Lehigh County: The Land and Its People

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

Lehigh County encompasses the western half of the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania. Bounded on the east by the Lehigh River, the main geographical feature of the larger valley, and on the north by the Blue Mountain range, the land is a mosaic of lime­stone plain, sinks and rolling hills. While the southern region of the county lies astride the so-called South Moun­tain and the hills of the upper regions of the Perkiomen Creek watershed, most of the county’s streams drain into the Lehigh River-Delaware River system.

The eastern portion of the Lehigh Valley was part of the homeland of the Lenni-Lenape, or Delaware Indians, yet the present area of Lehigh County was regarded as neutral ground by the native inhabitants. As such it included only a few smaller Indian settlements, and was crossed by a number of Indian trails. The Old Warrior’s Path, for example, went south from the Lehigh Gap before it forked into smaller trails to the east, south, and southwest. It was this last route which apparently brought the Indians to the South Mountain region near the present-day Vera Cruz, where they mined Jasper (a form of quartz) in order to make arrow and spear heads. The Indian legacy is seen primarily in the unique names for the area’s streams and towns. Thus the region has a Catasauqua (from Gattoshacki – “the earth thirsts”), a Hokendauqua (from Hackiundochwe – “searching for land”), the stream Tuppeck­hanna (meaning “the stream that flows from a large spring”), and others.

Part of the substantial grant that William Penn received from King Charles II in 1681, the Lehigh Valley was penetrated by traders as early as 1701. The area was also the subject of early negotiations with the Indians concern­ing the cession of the southern border region in the 1680’s. Further negotiations after 1718, over the rights to the valley itself, included the infamous Walking Purchase of 1737. Although most of the area involved in that transfer lay to the east in the present Northampton County, the actual path of the “walk” intersected the southeast corner of the present Lehigh County. Current scholarship suggests that the Indians were initially willing parties to these land settlements, but came in time to distrust the methods by which Pennsylvania’s Provincial leaders defined the boundaries of the ceded portions of ancestral lands.


Early Settlement

The first settlers came north into the region from the more populated regions of Bucks County even before the Proprietors had established their rights to the land. Some Scots-Irish, English, and Welsh settlers found their way into what is now Saucon Township in the southeast corner of the county, but it was mainly the Swiss and German immigrants who were drawn into the larger Lehigh Valley, beginning as early as 1729. Within the next decade these people had spread to the Blue Mountain ridge to the north and into the rolling hills and valleys in the western end of the valley. It is generally thought that the availability of land brought these people into the region. But some sources also call attention to the attractiveness of the limestone soils and to the similarity of the area with the topography of their homelands.

It is significant that the distinctive cultural identity of pre-industrial Lehigh County was defined at an early date. The eastern part of the valley was dominated by the English and the Scots-Irish whose homes ringed the unique German Moravian culture of Bethlehem. In contrast, most of the inhabitants who spread out over the floor of the valley west of the Lehigh River were Germans of both Lutheran and Reformed church affiliation.

Some groups, such as the Swiss Mennonites at Egypt or the Palatines at Weisenberg, migrated as entire com­munities, yet most came individually or in family units. Within two decades there were over two thousand people in the present county from such diverse homelands as England, Wales, Switzerland, the Rhineland Palatinate, Alsace, Lorraine, and Wurttemberg.

Townships were established as early as 1737 in what was then the upper region of Bucks County. The move to create a separate Northampton County was led by agents of the Penn family and other interests active in the eastern end of the Lehigh Valley. Thus the early German settlers, who had objected before to the great distance to the Bucks County seat at Newtown, were equally dis­satisfied with the maneuvering which made distant Easton the seat of the new Northampton County in 1752. The seeds of the separation of the western area into what was later to be called Lehigh County were therefore sown early.


Relations with the Indians

Many of the Delaware Indians, resentful of Euro-American methods of land acquisition and the alliance of the Pennsylvania government with the hated Iroquois, migrated west to the Ohio country where they came under the influence of the French. After the defeat of Braddock’s forces in western Pennsylvania in 1755, bands of Indians, including the Delaware, returned and brought havoc to the upper regions of what is now Lehigh County.

The first attacks came at the Moravian station at Gnaden­hutten, just north of Lehigh Gap. In a short time some of the valley settlers began to seek refuge in the Moravian settlements of Bethlehem and Nazareth, and at the small Moravian preaching station in the northwestern corner of the valley. But most of the German settlers chose to stay on to defend their farms. Their militia units eventually joined with Provincial troops and assisted Benjamin Frank­lin’s well-known mission to organize the defense of the frontier by means of a series of forts. Many of the latter were located north of the Blue Mountain ridge, though some of the smaller blockhouses were established within the valley itself. One, Fort Everett, was located near the present Lynn port in northwest Lehigh County. Another, Trucker’s (or Kern’s) Mill was developed near the present-day Slatington just south of the Lehigh Gap–“a most dangerous pass” as Franklin called it. While contemporary accounts suggest that these valley forces and blockhouses were of questionable quality, they did succeed in checking the panic and flight from the region. In 1758 a treaty with the Indians negotiated at Easton ended the reign of terror in the region except for a brief, bloody series of incidents along the Lehigh River in 1763.

William Penn had followed no consistent pattern of distributing land in his new Province. Some parcels had been sold to European speculators sight unseen, while others were sold to individual settlers. Penn also gave large sections to family and friends and to his heirs, who became the Proprietors in the 1730’s and continued to dis­tribute the valuable lands in the valley to friends and members of the Proprietary party. As a consequence, such prominent names as Lynford Lardner, Thomas Graeme, William and James Allen, and others were introduced into the history of the region. Most of these men soon sold off their grants, but a few began to use their holdings for country retreats. Lynford Lardner of Philadelphia, William Penn’s Keeper of the Proprietary Seal, for example, had a hunting lodge called Grouse Hall on the lower Jordan Creek. And William Allen, one of the more prominent leaders of the Proprietary faction, secured land within the present city of Allentown from his business partner, Joseph Turner, who had in turn received the grant from the Penn family. Most of these families confined their interest in the valley to investment or amusement. A few had other plans and were involved in the development of early Easton, the county seat of Northampton County. In the case of the Allens, the family took a direct and personal interest in the development of the western part of the region.

It is not clear at what point their role became more direct, but it is well known that members of the Allen family visited their country retreat frequently for fishing and hunting. Apparently impressed with the economic potential of the area, they moved to lay out Northampton town (now Allentown) in 1762, astride the new road from Easton to Reading and in the center of the growing farming region. They also built Trout Hall, an elegant eighteenth­-century country retreat which has been restored by the Lehigh County Historical Society. Allen’s little town grew slowly even after becoming the county seat of the new Lehigh County in 1812. But from the outset it was the economic and cultural center for the surrounding rural areas. It was not, therefore, a rival to the other two towns in the eastern valley, the unique Moravian settlement of Bethlehem and the trade center of Easton. Instead it looked more to the south and west and in this sense played a leading role in the historical evolution of what was for many years a distinctive Lehigh County culture.


The Revolutionary War and After

The present area of Lehigh County was located too far inland to be directly involved in the military phases of the American Revolution. Most of the settlers were solidly in support of the American cause and did not suffer from the qualms of conscience experienced by some of their Mora­vian neighbors at Bethlehem. The people instead had representation in the county’s revolutionary councils, and formed volunteer “Associator” – and, later, militia – compan­ies in their local areas. The region also supplied both men and officers for units of the Continental Army, which fought in the Boston, New York, and subsequent cam­paigns. Allentown, with its skilled German craftsmen, con­tributed such military necessities as scabbards, saddles, harness, clothing and food. It was also the site of a laboratory for the manufacture of ammunition in 1777, and, paradoxically, a hospital center for the wounded. More widely chronicled was its role as a refuge for the famed Liberty Bell and the chimes of Christ Church, Philadelphia, which were brought overland and hidden beneath the floor of the Zion Reformed Church.

Rapid growth in population in spite of declining im­migration marked the post-Revolutionary years. Settle­ment was still concentrated in the southwestern corner of the county, but new land was brought under cultivation in the valleys to the northwest towards the Blue Moun­tain ridge. Politically the most significant local events in these years were the proliferation of self-governing town­ships, the settlers’ support of the Fries Rebellion in the late 1790’s, and the creation of a separate Lehigh County.

The Fries Rebellion of 1798-99, while centered in nearby Bucks County, brought many residents of the future Lehigh County into open rebellion against the national government. The specific issue was an unpopular “house tax” passed by a Federalist Congress in Philadel­phia. John Fries is said to have been Welsh, but it was the German settlers of southern and western regions of the area who rallied to support him. Agents sent north to bring an end to the rebellion often commented on the “ignor­ance” of these people. Yet this label was hardly appropriate. The raising of “liberty poles” and cries for resistance to arbitrary rule made it apparent that the people viewed the new legislation in the very same terms as the British mea­sures which brought about the revolution that they had supported in their youth.

Resistance in the region primarily was manifested in the refusal to cooperate with the tax assessors. Other settlers marched with Fries when he went to Bethlehem to release those taken into custody for resisting the new law. Several also were involved in the subsequent trial of the leaders in Philadelphia. The episode confirmed the German settlers’ suspicion of the Federalists and insured their support of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democracy.


Formation of Lehigh County

The continued growth of population west of the Lehigh River helps to explain the formal birth of Lehigh County in 1812. The inhabitants of this region had never been comfortable with the prior decision to link them with non­German peoples and commercial interests centered at distant Easton. A new county, in addition, would give them added opportunity to exercise even greater local political control. The Allen family, which had been at work for years to create a new county, also succeeded in placing its seat at what was to become Allentown, rather than at either the older village of Millersville or the more centrally located village of Guthsville.

The new Lehigh County was to become a major nine­teenth-century center of development for the Pennsylvania German subculture. This movement, which had its parallels in other regions of the Commonwealth, drew leadership locally from the Reformed and Lutheran churches and was virtually unchallenged by the county’s few English and Irish (Scots-Irish) settlers. The tradition, with its unique dialect and work in the decorative arts, also gave support to an active German-language press which functioned in Allen­town into the twentieth century. In the early years the focus was on the preservation of cultural traditions of the past and the veneration of the rural way of life.


Churches and Schools

Recent scholarship has emphasized that there was con­siderable diversity in the religious life of the early county. While the majority were members of the Reformed and Lutheran churches, some of the earliest settlers were Swiss Mennonites. At times all three cooperated to create a “union” church and supported a German-language grammar school at a convenient location. The Moravians were also active in the area and began a major settlement at Emmaus as well as a smaller preaching station in Lynn Township to the northwest. There is even evidence that Roman Catholic communicants were present in the region at an early date, although they had troubles forming their own churches due to local resistance.

The earliest school in the county was located at the Old Swamp Church in the extreme southwestern corner of the region. It was founded in 1725 by the literate settlers who took education almost as seriously as their faith. Most of the early schools provided rudimentary instruction in reading, writing, some arithmetic, and “catechism” and were staffed by European-trained teachers who migrated with the early settlers. With few exceptions they were supported by parents’ tuition payments.

Difficulty in securing trained teachers, reluctance to continue tuition payments, and increasing doubts about the value of education combined to weaken the educational system in the early nineteenth century. There was also the problem of the English language. There had been a few “English-language” schools at Egypt, New Tripoli and other places in the early years, but most instruction was in German. English, the language of a larger world, was introduced slowly and was confined to the villages in the southwest corner of the county. The rural German farmers, proud of their heritage and its unique values, strongly re­sisted the intrusion of this “foreign” language into their schools.

In much the same spirit, some of the rural areas did not accept the option of tax-supported schools sanctioned by the State law of 1834. However, the burden of continued tuition payments gradually eroded this opposition and a public school system of uncertain quality emerged in all sections of the county by the Civil War.

It remained for the demands of the new industrial and commercial age to complete the development of education in the area. By the 1880’s secondary schools were established in some of the larger boroughs along with private acade­mies in Allentown, Fountain Hill, and West Bethlehem. By 1900 formal instruction for teachers was obtainable from special programs and from Kutztown Normal in nearby Berks County. Of significance also was the establishment of two colleges in Allentown in 1867. Both the Lutheran church’s Muhlenberg College and the Reformed church’s Allentown Female College (now Cedar Crest) supplied many qualified teachers for the region.


Industrialization and Its Influence

The history of the county in the middle of the nine­teenth century was marked by the development of new forms of transportation and industries. These, in turn, attracted new people to the region and created tensions between the unchanging rhythms of the Pennsylvania German farm life and the new ways of those tied to commerce and industry.

The region had been a center of limited manufacturing since its settlement. The German pioneers were farmers, but they were also skilled craftsmen who processed their own food and wove their own cloth in their self-sufficient culture. The small villages, often comprising only a cluster of several houses around the church and school, were the sites of early tanneries, gristmills, and sawmills. Somewhat later, wool carding mills and even stocking and carpet mills developed in various areas of the county along its fast-flowing streams. In this sense, the industrial develop­ment of the latter part of the nineteenth century was unique only in its scope and impact on the life of the region.

Following a national pattern, industrialization in Lehigh County was preceded by a major transportation revolution. It began with the development in the 1820’s of the Lehigh­Delaware river system, with its wing and crib dams, and of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Canal. This waterway, which ran along the eastern bank of the river, was built to convey the anthracite coal from the Blue Mountains to the north to the urban markets of Philadelphia and New York. The canal, in turn, was followed by the construction of a rail system beginning in the 1840’s. In the years after the Civil War, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and Central Railroad of New Jersey consolidated the region in a complex system of trunk and feeder lines. Some of these only served the interests of the local industry, but the larger lines succeeded in linking the entire county with areas beyond the valley to the east, south and west. In time most of the smaller companies were absorbed by the larger lines, while some of the lesser-used routes were abandoned in various stages of construction. The northern sections of the county were less touched by these developments, except where mines operated. There had been some hope of a grand trunk line bisecting the region and linking New England with central Pennsylvania and the west, but this never came to pass.

Industrialization in the county took several forms beginning with the development of iron, zinc, slate, and limestone deposits. This was followed by the rise of re­lated processing industries and, somewhat later, by mills using these basic raw materials.

Iron ore was found in al most every part of the county. While the early settlers apparently knew of its existence, exploitation was limited around 1830 to a few small furnaces in the Perkiomen Valley and near the BILJe Moun­tain ridge. The breakthrough came with the development of more advanced technology and better transportation. For example, the process of using anthracite coal in place of expensive charcoal found its way to the valley in 1840. The new canal and railroad systems now made it possible to increase production and to serve the urban markets of the east. By the Civil War, furnaces such as those of the Lehigh Crane Iron Company and the Allentown Iron Company were located on both sides of the Lehigh River above Allen­town. These larger companies in turn encouraged further mining of ore and development of rail feeder lines to tie the system together. Later in the century there was less dependence on these local deposits, and many of the smaller furnaces were forced to either shut down or be absorbed by the larger companies. But at the same time there was marked growth in the manufacturing of finished products, with mills and foundries beginning to dot the area.

Industrialization also included the development of the zinc deposits in the southeastern part of the county after 1845 and the rise of a significant slate industry near Slating­ton and Slatedale in the northeastern area. It is said that, by 1884, forty-one quarries were operating in the latter region producing slates for walkways, roofing, and blackboards. The economic transformation of the county was also marked by the continued development of grain and flour mills and the emergence of Allentown as the center of diversified industries. Such diversification included tanning, currying, and shoe production, cigar making and cotton, wool, and silk textile mills, the latter drawn to the valley by the availability of cheap labor.

The cement industry was still another important part of late nineteenth-century economic life in the county. Limit­ed production of what was called “natural cement” began at the time of the Lehigh Canal’s development. But the modern industry was based on advanced technology and growing national demand late in the century. It is said that the region was producing over two-thirds of the nation’s supply of Portland Cement by 1900. Organized in smaller companies with local leadership, the industry was centered on both sides of the Lehigh River in the region north of Allentown. It not only transformed some of the older villages such as Egypt, but also created such new ones as Cementon and Ormrod, the latter named for a local leader in the industry.

Industrialization had a significant impact on the people and culture of the late nineteenth-century Lehigh County. Greater diversification of enterprise and sharp increases in the value of manufactures were matched by a decline in rural population and the gradual and natural elimination of many smaller companies. Similarly. the expansion of urban markets, both within and outside the county, brought prosperity while also initiating a shift in agricultural pro­duction towards milk products, vegetables, and wheat. This latter development, in turn, made the farmers less self-sufficient and more susceptible to the economic shifts of a national market. Socially, new peoples were coming to the valley region to take up jobs in the mines and the mills. Some, such as the German immigrants, were absorbed into the predominant Pennsylvania German culture. But the presence of others, such as German Catholics, Irish, Welsh, and “Hungarians” (people from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire). meant the emergence of a more pluralistic culture.

Politically the rural farmers retained their traditional ties to the Democratic Party throughout the nineteenth century while that party also drew strength from many of the new immigrant workers. The entrepreneurs of the new mill towns, on the other hand, were often Republicans al­though their political power tended to be confined to the communities under their immediate control.

The proliferation of self-governing rural townships, characteristic of pre-Civil War Lehigh County, gradually came to an end by 1900. The new trend was toward the creation of separate boroughs. Some of these, such as Macungie and Emmaus, were transformations of older farm-market villages. But others, such as Cementon, were essentially company towns which grew up around the mills and mines of the county. Here the workers’ houses, the stores, the utilities, and even the schools and churches were usually an expression of the local company’s interests. Except for an occasional elegant Victorian home of the plant manager, the new towns often lacked the charm of the older communities, and they have remained to the present day a grim reminder of the aesthetic cost of such economic development.

Allentown, on the other hand, grew from a small town of five thousand before the Civil War to be a city of over twenty-five thousand by the end of the century. Its mills, banks, and newspapers reflected its tie to the new industrial­ization in the region, and its German- and English-language newspapers, academies, and colleges made it the cultural center of the county. The annual fair, beginning in 1852, brought new business to the town while continuing to assert the vitality of the rural life in the surrounding area. The city was also a center of the development of a more mature and sophisticated literary expression of the Pennsylvania German culture.


The Twentieth Century

The first half of this century brought major economic changes to the county. The slate and iron industries became less competitive nationally and suffered sharp declines. Foundries and mills meanwhile stayed in business by taking advantage of the developing Bethlehem Steel Company complex in nearby Northampton County. Zinc mining also declined until its revival in the 1950’s. As the nation’s granary shifted west, there was also less milling of flour in the county. More difficult to explain was the decline in cigar manufacturing and the brewing industry in the Allentown area. The latter, as television reminds us, has undergone a revival in recent years.

The Depression of the 1930’s brought great hardship to the industrialized sections of the county. After a decade of significant prosperity and growth in the post-World War I years, the area was confronted with mass unemployment, a wave of business and bank closures, and a sharp decline in wages and income. Yet overall, the county has remained prosperous in the twentieth century with increasing diversi­fication of industry and integration into the nation’s economy. Agriculture has been modernized and commer­cialized with the experimental farming of Gen. Harry Trexler and others leading the way. While there has been significant growth in service industries and in retail trade, manufacturing continues to dominate the county’s economy. The food processing, textile and wearing apparel, and cement industries – which had developed in earlier years – have been joined by companies producing electrical and industrial machinery. There is also, in Mack Trucks, the modern-day descendant of a once small yet thriving manu­facturer of motor vehicles. The ubiquitous pattern of shopping centers and small industrial parks in the areas around Allentown also suggests the degree to which the county’s economy has interacted with national markets. The modern air, rail, and highway systems which link the area to the larger east-coast megalopolis have made this twentieth-century development possible, while at the same time contributing to the continuing erosion of what was once a more distinctive county identity.

The most significant social development in the twentieth century has been the assimilation of new peoples into the larger life of the county. While much of this so-called “ethnic history” remains to be written, it is now apparent that immigration into the region up to World War I was unevenly distributed with the Allentown area receiving the majority of the Germans, “Hungarians,” Italians, and others. The coming of these peoples meant new and different churches and parochial schools, distinctive neighbor­hoods, and social organizations formed to express a particu­lar ethnic heritage. The end to significant immigration in the 1920’s produced an inevitable decline in the number of foreign-born in the county from the high point of over fifteen thousand in 1920 out of a county population of nearly one hundred fifty thousand.

Assimilation of these peoples proceeded quietly up to 1941 with the older Pennsylvania German stock con­tinuing to dominate county life. In the postwar years there was a significant emergence of peoples of recent immigrant background into positions of leadership in politics and business, and a parallel decline in the older ethnic neighbor­hoods and clubs. Today the burgeoning suburbs are the homes of a recent mixture of older Pennsylvania German families, the second generation of ethnic groups, and people drawn from the larger nation to the valley by its industry and business. By contrast. the region has not had a large American black population nor did it attract, until quite recently, many of Puerto Rican descent.

Recent population trends indicate other directions of county life since World War 11. The suburbs, such as those in the Macungie area southwest of Allentown, have under­gone phenomenal growth while some of the sites of the late nineteenth-century industrial development, such as Coplay, have seen a marked decline. Allentown has grown little in recent years and the northern tier of the county remains, for the most part, rural and picturesque.

To a great degree Lehigh County has also become inte­grated into the culture of a larger Lehigh Valley. Residential and employment patterns and cooperative economic planning (such as the work of the Joint Planning Commission of Lehigh and adjoining Northampton County) have tended to blur social and economic lines. Similarly, national politics (a single Congressional seat in the valley, for ex­ample) has resulted in greater political integration even though the politics of the county, now vigorously two­-party in character, remains unique.

Even though county life today mirrors national patterns, there remains impressive evidence of a distinctive county history. The preservation of this heritage is enhanced by the vigorous work of the Lehigh County Historical Society, which not only maintains an active library but also operates the restored George Taylor Mansion, built for one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; Trout Hall, the late eighteenth-century country home of the Allen family; the Troxell-Stoeckel House in Egypt, a fine example of a rural Pennsylvania German farmstead; and the Buch­man House in Allentown, home of the famed founder of the twentieth-century Oxford movement. Paralleling this effort is the work of the county itself, which has developed a museum in the old county courthouse in Allentown, as well as Lock Ridge, a nineteenth-century iron furnace; Saylor Park, a site of the famed Portland Cement industry; and Haines Mill, a working gristmill just west of Allentown. These sites, along with the beautiful rural countryside, remain to remind even the casual visitor of the region’s unique heritage and the historic transformation that has taken place here over the past two centuries.


A Word on Sources

In 1914 the Lehigh County Historical Society published C. R. Roberts, et al., History of Lehigh County, Pennsyl­vania, which remains the most complete source for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history of the area. However, no definitive account of the county’s twentieth­-century history has yet been written. Significant research is now underway on various aspects of the county’s recent history and it, along with other valuable essays, appears in the historical society’s publications. The unique ethnic history of the area needs to be written along with the histories of the varied industrial life of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recently, several townships published Bicentennial histories which contained valuable insights as well as pictures. Ross Yates’ work The History of the Lehigh Valley Region, written for the Joint Planning Commission and published in 1963, is the best recent survey of the history of the region and of Lehigh County.


Dr. Daniel R. Gilbert is Professor of History at Moravian College, Bethlehem.