The making of an American myth

Benjamin West's Penn's Treaty with the Indians

Benjamin West, Penn's Treaty with the Indians, 1771-72, oil on canvas, 191.8 x 273.7 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) A conversation with Monica Zimmerman, Vice President of Public Education and Engagement, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Beth Harris. A Seeing America video

Test your knowledge with a quiz

West, Penn's Treaty

Congratulations - you have completed West, Penn's Treaty. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

Key points

  • Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians illustrates a popular legend about the founding of Pennsylvania Colony. In this story, although he had been granted the rights to the land by King Charles II, Penn followed Quaker ideals and met peacefully in 1682 to trade with the leaders of the local Lenni Lenape peoples.
  • This painting mythologizes the relationship between colonizers and local Native peoples. Painted about 100 years later, it was intended to establish the moral and ethical claims to this territory by illustrating the mutual benefits of this exchange of gifts for land. The painting was also meant to bolster the reputation of Thomas Penn, who had been less fair in the fraudulent Walking Purchase of 1737, and whose king-like authority made him unpopular in the Revolutionary War era.

Go Deeper

Read about the Walking Purchase of 1737 at the official website of the Delaware Tribe

Read a booklet about the Walking Purchase from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

Read a biography of Benjamin West at the National Gallery of Art

Read how Benjamin West created his painting, and how it was distributed as a print, at the State Museum of Pennsylvania

Read about the life of William Penn at the Library of Congress

Explore this teaching guide about West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians

Read William Penn’s description of the Lenni Lenape

More to think about

Although they are called history paintings, images like Penn’s Treaty with the Indians often create or perpetuate a myth or idealized story. What are some other examples you can think of where people were able to create their versions of history as the truth? Think of another historical legend where the popular version differs from the historical fact. Are there artworks that have helped create this fiction?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.