Chester County Welcomes Thee

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

The history of Chester County constitutes a significant part of the history of Pennsylvania, both province and commonwealth, and of the history of the United States of America. At the beginning of our nation’s Bicentennial and on the threshold of our state’s and our county’s tricentennial celebrations, Chester County looks proudly upon its past accomplishments and with confidence toward the future’s challenges.

The first known settlers of the rolling countryside located between the Delaware River and the Welsh Mountains were the friendly Lenni-Lenape Indians. They hunted, fished, gardened, and established villages near the forks of the Brandywine, near present-day Glen Moore, east of Willis­town, in London Britain Township, along the Octoraro Creek, and at the mouth of Pickering Creek.

In the early and mid-seventeenth century, Europeans, for a variety of political, economic, and social reasons, sought to establish colonies of exploitation and colonies of settle­ment along the eastern seaboard of North America. First, the Dutch moved into the Delaware Bay area in the 1620s and 1630s but their efforts did not result in either profits for investors or a hospitable environment to attract immi­grants. Next the Swedes, under Peter Minuit, constructed forts in the late 1630s; during the governorship of Johan Printz (1643-1653) more military installations were con­structed and the settlers, both Swedes and Finns, built log cabins, began the cultivation of tobacco, and introduced Lutheranism. Like their Dutch and Swedish competitors for colonial domain, the English had made settlements in the New World and, in 1681, Charles II granted William Penn title to extensive lands located between those previously granted to the Duke of York and Lord Baltimore. Shortly after arriving (October 1682) in his province, Penn ordered the erection of three counties-Chester, Philadelphia, and Bucks. In November he appointed a sheriff for each, and in December the first Provincial Assembly convened at Upland (Chester). the oldest town in Pennsylvania. Here in 1683 Caleb Pusey built his house, which is now open to the public, and settlement began in Chester County. [Lancaster County was formed in 1729 from the western portions of Chester County; Berks County, formed in 1752, included parts of several Chester County townships, while Delaware County was detached from Chester County in 1789. This latter occurred when residents of the upwater portions of the county (the Removalists) persuaded the Assembly to move the county seat from Chester to Turk’s Head, now West Chester, in 1784-86.]

At first the population was largely Welsh and English Quakers, but soon Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and various sects of Germans occupied and farmed the land. Settlement proceeded inland along the county’s numerous creeks and fertile valleys, and farming and household manufacturing were the primary occupations of the residents.

No symbol better represents Chester County than its original seal-a plow. Farmers were the foundation of our citizenry and farming was the major occupation until the present century. Chester Countians successfully grew Indian corn, wheat, barley, oats, rye, buckwheat, and flax; there were several attempts at sericulture. Norman horses, Durham and Holstein cattle, Spanish Merino sheep, and “Chester White” hogs were bred in the nineteenth century. Today, the dairy products of the county are sold in the Philadelphia area while at the 10,000-acre Buck and Doe Run Valley Farm (the eastern range of the King Ranch of Texas) thou­sands of Santa Gertrudis beef are readied for later sale. Numerous improvements in agricultural implements orig­inated in the county, the most important of which were a machine to mow by horsepower (in place of the scythe) patented by Jeremiah Baily in 1822 and a grain drill patented by Moses Pennock in 1841. Large deposits of lime in the Great Valley provided an excellent fertilizer and by 1864 East Caln Township had 100 farms and West Caln 85. To­day, growing fruits (especially apples and peaches). cultivat­ing corn for animal feed, dairying, floriculture, and growing mushrooms are the major agricultural enterprises. In fact, southern Chester County, in the vicinity of Kennett Square, West Grove, and Oxford, has long been known as the mushroom capitol of America. In all respects, Chester County was “the best poor man’s country.”

In a basically agricultural society, and with excellent sources of water power available, milling was the county’s first organized industry. Virtually every settlement had its grist mill, which could double as a sawmill or fulling mill. By 1710 Francis Chads was operating a miff in Birmingham Township on the Brandywine and Thomas Jerman owned one located on a tributary of the Schuylkill in Tredyffrin Township. The manufacture of iron, centered in the northern townships with their plentiful water power, rich iron de­posits, and great stands of timber, dates from the early eighteenth century. Samuel Nutt, Thomas Rutter, William Branson, John Potts, and others built and operated Coventry Forge, Reading Furnace, Warwick Furnace, and Valley Forge.

A flourishing iron industry emerged from these beginnings. In 1793 Isaac Pennock built a furnace in East Fallow­field Township. Operated by his son-in-law, Dr. Charles Lukens, who moved the works to Coatesville in 1816 and by Luken’s widow, Rebecca, after 1825, this establishment was the forerunner of the Lukens Steel Company. Benjamin Longstreth built an ironworks in Phoenixville in 1785, but both he and Lewis Wernwag, the famous bridge builder who assumed direction in 1813 and named the plant Phoenix Iron Works, could not make a profit. Continuous operations under new leadership began in 1828 and the company was incorporated in 1855. Iron mills were also located in Downingtown (from 1812) and Parkesburg. At many locations in Chester County, such as Downingtown, Modena, Kimber­ton, New London, and Oxford, a wide variety of paper products were manufactured while West Chester’s tag companies were nationally known. Other kinds of enterprises that have industrialized portions of the county are textiles, brick, terra cotta and fire clay products, mushroom canning, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and assembling air compressors and pneumatic tools.

Before the coming of the White Man, the county was criss-crossed by Indian trails, most of which were part of a network ,connecting the Delaware, Schuylkill, and Susque­hanna rivers. Public roads date from the end of the seven­teenth century. the most heavily traveled of which were the “Old Lancaster,” Swede’s Ford Road, Boot Road, and Strasburg Road. On April 9, 1792, the Legislature chartered the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company, often described as the first turnpike in America. Opened in 1795, it crossed a major portion of central Chester County. Not only did this turnpike become a model for others elsewhere but it became an important contributor to the county’s eco­nomic development. Keeping public houses, both stage taverns and wagon taverns, emerged as a major industry. Some of the more famous were the Spread Eagle, Swan, Black Horse, and Bear. The present Route 30 (Lincoln Highway) follows the course of this turnpike, while the Penn-Central Railroad’s main line parallels it through Ber­wyn, Paoli, Malvern, Downingtown, and Coatesville. Other turnpikes gave Chester Countians access to Reading, Norris­town, Wilmington, and nearby Maryland points. Today, Chester Countians can enter the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the Downingtown Interchange.

The Schuylkill Navigation Company, chartered in 1815 and opened in 1825, moved large quantities of farm goods and iron products on a lock navigation to down-stream locations, especially Philadelphia. Ferries and bridges were an equally essential element in transport. John Chads estab­lished a ferry across the Brandywine on the road from Phila­delphia to Nottingham (present Route 1) in 1737. He was authorized to charge for his services four pence for each horse and rider, as well as each cow, ox, or heifer, three pence for”every single person on foot,” nine pence for each empty wagon or cart, and one shilling six pence for each coach. wagon, or cart. At one time there were more than a hundred covered bridges in the county, but today fewer than twenty remain. Except for a few, these were single lane structures and for one, Bartram’s Bridge, in Willistown Township, the specifications called for it to be “as high and wide as a load of hay.”

The railroad mania of the mid-nineteenth century made a major impact on Chester County. First, the Columbia Rail­road, the eastern segment of the original Pennsylvania Main­line, crossed east to west. When the Pennsylvania Railroad Company was formed in 1846, the Columbia became an in­tegral part of the Pennsy’s Philadelphia to Pittsburgh service. To railroad users. Paoli became a household word, for regularly scheduled passenger trains stop at this community. The Philadelphia and West Chester Traction Company began service between the county seat and 69th Street, Philadel­phia, in 1899, eight years after the West Chester Street Railway Company was transporting riders to Lenape, Ken­nett Square, and West Grove. With these kinds of land transportation available, more Chester Countians commuted to work and shopped in Philadelphia and Wilmington. At the same time, the area became increasingly suburbanized with an influx of people living in housing developments, primarily in the central sections of the county.

Education has always been and still is a major concern in the county. Religious sects, such as the Quakers and Presby­terians, took the lead in establishing schools. One of the more famous was located at Birmingham Meeting House (1756); here Dr. William Darlington was taught by John Forsythe in the late eighteenth century. At Fagg’s Manor Classical School, the ecclesiastical Blair brothers taught be­tween 1739 and 1767 and educated Samuel Davies, who later became president of the College of New Jersey, and John McMillan, who founded Jefferson College. New London Academy, under the instruction of Rev. Francis Alison be­tween 1743 and 1752, produced Thomas McKean, George Reed, and James Smith – all signers of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Benjamin Rush received his early training at Nottingham Academy during the era of Rev. Samuel Finley, 1744-1761, while the Westtown Boarding School, opened in 1799 under Quaker auspices, has educated numerous outstanding men and women. The West Chester Academy (1813) educated prominent Chester Countians such as Joseph Hemphill, Washington Townsend, and James B. Everhart and was sold in 1869, along with the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Science, to form West Chester State Normal School (1871). From this has emerged West Chester State College, which with Cheyney State College, Immaculata College, and Lincoln University, has served tens of thousands of students. A proposal for a community college “without walls” is currently under discussion.

Chester County has produced an eminent array of public servants, educators, authors, and scientists. Thomas McKean (1734-1817) and Samuel W. Pennypacker (1843-1916) were elected to serve as governors of the Commonwealth, while Wayne MacVeagh (1833-1917) was attorney-general in the Garfield cabinet. Dr. James P. Wickersham (1825-1891) was state superintendent of public schools from 1866 to 1881, and twice was president of the National Education Associa­tion. Dr. Evan Pugh in a short life-span of thirty-six years (1828-1864) laid the foundations of agricultural education in America, and founded The Pennsylvania State University. Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) authored an account of his European travels entitled Views A Foot, which went through at least thirty editions, while his The Story of Kennett made his hometown internationally famous. Artist, poet, and sculptor, Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872) wrote Paul Redding, A Tale of the Brandywine (1845) and Sheridan’s Ride (1864). Read, the artist, is best known for his “Star of Bethlehem,” owned by the Chester County His­torical Society, and “A Painter’s Dream,” which hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Mark Sullivan’s (1874-1952) six-volume account of Our Times is known to every his­torian.

Because of our rural, agricultural environment, the study of botany has attracted many of our best minds. The Bar­trams, John (1699-1777) and William (1739-1823) were famous for reports of their travels from Canada to Florida. Humphrey Marshall (1722-1801) established a botanical garden at Marshallton, corresponded with English scientists, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society. Dr. William Darlington (1782-1863) published his Flora Cestrica in 1837, an Agricultural Botany in 1847, and a volume of correspondence, Memorials of Bartram and Marshall in 1849. This many-faceted man served in the Fourteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Congresses of the United States (1815-17, 1819-23), was a member and chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Canal Commissioners (1825-1827). was president of the Bank of Chester County (1830-1827), and, with others, founded the Cabinet of Natural Science (1826) and the Medical Society (1828). In the writer’s opinion, no one contributed more to the County than Darlington.

One of the most important aspects of Chester County history is its role in the Revolutionary War. While many citizens were pro-British in their loyalties or refused to take sides because of religious beliefs, others, exemplified by Gen. Anthony Wayne of Easttown Township, served our country well. The war came to Chester County in late summer 1777. Gen. Sir William Howe, having decided to capture Philadelphia, embarked almost 20,000 troops on board ships at New York, landed them on August 25 near present-day Elkton, Maryland, and marched to Kennett Square. General Washington deployed his army of about 11,000 troops along the east bank of the Brandywine at present-day Chadd’s Ford. Here, on September 11, an all­-day battle ensued in which Howe’s strategy called for part of the army, under Knyphausen to concentrate on the Americans near Chadd’s Ford, while the rest, under Howe himself, assisted by Cornwallis was outflanking Washington’s right. The Americans, aided by a number of foreign volun­teers including LaFayette and Pulaski, Jost nearly a thou­sand men, and Washington withdrew toward Chester after nightfall. A second confrontation occurred five days later, this time just west of Paoli when a skirmish, ofter called the “Battle of the Clouds,” took place. Again, Washington was nearly outflanked by Knyphausen and Cornwallis in a pincers movement. However, a heavy downpour of rain stopped the British and allowed the Continentals again to withdraw and avoid a disaster. General Wayne, however, was detached to harass the opposition, but on the night of the 20th his forces were surprised by the British, who again, as at Brandywine, took advantage of information provided by Loyalists. Using bayonets and swords, the British killed or wounded nearly 250 of Wayne’s men in what came to be called the Paoli “Massacre.” But in the next engagement, the Battle of Germantown on October 4, the British barely succeeded in beating back the attacking American troops.

Then followed the winter at Valley Forge. Here on December 19, 1777, Washington encamped with his ragged, ill-equipped and hungry army. Yet these trying times worked to a good purpose. Those soldiers who were true friends of independence endured the trial, while the rest de­serted. This “new army” was meticulously drilled by Baron von Steuben, and both soldiers and officers became more aware of their duty. There was much to be done, but when camp was broken on June 19, 1778, Washington’s army was better prepared than ever to go on the offense.

The Chester County Historical Society, organized in 1893, is the primary depository of information about the county. Housed since 1938 in Memorial Hall, which was built in 1848 by Thomas U. Walter for the county Horticul­tural Society, its museum and library are among the fore­most in the nation. The David Townsend House in West Chester, the 1704 Brinton House near Dilworthtown, and the Hopper Log House in East Whiteland Township are also administered by the society. Its address is 225 North High Street in West Chester.

“Chester County Welcomes Thee” – especially on the first Saturday of October, Chester County Day. On that day, a number of homes are opened to the public. Chester County Day began in 1936 and is always held the first Saturday of October.


Robert E. Carlson is Professor of History at West Chester Stale College. He is active in the Pennsylvania Historical Associa­tion and the Chester County Historical Society.