William Penn’s ‘sylvania’

The very first Thanksgiving took place several hundred miles from Philadelphia, and happened about fifty years before William Penn set foot on the soil that became Philadelphia. Nevertheless, this time of year it’s easy to wonder what Penn must have thought when he first hopped off the boat in the fall of 1682 after a long voyage from England.

Most of the early descriptions of Pennsylvania relate to the fecundity of the land. These were written as part of an extensive recruiting effort to get more people to settle here. Descriptions detailing thriving crops, animals fattening on rich pasture, and peaches falling from the trees tempted settlers from England.

We also know from correspondence that Penn was completely smitten with the natural landscape.   He wrote “The woods are adorned with lovely flowers . . .  I have seen the gardens of London best stored with that sort of beauty but think they may be improved by our woods.” The England he left behind had beautiful forests and parkland (mostly private,) but fall color was muted at best. The leaves on most deciduous English trees turn brown or tan before falling to the ground.

Yet in the New World different types of maples blazed red and yellow, alongside purple sweetgum and orange sassafras. Sumac glowed, and towering tulip poplars showered golden leaves onto the ground far below. The first few waves of European immigrants would have had a hard time believing their eyes, when the magic trick that is American autumn began to unfold.

It didn’t take long for the seeds of the great American trees to get back to Europe, thanks to our own John Bartram. Today the trees of various continents are salted pretty evenly throughout the temperate parts of the globe.

Imagine if Penn hadn’t been so taken with the forests he found in the New World. Instead of naming his new territory Penn’s Sylvania (Penn’s Woods) he might have chosen a different name for the colony, and we would be living someplace else. Pennessee? Penntucky ? Pennsiana? None have the same ring, and none serve as a reminder of the natural beauty of our part of the world.

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