Adams County: Tranquility Regained

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

One of Pennsylvania’s smaller counties, both in size and population, Adams County developed much the same as similar settlements along the Atlantic Seaboard. Its growth during the past two and a half centu­ries has been governed by its own particular circumstances, including location, terrain, soil, climate, vegetation, min­eral resources and the accom­plishments of the immigrants and their descendants who chose to make it their home. Not until certain exciting events occurred in 1863 did this inland, rural and relatively sparsely settled county be­come much known to the outside world.

Dinosaur tracks, found imprinted in stone quarried near York Springs in 1937, constitute the earliest known record of zoological life in Adams County. The first known human presence was transient Indians who hunted in the deep forest, fished in the numerous streams, quar­ried the rhyolite rock found on the slopes of South Mountain (which they manufactured into arrowheads), and engaged in trade with other tribes throughout the Susquehanna Valley. They sometimes paused long enough to make war on each other. Three miles south of Gettysburg, the county seat, is a clearing known as “Indian Field,” which, according to tradition, was the site of a great Indian battle.

It was but a matter of time before European settlers found their way into what is now Adams County. Not known by that name at its beginnings, this five hundred and twenty­-five square mile tract was a part of Lancaster County until 1749. Between 1784 and 1800 it occupied the western third of York County. By 1800, it claimed its own identity as Adams County.

Unlike the more rugged mountainous sections farther north and west m the prov­ince, the rolling countryside and piedmont hills of Adams County posed few obstacles to settlers, Although the region lacked navigable waterways, the temperature climate, ade­quate rainfall and growing season, and moderately fertile soil proved attractive to land­-hungry colonials who found pioneer farming rewarding. The first European on record to settle permanently in Ad­ams County was Philadelphia native John Hanson Steelman. Captain Steelman, who had a long career as an Indian trader, set up a post about 1718 near Zora in southwestern Adams County. By the 1730s, others were arriving, including An­drew Schreiber (a name later anglicized to Shriver), who in 1734 purchased one hundred acres of land along Conewago Creek from John Digges, a Marylander. Schreiber, a tan­ner and cobbler by trade, is said to have paid Digges “one hundred pairs of negro shoes” for the land.

Before long, pioneers and their families began settling the area. From Eastern Penn­sylvania, encouraged by the Penns, came a few English Quakers and Anglicans and the more numerous Scotch Irish Presbyterians. From the Chesapeake Bay area, Ger­mans and “Plain” Irish, both generally Roman Catholic, migrated into what they were advised was a portion of Lord Baltimore’s grant. Bitter dis­putes over land titles granted by which authority, Penn or Baltimore, were accentuated by religious differences. As was normal on the frontier, the settlers turned at times to violence in a controversy not resolved until completion of the Mason and Dixon Survey in the 1760s. The line drawn marked not only that between Maryland and Pennsylvania, but also the southern bound­ary of what was to become Adams County.

Life on the Adams County frontier was not greatly differ­ent from that elsewhere in the back country. A century ago a county historian described it as “divided between bread in this world and heaven in the next,” observing that the pio­neers “prayed more than they laughed.” Theirs was a life of incessant toil, isolation and primitive living conditions. In time it also would include coping with the menace of Indian raids but, fortunately, for some years William Penn’s benign policy toward the Indi­ans spared Adams Countians their incursions.

The outbreak of the Anglo­French War (1754-1763) not only exposed the frontier com­munity to destruction of prop­erty but also to the killing, scalping and kidnapping of hapless inhabitants. Famous in local annals is the story of thirteen year old Mary Jemi­son, seized with her family in her Buchanan Valley home by raiders and carried away to spend the remainder of her long life as an Indian squaw. Not until the war’s end were the settlers finally free of the threat to their lives and pos­sessions.

As befitted William Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” Adams County became home to a variety of religious and ethnic groups. The Roman Catholics established the first house of worship within the county. Jesuit missionaries as early as 1720 offered services for itiner­ant Europeans and Indians passing through the Con­ewago district. In 1787, they completed construction of their Conewago Chapel, desig­nated in 1962 by Pope John XXIII as a Minor Basilica. It became by 1800 a base for Jesuit missionary activity over a wide area farther west on the frontier.

In the 1740s, the Presbyteri­ans were organizing congrega­tions in Adams County. Hard on their heels came the Ger­man, Lutheran and Reformed Churches, soon to exceed the Presbyterians both in numbers of congregations and membership. About the same time, Quakers, Anglicans, Menno­nites, Brethren (or Dunkards) and Seventh Day Baptists founded congregations. Al­though Methodist circuit riders were preaching Wes­leyan doctrine in the county in the late eighteenth century, not until after 1800 did they organize permanent parishes. The Baptists’ role as an impor­tant denomination did not develop until the twentieth century.

As European inhabitation increased, Indian trails proved inadequate for settlers seeking access “to mill, market, and meeting.” Road building began about 1740 with construction of the Adams County segment of the Old Monocacy Road, the historic colonial highway leading from Philadelphia through Maryland, across the Potomac into Virginia. In 1747, the first east-west road was laid out across Adams County, later becoming a part of the famous Philadelphia­-Pittsburgh wagon road of the colonial period. Particularly important to countians was the road authorized in the mid-­eighteenth century which connected their communities with Baltimore. Because of geography and its proximity, Baltimore has always been more of an entrepot for Adams County than Philadelphia.

The role played by coun­tians in the American Revolu­tion is also a part of York County history. Since the twelve townships making up the western third of York County (townships ultimately to become Adams County) were predominately Scotch­Irish in population, resistance to Great Britain found general favor. Adams County farmers helped supply material needed by the Continental armies. Moreover, men from the county helped fill the ranks of the military unit which in the summer of 1776 marched the four hundred miles from York Town to participate in the siege of Boston. Others fought at Long Island, Monmouth, Trenton, Princeton and en­dured the rigors of the terrible winter at Valley Forge. In late 1777, a number of patriots lost their lives in the Paoli Massa­cre.

The impulse to detach the dozen westernmost townships of York County and establish them as a separate political unit closely followed the war’s end. It arose in part from the inconvenience of distance; travel from some settlements to York Town often required two days each way. The recent secession from the British Empire offered an acceptable precedent for such division, although armed rebellion was never contemplated.

The campaign to effect a separation got underway”in the early 1790s. Delays occa­sioned by disputes over the placement of the line dividing the old and the projected county, and rivalry regarding the site of the new county’s seat of justice eventually were overcome. In 1799, James Get­tys had offered free lots in his newly founded town and citizens of “Gettystown” pledged seven thousand dol­lars for the construction of necessary public buildings – the deciding factor in the choice of a county seat. On January 22, 1800, Gov. Thomas McKean signed the bill which incorporated Adams County as Pennsylvania’s twenty-seventh county, named for the country’s incumbent presi­dent, John Adams. The following six decades leading to the Civil War saw the countians establishing themselves as politically and economically self-sufficient. The groups that made up the inhabitants in 1800 were a somewhat hetero­geneous lot. During the 1700s they had included Scotch­-Irish, Germans, Irish, a few Hollander Dutch migrating from New Jersey and a scatter­ing of French Huguenots. The 1800 census counted three hundred and three blacks, of whom one hundred and four­teen were slaves. Only a hand­ful of Indians remained in the vicinity.

Although a heavy migra­tion occurred from the “Ger­man counties” to the east beginning in the 1770s, Adams County has never been consid­ered an integral part of the celebrated and misnamed “Pennsylvania Dutch Coun­try.” German immigrants brought with them many as­pects of their culture, some of which endure. It is, on the other hand, not difficult to detect a strong and lasting Scotch-Irish influence.

Because no streams large enough to provide navigation and waterpower penetrated the county, a lack of minerals worth developing and the absence of a skilled labor force, the county failed to attract the capital necessary for industrial development. Industry carried over from earlier years re­mained generally home­-centered and handicraft in type. For the most part during the pre-Civil War years it con­tinued to be limited to milling along the larger streams and a few small shops in town. The Industrial Revolution, spawn­ing the intensive economic development which trans­formed so much of Pennsylva­nia life following the Civil War, affected Adams County, – but only tangentially. Its resi­dents were mainly consumers rather than producers.

Present – but in insuffi­cient amounts for profitable exploitation – were veins of low-grade iron and copper ores. In 1822, Thaddeus Stevens and John S. Paxton attempted to develop an iron industry, and built the Maria Furnace near Fairfield. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence that the route surveyed for the notorious “Tapeworm Rail­road,” a project initiated in the general assembly by Stevens, passed within a few yards of this furnace. The railway was never built and this, plus the poor quality of the iron ore found, contributed to the failure of the Stevens-Paxton enterprise.

The manufacture and sale of carriages and wagons was the primary industrial activity in Adams County prior to the Civil War. Gettysburg became a center for the trade, earning for the county a reputation for having more carriage factories than any other county except Philadelphia. The principal markets for these vehicles were in Maryland and Vir­ginia. One of the better known wagon makers was John Stu­debaker who, in the 1830s, built Conestoga-type wagons in his shop located between Hunterstown and Heidlers­burg. Studebaker and his sons subsequently moved to the midwest and established the famous wagon works which bore the family name.

Since Adams Countians before 1860 relied on agricul­ture as their economic base, they did not increase much in numbers. The 13,172 residents counted in 1800 had, according to the federal census, barely doubled by the Civil War. In contrast, the state’s and na­tion’s population increase over the same period were five and six-fold respectively.

In one respect Adams County’s people kept pace with others: promoting educa­tion for their children. As early as 1776, Rev. Alexander Dob­bin had founded what was reputed to be one of the first “classical schools” west of the Susquehanna River at Gettys­burg. By 1813, citizens l1f the town and county had estab­lished the Gettysburg Acad­emy in a handsome brick building which still stands. It was Thaddeus Stevens, at the time a delegate from Adams County to the state legislature, who persuaded a wavering legislature to sustain the Free School Act of 1834. After some hesitancy. the county’s town­ships adapted their school system to this legislation. However, higher education had arrived in Gettysburg with the founding in 1826 of the Lutheran Theological Semi­nary. Six years later Pennsylva­nia College, today Gettysburg College, first opened its doors.

The experience of Adams Countians from 1800 to the Civil War had been much the same as that of inhabitants in similar southern Pennsylvania communities. Most of the population tilled the soil for a living. Only a minority dwelt in the small towns, villages, hamlets or crossroad settle­ments, providing the neces­sary services for neighboring farmers.

It was the Civil War – which transformed so many aspects of the nation’s culture – that had a special impact on the residents of Adams County. The great battle fought at Gettysburg in July 1863 catapulted the town and county from relative obscurity to international attention.

From 1800 to 1860, Adams County voters generally sup­ported candidates for office identified with the Federalist/Whig/Republican party, but the sectional crisis and the Civil War which followed in­duced a dramatic change. In October 1860, Republican Andrew G. Curtin’s guberna­torial bid was rejected by a majority of the county’s elec­torate, and in November Abra­ham Lincoln recorded a bare eighty vote edge in the 5,442 cast. Curtin’s successful reelection in 1863 came despite trail­ing his opponent in Adams County. A year later George B. McClellan won 2,886 votes to Abraham Lincoln’s 2,362 in the presidential contest, inaugu­rating sixty years of Demo­cratic party dominance in the county.

Although a conspicuous majority of the countians supported the Lincoln Adminis­tration’s effort to suppress Southern secession, freedom of slaves was not a goal held by all residents. Previously they had been somewhat non­-committal about abolitionism. The close proximity of slave­holding Maryland, the exist­ence of Southern-born kin in the community, a fear that overt anti-slavery expressions would disrupt the lucrative sale of carriages in the South and, perhaps, the traditional conservatism of an agricultural people all played a part in their thinking. Yet, despite reservations held regarding the Lincoln Administration’s war aims, they turned out on November 19, 1863, to wel­come their wartime president and hear his “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Whatever the lack of enthusiasm for the govern­ment’s war policies, it did not deter the recruitment for the federal armies. More than three thousand young men in a total population of twenty­-eight thousand enlisted. Vo­lunteerism was sufficient to enable the county to meet its assigned quotas without re­sorting to enforcing conscrip­tion.

The impact of the Civil War in general – and of the fa­mous battle in particular – on the county’s homefront has been much overlooked by most chroniclers. Few com­munities in the nation, cer­tainly none other in the northern states, experienced the war in equal measure. Hostile forces twice invaded – the first in October 1862 and again in July 1863 – the county, threatening life and property. Reports of impending inva­sions, either real or fancied, often alarmed the civilian population.

The physical destruction wrought by the three day encounter at Gettysburg was devastating. In the ensuing years there have been substantial benefits generated by tour­ism. Reunions of Civil War veterans, particularly in 1888, 1913 and 1938, brought thou­sands of visitors to Gettysburg on each occasion. Pilgrimages by patriotic Americans, visits by the merely curious and special anniversary ob­servances have long made profitable the tourism industry in Gettysburg.

The signal importance of the Civil War in shaping much of Adams County’s later his­tory has made the story of the county’s development in the post-war years seem almost anti-climactic. One noticeable change was the expansion of railway mileage; the barely twenty miles of track within the county at the close of the Civil War had grown to seventy-two by the end of the century. This growth, in part, was in response to both !he needs of farmers and the bur­geoning tourism. Eventually, tourism was promoted by development of the automo­bile and hard-surfaced roads.

In addition to the celebrated battle, other attractions lured visitors. In the late 1860s, promoters advertised the therapeutic qualities of the Kataly­sine Springs, just west of Gettysburg, and erected a large and imposing hotel. Guests were offered rest, re­laxation, entertainment and an opportunity “to take the wa­ters.” The popularity of the spa, considerable for a decade or so, faded by 1900 with the development of seaside and other resorts along the East Coast.

Although tourism was becoming increasingly impor­tant to Adams County’s econ­omy, agriculture continued as the predominant occupation. There was, however, by the 1890s less stress on general farming, and fruit cultivation developed as a farm specialty shortly after the turn-of-the-­century as farmers devoted more acres to this form of husbandry. Fruit cultivation subsequently spawned the commercial canning of fruits and vegetables as a part of the county’s industry. For nearly a century, Adams County has ranked at or near the top among Pennsylvania counties in the production of apples, due to the region’s good soil and favorable climate. Effort and ingenuity on the part of farmers, too, have contributed greatly to this success. In 1878, Noah Sheely planted several hundred apple trees on his Franklin Township land, fol­lowed shortly by Samuel Bream in Butler Township. Together, in 1893, they negoti­ated the sale of fifteen hun­dred bushels of apples to Chicago wholesalers, inaugu­rating significant commercial marketing of this fruit.

Other county farmers soon followed the Sheely-Bream example and by 1920 these orchardists had placed them­selves not only first in Penn­sylvania in apple production but also in the top ranks of the nation. Subsequent cultivation of peaches and sour cherries gave the county undisputed leadership in the production and processing of fruit in Pennsylvania.

Emphasis on fruit farming has not meant complete ne­glect of other agricultural pur­suits. Adams County farmers have harvested substantial crops in fodder and grain, at one time ranking first in Penn­sylvania in bushels of wheat. They developed an important meat industry and by the 1920s were active in dairying and poultry production. Much of the increased yield is due to the work of state-operated research laboratories. Much of their prosperity has been aided by improved roads giving access to urban markets.

Manufacturing has remained small scale in Adams County. Confined mostly to small factories and shops, the more important industries have produced clothing, boots and shoes, rubber goods, brick and tile, furniture, small implements and canned goods. Like the canning business, the few mills in operation depend on farmers as suppliers and customers alike. Perhaps the fastest growing industry before the First World War was the making of cigars. The proximity of tobacco farms in York ?d Lancaster counties no doubt furthered such enterprise. Some sporadic moves have been made to revive iron and copper mining and a few speculators have sunk wells in the hope of finding petroleum, but failure has marked such efforts. Of considerable importance, however, has been the quarrying of stone.

Despite the county’s light industrial development, visitors have discovered and alerted others to it as an attractive place for permanent residence. Many, including retirees, have been drawn by its scenic beauty. quiet surroundings and its proximity to Baltimore and Washington, both of which are easily accessible. Among the most celebrated of Adams County’s retirees were Pres. and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who chose to spend their post-presidential years on a farm located near the battlefield.

Improved roads have promoted daily commuting to Harrisburg, York, Baltimore and Washington. While the county is not yet a “bedroom community,” an increasing number of people prefer its open countryside to urban existence. Whether this means it ultimately will be swallowed up in the predicted Washington-Boston megalopolis corridor remains to be seen.

Adams County today has no large urban concentrations of people. In fact, only three centers rank as towns with more than twenty-five hundred people: Gettysburg, Littlestown and McSherrystown. Nonetheless, population growth poses problems of water supply, sewage and solid waste disposal, water pollution, land usage, public schools, financing road construction and maintenance, police and fire protection, and meeting public welfare demands. These factors underscore the need for efficient local government and far-sighted planning for the future. Solutions to these problems will determine whether this community, first settled two and a half centuries ago, will continue to develop agreeably for its residents and the million or more visitors who find their way to it each year.


For Further Reading

Bradsby, H.C., ed. History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Warner, Beers and Company, 1886.

Egle, William H. An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: W.W. Goodrich, 1876.

Frassanito, William A. The Gettysburg Bicentennial Album. Gettysburg, Pa.: Gettysburg Bicentennial Committee, 1987.

Jacobs, M. Notes on the Rebel Invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania and the Battle of Gettysburg. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Company, 1863.


Robert L. Bloom, a native of Arkansas, is a graduate of Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. He received his master’s degree from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and his doctorate in history from Columbia University. New York. In 1981, he became professor emeritus at Gettysburg College, where he taught for thirty-two years. He served as chairman of Gettysburg College’s history department for ten years. He is the author of numerous articles, some of which have appeared in Pennsylvania History and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. In addition to full-length articles, he has also contributed a number of book reviews to journals a11d publications. The author currently serves as vice-president of the Adams County Historical Society, headquartered in Gettysburg.