York County: A Most Treasured Land

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

Planted squarely above the Maryland border, the gigantic horse’s hoof, which is the out­ line of York County, covers an area of 914 square miles, supporting a popula­tion of 300,000. Its eastern contour is delineated by the “long, crooked” Sus­quehanna, its pastern cleanly cut off by Cumberland County on the north, its outer edge defined by Adams Coun­ty on the west. This unusual and dis­tinctive configuration, although merely a surveying coincidence, is singularly appropriate for a county whose pros­perity has depended, since the days of its farming founders, on agricultural, marketing and industrial pursuits.

Plough horse, pack horse, wagon team, the iron horse of railroading and the mechanical horsepower of motor­ized industry have all contributed to the shaping of this area which, on August 19, 1749, was erected by act of the General Assembly as the fifth county of Pennsylvania, the first such political entity west of the Susque­hanna.

However, the first Europeans to lay eyes on the broad valley and thickly timbered hills of York County did not arrive by horseback, but by boat. In 1608, Captain John Smith explored the headwaters of the Chesapeake and the lower reaches of the Susquehanna. Although his voyage stopped short of what was to be the Province of Penn­sylvania, his observation that the re­gion was “one of the most pleasantest places in the world to live … the waters abounding with fish and the country with game” might be considered the first promotional piece ever written about the county environs.

In his journal, the great Virginian referred to the Indians he had en­countered on this voyage as “the Sus­quehannocks,” the name by which these long-vanished natives are still remembered. By the mid-1600s, the Susquehannocks were engaged in a death struggle with the powerful Iroquois Nation of New York, who claimed their lands as a tributary realm. The most revered white man to set foot in York County during this peri­od was the French Jesuit, Isaac Jogues, who was brought to the Conewago area near York Haven by his Iroquois captors in 1643. While on exhibition there as a prisoner, the French priest is credited with performing the first Christian rites in York County by baptizing a dying Indian who had pre­viously saved his life. Later, Father Jogues, tortured and mutilated, suf­fered a horrible martyrdom at the hands of the Mohawks. He was canon­ized in 1930 and his feast day, September 26, is celebrated at Conewago Chapel near Hanover, which was estab­lished as a mission by the Jesuits of southern Maryland in 1721.

By the time of William Penn’s arrival on the Delaware in 1682, the Susquehannocks had been wiped out. As a result, any purchase of lands on either side of the Susquehanna had to be transacted with the Five Nations in what is now New York State. By 1696, Col. Thomas Dongan, acting as Penn’s agent, had acquired “all that tract of land lying on both sides of the river Susquehanna, and the lakes adja­cent, in or near the province of Penn­sylvania … beginning at the mountains or head of said river, and running as far as and into the bay of Cheasapeak.” But the matter was not yet done. The Conestoga Indians, occupying the eastern or Lancaster side of the river, protested the right of the Five Nations to sell their homelands, and Penn, true to his principles of fair dealing, prom­ised that the disputed lands should be held in common between his people and theirs.

So strongly had the Proprietor forged the bonds of brotherhood and so binding was the Indians’ trust in the Penn name, that four years after his death, they honored the proposal of Governor William Keith for making a large survey west of the river for the use of his grandson, Springett Penn. The actual crux of this council held at Conestoga in June 1722 was the pre­vention of further incursions by Mary­landers, who were rapidly usurping lands technically belonging to the Province, but which, under Penn policy, could not be granted for settle­ment until formally purchased from their Indian owners.

The Conestogas, already angered by the Maryland land policy, were quick to grasp the protective advantage in­herent in Keith’s proposition. As the Governor explained: “For when the land is marked with his (Springett’s) name upon the trees, it will keep off the Marylanders, and every other person whatsoever, from coming to settle near you to disturb you.”

The acquisition of this 75,520-acre tract, known as “Springettsbury Manor,” proved the opening wedge for the settlement of York County. The Proprietors began to issue land licenses bearing the promise of full patents at the time of eventual Indian purchase. This time did not arrive until October 11, 1736, when the chiefs of the Five Nations deeded to John, Thomas and Richard Penn “all the river Susquehanna and all the lands lying on the west side of the said river to the set­ting of the sun.”

Had William Penn been able to es­tablish the same rapport with his white brothers of Maryland as he enjoyed with his red brothers of Pennsylvania, the first settlers of York County might well have found it to be the “Peace­able Kingdom” of their dreams. But the long disputed location of the line between the two provinces gave rise to serious border troubles.

As families in the Wrightsville area found their Pennsylvania land rights challenged by Maryland authority, they put up a stout resistance. The most violent incident was the raid on “Cressap’s Fort.” a blockhouse built by Thomas Cressap in 1730 from which he and his Maryland followers had harried and terrorized their Penn­sylvania German neighbors. Cressap was arrested and tried for murder, but later released on the grounds that his punishment would not establish a border. Eventually the dispute was re­ferred to the Crown for settlement. Despite an official survey made in 1739, no definitive border was estab­lished until the completion of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1767.


Early Settlement

However, it would have taken more than a few border skirmishes to stem the ride of settlers who came to Penn­sylvania during the first half of the eighteenth century in an unprecedented European exodus. From the very be­ginning, word of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” through promo­tional broadsides printed in three languages, had fallen on fertile ground.

In Northern Ireland (Ulster), the Scottish Presbyterians were smarting under newly imposed restrictions from both church and state. Angered by the oppression of their clergy and new tar­iffs on woolens and linens which tripled their rents and threatened them with eviction and famine, 200,000 emigrated to Pennsylvania in the years preceding the Revolution.

In Germany, after a century of French invasion and its attendant horrors, Penn’s promises of religious tolerance. higher wages and opportun­ity for individual land ownership were irresistible. So great was the influx of Germans that, by 1727, their growing number (an estimated 15,000 to 20,000) became a source of anxiety to the English Quakers. William Penn’s idea of Pennsylvania as a “Collection of Divers Nations of Europe” was one thing, but that any one national group should “take over the Province” was quite another. So it was that after that date, Pennsylvania Germans, a designa­tion which included many Swiss and some French Huguenots from the Palatinate, were admitted only through the port of Philadelphia. There they were registered by name, occupation and place of origin and then required to take a pledge of loyalty to the British Crown.

From the outset, the colonization of Pennsylvania was characterized by the segregation of nationalities. Not only were these people of divergent backgrounds determined to preserve their religious customs and folkways, but they displayed a strong, natural tendency to settle on lands which most closely resembled those which they had left.

The early settlement of York County is a perfect example of this ethnological principle. The Germans, whose Palatinate ancestors had lived for centuries in the gentle, rolling country of the Rhine and Neckar, chose the rich limestone valley, ex­tending in a broad belt from the Sus­quehanna southwest to the Maryland border. The Scotch-Irish demonstrated their preference for the foothills and shale soil to which they were accus­tomed by locating in the slate hills of “The Barrens,” a less fertile area in the southeast. The first Quaker families, moving northward and westward from Chester, crossed the river further up­stream, and built their homes and meetinghouses north of the Conewago in an area which they christened “The Redlands,” from the color of the soil and rock upon which it is based.

Unlike the country folk of New England, and contrary to Penn’s ex­pectations, these early settlers of the wilderness did not cluster together in small towns and villages. Because they had no need of group protection from the Indians, their farms were widely dispersed. Their churches and meeting­houses were built, not according to plan, but on whatever land was do­nated or available for purchase by a particular congregation. Millers and blacksmiths plied their trades on their own properties, and other services such as shoemaking and tailoring were provided on an itinerant basis.

Since there was neither a nucleus nor an incentive for community life, the township, created by William Penn as the basic unit of local government, was of far less importance than the county. It was the county which gave these back-country settlers a structure for the maintenance of law and order­ – a court of justice to which they could appeal for the protection of their rights, their persons and their property.


County Formation and Early Politics

During William Penn’s lifetime, there were only three counties in Penn­sylvania – Philadelphia, Bucks and Ches­ter – which, by 1729 were serving well over 40,000 people. Lancaster County, separated from Chester in that year. moved the judicial system ninety miles farther into the interior. but as the population increased beyond the Susquehanna, the need for a fifth county became more and more appar­ent.

The first move in that direction came with Thomas Penn’s approval of plans for a new town to be laid out at the intersection of the Monocacy Road and the Codorus Creek. Thomas Cookson, plotting the village of York­town in 1741, faithfully followed “The Philadelphia Plan.” This called for “two streets 80 feet wide to cross each other, and 65 feet square to be cut off the corner of each lot to make a square for any public building or market of 110 feet on each side.” That this square was already slated to be the hub of a new county was in­dicated as early as 1742, when the surveyors of a road into Maryland defined its northern terminus as “The end of the street leading to the place intended for a Court House in the town of York.”

The official erection of York County in 1749 not only granted the people their petition for legal protection and more convenient access to the courts, but also granted them a specific iden­tity. Divided by nationality, religion and, in the case of the Germans, even by language, they began to experience a sense of belonging. They were now “York Countians” and, as such, began to display qualities of leadership and independence.

It was at the first election for county sheriff held in 1749 at the Public House of Baltzar Spangler on the square in York that the Germans proved themselves a political force to be reckoned with. Of the two candi­dates, Hance Hamilton was backed by the English and Scotch-Irish, and Richard McAlister by the Germans. Triggered by a misguided attempt to prevent the Germans from casting their votes, a full-scale riot ensued in which the Hamilton forces were de­feated both by the ballot and the blud­geon. Nevertheless, by decree of the Deputy Governor, the loser was de­clared the winner, and Hamilton was duly installed as the first sheriff of York County.

This story is but one of many such incidents of discrimination in public affairs. It was not until 1758 that a York County German was elected to the office of sheriff. Of the forty-eight justices commissioned by the Court of Common Pleas between 1749 and the outbreak of the Revolution, only six were of German origin. No German name appears on the list of York County representatives to the General Assembly until the year 1768.

These inequities, although partially explained by the language barrier, were rooted in the English Quaker­-dominated Assembly as well as in the policies of the Penn heirs who viewed the Province, not as a “Holy Experi­ment,” but as a commercial enter­prise for personal gain. Neither the “irritating, quarrelsome Scotch-Irish” nor the “ignorant, proud, stubborn (German) clowns” were to be per­mitted any significant roles. A mone­tary requirement of fifty pounds worth of possessions automatically excluded the poorer classes from the Assembly, and so biased was the apportionment of representatives that York County was permitted only two, as compared with four from Lancaster and eight from each of the original counties.

This short-sightedness was to bear bitter fruit in the terrible days of the French and Indian War, when an apathetic legislature failed to provide adequate defense for a helpless popu­lace. Braddock’s defeat at Fort Du­quesne in July 1755 left the frontier open to full-scale Indian attack. In York County, families were captured and massacred in the Marsh Creek area of what is now Adams County, and there were other victims near the Cumberland County border along the Yellow Breeches Creek.

Five companies of county militia marched to the aid of frontier settle­ments. Refugees and frightened farmers poured into York for protection as news of a big encampment near John Harris’s Ferry increased the panic. Urgent appeals to Governor Morris for arms and munitions went un­heeded. Fortunately, the threat to York did not materialize, but long after the end of the war, the memory of this callous indifference still rankled.


The Revolutionary Period

Fifteen years later, when the colo­nies were beginning to resist the Coercive Acts of Parliament which had closed the port of Boston, it was this resentment against the Provincial gov­ernment which contributed to the climate of revolt in York County. The cause of liberty in North America found staunch supporters among the Scotch-Irish and the Pennsylvania Germans who had no ties with the “Mother Country” and no wish to “keep the Past upon her Throne.”

Within two weeks after the Conti­nental Congress issued a call for expert riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia (June 14, 1775), a full company had volunteered. By the time General Washington took com­mand of the Continental army in Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 2, 1775, Capt. Michael Doudel’s com­pany of skilled marksmen was on its way. Completing the 400-mile march in record time, these men from York County were the first troops west and south of the Hudson to reach the front, where they were later assigned to Col. William Thompson’s famous battalion of Pennsylvania Riflemen.

Military histories of York County record an estimated 4,000 fighting men participating in every major campaign from Cambridge to York­town. But as in every war, before and since, the Revolutionary army was dependent upon supplies and weapons, and York County was able to contrib­ute both. Iron for the manufacture of cannon and cannon balls was produced al three furnaces: Spring Forge. Mary Ann Furnace and the Hellam Iron Works, later known as Codorus Forge. The county also furnished shipments of lead and gunpowder. barrels of beef, pork and grain. as well as all types of sundries from canteens and cloth to wagons and whiskey.

Among the craftsmen whose ser­vices were most vital to victory were the gunsmiths, makers of the long, slim Pennsylvania Rifle whose in­credible range of two hundred and fifty yards inspired both terror and admiration among the British Regulars. A description of their deadly accuracy in The London Chronicle, August 1775, concluded with the warning: “Therefore, advise your officers who shall, hereafter, come out to America, to settle their affairs in England before their Departure.”

Although no military engagements were fought on York County soil, the greatest battle of the Revolutionary War was waged in the small, red-brick courthouse in York Town occupied by the Continental Congress during the winter of 1777-78. For nine months, the bleakest in American history, these men fought an unremitting battle for survival. Seldom have so few done so much for so many in so short a time: the adoption of the Articles of Con­federation, November 15, 1777; the first national Thanksgiving proclama­tion, December 18, 1777; the reorganization and equipment of Washington’s army at Valley Forge; the unanimous rejection of any and all British peace proposals without the recognition of American independence, April 22, 1778: and the signing of the French Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, May 2, 1778.

With the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. a new nation had been born in York’s Provincial Courthouse. Thirteen separate, independent states were forged into a confederacy. there­after to be styled “The United States of America.” As the seat of the Con­tinental Congress, the sole governing body of this newly formed state. York had, in effect, become its first capital.

Twelve years later, this first capital narrowly missed becoming the permanent capital of the United States. In 1789 as Congress explored suitable locations for a federal city. three York County sites were proposed – York, Wrightsville and Peach Bottom. In a paper addressed to the House and Senate, Congressman Thomas Hartley voiced his support: “I am confident,” he wrote, “that no part of America is more worthy of this distinguished honor than the County and Town of York!”


The Nineteenth Century

How York would have faired as the seat of the federal government can never be determined, but after the turn of the century as the county de­veloped closer commercial contacts with the outside world the people began to display a livelier interest in public affairs. The two most powerful influences in this direction were the press and public education.

The first newspaper published in York County was the Pennsylvania Chronicle and York Weekly Advertiser (1787) which, in the two years of its existence, created sufficient interest as to warrant a continuous line of succes­sors – some in English, some in German.

The initial impetus to learning and the first opportunity for a classical education were afforded by the York County Academy, founded by St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1787. Throughout the nineteenth century, the academy established an enviable reputation, not only for the high attainments of its graduates, but also for outstanding scholarship and the distinction of its faculty. Of the latter, the man who would most profoundly influence education in Pennsylvania was Thaddeus Stevens. It was his fight to save the Common School Act of 1834 from being repealed that gave every child access to a free public school within the state. The era of the “Little Red Schoolhouse” had been born.

About this time, York County was also entering a new era of growth and prosperity. With the building of better roads and turnpikes and the bridging of streams, more rural settlements were developing into small towns. Canals connected York with the Sus­quehanna (1825) and Wrightsville with the Chesapeake (1839) which afforded easier access to supplies and cheaper outlets for the growing volume and variety of York County products. This, coupled with the corning of the steam age and the construction of railroads marked the beginning of the county’s industrial development.

Paralleling the organization of rail­ways was the organization of a very different kind of transportation sys­tem known as the Underground Rail­road. In the dangerous operation of hiding and helping fugitive slaves, the Society of Friends played an active role. Many of the underground “sta­tions” along the escape route were Quaker farmhouses. One such refuge was the Willis homestead in Man­chester Township; another was the Wrightsville home of Thomas and Susannah (Wright) Mifflin, whose boatman ferried passengers across the river in the dead of night. Within the town of York, the most successful station was operated by William C. Goodridge. Born a slave, Goodridge had become a prosperous businessman, owner of two properties and thirteen railroad cars. Suspected, but never caught, he managed to smuggle an incredible number of escapees onto his cars and then transported them safely to Philadelphia.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, despite many family ties and business connections with the South, York countians “rallied ’round the Flag!” As in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, the county military record was one of distinction. But there was a difference – this time the war came closer.

In June of 1863 York found itself in the path of an invading army. With the enemy eight miles away, a citizens’ committee, headed by Chief Burgess David E. Small, rode out to meet Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon in an attempt to negotiate the safety of the town. The committee’s pledge of money and supplies in exchange for a guarantee that both people and property would be spared was accepted.

Sunday, June 28, 1863, was most certainly York’s “Longest Day.” First came Gen. Gordon’s cavalry en route to Wrightsville, but the Union firing of the river bridge there halted his advance and forced him to return. Then came the “occupation force” of Gen. Jubal Early with a requisition for $100,000 in greenbacks and a stag­gering list of foodstuffs and clothing.

Faced with pillage and destruction, the people opened their mms, their stores and their purses. By the next day, $28,000 had been collected and all other quotas filled. The evacuation of the town was speeded up by unexpected orders for the Confederates to join a concentration of troops at the nearby town of Gettysburg. By five o’clock in the morning the last gray uniform had vanished. The town of York was saved.


Diversification and Growth

The nineteenth century witnessed great agricultural improvements which were reflected in the development of York County’s agriculture. The white flour milled there was exported as far away as Brazil and the “York Imperial Apple.” developed by Jonathan Jessup, became one of the nation’s favorites.

As the farmer was steadily improving his production. York County was also caught up in the wave of industrializ­ation which was rapidly changing the American scene. During the latter part of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, various industries developed into the largest of their kind in the world. Lis Led among the county products were. such things as dental supplies, safe and bank vaults and refrigeration units. York also early became the center of the small chain industry.

With industrial growth came social change. Nowhere is this change more succinctly described than in a bit of doggerel from the pen of York’s imcomparable folk artist, Lewis Miller (1796-1882):

In 1776 Farmer at the plow,
Wife milking cow,
Daughter spinning yarn,
Son threashing in the barn,
All happy to a charm.

In 1869 Farmer gone to see a show,
Daughter at the piano,
Madame gaily dressed in satin,
All the boys learning latin,
With a mortgage on the farm.

In 1899 York County celebrated the first 150 years of its existence with a three-day extravaganza of parades and pageantry, fireworks and forensics. One of the many orations given concluded with the following summation:

We have railroads that connect with all parts of the country. Telegraph and telephones, street railways. electric lights, gas, water, coal, and everything needed to make us happy. Our manufactories are among the best in the land. Our merchants enterprising and progressive. Our banks all sound, and our working men frugal, honest and industrious …. What more do we want?

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century York County was on the move. Exceeded in wonder only by the appearance of Haley’s Comet in 1910 was the first York automobile show, in which the locally made Pullman, Kline-Kar and Hart-Kraft commercial vehicles were among the most popular exhibits. Although York did not develop into an automo­bile manufacturing center, many of the native workmen and engineer­-designers, like the Chevrolet brothers and others, did leave for Detroit and fame.

It was this diversity of industry and self reliance which kept the county afloat without a single bank failure during the Great Depression and brought the area national recognition for efficient production methods dur­ing World War II. “The York Plan” of combining community resources, skills and machine tools also sustained the industrial economy of the postwar years.

During the mid-decades of the twentieth century. York County’s development in many ways reflected the economic trends of the nation as a whole. Businesses that had been family owned for generations merged wi1h larger corporations. Similar trends in agriculture also occurred with farms that had been in the same families since colonial times either sold to corporations or broken up under heavy taxation.

Fortunately, the county’s educational and cultural development kept pace with its industrial progress. The one-room schoolhouses have long since given way to a sophisticated system of public education, including the York County Area Vocational School which opened in 1965. Opportunities for higher education are offered on the York Campus of the Pennsylvania State University and by York College of Pennsylvania. The latter, as an out­growth of a merger between the York County Academy and the York Col­legiate Institute of 1837, can lay claim to a continuous history of education since 1787.



The people of York County, like the people of Crete as described by the Scottish humorist H. H. Munro, “have made more history than they can consume locally.” Their lives and contributions have enriched the nation. Their names are everywhere:

On the Declaration of Indepen­dence, James Smith, Attorney at Law

At Harvard University, Dr. Fred­erick Valentine Melsheimer and Rev. Daniel Ziegler, whose en­tomological specimens are part of the Agassiz Collection

On opera programs around the world, John Luther Long, author of Madame Butterfly

In Baltimore, Phineas Davis, builder of the first successful anthracite-burning locomotive in 1831

In law libraries, Jeremiah Sulli­van Black, noted for winning the Supreme Court decision in the Ex Parte Milligan Case of 1866 which established the supremacy of the civil court over the military

In medical libraries, Dr. George E. Holtzapple, first physician to generate his own oxygen in the treatment of pneumonia

On the United States Commem­orative Stamp of the Four Chaplains, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, for heroic sacrifice aboard the sinking Dorchester in 1943

In the annals of military history, Gen. Jacob Loucks Devers, whose career in World War II included top commands in every theater of operations and who as commander of the Sixth Army Group accepted the uncondi­tional surrender of 600,000 Ger­man troops

In the state capitol, George M. Leader, 101st governor of Pennsylvania, 1955-1959.

Their products encircle the globe: foods grown and processed in York County, books and magazines printed in York on York County paper, weight-lifting equipment, air condi­tioning units, and giant dynamos and water valves that are the heart of hydroelectric and irrigation systems all over the world.

Their legacy is the land: the thickly wooded river hills, the limestone quarries, the gently rolling farm and pas­ture lands. and the acres of orchards.

Their future greatness lies in their ability to maintain the principles and practices of industry and foresight which, for more than two centuries, have made this treasured land “one of the most pleasantest places in the world to live.”


Helen Miller Gotwalt is the author of Broad Brims and Bonnets, a history of the York Quaker meetinghouse, and The Crucible of A New Nation, a “biography” of York County’s Pro­vincial Courthouse. Her interest in local history resulted in a ten-year series of radio scripts based upon York County personalities, events and landmarks. She is also the author of nine volumes of one-act plays for young people which have earned her two awards from the Freedoms Foun­dation.