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

Sweeping across southcentral Pennsyl­vania lies the Great Valley and nestled in its northeastern corner is mod­ern Northampton County. Bordered on the east by the Delaware River, on the south by South Mountain and the piedmont, and on the west by the valley of the Lehigh River, the three hundred and seventy-two square mile re­gion is one of gently rolling hills and wooded valleys, with “drylands” stretching across the middle.

During the colonial era, the area lay on the western reaches of the home of the Lenni Lenape Indians, who lived winter and summer along the broad Delaware River. Although few Indians apparently lived in the region comprising today’s Northamp­ton County, they left a legacy of trails, the routes of modern highways, and Indian names. There exists evidence of small settlements near Easton, Beth­lehem, Northampton, Na­zareth and Cherryville in the northern tier of the county; the Native Americans mined jasper in the hills bordering the county to the south.

While the region was first penetrated by Dutch traders, permanent European settle­ment began in the early years of the eighteenth century when German farmers from lower Bucks County and the Perkiomen Valley, as well as Scots-Irish of New Castle, came north into the valley of what was then called the Left Fork or West Branch of the Delaware (now the Lehigh) River. The Germans were attracted by the limestone soil and settled throughout the valley. But the Scots-Irish chose to live in a broad band (noted as the “Irish settlements” on early maps), from today’s Catasauqua on the Lehigh River across the county east to Martins Creek on the Delaware and in the northeastern corner of the county where the legendary Presbyte­rian missionary David Brainerd established his base of operations.

Originally the area was part of Bucks County, but traders and land developers in Phila­delphia soon discerned the region’s potential. Fearing competition from the New Jersey colony to the east, they moved to establish a settle­ment at Easton in 1752. That year the proprietary group close to the Penn family recog­nized the possibilities of weak­ening the frontier Germans’ political power by isolating them in the new Northampton County, named for the estates of Thomas Penn’s father-in­-law at Easton-Neston in Northamptonshire, England. Even before this occurred, a small band of Moravians had settled in 1740 at Nazareth and a year later at Bethlehem. A pre­-Reformation group drawn to the New World for missionary purposes, the Moravians had first worked among black slaves in the West Indies and the Indians of Georgia before settling in Pennsylvania to establish their home congregation. Under their charismatic and controversial leader, Ni­cholas Ludwig von Zinzen­dorf, they hoped to bring the Gospel to the Indians on the frontier as well as to work, in an ecumenical spirit, among the “unchurched Germans” of eastern Pennsylvania and beyond. At Bethlehem the Moravians created a self. sufficient center for their work, including an economy based on more than fifty-five various trades and industries.

Northampton County origi­nally encompassed a vast, unsettled region from Bucks County in the south to the New York boundary in the north and beyond the Susque­hanna to the west. It was to be administered at Easton, a small trading center near the southeastern corner of the county. Easton, almost iso­lated from the county’s farms and settlements in an era of poor, virtually non-existent communication, served Phila­delphia interests well as a center for their land, trading and political intrigues. It also became a frequent site of con­ferences with the Indians during the colonial period.

While most of the Lenni Lenape in the region had moved west by the 1730s, remaining members of the older tribe, as well as Indians of central New Jersey, resisted white encroachment. Heirs of William Penn, beset with debts and eager to profit by the lucrative frontier, at­tempted to secure title to the area before engaging in the dubious Walking Purchase of 1737, by which they acquired much of today’s Northampton County and regions to the north and east in what is now Carbon and Monroe counties.

The Revolutionary move­ment came late to the frontier, but by the 1770s activists in Easton, as well as in what is now Lehigh County to the west, had embraced the pa­triot cause. One of them, the former Durham ironmaster, George Taylor of Easton, even­tually signed the Declaration of Independence. By 1776, an active Committee of Observa­tion in the county developed support for the Revolution and acted as a provisional government. Simultaneously, revolutionary leaders in the valley joined in the writing of the radical Pennsylvania Con­stitution of 1776.

The frontier location of the valley precluded the region becoming a battlefield during the Revolution; in fact, British armies never ventured within fifty miles of the county. Patriot forces could operate at will in the area, and the county became an important communications, supply, hospital and refugee center during the early years of the war. Bethlehem’s Moravians found themselves in a difficult position, however. As mem­bers of an “ancient Protestant Episcopal Church,” they had enjoyed the protection of Parliament since 1749, and their pacifism, combined with their concerns for their missionary work, argued for their remaining neutral. Al­ways regarded by the county’s Germans and Scots-Irish as outsiders, the Moravians at Bethlehem and Nazareth found themselves at odds with the American Revolution because they refused to take oaths to the new government or to serve with its forces. But the war engulfed Bethlehem (along with frontier Easton and Allentown) as Revolution­ary leaders were drawn there by the availability of large buildings and repair facilities, to say nothing of the exem­plary hospitality of the historic Sun Inn. Refugees flocked to Bethlehem following the 1777 campaigns near Philadelphia, and its stout Germanic-style structures became hospitals for the wounded, many of whom died during the terrible winter of 1777-1778. Prominent revolutionary heroes, inducting Pulaski and Lafayette, recuperated in the little town. The Moravians hoped their warm reception and vigorous lobbying of American Revolu­tionary leaders would give them legal sanctuary under the new regime. But not for several years after the Revolu­tion did the Moravians make their place in the new nation – it was Easton that emerged as the regional center of power.

The period from the Ameri­can Revolution to the opening of the Lehigh Canal in 1829 has been called the “Age of Agriculture.” Except for the small training center at Easton and the self-contained com­munity of Bethlehem, the region was dominated by the rarely changing Germanic farm culture. Occasionally, outside events intruded, such as when support developed for the new federal Constitu­tion of 1787. Perhaps the most famous local incident was the Fries Rebellion or the Hot Water Rebellion of 1798. The Adams administration, eager to develop national defense, had decreed a direct tax on the nation’s households. Not long afterwards, assessors arrived in the county – only to be repulsed with hot water thrown from second story windows by German housewives. The Federalists retali­ated, dispatching marshalls to arrest the resistors (principally in what is now Lehigh County), but they were met by militia led by Bucks County auctioneer John Fries. In a scene similar to comic opera, the federal marshalls and their captives were surrounded in Bethlehem’s Sun Inn and the prisoners released. Later, the Adams administration tried and convicted the leaders of the rebellion before finally pardoning them on the grounds that frontier Germans had presumably not under­stood. The Republic may not have been threatened, but the long-standing loyalty of the German farmers of the county to the Jeffersonian Democrats was never doubted after the event.

A more important develop­ment during this era was the successful petition of the resi­dents of the western reaches of the region to establish Le­high County in 1812, with its seat at the new Northampton­town or, as it came to be called, Allentown. So began the gradual reduction in the size of the original Northamp­ton County, a process not completed until 1843. Whether the result of the residents’ frustration with the long trip to Easton or the ambitions of land developers and commercial interests, the establish­ment of Lehigh County created a fateful split of the valley into two competing political units, a division which plagues regional devel­opment even today.

The peaceful agrarian way of life in the county ceased with the opening of the Le­high Canal. Handicraft indus­tries had been operating in the area, including the famed Henry gun factory in Bushkill Township, and various trades had flourished at Bethlehem, Nazareth and Easton. But it was the canal which brought the Industrial Revolution to the valley. Built between 1827 and 1829 to carry anthracite from the Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) area to the Phila­delphia market, the towpath waterway was linked to the nearby Morris Canal, running across New Jersey to New York, and to the Delaware Canal, connecting the region to the metropolitan Philadel­phia area. Development of these new transportation systems attracted new resi­dents to the county and initi­ated the steady decline of the region’s rural culture.

Most dramatic was the rise of the iron industry. Iron fur­naces roared throughout the region during the colonial era; the famous Durham furnace was only a few miles south of the present Northampton County line. The furnace operations took advantage of the readily available local iron ore, great limestone deposits and the seemingly endless supply of trees to make char­coal. In the 1830s, a new and more efficient method of mak­ing iron using “stone coal,” as anthracite was called then, was developed simultaneously in the United States and Eng­land. The same interests which had built the canal quickly realized the possibili­ties of hauling local minerals with their coal via the waterway. Importing the new proc­ess and the technicians from England, they opened the first iron works in what is now Catasauqua in Lehigh County in 1840. Within two decades furnaces dotted the area along the canal with major enter­prises centered near Easton, Glendon and South Bethle­hem. By the Civil War, the river valley was the center of a major iron industry; one histo­rian has characterized it as “the American Ruhr Valley.” While subsequent depressions in 1873 and 1893 caused a decline in much of the local iron industry, the county would never be the same again. In time, canal transpor­tation was augmented by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, com­pleted from Mauch Chunk to Easton in 1855. This and other railroads soon combined to end the isolation of the older rural communities and to connect the valley and county to New York City, Philadelphia and even Boston.

While the first communities to evidence the new develop­ments were Easton at the eastern terminus of both the canal and the railroad and Allentown in nearby Lehigh County, the Bethlehem area underwent the most dramatic transformation. The Moravian community on the north side of the Lehigh River had aban­doned its church control by 1845, but it slowly relin­quished its older craft indus­tries and reluctantly welcomed the new industrial and immi­grant culture. On the south side of the Lehigh River, where the Lehigh Valley Rail­road met the railway line from Philadelphia, a new industrial center emerged. On the site of an older iron furnace and zinc mill, a major mill town with a growing immigrant population blossomed during the late nineteenth century.

Along with a few consolidated mills in Lehigh County to the west, the Bethlehem Iron Works (later the Bethle­hem Steel Corporation), under the direction of the John Fritz, successfully manufactured steel rails using the new Besse­mer process and, later in the 1880s, produced armaments for the U.S. Navy. Meanwhile, the completion of a railroad network in the valley offered diversification to the county’s economy. By 1890 the value of manufactured goods totaled more than forty-one million dollars, and the number of factory workers increased dramatically. Flour milling and textile manufacturing, includ­ing silk mills at Easton and Bethlehem and slate quarrying in the northern section of the county, joined with an uncer­tain zinc industry and the iron furnaces to transform the county into a major industrial center.

Both Easton and South Bethlehem became centers for an emerging entrepreneurial elite and a more diverse popu­lation mix. Much has been written on the aggressive leadership of the canal build­ers, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, or the organizational genius of Asa Packer, who developed the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Often overlooked is the fact that these and other leaders brought both their skills and their capital into the county from outside the re­gion. Illustrative of this devel­opment was the move of such leading entrepreneurs as Ro­bert Sayre and their families from Mauch Chunk to the Bethlehem area after 1858. They created the Bethlehem Iron Company, built their stately mansions in neighbor­ing Fountain Hill, opened a modern hospital, organized the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, founded academies for their children and sup­ported smaller churches and clubs for the workmen. This era of benevolent paternal rule was not to last more than the first generation, but it left the region with some glorious architecture as well as impor­tant community resources. A similar pattern evolved in Easton, where the entrepre­neurial elite lived near Lafay­ette College on prestigious College Hill.

Labor in the county’s mills was first drawn from the Ger­man farms of the region but these people were soon joined by immigrant groups, includ­ing the Irish, Welsh, British and Belgians. While German immigrants tended to settle in Lehigh County, Northampton County attracted the “new” immigrant, and by the 1880s Hungarians, Slovaks, Slove­nians, Poles and, finally, Ital­ians were present in significant numbers. Sixty­-seven different ethnic groups settled in South Bethlehem alone by 1917. Company towns soon became centers of a burgeoning pluralistic popu­lation with each group strug­gling to retain its own culture. Within a generation, however, their children began to move slowly towards Americaniza­tion. This pluralism may have added to social tensions in the county, but it enhanced the rich ethnic heritage still pre­served in the county’s cities and towns today.

The growth of education was also part of the emergence of a modern Northampton County. Rooted in the earlier church schools of the region, education flourished by the mid-nineteenth century with the establishment of public schools. The growth was in part due to the work of county native Gov. George Wolff. In the latter part of the century, academies developed in Beth­lehem and Easton to provide proper education for young ladies and to prepare young men to enter the emerging local colleges and universities.

By the end of the first dec­ade of the twentieth century, three institutions of higher learning served the county. Lafayette College, founded in 1826, grew slowly until the Civil War and with a new scientific curriculum and gen­erous gifts from such benefac­tors as the Hazleton entrepreneur Ario Pardee, began to train leaders for the region’s new industrial cul­ture. Lehigh University, built on South Mountain above the sprawling steel mills, opened in 1866 in Bethlehem. With the leadership and generosity of Asa Packer, Lehigh Valley Railroad magnate, it soon became one of the leading engineering schools in the East. By 1910 Moravian Col­lege, founded as a theological seminary a century earlier, had built its new campus on the north side of Bethlehem.

A definable social life devel­oped in the towns during the late Victorian era. Northamp­ton County communities established traditions of mili­tary reviews, marching bands, trotting tracks, literary soci­eties and town baseball teams. In Bethlehem, the famed Bach Choir was founded in 1898. A thriving press in the county raised the level of public en­lightenment while sustaining the rivalry of Easton and Beth­lehem.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the urban industrial society continued to prosper. Easton, the county seat and later a consolidation of a number of neighboring towns, had become a thriving metropolitan center reaching across the Delaware into New Jersey. Modern Bethlehem emerged when the old Mora­vian community joined with South Bethlehem in 1917. The Bethlehem Steel Corporation, under the leadership of Charles Schwab and later Eugene G. Grace, grew to be the second largest steel pro­ducer in the nation. Dominat­ing local employment and town culture, “the Steel” as it came to be called, became a major force in the development of such diverse enter­prises as the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABE) Airport, the local hospi­tal and intensive urban re­newal programs.

But the county’s economy consisted of more than the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Slate quarrying in the north­ern tier of the county flour­ished until World War I, its decline paralleled by the grad­ual disappearance of grain milling. The cement industry across the center of the county boomed after 1890 until it, too, began declining during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. While the silk indus­try deteriorated after some initial success, the garment industry opened factories in the county to take advantage of cheap labor. By the post­-World War II era, large and small shops punctuated the region from the slate belt on the north through the urban industrial centers along the Lehigh River.

The World War I period brought great prosperity to Northampton County. Bethle­hem Steel Corporation at one point reached more than ninety-seven percent of its productive capacity. Prosperity continued through the 1920s, but Bethlehem and Easton came to be known as alleged centers of Prohibition era vice and crime.

But the Great Depression descended, and the area so heavily committed to industri­alization felt its paralyzing blow. Bethlehem Steel, for example, hacked its employ­ment rolls from more than fourteen thousand to less than six thousand. The declining economy prompted bankrupt­cies and bank failures. Gov­ernment relief programs mushroomed in the county. County population declined as young people sought work outside the valley. It was not until World War II that the regional economy recovered, but the memories of those bitter, hardscrabble years still linger today.

Organized labor, long at odds with local industry, found heart in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and before long both the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations were active locally. It is estimated that ninety-seven percent of the cement workers were eventually unionized. Even more dramatic were the re­newed confrontations with Bethlehem Steel. Rebuffed earlier, labor finally succeeded as Bethlehem Steel in 1939 recognized the United Steel­workers of America. The memories of this success and the bitter strike of 1941 have faded in recent years, but an important chapter in United States labor history was writ­ten in Northampton County.

Since World War II the county has continued to change significantly. On one hand, the area has upgraded its transportation systems with the completion of Route 22 in 1954, the commitment in re­cent years to the completion of Route I-78 south of the valley and the expansion of the airport complex. Yet at the same time travel on the broad high­ways and expressways has meant a bypassing of older communities and, paradoxi­cally, the end of regular pas­senger rail service to New York and Philadelphia, isolating the region from its traditional metropolitan ties.

Population grows, but the demographic shift from the older industrial centers of Easton and Bethlehem to the new suburbs mushrooming in the rural townships has been most dramatic. This move­ment has plagued cities with declining populations and tax revenues, eroding the older retail centers and complicating older community and political ties. While many of the new suburbanites are children of older city residents, affluent newcomers with little sense of traditional ties have also relo­cated in the area to work in the burgeoning industrial and business parks which punctu­ate the valley. New consoli­dated school districts have further complicated the sense of older, familiar loyalties. Yet in the face of this, Bethlehem, Easton and Nazareth have undertaken significant efforts to preserve their identity by restoration of historic and older areas.

Meanwhile the economic base continues to evolve. As late as 1973, sixty percent of the county’s labor force was devoted to manufacturing, of which one-third is in the steel industry. Bethlehem Steel Corporation had, for example, reached an employment level of twenty-seven thousand employees in 1955, including thirty-five hundred in the general offices. But the recent decline in the fortunes of the company has been paralleled by the closing of Easton’s Dixie Cup Company and the area cement mills, leaving future employment patterns uncertain.

However, the new County politics have changed significantly. Traditionally a Democratic Party stronghold, the county has recently shown signs of a more balanced and vigorous party rivalry. The county voted in 1976 to adopt a “home rule” charter to de­velop a more modern system of representative government and professional administra­tion of county affairs. The older rivalries still remain, however, with tensions contin­uing between the traditional center of power at Easton and the burgeoning populations near Bethlehem and Nazareth.

Culturally, the county is blessed with three private educational institutions: Lehigh University and Moravian College in Bethlehem and Lafayette College in Easton. In addition to Northampton County Area Community College, opened in 1966, they have provided a wealth of traditional and innovative educational opportunities, as well as diverse cultural pro­gramming. For traditionalists, the Bach Choir, Bethlehem, offers its annual festival in the spring and a special program during the Christmas season.

The future direction of county life is still not clear. Older smokestack industries with their large blue collar labor force pegging the city economies seem to be declin­ing. The flight to the suburbs may also have begun to wane with the hope for restoration of the flagging economies of Easton and Bethlehem. But in spite of the uncertainty, Northampton County resi­dents today think themselves blessed with the charm of a distinctly defined historic area and the best of urban and rural prospects close at hand.


For Further Reading

Alderfer, E. Gordon. Northamp­ton Heritage. Easton, Pa.: Northampton County History and General Society, 1953.

Condit, Uzal W. The History of Easton. Easton: G. W. West, 1889.

Heller, William J. History of Northampton County. New York: AHA, 1920.

Henry, M. S. History of the Lehigh Valley. Easton: Bixler and Corwin, 1860.

Levering, Joseph M. A History of Bethlehem, Pa. Bethlehem: Publishing Co., 1903.

Northampton County Guide. Bethlehem: Times Publishing Co., 1939.


Daniel R. Gilbert, a member of the history department of Mora­vian College, Bethlehem, since 1953, is a graduate of Middlebury College. He received his master of arts and doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He served as executive director of Historic Bethlehem from 1973 to 1976. In 1975, he was elected a member and secretary of the commission which authored the Northampton County “Home Rule” charter. Currently he serves on the county’s Higher Education Authority. A frequent lecturer on the history and heritage of the Lehigh Valley, he teaches a course on the subject at Moravian Col­lege. His published articles on the region’s history include an article on Lehigh County which ap­peared in the summer 1978 edi­tion of this magazine. The author wishes to acknowledge the contri­butions of Sue Gangwere, Martha Reid and Lance Metz in the prep­aration of this article.