William Penn statute Penn Treaty Park
Joan Brady

No, you’re not a descendant of William Penn

Here’s why you can’t possibly be related to Pennsylvania’s founding father.

William Penn statute Penn Treaty Park
Joan Brady
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Sally Edwards didn’t know who William Penn was when her grandmother mentioned she was related. Edwards had no reason to. She’s an Australian. But her grandmother, who admired Penn for religious reasons, insisted Jabez Penn, Edwards’ great-grandfather, stemmed from the same tree as the founder of Philly.

“I used to joke I want to walk the streets of Philadelphia,” Edwards said during a Skype conversation from her home 60 miles south of Melbourne. “It would be the closest to a fortune I could ever get.”

From Australia to Pennsylvania, similar stories abound about people being descendants of PA’s founder. But here’s the thing about all of them: They’re not true.

Many of America’s founding fathers have prominent direct descendants. Thomas Jefferson, through slave Sally Hemings, has many. Ben Franklin has several, including “Heros” actor Jack Coleman. But not William Penn. Philly’s most famous son (sorry, Franklin) didn’t have enough healthy sons of his own.

“The descendant line,” said Todd Galle, curator at Pennsbury Manor, “it’s really just not there.”

Galle, a burly middle-aged man with glasses who sometimes dresses full-colonial for the Manor — Penn’s country home in Bucks County — hears more Penn ancestry stories than likely anybody else on the planet. Visitors approach him or his colleague Doug Miller with claims they’re related to Penn seemingly every week.

Sometimes they’re just casually sharing a family legend. Other times, the story is longer — like the poor woman who had apparently spent years researching her ancestry. She came in with an “18-yard” family tree showcasing Penn at the top. When another employee explained to the woman she wasn’t actually related, she burst into tears.

“She was like, ‘No it just doesn’t work like that,’” Galle said. “This woman had probably worked half of her life to get to this point. And it was just mind-crushing.”

The lady who’d spent “half of her life” researching a falsehood had probably just gotten confused. William Penn wasn’t the only William Penn. His father was Admiral Sir William Penn. His cousin was William Penn, who had a father named William Penn. And our William Penn named his son William Penn. So at one point in the mid-to-late 1600s there were at least five William Penns kicking around England.

“This,” Galle said, “is one of my main gripes with the Penn family.”

Penn had 14 children during his two marriages. The kids from the second grew up in Pennsylvania. As was common back then, few of them survived into adulthood. Only Thomas and Richard from the second marriage lived long enough to have children and only William Jr. from the first marriage. The male line died out in the late 1860s for Thomas and Richard, and earlier than that for William Jr. Thus, no Penn is actually related to William Penn. And just about anyone who lives in America and claims to be related to William Penn isn’t, unless it’s in some distant way.

“You may be related in a 15th-cousin-three-times-removed situation,” Galle said, “but as far as inheriting Pennsylvania, you’re not inheriting Pennsylvania.”

The William Penn statue in Fishtown's Penn Treaty Park, where he signed an agreement with the Lenni Lenape

The William Penn statue in Fishtown's Penn Treaty Park, where he signed an agreement with the Lenni Lenape

Jordan Gunselman / Billy Penn

Over in Ireland, some Gaskells and Hales might be related to the daughter of William Penn Jr. And over in England, William Penn has descendants born along a prestigious line. Thomas Penn’s granddaughter, Mary Juliana, married the second Earl of Ranfurly. The last Earl of Ranfurly to descend from this line was the sixth, and he and his wife died about 20 years ago.

They had one daughter who had a daughter named Zara Simmonds. And Simmonds happens to be the first girlfriend of Prince William. According to the Daily Mirror, they started dating when she was 14 and William, 12 but later broke up when she didn’t like the age gap. William apparently told his friends he’d never forget her.

So if you’re Prince William’s first girlfriend you have a claim to the Penn line. Otherwise you’re likely out of luck.

Edwards traces her Penn relationship back to a Jabez Penn, who moved to Australia from England more than 100 years ago and was the grandson of a James William Penn. It’s unlikely James William descended from William Penn. But it hasn’t extinguished Edwards’ curiosity.

She’s attempted to call all the Penns she finds in the phonebook, hoping to find out as much as she can about the Founding Father’s possible family.