Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) will be useful in the study of:
- America before the Revolutionary War
- The colonization of America
- Migration and settlement
- Native American history
By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:
- Discuss Penn’s Treaty with the Indians as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the eighteenth century
- Identify the motivations underlying the creation of the painting
- Explain how the painting is structured to present its message
- Discuss the more complex relationship between the Lenni Lenape and the settlers of the Pennsylvania Colony
1. Look closely at the painting
Look closely at Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)
Questions to ask:
- What is your first impression of the painting?
- Describe the painting. What parts of it seem important to you?
- Are there small details in the painting that you think might be important?
- How does Benjamin West distinguish between the colonists and the Native Americans?
- How does the background scenery contribute to the painting’s narrative?
2. Watch the video
The video “The making of an American myth: Benjamin West, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” is only four minutes long. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians are provided to support the video.
3. Read about the painting and its historical context
Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians illustrates a scene in which the Quaker leader William Penn is trading peacefully with leaders of the Lenni Lenape and Delaware peoples. It is a recounting of a popular belief that in 1682, Penn met with the Lenni Lenape and Delaware peoples under an elm tree at Shackamaxon and traded gifts for land. He had been granted the rights to the land by King Charles II of England, but as a Quaker he is shown choosing to do what was morally and ethically right within his beliefs and negotiating peacefully to compensate the Native Americans who were living in what the colonists called Pennsylvania Colony.
However, the painting doesn’t show the reality of the relationship between the colonizers and the local Native groups. It was commissioned about 100 years after the scene it shows, and is meant to show the way people wanted to believe that colonization happened. It was an important narrative for people in the colonies to believe that “at least at this time we traded well with our neighbors. That we have business practices and religious practices and cultural practices that perpetuate peace.” It is essentially depicting a myth.
A work of propaganda
The painting was also meant to bolster the reputation of William Penn’s son Thomas, who hadn’t been very fair in his dealings with the local Natives, and whose near royal authority over the colony was not popular on the eve of the revolutionary War. He was the one who commissioned the painting. It helped to be able to point to something that showed you and your ancestors had been kind, benevolent, and fair.
Images that persuade
The painter, Benjamin West, has placed the bolt of white cloth being offered to the Native Americans at the center of the painting, emphasizing the idea of trade. He also shows other Native people in the painting wearing cloth in shades of green, yellow, red, and blue. It is meant to emphasize that the colonists had offered something that the Native people really wanted and that the trading was fair. The scene also emphasizes an idea of peace: the Quakers are unarmed and the Native people have set down their bows and arrows. The seated Native man at the center front who is looking at the bolt of fabric is shown holding what looks like a peace pipe. In addition, we can see Native houses under the tree and European houses being built in the background, implying that the two groups lived together in harmony rather than the reality of the Lenni Lenape being pushed off of their land through coercion and violence.
4. Discussion questions
- How might we draw parallels between the motivations behind Penn’s Treaty with the Indians and modern concerns over “deepfake” videos and manipulated photographs? How is a painting similar to or different from a video or a photograph?
- Why do you think that Thomas Penn thought a claim to being fair with Native Americans would make fellow colonists more inclined to accept his family’s leadership?
5. Research questions
- Look up the Walking Purchase of 1737, and describe the strategy Thomas Penn used to defraud the Lenni Lenape of their land. How much land was taken? Were the Lenni Lenape able to try and fight back? Where do the Lenni Lenape now live?
- Benjamin West was one of many history painters working around the time of the American Revolution. John Trumbull and Thomas Birch were among his contemporaries. Choose a history painting by one of these artists and compare it to Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. How are the paintings similar? How are they different?
Tobin, Beth F. 1999. Picturing imperial power: colonial subjects in eighteenth-century British painting. Chapter “Native Land and Foreign Desires: William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians,” pp. 56-80. (Durham: Duke Univ. Press).