Bucks County

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

As one of the three original counties of Pennsylvania created shortly after William Penn arrived in his nascent colony in 1682, Bucks County has a heritage that reaches back to the very beginnings of the Commonwealth. Long before Penn’s arrival, the intrepid settlers of the Dutch and Swedish colonies farther down the Delaware River had ex­plored the wooded banks of the river as far as the Falls of the Delaware, adjacent to the present town of Morrisville.

The first settlement of a permanent nature in what is now Bucks County was probably made in the 1660’s near the present town of Bristol. In 1679, the first village, called Crewcorne, was established at the Falls of the Delaware by a group of Quakers from West New Jersey. Crewcorne was destined to become the first county seat, from 1682 to 1705, but the village has long since vanished from the land­scape.

Great numbers of new settlers, mostly English Quakers, heeded William Penn’s encouragement to participate in the “Holy Experiment.” Soon they transformed Bucks County from the farthest outpost of European civilization in the Delaware Valley to a busy and populous community that found the land rich and abundant, superbly suited for agriculture.

Penn himself established his country residence at Pennsbury Manor, a stately mansion in lower Bucks. The mansion fell into ruins after Penn’s death. In the 1930’s it was care­fully re-created, maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and is now the focal point of Pennsbury Manor State Park.

The county government was soon firmly established. Fortunately, most of the county’s official records have survived to this day, and many are now preserved in the ar­chives of The Bucks County Historical Society.

At first, relations between the settlers and the Delaware or Lenni Lenape Indians were cordial, due to the prudent policies of Penn. The first purchase of land from the Indians, actually made in July of 1682 before the Proprietor himself arrived in Pennsylvania, took place in Bucks County.

Though the first settlements were made by Penn’s co-religionists of the Society of Friends as well as a few Dutch and Swedes, they were followed by colonists from a variety of traditions, German Mennonites and Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Welsh Quakers and Baptists, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Huguenots, and Irish Catholics.

A market town was established at Bristol in 1697, although the county never lost its close economic relationship with Philadelphia. Bristol became the county seat from 1705 to 1725, and received a borough charter in 1720. Later in the eighteenth century the Bristol Bath Springs became a popular resort and watering place.

Settlements progressed steadily up the river and along the banks of creeks such as the Neshaminy. In the upper part of the county, colonists followed the valley of the Perkiomen Creek through Philadelphia County (now Montgomery County) into Richland Township to settle the area around Quakertown. By 1725 the population had shifted so much that it was again necessary to move the county seat from Bristol to Newtown.

The inexorable spread of settlements brought great pressure on the heirs of William Penn to obtain title to more land from the Indians. Thus, Thomas and Richard Penn in 1737 succumbed to the temptation to deceive the Lenni Lenape in the infamous “Indian Walking Purchase.” Using as a pretext an old Indian deed which purportedly conveyed to the Penns as much land as a man could cover by walking northward for a day and a half from the old purchase line in Wrightstown, Penn’s sons claimed that this distance had never actually been measured. On September 19 and 20, 1737, three athletes employed by the provincial authorities set out on the “walk.” Two of them collapsed from exhaustion before the time was up, but the third, Edward Marshall, “walked” from Wrightstown to Mount Pocono, a distance of some sixty-six miles. The Indians, who had expected the leisurely pace of the early purchases and treaties of William Penn, felt cheated. This incident which deprived the Indians of some of their favorite lands, marked the beginning of the deterioration of relations with the white men which culminated in the hostilities of the French and Indian War. A monument erected by The Bucks County Historical Society in 1895 marks the starting point of the Walking Purchase, ironically located just adjacent to the Wrightstown Friends Meeting House.

Located as it is between New York and Philadelphia, Bucks County played an important tole in the American Revolution. Though many of its inhabitants were Quaker and Mennonites and thus were non-participants in the struggle, or even took the Tory side, the county contributed men and resources to the fight for independence. Cannonballs were manufactured at Durham Iron Works in upper Bucks, and several military units participated in the struggle. Colonel William Baxter of Warwick Township was the first militia officer from Bucks to die in battle, at Fort Washington on Manhattan in November, 1776.

However, all other revolutionary associations are overshadowed by the events of December of 1776, when George Washington and his army found refuge in Bucks County after the headlong retreat across New Jersey. Securing all boats as he hurried his troops across the Delaware, Washington frustrated the British and rested his men long enough to make good the master stroke of re-crossing the Delaware in a raging storm on Christmas night to surprise and discomfit the Hessian detachment at Trenton. The place where the American army gathered and crossed that night is now preserved and commemorated as Washington Crossing State Park, also maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

The following summer, Washington’s army camped along the banks of the Neshaminy Creek near Hartsville for several weeks just prior to the campaign in which the British captured Philadelphia. During the British occupation of the city, Bucks County suffered frequent enemy raids. These were climaxed by the Battle of the Crooked Billet in May 1778, which actually began at Hatboro in Montgomery County, but in which the American militia was forced to retreat up the Old York Road into Bucks County.

Later in the Revolution, military action did not directly affect Bucks, but the county was ravaged by the Doane Outlaws, a gang of daring Tory guerrillas who preyed on collectors of taxes and militia fines. Their most audacious feat was the robbery of the county treasure at Newtown in October 1781, just three days after Cornwallis’ surrender to the Americans at Yorktown. The Doanes continued their depredations for several years. Their leader, Moses Doane, was killed when a posse raided the cabin where they were hiding in 1783, but this did not stop their activities. When the state authorities finally caught up with them, one es­caped to Canada, two were hanged in Philadelphia in 1788, and the fate of several of their accomplices in unknown.

In 1798 the Fries Rebellion, or “Hot-Water War” oc­curred; here the Pennsylvania German population of Milford Township and surrounding areas took arms to oppose a federal tax which was assessed according to the size of houses.

The Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal was constructed between 1827 and 1832 as the last of many efforts to improve navigation up and down the Delaware River. For several years industry and commerce thrived in the villages along the canal’s route. It remained in operation until 1931, carrying great quantities of coal and other goods from upstate Pennsylvania toward Philadelphia. Most of the canal is still intact and is preserved as Theodore Roosevelt State Park.

Further development in the early nineteenth century led to another shift in the location of the county seat, this time from Newtown to Doylestown in 1813. Doylestown was already a prosperous town, including an academy, a post office and a newspaper which had been established in 1804. It has remained the county seat, the present courthouse being the third to be built on the same site.

The Bucks County Historical Society was founded in 1880 by General William Watts Hart Davis, an officer in the Mexican and Civil Wars and newspaper editor-turned­-historian. Preoccupied at first with marking historic sites and presenting papers, the Society took off in a new direc­tion in 1897, when Henry Chapman Mercer of Doylestown began his collection of early American tools and imple­ments, which he called “Tools of the Nation Maker.” Inspired by the observation that the tools of the crafts with which America was built were being discarded and de­stroyed in favor of mechanized equipment, Mercer set out to collect and interpret them as a major element in history. Mercer was one of the first scholars to undertake such a project, and his collection is now recognized as perhaps one of the most important of its kind in the world.

Mercer soon became the dominant figure in the Bucks County Historical Society. The Society built the Elkins Building in Doylestown in 1904, but Mercer’s collection soon outgrew that facility, so he designed, built and gave to the Society the Mercer Museum in 1916. In this vast castle­-like concrete structure are housed over 40,000 objects, the smaller artifacts arranged in small display rooms, one for each craft, and the larger ones dramatically exhibited in a great central court, where sleighs, wagons, a whale boat and a fire-engine hang suspended from the ceiling.

Mercer also built two other large concrete buildings in Doylestown, his home Foothill and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, where he manufactured decorative tiles. His tiles, with designs based on Pennsylvania German decorated stove-plates and a variety of other sources, were widely used as architectural decoration early in this century. Among the major installations is the floor of the State Capitol in Harrisburg. Both Fonthill and the Tile Works also are now museums.

Mercer died in 1930, but the historical society continued to grow. The Library wing was built in 1934 and enlarged in 1937. It preserves large holdings of historical material on Bucks County, including newspapers, county archives, manuscripts, maps, and other sources.

In 1974, the society began a major expansion and improvement program, which when finished will include a complete renovation of the library, a rare book room, a new entrance pavilion and elevator tower, a curatorial labora­tory and new lighting in the museum. The improvements will be completed in time for the Bicentennial year.

Among the society’s other activities are an active publications program which includes a semi-annual journal, lecture series, an annual Folk Fest, and other special events.

In the twentieth century Bucks County has continued to grow and change. An arts colony began early in the century around New Hope. There the Bucks County Playhouse and other facilities have made the area a major tourist attrac­tion. In lower Bucks, considerable development began in the early 1950’s with the construction of a gigantic United States Steel plant, followed by the growth of Levittown and other modern communities.

Interest in historic preservation began to develop as progress threatened some of Bucks County’s numerous historic buildings. In 1953, Historic Fallsington was organized to preserve an entire village of eighteenth-century structures. Local historical societies have helped to preserve many other buildings. For instance, the Newtown Historic Association has restored the Court Inn (1733), and the New Hope Historical Society maintains the Parry Mansion (1784). As interest in local history grows, more local groups are participating in various efforts to preserve the county’s heritage.


Terry McNealy is library director for Bucks County Historical Society. He has published various material, including a History of Bucks County, Part I.