William Penn died penniless, but he left Pennsylvanians with riches of history, including the steep wood Graystones in Morrisville.
At Graystones, located at what is now the borough’s northeast corner at Crown Street and Highland Avenue, Penn met with members of the Lenape Indian tribe under a white oak tree in 1682 to negotiate the first land-purchase survey in Pennsylvania.
The Lenape Native Americans, also known as Delaware Indians or the Delaware tribe, settled between the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and Hudson River in New York. When they first came in contact with Europeans, the Lenape worked on agriculture, and moved around during seasons for hunting and fishing opportunities.
Penn befriended the natives. As a Quaker, Penn opposed firearms and ensured the Lenape that the tribe would get paid fairly for their land. Although he came from an Anglican family and was son of an admiral under the British crown, Penn became Quaker when he was 22 years old.
“He was a good man to us,” said Bart “Standing Elk” Cartwright, who said he’s a federally recognized Native American. “We were the first to make any type of treaty with him.”
The white oak tree isn’t there today; that type of tree only lives up to 200 years. However, large rocks that stood nearby remain within six-acres of woods. They are the only remaining landmark showing where Penn made the purchase.
A bronze plaque near the rocks reads: “Near this spot stood the white oak tree that marked the starting point of the first tract of land purchased of the Indians by William Penn July 15, 1682, on land in the Tenure of John Wood and by him called Graystones over against the Falls of the Delaware.”
The site was named after the extraordinary outcropping of gray bedrock which protrudes from the ground at the northwest end of the site, said Bill Setzer, who is a member of the Friends of Graystones.
In the 1990s, that precious land was threatened by a proposed dense housing development.
The Morrisville community banded against the housing project, leading the Morrisville Borough Council to save the plot of land with the help of the Bucks County government, which generously pitched in and granted the area as preserved open space, Setzer said.
For Setzer, the Graystones aren’t only a gem in his town, or the county, the site is a statewide treasure.
“This is where it all started, land purchasing and preservation,” he said, adding that Penn wanted the land for farming.
Additionally, Setzer said, the plot has botanical and geological importance aside from its historic significance.
Within the six-acres of woods, there remain trees that date back to when Penn met the Indians for the purchase, he said.
A study conducted by Professor David Benner of Delaware Valley College and his students in 1977 concluded that the Graystones Forest was without question the second oldest hardwood standing in Bucks County, Setzer said. The first is a 22-acre track near Doylestown.
At the time of the study, at least 100 trees were more than 100 years old, 25 were more than 200 years old, and others were about 250 years old.
Benner concluded that the small forest was “rather unusual” and “should be preserved and protected as a natural area for future study and observation of a climax type forest situation similar to the virgin forests that once covered much of Pennsylvania.”
Knowing that, Morrisville Councilman Fred Kerner has repeatedly asked Google to put Graystones Forest as a landmark in the company’s Google Maps system, but to no avail, he said.
Kerner said the plot is a beautiful forest area with wildlife. Setzer said that within the woods’ boundaries thrives a variety of trees: hickory, tulip and beech.
Maybe Penn realized the beauty of the plot and decided he would set up his farm within the tract, he said.
Penn, an Englishman born on Oct. 14, 1644, founded Pennsylvania after the land was given to him by King Charles II of England, who had a large loan with Penn’s father, Adm. Sir William Penn. The king settled the debt with the young Penn by awarding him the territory on March 4, 1681 at the age of 36, according ushistory.org, which is run by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia.
Initially, Penn had named the land Sylvania– “woods” in Latin. However, the king renamed it Pennsylvania in honor of the Penn’s father.
After the younger Penn’s death on July 30, 1718, his family kept ownership of Pennsylvania until the American Revolution.
Bucks County was one of the first counties in the new Pennsylvania. The county was named after Buckinghamshire (Bucks) in England, “where the Penn’s family seat was, and from whence many of the first settlers came,” according to ushistory.org.
“Penn had hoped that Pennsylvania would be a profitable venture for himself and his family,” the website states. “Penn marketed the colony throughout Europe in various languages and, as a result, settlers flocked to Pennsylvania.
“Despite Pennsylvania’s rapid growth and diversity, the colony never turned a profit for Penn or his family. In fact, Penn (was) later be imprisoned in England for debt and, at the time of his death in 1718, he was penniless.”
Penn spent two years in Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1684. During that time, he began to build his country home, Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County along the Delaware River.
He also started his building plans for Philadelphia, soon after that project was completed, he started to exercise his plan, and so he began to befriend the Lenape, even learning several native dialects for negotiating purposes.
Penn made a similar purchase deal as he had done with the Lenape with the other Indians at Shackamaxon, near Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. That deal was made under an elm tree.
“Penn introduced laws saying that if a European did an Indian wrong, there would be a fair trial, with an equal number of people from both groups deciding the matter,” reads ushistory.org. “His measures in this matter proved successful: even though later colonists did not treat the Indians as fairly as Penn and his first group of colonists had done, colonists and Indians remained at peace in Pennsylvania much longer than in the other English colonies.”
After 1684, he visited the area one last time in 1699. Although he ultimately wanted to settle in America, his financial problems prevented him. His economic troubles stemmed from his accountant, who cheated him out of his fortune. For a decade Penn was in legal battles against him.
Penn suffered a stroke in 1712 that left him unable to speak or care for himself, according to ushistory.org.