Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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The Naming of Pennsylvania

On January 5, 1681, William Penn wrote a letter to his friend Robert Turner:

{Anals of Pennsylvania}
Annals of Pennsylvania

"This day my country was confirmed to me by the name of Pennsylvania, a name the King would give it, in honor of my father. I chose New Wales, being, as this, a pretty hilly country; but Penn, being Welsh for a head -- as Pennanmoire in Wales, and Penrith in Cumberland, and Penn in Buckinghamshire, the highest land in England, -- they called this Pennsylvania, which is the high or head woodlands, for I proposed (when the Secretary, a Welshman, refused to have it called New Wales), Sylvania, and they added Penn to it; and though I much opposed it and went to the King to have it struck out and altered, he said, 'twas past, and would take it upon him; nor would twenty Guineas move the under Secretaries to vary the name, -- for I feared lest it should be looked on as a vanity in me, and not as a respect in the king, as it truly was, to my father, whom he often mentions with praise."

John F. Watson, the author of what generations have called "Watson's Annuals," goes on to comment:

"If the cause was thus peculiar in its origin, it is not less remarkable in its effect, it being at this day perhaps the only government in existence which possesses the name of its founder."

Watson further makes the footnote: "Penn himself professed to have descended of the house of Tudor, in Wales, one of whom, dwelling on an eminence in Wales, received the name of John Pennunnith. He going afterward to reside in London, took the name of John Penn, i.e. John on the Hill."

Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019