When the mural William Penn Welcomed by the People of New Castle was painted in 1938, the post office in New Castle, Delaware was only two years old. The choice of an historical subject for the mural seemed appropriate for a building that was designed to blend in with the colonial architecture of the town (livingnewdeal.org).
The artist J. Scott Williams began his career as an illustrator of books and magazines. By the 1930s, Williams had created and supervised the installation of several stained glass window displays for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Main Reading Room in the University of Illinois Library, and the Indiana State Library. His work at the Indiana State Library led to a commission to paint four murals reflecting the history of Indiana for their Library and Historical Building, two of which featured Native American themes: The Song of the Indian Land and The Indian’s Gift of Corn (Vavra 84). When he painted the murals for Indian State, he declared that most of the work was historically accurate, although he admitted to taking some artist license with the clothing of the Native Americans for fear of offending the public tastes of 1934 (Vavra 94-5). Williams served as the president of the National Society of Mural Painters from1937 to 1938. In addition to his work as muralist, he taught art at the University of Wyoming from 1946 to 1949 (Vavra 95).
In addition to his technical skills as a painter, Williams’ experience with historical subjects is apparent in the detail of his work. This accuracy can be seen in the murals he completed for a commission at Indiana State as well as the mural painted for the New Castle post office. For the New Castle mural, Williams retained the accuracy of his Native American subjects, portraying them bare chested and wearing the traditional breechcloth and leggings tied to a belt. While men of the Delaware tribe may have worn shirts or robes in the colder months, their attire in the mural seems appropriate for the time of year depicted. The man on the left wears a necklace and headband made of shells or some other natural material, which would have been traditional for both men and women (Lenape Lifeways).
The mural, which was painted over the Postmaster’s door, is carefully balanced on both sides with the figures tightly compressed in the foreground. On the right stands William Penn, erect and formal with his cane held regally away from his body. Behind him are crew members from the ship on which he has just arrived. On the left side of the painting, three men are gathered in conference, one holding a large piece of paper. Behind the central figures are additional townspeople of New Castle. The artist placed the emphasis of the mural on the figures; the background is simply painted with a large tree and a ship in the harbor.
In the center foreground is a banner bearing the mural’s title with members of the Lenni Lenape tribe, now more commonly referred to as the Delaware, seated on the ground on either side of the banner looking up at the proceedings. Although the Native American subjects are relegated to observers rather than active participants, their inclusion in the mural is important to the story of William Penn's activities in the New World.
The Lenape were a significantly large tribe spread out over an area from southeastern New York State to Delaware. Archeologists believe they arrived in the Delaware region thousands of years before the Europeans, crossing the Bering Strait from Asia to Alaska along continental glaciers. They were comprised of two major divisions: the Munsee in the north and the Unami in the south (Lenape Lifeways). Prior to William Penn’s arrival, the Dutch and Swedish settlers had traded with the Delaware tribe for years. However, the Dutch viewed the Native Americans as pagans and savages and fought with them frequently over territory (Dale 1-4).
William Penn, a Quaker, facilitated the migration of 800 fellow Quakers to the Mid-Atlantic region, including some from Holland. Having established strong ties with the Dutch Quakers, Penn was able to arbitrate land disputes between the Dutch and the British (Hull 15). He used this clout to petition King Charles II for a land grant and on March 4, 1681, received a charter for what would become Pennsylvania (Sonderland 3).
Even before arriving in New Castle, Penn was determined to maintain equitable relations with the Native Americans. He sent messages to the colonists stating that all occupied lands must first be cleared of their Indian-held title by fair purchase and that any disputes be handled with a jury trial that included six natives (Penn and Myers 10). By the time Penn landed in New Castle, his agents had signed their first deed with the Delaware tribe (Sonderland 14).
Although the New Castle mural is not specifically about Penn’s interaction with the Native Americans, its layout is reminiscent of three earlier paintings reflecting William Penn’s negotiations with the Delaware tribe: Penn’s Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West, William Penn’s Treaty with Lenape Chiefs at Shackamaxon by Edward Hicks, and William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians Founding the Colony of Pennsylvania by Currier & Ives. Penn frequently sat in council with the Unami division of the Lenape tribe, learning their language and customs. He was determined to bring about more amicable relations after the hostile confrontations with the Dutch and Swedes (Penn and Myers 7-9).
Although William Penn saw his colony in the Mid-Atlantic region to be a “holy experiment” where society could flourish in tolerance and without religious persecution, he also hoped to gain financial security through the sale of land parcels (Sonderland 5). Penn’s sons, John and Thomas, were more interested in financial gain than peaceful coexistence and set about with unscrupulous tactics to scam the Delaware tribe out of large tracts of land. Relocation and eviction moved the tribe westward. The effects of alcoholism and disease took their toll as well and by the 18th century, the tribe was in decline. The Munsee division eventually settled in Ontario, Canada while others moved to Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wisconsin (Dale 6-8).
By Neal Patterson
More information: lenapelifeways.org
Dale, Frank. Delaware Diary: Episodes in the Life of a River. Rutgers University Press, 1996. Print.
Hart Vavra, Trinity. “The Indiana State Library: A Testament to History Thru Architecture.” Ball State University, 2010. Print.
Hull, William Isaac. William Penn and the Dutch Quaker Migration to Pennsylvania. Genealogical Publishing Com, 1970. Print.
“Lenape Lifeways (lenapelifeways.org/lenape1.htm).” N.p., 22 Sept. 2015. Web.
Marling, Karal Ann. Wall-to-Wall America: Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.
“New Castle Delaware Post Office Mural.” Flickr - Photo Sharing!. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2015.
Penn, William, and Albert Cook Myers. William Penn’s Own Account of the Lenni Lenape Or Delaware Indians. B B& A Publishers, 1981. Print.
“Post Office Mural - New Castle DE.” Living New Deal. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2015.
Soderlund, Jean R. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Print.
“William Penn | English Quaker Leader and Colonist.” Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2015.