Pennsylvania’s infamous ‘Walking Purchase’

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

In 1681, King Charles II of England granted William Penn a charter to establish a colony in the New World. The king owed William Penn’s father ₤16,000 and to repay his debt, King Charles II granted the young Penn 45,000 square miles of land to establish a colony in “regard to the memorie and merits of his late father” on March 4, 1681.

William Penn was only 37 years old when he gained sovereign rule of the new territory known as Pennsylvania, and he worked quickly to establish a colony like no other in the New World. He recruited fellow Englishmen of every trade and skill to join him. From simple farmers to wealthy businessmen, Penn needed every type of settler (or “adventurer,” as he called them) to help create a successful colony.

Penn created a town at the mouth of the Delaware River to promote commerce and government; he named the town, Philadelphia, which was Greek for "city of brotherly love." To ensure his colony would remain peaceful, Penn purchased the land from the local Native Americans before settlement took place.

During the early years of the colony, William Penn, in addition to several of his agents, purchased more land from the Indians. In 1682, Penn met with the native peoples to create a treaty to buy additional lands for white settlers. Penn and his agents successfully bought hundreds of acres of land north of Philadelphia (in present-day Bucks County). There was no recorded animosity or distrust between the natives or William Penn, and the two groups lived in relative peace with one another. For a number of years following the 1682 treaty, neither Penn nor any of his agents purchased land from the natives. It was not until 19 years after William Penn’s death in 1718 that another treaty to purchase lands from the natives was created.

Thomas Penn, one of William’s sons, who inherited the position of proprietor of the colony from his father, along with agent James Logan, sought additional lands north of the earlier 1682 treaty. Pennsylvania’s population was increasing and the younger Penn and Logan felt as though more land was needed to accommodate the ever-growing European colonial inhabitants’ surge. Settlers had already been living north and west of the initial boundary, and Logan convinced the native people that a second survey was needed to settle the dispute.

It was agreed between the two parties that this new land grant would contain a tract of land beginning at Wrightstown and extending northward as far as a man could walk in one and one-half days. Three men were chosen as walkers: James Yeates, Solomon Jennings and Edward Marshall. Each man was paid five pounds and was given 500 acres of land for his participation in the walk. Yeates, Jennings, and Marshall were not alone in their endeavor and were joined by many individuals who were to ensure the rules of the treaty were obeyed.

The Penn party hired John Chapman, Benjamin Eastburn, Nicholas Scull and James Steele Jr. to serve as witnesses. The Delaware Indians had John Combush, Joe Tuneam, and one other unnamed man to serve as witnesses for the tribe. Sheriff Timothy Smith served as the official timekeeper to guarantee that the walk would begin on the first day at 6 a.m. and that the walkers would stop for the evening at 6 p.m. The next morning, the walk would begin again at 6 a.m. and end at noon, a tour of precisely one and one-half days. In addition to the three walkers, the sheriff, and the witnesses, a small group of men were hired to carry water and food for the participants.

The starting point for the walk was an old chestnut tree located near the Wrightstown Meeting House. Yeates, Jennings, and Marshall placed their hands on the tree, and on September 19, 1737, when the first rays of the sun rose over the horizon, the walk began.

According to the reports of the event, the white walkers’ pace was so fast, that the native people yelled and demanded that the colonists walk and not run. The Delawares had assumed that the white “walkers” would follow the native customs of walking along a path and taking breaks to hunt and to smoke. After witnessing the European colonists’ behavior, many natives turned away in disgust and immediately claimed that the tribe was being cheated.

Of the three walkers, Yeates took the early lead and was favored to complete the task. Jennings remained second and was followed by Marshall, who reportedly swung an axe carelessly as he walked. After fewer than 10 miles, Jennings and two of the native walkers quit due to exhaustion. Only Yeates, Marshall, and one Delaware remained.

The walking party reached Bethlehem and forded the Lehigh River, which was unusually low. The men continued in a northwest direction until stopping at 6 p.m. at the Hockendauqua Creek in the present-day town of Northampton; the men had walked more than 44 miles in one day. At dawn, the two white settlers and the native began the rest of the walk. Early into the second day of walking, Yeates became faint, fell on the trail, and dropped out of the walk. Marshall was the last colonist walker remaining, and he continued on the path with the native. The treaty stated that the walk would end at noon on the second day. As noon approached, Marshall threw himself on the ground and reached out to grab a small sapling. This was the official end of the walk. The sapling was located near the Tobyhanna Creek in Carbon County near present-day Jim Thorpe; it was 65 miles from Wrightstown and much further from the starting line than the natives had expected. Because of his efforts, Marshall was awarded the promised 500 acres of land, and ultimately, the village of Marshalls Creek was named in his honor.

Following the walk, surveyors for the Commonwealth were charged with mapping the boundary line for the newly acquired land based on the ground that Marshall had covered. In another dubious act of the “Walking Purchase,” the surveyors, instead of drawing the boundary line in a direct easterly direction to the Delaware River, followed the demarcation of the earlier 1682 agreement, which made the line run from the sapling (in Jim Thorpe) in a northeasterly direction. On the new map, the northern boundary of Pennsylvania began in present-day Jim Thorpe and extended northeasterly to the mouth of the Lackawaxen River in present-day Pike County. In this way, through the “Walking Purchase of 1737” the Pennsylvania government secured nearly 1,200 square miles of land.

When the Delaware Indians protested the purchase and refused to leave the land, officials of the Pennsylvania government asked the Iroquois Indians to help evict the Delawares. The Iroquois, who had conquered the Delawares, sided with the Pennsylvania government and supported the new treaty, stating:

“How come you to take it upon you to sell lands at all? We conquered you; we made women of you. For this land you claim you have been furnished with clothes, meat and drink, and now you want it again, like the children that you are. We charge you to remove instantly; we don’t give you liberty to think about it. You are women. Take the advice of a wise man and go at once.”

The Walking Purchase and the subsequent treatment of the Delaware Indians strained the relationship between the European colonists and the native people. Undoubtedly, the treaty was not consistent with the governance of William Penn himself, and it likely “set the stage” for the Delawares’ alliance with the French during the French and Indian War of 1755.

Interestingly, the European “walkers” fared almost as poorly as the natives. Neither Yeates nor Jennings ever physically recovered from his walk. Yeates, after being retrieved from the trail on the morning of the second day, became blind and died three days following the completion of the walk. Jennings, the first walker to quit, returned home to Allentown, but he never recovered fully from his exertion.

Only Edward Marshall lived into old age, but he suffered deeply for his participation in the treaty. Following completion of the walk, Marshall and his family settled on their newly-granted 500 acres of land south of Delaware Water Gap near Portland in Northampton County.

But the natives never forgave Marshall. In 1747, they attacked his family and killed one of his sons. Following the attack, Marshall and his family moved across the Delaware River into New Jersey, but after several years, they returned to their land in Pennsylvania.

In 1756, Marshall’s home was attacked again by a party of 16 Delaware warriors. During this second raid of the homestead, Marshall’s wife was killed and scalped. While Edward Marshall might have physically escaped the wrath of the angered native people, his family suffered the consequences of his actions.