Historic Lancaster, PA
Long before European settlers arrived in what is now southeastern Pennsylvania the region was populated by Native Americans living in the woodlands. Among others, they represented the Susquehannocks (later called Conestogas), Delawares and Nanticokes. Indian Town was the name given to one of their settlements and meetings were held there between Indian chieftains and emissaries from William Penn.
In 1681 William Penn was granted "Penn's Woods" and it's likely that the earliest settlers were fur traders. Early groups of settlers surviving to this day are Anabaptists from Germany and Switzerland, Mennonites and Amish who fled persecution and found relative tranquility in this region. The oldest surviving building in Lancaster County is the Hans Herr house, located in Willow Street and built in 1719.
Lancaster County was actually separated from the much larger Chester County in 1729. Originally William Penn had designated three counties: Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester. One of the most prominent citizens was John Wright who hailed from Lancashire, England and in 1730 named the County and City after his home town. Lancaster City was located in an area formerly known as Hickorytown.
Though the name of the County and City is English there were many settlers from Ireland and Scotland, French Huguenots, GermanBaptists (who founded the Ephrata Cloisters) and, of course, the German Anabaptists. However, the predominant influence in Lancaster County throughout its history has come from the Pennsylvania Germans.
The "town planner" of Lancaster City was James Hamilton. He laid out the city and sold lots to new residents. It could be said that Lancaster was founded as a "market town" and one of James Hamilton's first acts was to designate a market space in the very center of the new town. Under his leadership the City became the largest inland town in America.
Important early events in Lancaster include its chartering as a borough in 1742, construction of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in 1795, and the incorporation as a city in 1812. Lancaster played an important political role in early America, serving as Capital of the colonies on September 27, 1777 and as Capital of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812. Important early visitors to Lancaster included General George Washington who visited five times, the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin and Captain Merriwether Lewis who visited the surveyor Andrew Ellicott in preparation for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In its early years Lancaster was home to many prominent Americans including Governor Thomas McKean who was a signer of the Declaration and a long-time friend of George Washington, Governor Thomas Mifflin who was buried in the cemetery at Trinity Lutheran Church, James Ross who was a signer of the Declaration and Robert Fulton, inventor of the steam boat. In the nineteenth century two extremely prominent men made Lancaster their home. President James Buchanan practiced law in Lancaster and purchased a stately mansion known as Wheatland. Buchanan is the only president to hail from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His contemporary, Thaddeus Stevens, was an attorney and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Stevens was a leader in the fight to establish free public education and was a fierce Abolitionist. His home still stands in downtown Lancaster.
Lancaster County is known far and wide for its agricultural prominence. Nearly every sort of produce, cash crop and livestock are raised in the county and it has been judged to be the most productive non-irrigated county in America. Many farms are still operated by Amish and Mennonite families who use horses and mules to work the soil, do planting and bring in the harvest. Lancaster also has a long history as an industrial center. After the American Revolution the city became a center for iron foundries. Two important items, Conestoga Wagons (named for the Conestoga River) and Pennsylvania Rifles (misnamed Kentucky Rifles) were produced in Lancaster County. In more modern times Lancaster has been home to Armstrong Cork Company, Hamilton Watch and a major RCA manufacturing plant. An early pioneer in the world of retail was Franklin Woolworth who opened the first "five & dime" in Lancaster.
Lancaster County and City maintain a prominent role in the life of the Commonwealth and nation. The County population has grown to nearly one-half million residents, welcoming many new residents who have relocated to enjoy the pleasant environment. The City and County are replete with musical venues, an art school and galleries, museums, architectural treasures, agricultural communities, a presidential home, excellent shops and restaurants, and more. It is certain that James Hamilton and his contemporaries would be pleased with the town and county that they fashioned over 275 years ago.