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William Penn Appoints Customs Officer for Kent County to Enforce Navigation Acts
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As proprietor of Pennsylvania, including the later state of Delaware, Penn authorizes the appointment of a yet-unnamed customs agent for Kent county. Customs agents were an essential part of funding the British mercantile system. Due to the belief that there was a finite amount of money in the world, Britain sought to keep the benefits of trade within the Empire and minimize the export of gold and silver.

WILLIAM PENN. Manuscript Document Signed, Appointment for customs agent (with name left blank) for “the County of Kent, annexed to the Province of Pennsylvania” [now Delaware], Philadelphia, March 10, 1701. On vellum. 1 p., 16¾ x 9¼ in.

Inventory #23989.01       Price: $9,000


William Penn True and Absolute Proprietor and Governor in Chief of the province of Pennsylvania and Territories thereunto belonging…Doe hereby Depute and Empower my Trusty Friend

          within the precincts of the River Dover and the whole County of Kent…to Execute the Office....

Historical Background

The Navigation Acts prohibited the colonies from trading directly with other European nations and their colonies and imposed restrictions on foreign vessels and sailors. Upon his restoration, King Charles II voided the 1651 Navigation Act, and Parliament passed new legislation in 1660, 1663, 1670, and 1673, collectively forming the basis for British overseas trade for nearly 200 years. The 1663 “Act for the Encouragement of Trade” required European goods bound for America to be shipped first to England, where the goods could be taxed and reloaded on English vessels.  The 1673 “Act for the encouragement of the Greenland and Eastland Trades and for the better Servicing the plantation Trade” required ships not bonded in England to have a duty and bond collected by colonial governors when a ship reached the colonies. As intended, this policy helped raise funds for the Crown and severely restricting the colonies’ trade with countries outside of the British Empire.

William Penn, who had established the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1680s, desired direct access to the sea for his fledgling settlements on the Delaware River. Penn’s charter specifically excluded the town of New Castle and land within a twelve-mile radius. These lands were part of the Duke of York’s earlier 1664 grant. Prior to departing for America, Penn convinced the duke to lease him the western shore of Delaware Bay which became known as “the Lower Counties on the Delaware.” Although the three counties shared a governor with Pennsylvania, after 1704, they convened their own assembly. It was only with the outbreak of the American Revolution that the three counties coalesced into the State of Delaware. 

On March 1, 1701, Penn wrote to the Commissioners of the Customs in London with a recommendation that instead of appointing collectors of customs at various points in the colony, he appoint “double the number of Waiters in the most likely places in this Bay and river.”[1] Tide-waiters awaited the arrival of ships and boarded them to prevent their evasion of customs duties.

Penn signed this appointment, citing several acts of Parliament, including “... an Act for the Encouragement of trade, and... an act to prevent the planting of tobacco in England... and Act of Parliament...for the encouragement of the Greenland and Eastland Trades and for the better Servicing the plantation Trade and one act of Parliament... for preventing frauds and Regulating Abuses in the plantation Trade...” However, he did not fill in the name of the appointee. Eight months later, Penn, with his wife and children, departed for England, never again to return to America.

William Penn (1644-1718) was an English Quaker and the founder of Pennsylvania. In 1681, King Charles II granted Penn a royal charter for large tracts of American land in payment of debts the king owed to Penn’s father. The younger Penn arrived in 1682 and established the colony of Pennsylvania. He sailed up the Delaware River and founded Philadelphia as the capital. Returning to England in 1684, he again came to Pennsylvania in 1699 and stayed for two years. In 1704, settlers on the lower Delaware split to form what became Delaware.  Penn was an early supporter of colonial unification and an advocate of democratic government. His financial manager’s embezzlement led to Penn’s incarceration in debtors’ prison in 1707 at age 62. Sympathetic Quakers got Penn’s sentence reduced to house arrest and eventually obtained his release. He died penniless in Ruscombe, west of London.


Folds with a few minor holes filled in, moderate soiling, a few spots of mild ink erosion, else very good condition with an intact paper seal affixed at top left.


The Estate of Charles E. Sigety.

[1] Craig W. Horle et al., eds., The Papers of William Penn, Volume 4: 1701-1718 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 34-35.

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