitation and subsistence, tree-covered and well-watered with small creeks and streams that drained into the Schuylkill and the Delaware. Two geological regions intersect at Philadelphia: to the west of the city are the gentle hills and ridges of the Piedmont, which stretches to the Appalachian Mountains; to the east is the low and flat Inner Coastal Plain, extending to the Atlantic Ocean. This geological division bisects the city and is visible as the fall line that crosses the Schuylkill near present-day Fairmount. The meeting of these geological zones created an aquatic edge effect (an area of exceptional biodiversity): multiple species of fish, shellfish, and edible reptiles filled the waters of the Inner Coastal Plain, while the many streams that plunged over the fall line from the Piedmont provided excellent sites for catching fish in traps.

The geological features of the land attracted Indian and, later, European settlers, but the abundance of Philadelphia’s environment was more than an accident of nature. Despite both the gentle environmental tread of the Lenapes and “European images of an untouched Eden,” in the words of anthropologist Shepard Krech, “this nature was cultural not virgin, anthropogenic not primeval.” Indians dramatically reshaped their environment, perhaps most notably by deliberately setting fire to their forests. This method of environmental engineering cleared out tangles of underbrush that made travel difficult, encouraged grassy plants for deer and other game animals to thrive on, and created a sun-dappled parkland welcoming to human habitation. The ashes also fertilized the soil with potassium for gardens of corn, beans, and squash, which native women planted around their summertime villages. Lenape fires could be so great that Dutch sailor David de Vries, while approaching the mouth of the Delaware Bay in 1632, was able to perceive the smell of the burning before he saw land; he noted that the smoke “comes from the Indians setting fire, at this time of year, to the woods and thicket, in order to hunt.”

These practices were part of a flexible system that shaped the nature of the people’s society as well as their relationship with the land. Unlike the more moderate European climates along the same latitudes, temperatures at Philadelphia fluctuated significantly with the seasons, and Lenape life fluctuated accordingly. In the warming days of spring, the Lenapes regrouped from their winter scattering in time to intercept the vernal migrations of eastern North America: geese and ducks on their way back from southern refuge, and successive runs of alewives, shad, and sturgeon returning from the ocean to spawn in fresh water. When the days grew longer and warmer still, groups dispersed again and moved inland to take advantage of summer’s growth. Women and men probably separated into gathering and hunting camps, respectively, with women tending their gardens and collecting berries, roots, mushrooms, and a broad variety of green edible plants. Men moved to the best locations for hunting the animals that provided summer’s meat.

When the year turned towards fall, Lenape women gathered the ripe acorns and tree nuts of fall and harvested their gardens while men returned from their hunt. William Penn described a reunion from summer’s dispersion, noting that “In the Fall, when the Corn cometh in, they begin to feast one another” with dancing, music, and ritual celebration “to which all come that will.” In Philadelphia’s cold winters, the bare land could not support large concentrations of people, so the Lenapes dispersed again and scattered into camps of small family units. Forage could be scarce when plant foods were dormant, but hunting was good: winter animals were walking stores of calories and fur, and frequent snowfalls made for easy tracking.

The forests of Philadelphia, then, were not at all empty or untouched by human hands. The Lenapes used them extensively, but flexibly. They settled and planted, but these settlements lacked the permanence of European-style towns. The Lenapes established most villages where smaller streams emptied into the Schuylkill or Delaware; the largest village, Passyunk, was a summer camp at the confluence of the two rivers themselves. Beginning with Lindeström’s survey of the Delaware, Europeans ascribed fixed names, derived from the Lenape language, to these villages. Passyunk meant “in the valley,” Wecacoe, in today’s South Philadelphia, meant “Place of the Pines at the Head of a Creek,” Nittabakonck, where the Wissahickon joins the Schuylkill, was the “place of the warrior.” Shackamaxon, the site of the legendary treaty and its elm, means the “place of eels.” These names certainly tell us something about how food sources influenced Lenape environmental perceptions, but they also reveal European notions of place. It suited European notions of fixity to use descriptive phrases like “the place of the eels” as a permanent name for a place or settlement, but such an approach might have been foreign to a Lenape outlook. The Lenapes probably identified places with more awareness of the fluidity of their environment and the contextual nature of their engagement with it; “the place of eels” may not have been at the same fixed place every year, or the place described as Shackamaxon might not have been the place of eels at all to another kinship group, during a different season, or from one year to the next. But as European disease and settlement dispersed Indians from these places, colonists overlooked the agency of the fluid environmental phenomena from which the Lenape names had originated and Passayunk and Wecacoe became fixed names for previously dynamic sites.

Fluidity manifested in other areas of Lenape life. The relative rarity of the Penn wampum belt indicates that the Lenapes viewed ownership of material objects in transient terms. Their mobile use of the land meant that they carried very few possessions from place to place. With the exception of some items of European manufacture, it was often more efficient to make a new tool at the destination than to haul a burden of existing artifacts. The Lenapes also understood land ownership in a fluid sense. Communities could possess the right to hunt, fish, farm, or forage in particular places, but because of the abundance of terrain and resources relative to the size of the population, these understandings were flexibly conceived and did not require a rigid system of defined and defended boundaries. Moreover, to the Lenapes, land ownership was changeable in time as well as in place. The transfer of usufruct rights or other versions of ownership was a temporary arrangement, usually part of an exchange-mediated relationship that needed to be periodically negotiated and renewed.

The idea that any person could own a specific portion of land in perpetuity and exercise exclusive control over all of its resources was foreign to the Lenapes but central to Penn’s vision. Perhaps nothing illustrates the contrast better than the Portraiture. Penn initially hoped to establish an expansive capital, eschewing the idea of a dense city in favor of a massive settlement of ten thousand acres along the Delaware River. Houses would be spread out on large lots with “ground on each side for gardens or orchards, or fields, that it may be a greene country towne which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome.” Although the idea of Philadelphia as “a greene country towne” later took on a life of its own, circumstances interfered with Penn’s vision and prevented the establishment of such a settlement: most of the land along the Delaware was already planted with the farms of Dutch and Swedish settlers, leaving no space for such an extensive town, and Penn’s colonists demanded a more practical commercial center for the colony. Penn abandoned his expansive vision and made plans for a smaller and more compact Philadelphia, located on about two square miles between the Schuylkill and the Delaware on land purchased from its Swedish occupants.

Thomas Holme surveyed the land on Penn’s orders, and created the Portraiture, a vision of nature controlled by straight lines and right angles. Penn saw a wilderness turned into a city as a means to an end: his idea of good environmental order was designed to promote good social order, a great concern of an idealist who wrote of his colony as a “holy experiment.” The historian Michael J. Chiarappa points to William Penn’s membership in the Royal Society, “a group with decidedly pragmatic views towards using nature,” to argue that he was part of a cohort of English thinkers that was willing to experiment with the connections between ordering nature and creating a stable society.

In the Portraiture, five squares of open space, four of them drawn with neat rows of trees, depict the domestication of the land between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill. Historians cite a range of influences on William Penn’s urban vision, including Richard Newcourt’s plan for rebuilding London after the fire of 1666, the open spaces of seventeenth-century London, the 1638 grid plan of New Haven in Connecticut, and the standard layout of the military camps of the nascent English empire. In doing so, however, they often take for granted the idea of fixity and the goal of rationalization in Penn’s vision of Philadelphia. These concepts are too self-evident for more subtle examinations of seventeenth-century urbanism, but fixity and rationalization are fundamental in the context of the encounter between colonists and Indians in Philadelphia.

For all of the straight lines and regular spaces of the Portraiture’s grid, natural features such as creeks and streams intruded into the plan, suggesting that even the most optimistic promoters of the imagined city understood that the imposition of order on the environment would be complicated. It was; the reality of the colonial city never approached the vision of the Portraiture. The new citizens of Penn’s Philadelphia clustered at its eastern edge along the banks of the Delaware, unwilling to spread into the available space and live at a distance from one another. Even one hundred years after the city’s founding, most of Philadelphia’s population still lived on the banks of the Delaware; the rest of the space covered by the grid was largely rural or even still forested.

But still, the founders of Pennsylvania determinedly used the Portraiture and its grid as a blueprint of the systematic development of the environment. If the Lenapes had flexible place-names for their settlements, Philadelphians were very deliberate in domesticating the environment by affixing permanent names to the grid. The name that Penn chose for the city had nothing of the environmental context that previous Lenape inhabitants had considered when giving names on the same land. Penn’s selection of a foreign name for a distant city from an ancient book (in Revelation, the Greek city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor was promised the favor of God) was meant to convey his hopes for the spiritual future of the place, but it had nothing to do with his response to the physical place itself.

Penn’s decision to name the east-west lines of the grid after the trees of the region may initially appear to be more aligned with Lenape sensibilities, but the choice still focused on the domestication and control of the land and ultimately proved more coercive than responsive. Many of the tree species in Philadelphia were close American cousins of European varieties and so were familiar enough to excite exploitative imaginings rather than discomfort in an alien environment. Vine Street evoked William Penn’s thwarted hopes that the Philadelphia climate would be similar enough to the European Mediterranean, with which it shared a line of latitude, to grow excellent wines. Even more optimistic was Mulberry Street, hinting at the unrealized dream of many American colonizers of a successful sericulture (mulberry leaves being the preferred food of notoriously frangible baby silkworms) to compete with that of China, also at Philadelphia’s latitude. While no marketable wine or silk ever came from Philadelphia, these names imposed on the lines of the city’s grid reinforced its commodification of nature.

European powers of environmental commodification extended far beyond the few square miles depicted in the Portraiture. Philadelphia functioned as a valve connecting Pennsylvania to the larger world; the city so profitably funneled the agricultural goods and natural resources of the region into the Atlantic economy that it quickly became the largest and richest city in British North America. The Portraiture played an important role in this transformation. The map was a reference and a blueprint, but also an advertisement and an invitation. Penn printed and distributed the plan along with his pamphlet Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania in America, a glowing description of the natural bounty and promise of the infant colony.

The material on which this message was carried played an important role in shaping the city. While Indian wampum beads conveyed an ephemeral message, European materials of paper and ink allowed for images and text to have a much longer-lasting and widespread impact. As a material, paper is just absorbent enough to accept ink in proper measure for a precise image, durable and light enough to carry a message far, inexpensive enough to carry it wide. The sheets, made from the fibers of felled trees, were themselves an invitation to harvest the trees of American forests and make the forest into a city.

While the precise impact of the Portraiture’s enticement is impossible to measure, people did come to the city. The success and growth of Philadelphia, though, was not without cost. Like any effort to establish control over the environment, Penn’s vision carried with it a dimension of social power, and the founding of Philadelphia created a catastrophe of Native American displacement, dispossession, and dispersal that undermined his goal of a peaceful relationship with the Lenapes. The orderly urban plan that Penn hoped would create a harmonious, prosperous colony left no space for Indian life and only attracted more land-hungry European settlers.

The Lenape and Quaker participants in the encounter at Philadelphia faced a divided future, but they colluded to distort an important dimension of the environmental and cultural history of the place. The Delaware Valley saw, in the words of the historian Jean R. Soderlund, “sixty-five years of exchange, conflict, accommodation, and alliance between the Natives, and the Dutch, Swedes, Finns, and English,” not to mention the dispersal of the Lenape population from what would become Philadelphia and its settlement by Swedish farmers. If Benjamin West had been present to witness the single most important agreement that allowed for the founding of Philadelphia between newcomers and the people who lived on the land, he might have depicted the negotiations between Penn’s agents and a group of Swedish farmers.

The founding myths of Philadelphia elide the existence of these “Old Settlers” and emphasize the importance of Native Americans. Such an arrangement fulfilled Penn’s need to establish the legitimacy and the exceptional nature of his colonial experiment, but it fulfilled Lenape needs as well. The historian Amy Schutt points out the importance in Lenape culture of “the building and renewal of relationships through processes of exchange,” which included land. Schutt observes that the Lenapes “apparently viewed early land sales as elements in the creation of relationships. Exchanging European goods for land or for rights to its use was not unlike exchanging presents to establish or renew treaty relationships between peoples.” Land, in this perception, was not an inert commodity to be traded, but an animated force that could shape and mediate human relationships.

The Lenapes’ emphasis on the importance of exchange, however, led them to misfortune. For all of his idealism, Penn was primarily a land speculator and Philadelphia was foremost a real estate venture. Penn’s success—financially, socially, and spiritually—depended on selling land to settlers. While other Europeans acquired American soil through conquest, Penn was determined to gain “peaceable possession” of it. To him, this meant obtaining land from Indians in a nonviolent manner that satisfied English legal standards for real estate transactions in order to gain legitimacy for his massive investment. Indians, willing to engage in traditional practices of negotiation and exchange in order to acquire and maintain power, complied with Penn’s wishes. However, the parties of this exchange could not forever overlook their different modes of environmental perception. The Lenapes exchanged land as something that they viewed as flexible, animated, and renegotiable to people who viewed what they received as fixed, inert, and exploitable. This incompatibility, or fundamental disagreement, over the meaning of land and its use sowed the seeds of conflict that would eventually bring terrible violence and racial hatred to the peoples of Penn’s Woods. It did not tragically emerge only after Pennsylvanians betrayed the legacy of the founder’s noble intentions and the good will of the people who gave him the wampum belt; it was there from the beginning, perhaps from the moment that Thomas Holme put pen to paper and sketched the first lines of the Portraiture.