Lancaster: History

Rich Farm Land Attracts Religious Refugees

The Susquehanna, Shawnee, and Iroquois tribes inhabited the area around Lancaster when William Penn and his Quaker followers took up residence in nearby Philadelphia in 1682. The second influx of immigrants to Philadelphia was comprised of Germans, some of them Mennonites (German-speaking religious refugees). Around 1710, a number of these Germans moved beyond Philadelphia to take advantage of the rich farm land stretching along the Susquehanna River to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The Germans were followed by a group of Amish (orthodox Anabaptists) from Switzerland and Bohemian Moravians (Protestants) from Czechoslovakia. The descendants of the Germans, known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch, meaning German) and the Amish are still there, many living on the farms which have made the area one of the top five agricultural counties in the country in terms of value per acre.

The first European settler of record in Lancaster was George Gibson, who in 1721 opened a tavern in the area of town now known as Penn Square. In his honor the town was called Gibson's Pasture until 1741, when it was renamed Lancaster after a town in England. Frontiersmen bought farm tools and the famous Kentucky rifle, actually a Lancaster product, as they passed through the city on their way west. The city became known as "the arsenal of the colonies" during the American Revolution of the 1770s for the guns it produced. Lancaster was the capital of the American colonies for one day in 1777, when the Continental Congress interrupted its flight from the British out of Philadelphia on its way to (New) York. From 1799 to 1812, Lancaster was the capital of Pennsylvania.

Economy Thrives, Diversifies

In addition to farming, other ventures carried out in Lancaster city and county were iron mining and furnace operations as well as quarrying. By 1789 Lancaster supported saddlers, shoemakers, furriers, forges, rolling mills, slitting mills, sawmills, brass foundries, rope makers, brush makers, silversmiths, steelwrights, printers, and other artisans and manufacturers, laying the foundation for the diverse economy for which the city is still known. By 1840, the population was 8,417; by 1860, that figure had more than doubled.

Traffic between Lancaster and Philadelphia became so heavy that a road was built between the two cities, using a technique of crushed stone paving developed by James McAdam (hence the word macadam). The turnpike, the first major paved road in the country, opened in 1794, having taken four years and $450,000 to complete.

Today, Lancaster County is famous for the high quality of the agricultural products supplied by the many family farms located throughout the county and for the diversity and quality of its manufactured goods. As the hub of the county the city is a center of government, arts and culture, education, professional and financial services, business, manufacturing, and health services. Combining sophistication with a reverence for its historic past, Lancaster is considered one of the Northeast's best cities for growing a business. In addition, Lancaster continues to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, bringing in thousands of visitors each year to experience the county's cultural uniqueness; as a result, tourism continues to be a major economic factor to the financial success of Lancaster.

Famous Lancastrians include F. W. Woolworth, who opened his first store in Lancaster around 1879, pricing every item at five cents; Robert Fulton, co-inventor of the steamboat; Pennsylvania's only president of the United States, James Buchanan; and Susanna Wright, raiser of silkworms and maker of the first pair of silk stockings in Pennsylvania.

Historical Information: Lancaster County Historical Society, 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster, PA 17603; telephone (717)392-4633. Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 2215 Millstream Rd., Lancaster, PA 17602; telephone (717)393-9745. Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, 123 N. Prince St., Lancaster, PA 17603; (717)291-5861