When Lancaster County was established on May 10, 1729, it became the prototype for the sixty-three counties to follow. The original three counties, Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester, were created as copies of typical English shires. The frontier conditions of Chester County's backwoods, from which Lancaster was formed, presented knotty problems to the civilized Englishmen. Lancaster County, therefore, was an experiment in pragmatism erected on the periphery of Penn's "Holy Experiment". Pennsylvania's "first western county" would test the genius of English government and political common sense. Not only did the pragmatic experiment succeed, but it has continued to color the life and government of Lancastrians during the last 250 years.
In 1683, Penn purchased from the Indians a tract of land extending from the Delaware to the Susquehanna Rivers. Another purchase made in 1718 added nearly all the land southeast of the South Mountain, including most of present-day York County. As settlers in the hinterlands of Chester County increased in number, additional townships were created by the Chester County court. Soon, settlers were clamoring for constables to keep the peace on the frontier. The development of civilization and law enforcement in the older portions of Chester County drove lawbreakers and habitual troublemakers into the backcountry west of the Octoraro Creek. Their presence bothered the settlers, whereupon a petition was presented to the colonial government praying that "a Division Line be made between the upper and lower part of the said county, and the upper part thereof erected into a county, with all the immunities, rights and privileges which any other county of this Province does now enjoy."
An 18th Century View of Lancaster City
Political control of Pennsylvania at this time, however, firmly rested in the hands of the Quakers. The pacifistic Quakers did not look with favor upon the arrival of the bellicose Scots, who generally moved toward the frontier and whose contempt for the English was only slightly milder than their hatred of the "red savages." A new county might cause competition, for surely the Ulstermen would demand representation in the Provincial Assembly. Then, there was also opposition from the Germans in the hinterlands. More local government would mean more regulations and higher taxes. Fortunately, on the banks of the Susquehanna River at Wright's Ferry there existed a settlement of remarkably competent Quaker politicians who adjusted intelligently to the challenges of the frontier, including the Indians and Scots. The question was, could John Wright, Samuel Blunston and Robert Barber-the Quaker triumvirate-keep a new county under control?
Planting English shires along the Delaware was a simple matter, but creating a new county was a task the provincial government had never before faced. Worse, the new county was the most diverse entity in the American colonies, comprised of immigrants representing nearly every national, religious and ethnic group from northwestern Europe who, in turn. ran headlong into Indian tribes resentful of the land-hungry white man. Internal strife in the Assembly, litigation over Penn's estate, and the late proprietor's vast indebtedness and financial problems contributed to the unsettled state of affairs existing when the creation of the new county was proposed.
Lt. Governor Patrick Gordon knew he had the authority to grant the petitioners their wishes, but he was also mindful of the precedents he would be establishing. Penn's original counties provided for total government and justice based on traditional English concepts of relations among civilized white persons. The backcountry did not possess sufficient men learned in the law, hence "lay" justices of the peace had to be entrusted with the judicial process. In a sense, the creation of Lancaster County ranked only second to the founding of Pennsylvania itself in forging new concepts in democratic government involving Englishmen and Indians.
Gordon appointed twelve persons, half from the east side and half from the west side of the Octoraro Creek, to locate and set a boundary line. Surveyor John Taylor was to run the line from the northern branch of the Octoraro Creek northward to the Schuylkill River, which was to serve as the eastern boundary. The southern border of the Province-in dispute with Lord Baltimore-was to be the southern line of the new county. Extending as far west as the original charter and ignoring future purchases of lands from Indians, the new county would end at the present-day Ohio line and lie south of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. To John Wright, the distinguished leader of the new area, was given the honor of naming the new county, which he did by honoring his native shire in England. On May 19, 1729, Governor Gordon proclaimed the new county was organized and its name was Lancaster. The Maryland government was far from pleased. and lost no time in warning Pennsylvania officials to keep the new county out of Maryland.
Eight magistrates, all of British ancestry and most Quakers, were appointed to subdivide the county into townships. By August 5, 1729, the settled portions of the county had been organized into seventeen townships with names chosen by the usual jockeying for honors. Two honored the Welsh (Caernarvon and Lampeter); two had Indian names (Conestoga and Peshtank (or Paxtang, Paxton); six were English (Warwick, Lancaster, Martic, Sadsbury, Salisbury and Hempfield); four kept the Ulstermen happy (Donegal, Drumore, Derry, and Leacock); one was German (Manheim); one came from the Bible (Lebanon); and one was the Anglicization of the family name Graf or Groff (Earl). Late in 1729, an eighteenth township was created: Cocalico, an Indian name.
As settlements grew north and west of the organized part of Lancaster County, the local court approved new townships in what are today York, Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lebanon and Berks counties. Beginning in 1749 with the creation of York County, Lancaster was carved up to provide land for new counties. Cumberland County was formed in 1750, ending Lancaster County's farflung western territory; Berks' creation in 1752 further reduced Lancaster County and in 1772 the formation of Northumberland County took away the northern tip. With the establishment of Dauphin County in 1785, Lancaster County was cut down to its present size (945 square miles) except for a tiny sliver of land given up when Lebanon County was formed in 1813.
Lancaster County was entitled to only four representatives in the Assembly, the three older counties being given six assemblymen each. Initially, each election in the county was a contest between the Scots and the English Quakers, with new faces appearing only to be defeated the following year. By 1731, however, troubles with the Indians tipped the balance in favor of the Scots at the expense of the pacifistic Quakers. By 1734, James Hamilton, proprietor of Lancaster town and son of the distinguished lawyer Andrew Hamilton, won a seat in the Assembly and became the political leader of the county.
Virtually all political action centered in the Susquehanna Valley, with political fortunes rising or falling according to the manner in which frontier problems were solved. As time went on Quaker power declined so much that the Friends were fortunate to capture even a single seat in the Assembly. In their stead were the Scots and later, the Germans, the first of whom was not elected until 1756. The many prosperous farmers, skilled mechanics and shopkeepers gave the county a decidedly "whiggish" character, expressed politically as a moderate and very pragmatic conservatism.
Farming and Immigration
Lancaster County is in the Piedmont region with occasional ridges standing above the rolling hills and limestone plains, the largest of which forms the central part of the county and is drained by the Conestoga River and Pequea Creek. The southern portion of the county rests in the Piedmont uplands which hold deposits of iron, nickel, copper, chrome and silver. It is the easily-eroded limestone soil, however, that gives the county its reputation as the finest agricultural land east of the Mississippi River, and the best non-irrigated farmland in the nation. The best limestone soil, known as Hagerstown or Frederick loam, is the largest connected body of that rich limestone soil in Pennsylvania. As a result, more than seventy-five percent of Lancaster County is farmland, with the majority of farms being family owned. Today, feed grains are most often cultivated, taking the place of leaf tobacco, once more extensively grown for cigars and chewing. In the past, the hard red Triassic rock or sandstone which extends across the northern portion of the county was used for millstones to grind the grain in the numerous grist mills located throughout the area.
The area's first farmers were Indians who have inhabited the area at various times for the past 11,000 years. By the time William Penn visited the Susquehanna valley in 1684, he encountered remnants of the once powerful, Susquehannock tribe which had earlier been conquered by the Iroquois. Most of Lancaster County's Indians, however, were Conestogas, a tribe believed to have returned to southern Pennsylvania after regional tribal warfare ended. Nevertheless, all of Lancaster's Indians, including the Conoys and Pequehans, belonged to the Five (and later, Six) Nations.
William Penn generally maintained excellent relations with the Indians and was often called upon to referee disputes caused, when Indian traders allegedly engaged in questionable practices. Fur trading and land speculation were major economic features of life in early Pennsylvania. and frequently brought whites and Indians into conflict. With armies of immigrants swarming into southeastern Pennsylvania, the demand for real estate assumed a greater importance. After William Penn's death, his generosity to both European immigrants and American Indians proved a headache to the Quaker Assembly left to mediate between the two.
The tide of settlement was not to be stopped, however. As early as 1709, a Scot had established himself in present-day Salisbury Township, and an English Quaker family was living in Little Britain Township. It was not until 1710, however, that the first community within the present borders of the county was established. In that year, a group of Swiss Mennonites--the families of Herr, Mylin and Kendig--built a settlement a few miles south-east of present-day Lancaster city. Two years later a band of French Huguenots led by Marie Ferree settled near Strasburg. Two more years passed before the Scot Presbyterians arrived in two waves, one settling in the Donegal area of northwestern Lancaster County an d the other occupying land in the south. These Scots, often called the "Scotch-Irish," came from Ulster in Ireland after being "planted" there by the English in an attempt to subdue the Irish.
On the heels of the Scots came a small but influential group of English and Welsh families. The English tended to settle along a band running horizontally across the county between Salisbury Township and Wright's Ferry (Columbia), including Lancaster village. Occupying lands in what later became Caernarvon, Brecknock and Lampeter townships, the Welsh often were found working in iron. By 1717, the entire central portion of Lancaster County was rapidly filling with immigrants from the Rhineland as well, usually employed as farmers or skilled artisans. When Lancaster County became a reality, it was already the most pluralistic and cosmopolitan place in the New World.
Swiss and German Mennonites carried to the county the Anabaptist tradition, so named because the group did not practice infant baptism. Although the Mennonites have experienced numerous schisms ("rotted wood never splits" is the laconic explanation), the majority of local members are affiliated with the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. The more liberal midwestern Mennonites also have representation in the county, as do the fundamentalist Evangelical Mennonites. Today, much to their chagrin, the Amish Mennonites are the single greatest tourist attraction in Lancaster County.
Frequently confused with the Mennonites (Old Order or Amish), the River Brethren in Christ, first established in Lancaster County near the Susquehanna River, had its origin in the German Methodist movement. Philip Otterbein, a Reformed minister, and Martin Boehm, a Mennonite preacher, were caught up in the fervor of the spiritual awakening sweeping Lancaster County in the 1760s, and around 1800 they established the United Brethren in Christ Church. Numerous United Brethren groups flourished and came to be known by the locality in which they met. 'The group above Marietta along the river, for example, was called the "River Brethren in Christ." While other segments of the denomination moved forward, the "River Brethren" chose to maintain the status quo, and today in many ways they resemble the Old Order Mennonites. Chrome on their automobiles is painted black and their garb is very plain. As with the Anabaptists, they do not baptize infants.
Another branch of the Anabaptist movement included the German Baptist Brethren, also known as "Dunkers." Not long after their arrival in Lancaster County, Johann Conrad Beissel left them and established the Ephrata Cloister, today restored and administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Since Beissel observed the Sabbath on Saturday, his group has been called-incorrectly- German Seventh Day Baptists. The regular German Baptist Brethren, after suffering the inevitable schisms, flourished in Lancaster County and is called today the Church of the Brethren. This denomination represents the most liberal position in the so-called "Plain Churches." It owns Elizabethtown College, a small liberal arts school in the county.
The remaining inhabitants of the county were members of a variety of religious denominations. Jacob Albright, a county farmer-tiler, founded the Evangelical Church in 1796. He espoused an evangelism more personal and emotional than the liturgical Lutheran and Reformed churches offered. Eventually, the Evangelical Church merged into the United Brethren in Christ Church. The remaining German settlers in Lancaster County were members of the Lutheran, German Reformed and Moravian churches. Presbyterian churches were established in northwestern and southern Lancaster County to minister to the needs of the Scots. Their educated ministers usually conducted schools along with their pastoral duties. Meanwhile, the English and Welsh settlers generally attended the Anglican churches or meetings of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). As early as the 1730s, Roman Catholics were worshipping in Lancaster County and Jewish settlers were worshiping in Joseph Simon's home in the 1740s.
While religious orthodoxy reigns in Lancaster County, progressive views have been tolerated for several centuries. The Quaker Schism of 1827 resulted in the majority of Lancaster County Friends siding with the Hicksite movement. Universalist circuit riders made their way across the County during the nineteenth century, preaching universal salvation, and even establishing a church in Reamstown. The Church of New Jerusalem, known familiarly as the Swedenborgians, attracted many of Lancaster's educated and scientifically-trained citizens to its weekly services. In 1902 a Unitarian church was founded in Lancaster, with its 700-plus members numbered among the area's activists for religious freedom and social justice.
The Revolution and Post-War Growth
The increasing population and economic growth of Lancaster County in the decades prior to the Revolution attracted numerous professionals and businessmen. Already, Lancaster Borough, was the largest inland town in the colonies and a small but influential aristocracy flourished throughout the county. Among the gentry were Edward Shippen, Edward Hand, George Ross, Jasper Yeates and William Atlee. Others from German background were William Bausman, Charles Hall, Casper Schaffner, William Henry, John Hubley, Paul Zantzinger, Adam Reigart and Mathias Slaugh. Alexander Lowery, John Steele and the colorful ironmaster-glassmaker Henry W. Stiegel were leaders out in the county. Other prominent ironmasters included the Grubbs and Robert Coleman. With the commercial mentality resenting restrictions on trade and the rural folk, largely pacifistic, favoring the status quo, feelings began to mount regarding the colony's future relationship with Britain. The Scots, for certain, were ready to fight England at a moment's notice.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, Lancaster rapidly took on an increased importance. George Ross signed the Declaration of Independence, taking time away from his lucrative law practice and risking a fine for missing a meeting of the Union Fire Co. No. 1, Lancaster's gentlemen-firefighters. Meanwhile, Lancastrians were joining rifle companies and drilling for eventual service against England. Local mechanics and workers began producing tons of rifles, shoes, boots, uniforms, blankets, hardware and food.
During the French and Indian War, Lancaster's gunsmiths and other artisans were hard at work turning out the materials of war. Still earlier, the Pennsylvania rifle, later known as the "Kentucky rifle" when carried into the Ohio Valley, was developed in Lancaster County. This "apprenticeship" prepared Lancaster County for the role it was to play during the Revolution . County mills ground out barrels of flour and wagonmakers built Conestoga wagons and other vehicles. Local furnaces and forges were kept busy smelting, casting and hammering iron for the tools of war. Again, Lancaster County became the arsenal, work shop and granary of the continental armies. Lancaster supplied men as well. Edward Hand, for one, left his medical practice to serve his intimate friend, General Washington, on the battlefield. By the end of the war, he was Washington's adjutant general.
On September 27, 1777, the Continental Congress, fleeing from the British invaders of Philadelphia, arrived in Lancaster and held a regular session there, making Lancaster the temporary capital. The Pennsylvania government also took up residence in Lancaster and remained there for the duration of the British occupation of Philadelphia. With little room available in the busy borough for the Continental Congress and its retinue on a more permanent basis, the Congress moved across the river to York.
After the Revolution, Lancaster County resumed its place among the ever-growing communities gradually spreading westward, although settlements in western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley lessened the economic significance of the county. Before long, the local economy began to stagnate. With the end of the War of 1812, however, countians turned their attention to land speculation, town-building and the establishment of industry. Textile mills were built on many creeks and one large mill, which eventually failed, was erected adjacent to Lancaster. Local artisans continued to produce- fine furniture (much of it in the sophisticated "Philadelphia" style), grandfather clocks, silverware and pewterware. In 1810, the Farmers Bank of Lancaster commenced operations, and it survives today as a component of the First Union-Core States Bank. Nearly 300 flour (grist) mills operated on county streams and limeburners were employed busily producing lime for soil dressing in southern Lancaster County and neighboring counties and states.
The county's major industry, as measured in value of investment and production, was its charcoal iron business. Numerous cold blast furnaces and forges consumed thousands of acres of woodland in the form of charcoal fuel. Almost every creek had its forges where pig iron was worked into wrought iron.
The longer the furnaces operated, the greater became the need for longer distance transportation. By 1794, Lancaster had been linked to Philadelphia by the state's first great turnpike, while other highways and roads connected Lancaster to other towns both inside and outside the county. In 1834, the Columbia and Philadelphia Railroad section of the State Works was built through Lancaster, joining the Susquehanna River to the port city. When the canal traffic from northern and western Pennsylvania was diverted to Philadelphia by the railroad; private investment assumed active roles in community life. Infused with a new spirit, Lancastrians sought additional industries.
Diversification always had been the county's economic salvation, and now a whole new generation of diverse industries was needed, industries like the Rowe Motor Car Co. and other relatively small businesses which settled in the area. Metalworking, automotive parts and small castings plants provided employment for thousands of countians. With the gradual closing of candy, confectionery and cigar-making factories, large plants operated by RCA, Armstrong Cork Co., Raybestos-Manhattan, Sperry-Rand, ITT Grinnell and Kerr Glass Co. became prominent employers. Small foundries were superseded by large castings plants while some modernized businesses continued to produce products that have made Lancaster famous since the eighteenth century: shoes, clothing and hats.
Lancaster County's healthy and resilient economy is built upon the tripod of manufacturing, agriculture and the tourist trade. The county's forty-one townships, eighteen boroughs and countless villages enjoy relative prosperity, even in the worst of times. Lancaster city, after a decline during the 1950 and 1960s, has remodeled the downtown, preserving its heritage and giving the city charm and excitement. This effort differs, however, from those undertaken in many cities-the private sector rather than the federal government has been instrumental in refurbishing the Red Rose City.
A dozen historical societies work harmoniously with the century-old Lancaster County Historical Society in serving the community. The Heritage Center of Lancaster County, a museum of furniture and the decorative arts made by local craftsmen over the centuries, occupies the late eighteenth century city hall. President James Buchanan's restored home, Wheatland, and General Hand's plantation, Rock Ford, are handsome, high quality tourist attractions. The Lancaster County Library, with its county branches, continues the library tradition begun in the mid-eighteenth century. Other cultural-institutions include a remarkably professional symphony orchestra and several musical organizations that undertake choral and operatic productions.
Although many of Lancaster County's rural residents have been slow to appreciate or even accept formal education, the county has a large number of excellent public and private schools and colleges. A well-educated clergy was the impetus to organize classical academies and seminaries by the Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran, Moravian, and Episcopal denominations. Franklin College, begun in 1787 as a preparatory school for young German men, merged with Marshall College in 1853 to become a four-year degree-granting liberal arts college under the auspices of the German Reformed Church. Later the Theological Seminary of that church was relocated to Lancaster, and brought with it outstanding German scholarship. Both institutions continue to contribute greatly to American higher education. Started in 1855 as a teacher-training institute, and the first state normal school, Millersville University of the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education has earned deservedly a reputation as one of the Commonwealth's foremost centers of higher education. It offers teacher preparation as well as liberal arts curricula, and courses in nursing, technology, business and computer science. Approximately 7,000 students attend its undergraduate and graduate schools. Elizabethtown College, founded at the end of the nineteenth century by the Church of the Brethren, has advanced through the years to become a small but comprehensive liberal arts college. Stevens State College of Tehcnology, known formerly as Stevens Trade School, offers a full curricula of practical courses in industry, trades, and businesss. The state-owned school was named to honor Lancaster's Civil War Congressman Thaddeus Stevens who was the initial benefactor. In addition to the public educational institutions, many church-related schools operate in Lancaster County to provide Christian, Bible-centered instruction for their students. Lancaster Country Day School and Linden Hall School for Girls offer traditional classic curricula along with instruction designed for the modern scholar. Linden Hall is the oldest girls' school in the nation.
During the American Revolution and the birth of the American Republic, Lancastrians such as George Ross, William Atlee, Jasper Yeates, and Dr. Edward Hand played important roles in achieving independence and establishing the Pennsylvania judicial system. As General Wahsington's adjutant general, and later as our congressman, the Lancaster physician made his mark in our heritage. In mid-nineteenth century a trio of political leaders from Lancaster County happened upon the national scene. Simon Cameron, born in Maytown, East Donegal Township, rose from "rags to riches" as a canal and railroad contractor, newspaper publisher, and banker. One of the founders of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, Cameron became a U.S. senator, and was selected by Lincoln to be his first secretary of war. Later he was minister to Russia, and then returned to the U.S. Senate. It was said his power was so great that no legislation could be enacted into law without his approval. Certainly he was a "political boss" of Pennsylvania, and quite influential in the USA. Thaddeus Stevens was not a native of Lancaster County, but he moved here in 1842 to practice law, and to become our congressman during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. He was a fiery abolitionists and an enemy of every slaveowner. After Lincoln's assassination, Stevens, who regarded Lincoln's philosophy of "malice toward none and charity for all," as too "soft," opposed President Andrew Johnson and his continuation of the Lincoln philosophy. Stevens was made the manager of the Johnson Impeachment proceedings. Stevens probably was the most powerful man in the USA House of Representatives in the 1860s. President James Buchanan (1857-1861) began practicing law in Lancaster in 1812, and became Pa. representative, congressman, U.S. Senator, minister to Russia, Secretary of State, minister to Great Britain, and U.S. President.
Lancaster County-first western county and forerunner of effective local government creation has set the pace for 250 years in Pennsylvania, thanks to the genius and pride of its diverse citizenry.
Because the world is a bucketful of questions. And someone's gotta answer them
While working with the object collections of LancasterHistory.org we come across many questions. Visit here to see some of the more unusual stories that we have uncovered.
The staff and volunteers of the Archives Department at LancasterHistory.org never know what they'll find when working on the documents and records in the collections. Fortunately, when they do discover something noteworthy they are very willing to share!
Because pictures are worth a thousand words, but sometimes they need an interpreter.
You know that cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words? Ok, well, imagine the stories going on in my head after cataloging several hundred photos every single day!
One Young Lady, One Old House, Two Hundred Years of History
I’m Jennifer Walton, Assistant Director of President James Buchanan's Wheatland, and I love an old President and his old house! Over the past six years, I’ve learned quite a lot about both, and I would love to share it with you!