Wife of Pennsylvania Founder William Penn
On First Day (Sunday to non-Quakers), December 10, 1699, after eight difficult weeks at sea, Hannah Penn arrived in Philadelphia on board the Canterbury with her husband. While William Penn’s trusted secretary, James Logan, instructed dockworkers and servants to gather up crates of their belongings, Penn escorted Hannah, as she carefully made her way down the gangplank into his bustling “green country town.”
Hannah was pregnant and due to give birth to their first child in about a month. Twenty-six years old when she arrived in Philadelphia, Hannah was twenty-four years younger than her famous husband. Penn’s first wife, Gulielma Maria Springett, had died on February 24, 1694, leaving two surviving children.
Born in Bristol, England, in 1671, Hannah Callowhill was the only surviving daughter of a wealthy merchant. She first met Penn when he was on a religious visit to fellow Quakers in her city. After he left, they began a courtship through letters.
The exchange of notes, however, was not equal, for her suitor wrote more than twice as many letters as Hannah did, and in one missive gently chided her for not keeping up a more regular correspondence. Despite her apparent laxity in letter writing, Penn proposed and she accepted. The two were married in the Friends Meeting House in Bristol on March 5, 1696.
Upon their arrival in Pennsylvania, the Penns made their way through a welcoming throng of officials and well wishers to the home of Edward Shippen, a prominent Quaker and close friend of William Penn, where they would stay for a few weeks. Penn’s manor home, Pennsbury, was not yet ready for them to take up residence.
After a short stay at Shippen’s, they moved into the Slate Roof House located at Second Street and Norris Alley (now Sansom Street) which was owned by a Quaker merchant and Provincial Council member, Samuel Carpenter. Here Hannah Penn gave birth to a son, John.
By June, their steward had everything ready for them at Pennsbury and they relocated to their country estate situated on the Delaware River twenty-four miles above Philadelphia. There, Hannah took responsibility for management of the manor’s household activities, including the baking, brewing, cooking, drying, pickling, preserving, and spinning.
As mistress of the manor, she was in charge of the cellar, dairy, herb garden, larder, kitchen garden, and smokehouse and managed the domestic workforce, which included at least three African American slaves.
The Penn family had only been in America about a year when economic and political necessity forced William to return to England in 1701. His money problems were twofold: Penn’s representatives were having trouble collecting rents from tenants on his lands in Ireland, and his business agent in London claimed that Penn owed him ten thousand pounds sterling. Penn’s most significant political problem stemmed from efforts by the royal government to take control of Pennsylvania. These were serious problems that required his direct personal attention.
Penn wanted to leave Hannah and Laetitia in Pennsylvania, but Hannah insisted that they accompany him. On November 2, 1701, Hannah Penn again boarded a ship with all her belongings to cross the Atlantic. When she arrived in England two months later, she was pregnant with her second child. In England, Hannah Penn would have five more children.
After Penn became ill in 1712 and suffered several strokes the following year, she also had to take care of her ailing husband. When Penn became paralyzed by several strokes, Hannah handled all of the province’s official business. She sent letters of advice and instruction to its governor, and handled her husband’s other complicated financial and legal affairs.
Image: Pennsbury Manor
William Penn’s seventeenth century country estate on the Delaware River sits on a forty three acre plantation that still includes period furnishings, outbuildings, livestock and gardens.
Hannah effectively administered the Province of Pennsylvania for six years after her husband suffered a series of strokes, and then for another eight years after her husband’s death. She acting proprietor from 1712 until her death in 1726.
After Penn’s death at age 73, in July 1718, his will gave full control of the colony and his fortune to Hannah Penn, but in an effort to cut Hannah and her children out of the inheritance, William Penn, Jr. – Penn’s son from his first marriage – contested his father’s will. Hannah prevailed, however.
Hannah Penn died from a stroke on December 20, 1726, and the proprietorship of Pennsylvania passed to her three sons: John, Thomas, and Richard.
Hannah Penn is one of the few individuals and the first woman to be given the status of Honorary Citizen of the United States, given to her by Presidential Proclamation upon an Act of Congress by Ronald Reagan on November 28, 1984.