The People

Philadelphia is a city characterized by it’s diversity in population. While some cities in British North America are known for being predominantly Anglo or their goal religious homogeneity such as Maryland – founded as a colony for Catholics, or Massachusetts – a puritan colony, Philadelphia is much different. The founder of the Pennsylvania colony, William Penn, was part of a persecuted religious group known as the Quakers. It was Penn’s vision that all believers of God could live in harmony together. In his Essay The Great Case of Liberty of Conscious Penn states that it is vitally important that people are allowed to worship the lord “no matter their religious persuasion.” Pennsylvania was founded for just that reason: to be a home to people of all Christian faiths.

population distribution

Population Distribution of Europeans in Philadelphia

Subsequently Philadelphia’s population is composed of many different peoples from across primarily northern Europe where differences between protestant faiths prevailed the most, and led potential settlers to see Pennsylvania as the perfect opportunity. Initially the lands that would become Pennsylvania were once New Sweden, and later part of New Amsterdam. England soon absorbed these colonies and the crown used these lands how it pleased. From 1638 to 1681 the land was inhabited by mainly:




Starting in 1682 with the establishment of the English colony of Pennsylvania and it’s capital Philadelphia, the city and surrounding country saw the surge in primarily:



-Irish, and


English Immigrants were only the majority for the early 18th century until German speakers began to constitute a vast majority of the migrants disembarking. Irish and Scots remained strong throughout the century and eventually made up a majority of those immigrating in the 1760s.

imigration by nationality

Colonial European Immigration Breakdown

By the time of the American Revolution Philadelphia constituted roughly 32,000 inhabitants (43,000 if suburbs are included) – the largest of any North American city. Even though officially an English colony and primarily governed by such, they were not even a majority at the time.

~About a quarter were Anglo

~30% were Irish or Scotch-Irish

~33% were Germans hailing primarily from the north and along the Rhine.

A handful of Swedes, Welsh, Dutch, and French made up the remainder adding even more diversity to an already multi-national city.

Each nationality carried it’s own religious identity, or religious identities.

English Quakers constituted a minority of the population of Philadelphia but were some of the first, and most influential people to inhabit Philadelphia.

Most other English were Anglican, and are responsible for constructing Philadelphia’s largest place of worship, Christ Church.

Most Scots and Scotch Irish were Presbyterian.


Christ Church

German speakers coming from overseas were mainly Lutheran or Reformed, but there were also groups of Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and Moravians.

Many Dutch Calvinists settled in the region early in it’s history.

There were also Swedish Lutherans that made up some of the early settlers.

Catholics could be found from many different nationalities where they are persecuted minorities in their home country. A notable portion were Irish though who came mostly for economic opportunity.


Map of important historic sites in Philadelphia, particularly different places of worship.

While called richly diverse in its differing backgrounds of inhabitants, they were primarily white, northern European, protestants. It is remarkable that there was such a blend in one city but what about other groups? Early settlers coexisted with native tribes and traded with them occasionally, but when the English chartered Pennsylvania settlers made a point to not do so. It was English policy to purchase land from the natives so that they did not have to inhabit the same areas. The French and Indian War in the 1760’s did more to create anonymity between white settlers and native Americans. The city of Philadelphia commonly pushed Irish and other poor migrants to settle along the periphery of the city to act as a buffer. It is clear that interactions with native Americans was not a regular part of Philadelphian society unless you count distancing oneself.

philly port

Philadelphia’s Port circa 1800

A non-white minority did exist in Philadelphia though in the form of African slaves and black freemen. Africans were first brought from British Caribbean by Quakers in 1684, who ironically were the first to advocate for abolition in later decades. These slaves were brought in increasing amounts in the mid-18th century but were still quite outnumbered by whites moving into the city. They made a respectable 10% of the population in 1710, but only a meager 3% by the time of the American Revolution due to slave importation rates declining, and increasing European. There were a large number of indentured servants consistently from the British Isles and there was never a significant demand for African slaves. Most slave work was domestic or industrial as farmers surrounding the city desired mostly white labor. African slaves proved as a useful source of labor in undesirable labor intensive industries and were important, yet did not help shape early Philadelphian culture and society nearly as much as it did change the industrial labor force. Most blacks in Philadelphia were free by the end of the  17th century due to gradual abolition beginning in 1780 barring further enslavement.

It was Philadelphia’s unique demographics that made it such an important city in early American history. It served as a bustling port – more so than even New York or Boston in the 18th century. It attracted immigrants form all across Europe, and even other colonies in America. It was also the center of important philosophical and political thought during the American Revolution and Constitutional convention. The diversity in heritage and beliefs allowed Philadelphia to grow into a shining cosmopolitan city.