Lancaster County: Diversity of People, Ideas and Economy

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

When Lancaster County was established on May 10, 1729, it became the proto­type for the sixty-three counties to follow. The original three counties­Philadelphia, 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.”

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. Samual 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 south­east 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 and 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 able to form a congregation about 1741.


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-fire fighters. 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, workshop 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 pewter ware. In 1810, the Farmers Bank of Lancaster commenced opera­tions, and it survives today as a com­ponent of the Hamilton Bank. Nearly 300 flour (grist) mills operated on county streams and limeburners were employed busily producing lime for soil dressing in sou them 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 1800, 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 interests constructed a canal from Wrightsville ( opposite Columbia) paral­lel with the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay to siphon off trade for Baltimore. A trans-river connection was made at Safe Harbor so canal boats could serve Lancaster city via the Conestoga Slackwater Navigation Co. canal. Although Lancaster – a city since 1818 – was the largest inland town, it now could boast that a pas­senger could travel from Lancaster to Europe by water!

Lancaster entrepreneurs began promoting large manufacturing works, one of the first of which was the Lan­caster Locomotive Works. In the late 1840s, the promoters also erected a complex of large cotton mills with machinery driven by steam engines. To serve these new industries, several large foundry and machine shop works were built to turn out engines, boilers and large machinery castings.

By 1840, the old charcoal iron busi­ness, once the county’s major indus­try, was caught in a steep decline. The new technology called for anthracite iron furnaces which were built in a triangle with Marietta, Safe Harbor and Lancaster at the corners. Anthra­cite coal came by barge, and local iron ore and limestone flux were trans­ported by rail to the furnaces. Marietta had seven furnaces along the river, Columbia had four, Safe Harbor owned one, and two more were inland at Ironville and Lancaster. In addition, rolling mills generally were built near the furnaces.


Slavery, Politics and the Civil War

In 1790, Lancaster was the fourth largest slave-owning county in Penn­sylvania with many English, Welsh and Scottish owners employing slaves around iron furnaces or as house ser­vants. By 1830, however, most were freed and many of them owned their own properties. Although there were slaveholders in the county, abolition­ist sentiment was also strong, particu­larly among Quakers who frequently guided fugitive slaves under cover to freedom. The most violent incident in the area involving slaves occurred in 1851 when a Baltimore County slave owner, accompanied by a U.S. marshal and posse, tried to regain his runaway slaves near Christiana. A riot ensued, the white slave owner was killed and his son seriously wounded.

Among Lancaster’s most zealous abolitionists was Thaddeus Stevens, fresh from waging the Anti-Masonic wars. When local voters had no place to turn, except to one of the factions of the Democratic party, Lancaster countians supported the Anti-Masonic party for a decade in preference to the Democrats. A short flirtation with the Whig party evolved into support for the Native American party during which time Stevens pondered his next move. In 1856 the Whigs and Native Americans, excluding a handful of ex­tremists, met to form the local Repub­lican party which Stevens joined. Prior to that time Stevens served in the state House of Representatives and was elected a U.S. Representative in 1859 where he served until his death in 1868. During his time in the House, he led the fight in Congress for the re­pressive Reconstruction Act and man­aged the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson.

Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, two other political notables of Lancaster County were in the national eye: James Buchanan be­came president in 1856 and Simon Cameron of Maytown was elected to the U.S. Senate. Cameron, one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful political leaders, masterminded the Republican organization for nearly four decades. On his retirement, his son, J. Donald Cameron, took up the reins of party power. Simon Cameron became Lin­coln’s first Secretary of War, and Donald served in the same office under President Grant. Although Lancaster County had indifferent political leader­ship during much of the nineteenth century, its voters always produced great majorities for the Republican party.

The Civil War called forth thou­sands of countians who served, and died, in the Union army and navy. Major General John Fulton Reynolds, a native son, was one of the casualties of the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg. During the campaign leading up to that battle, the war came even closer to county soil when an advance detachment of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Gen. John Brown Gordon of Georgia raced to the Susquehanna River. At Wrightsville he attempted to cross to Colum­bia, but the wooden covered bridge spanning the river was set afire keeping the Confederate troops out of the county. Al though most of the region remained loyal to the Union, there was strong “copperhead” sentiment in the northeastern corner of the county. At one point a draft riot erupted, quelled only by the intervention of the county sheriff.


Recent Growth and Diversification

Throughout the nineteenth century, education, cultural activities and the arts flourished. Despite the indiffer­ence or opposition of some conservative rural folk, nearly every town had its lyceum, band, library and perform­ing group, while academies, seminaries and public schools operated with favorable results. Inasmuch as the En­glish, Scottish and mainline German churches insisted upon well-educated clergy, schools enjoyed a high priority. The German “Enlightenment” period of Goethe, Schiller and Heine was echoed in Lancaster County with the formation of literary societies to study and celebrate the works of these schol­ars.

Franklin College merged with Marshall College and the combined school moved into new buildings at Lancaster in 1856 to give the city the finest edu­cation nineteenth century German scholarship had to offer. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s first teacher-training school was established at Millersville, and it achieved renown for the quality of its instruction. In 1871, the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church was moved to Lancas­ter where it operated in close relation­ship with F & M College. With the arrival of the theological seminary, an influential community of scholars gave Lancaster an intellectual character which was frequently seen as threaten­ing to the established mores and con­ventional modes of thought. To har­monize the interests of the academic community with the commercial and unlettered majority, a “town and gown” society was formed in 1879; the 102-year-old Cliosophic Society continues to flourish to this day with rare vigor.

Cigar making, cotton textile weaving, brewing, carriage-building and the iron industry were major employers in the late nineteenth century. County works that manufactured agri­cultural implements were also numerous, and one became the nucleus of the gigantic New Holland Machine Division of the Sperry-Rand Corpora­tion. Several stove foundries turned out ornate kitchen and parlor stoves, and silk mills began appearing near the turn of the century. Watchmaking, an industry that began in the county in the 1870s, became a big business in the 1890s with the formation of the Hamilton Watch Company. As the coke furnaces and the Bessemer process of steelmaking came to dominate the iron and steel industry in central and western Pennsylvania, Lancaster’s anthracite iron furnaces fell into dis­use. By 1912, all pig iron production ceased and the area’s rolling mills were relegated to rolling wrought-iron scrap.

Early in the twentieth century, many Lancaster County industries be­came technologically obsolete. Despite the fame of her skilled mechanics and industrious workers, Lancaster’s manu­facturing works were losing out rapid­ly to newer industrial centers. Then, in 1907, Armstrong Cork Company built a large linoleum plant and the outlook began to change. New executives with less restricted vision arrived in town and, with the company’s encouragement, 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, confectionary and cigar-making factories, large plants operated by RCA, 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 heal thy 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 1950s 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 ninety-five-year-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. 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.

Lancaster County – first western county and forerunner or effective local government creation – has set the pace for 250 years in Pennsylvania, thanks to the genius and pride of its diverse citizenry.


John Ward Willson Loose presently teaches senior economics and govern­ment at Donegal High School, where he is also chairman of the Department of History and Social Sciences. In addition to serving as an officer for many state, county, and local historical or­ganizations and societies, he has pub­lished dozens of monographs and three books, including the best-selling The Heritage of Lancaster.