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Our Undying Past

Philadelphia's Indian Set-Aside

It's believed that the so-called Wampum Lot would have touched on the southern edge of Welcome Park and run toward Bookbinder's, as shown in this photo by Nathaniel Popkin.

The listener’s question last week stumped me. “Is it true,” she asked, “that William Penn set aside land in Philadelphia for the Indians’ permanent use?”

At author appearances for Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflict, I’ve welcomed the various questions that have come: Why did I tackle this topic? How does one research it? What are the lessons for today?

But this query, about a possible Indian reservation right in Philadelphia, brought me up short. It came during a talk-back portion of my presentation at the Ethical Society on Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. I responded that it was news to me, though it was plausible given Penn’s early good will toward his indigenous neighbors.

Plausible, but is it true? Afterwards, I did a bit of online research, and soon hit on some good information. On the website hiddencityphila.org is an entry titled “Even Before Old Original Bookbinder’s: An Official Indian Reservation.” Most Philadelphians, and even most tourists, know of Bookbinder’s as the venerable but now-defunct eatery at Second and Walnut Streets in the city’s Old City section.

“Philadelphia may have been the only city in the United States where land was set aside for Indians whenever they visited the city,” author and tour guide Harry Kyriakodis wrote in the October 2013 online article. “This ‘reservation’ – open to any Native group who happened to find themselves in the city – occupied a spot immediately behind Bookbinder’s, along Hancock Street and adjacent to the southeastern edge of the present Welcome Park. The campsite was granted to a group of Native Americans in 1755 by John Penn (1729-1795), grandson of William Penn. John’s uncle, Thomas Penn (1702-1775), had sent his nephew to the province of Pennsylvania in 1752 as a political apprentice to Governor James Hamilton. The young Penn served on the Provincial Council, associated with important Penn family appointees, and dealt with local Indian tribes before returning to England late in 1755.”

In his carefully researched article, Kyriakodis says John Penn presented a wampum gift to the Iroquois envoys to formalize the set-aside arrangement. The envoy who accepted the wampum was the Mohawk chief called King Hendrick Theyanoguin. Reading Hendrick’s name was a small-world moment for me because he is the very chief whom Queen Esther, the protagonist in Visions of Teaoga, cites in her valedictory speech. I have Esther recalling an actual oath that Hendrick declared in the 1754 Albany talks: “We will never part with the land at Shamokin and Wyoming. Our bones are scattered there and on his land there has always been a great council fire.”

The Philadelphia set-aside site became referred to as the Wampum Lot – though there is no indication it was ever actually used as a campground by Indians, Kyriakodis writes. In the modern era, he says, it seems to have had an unseemly fate, as Dumpster storage for Bookbinder’s.

Meanwhile, there may also have been a second Indian set-aside, a small patch of land twelve blocks to the west. This site, bounded by Broad, Juniper, Walnut and Locust Streets, also was said to be reserved for Native delegations to pitch their tents during official visits, although hiddencityphila.org cautions that there is little documentation about it.

To read all about this forgotten past, go to http://hiddencityphila.org/2013/10/before-even-bookbinders-an-official-indian-reservation/
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