Pennsylvania History

The History of Pennsylvania is as varied as any in the American experience and reflects the melting pot vision of the United States. Before Pennsylvania was settled by Europeans, the area was home to the Delaware (also known as Lenni Lenape), Susquehannock, Iroquois, Eries, Shawnee and other Native American tribes. Most of these tribes were driven off or reduced to remnants as a results of the European colonization.

Dutch and Swedish influence

Before the 1600’s, the area known as present-day Pennsylvania was mapped by the Spanish and labeled L’arcadia, or “wooded coast”, during Giovanni da Verrazzano’s voyage in 1524. Eventually, the Delaware River watershed was claimed by the British based on the explorations of John Cabot in 1497, Captain John Smith and others, and was named for Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, the Governor of Virginia from 1610 until 1618. At that time the area was of the Virginia colony. However, the Dutch thought they also had a claim, based on the 1609 explorations of Henry Hudson, and under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company were the first Europeans to actually occupy the land. They established trading posts in 1624 at Burlington Island, opposite Bristol, Pennsylvania, and then in 1626 at Fort Nassau, now Gloucester City, New Jersey. Peter Minuit was the Dutch Director-General during this period and probably spent some time at the Burlington Island post, thereby familiarizing himself with the region.

Minuit had a falling out with the directors of the Dutch West India Company, was recalled from New Netherland, and promptly made his services available to his many friends in Sweden, then a major power in European politics. They established a New Sweden Company and, following much negotiation, Minuit led a group under the flag of Sweden to the Delaware River in 1638. They established a trading post at Fort Christina, now in Wilmington, Delaware. Minuit claimed possession of the western side of the Delaware River, saying he had found no European settlement there. Unlike the Dutch West India Company, the Swedes intended to actually bring settlers to their outpost and begin a colony.

Minuit drowned in a hurricane on the way home that same year, but the Swedish colony continued to grow gradually. By 1644 Swedish and Finnish settlers were living along the western side of Delaware River from Fort Christina to the Schuylkill River. New Sweden’s best known governor, Johan Björnsson Printz, moved his residence to what is now Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania, nearer the center of the settlements.

The Dutch never gave up their claim to the area, however, and under Peter Stuyvesant they attacked the Swedish communities and in 1655 reincorporated the area back into New Netherland. Before long though, the Dutch as well were forcibly removed by the British, asserting their earlier claim. In 1664, James, the Duke of York, and brother of King Charles II, outfitted an expedition that easily ousted the Dutch from both the Delaware and Hudson Rivers and leaving the Duke of York the proprietary authority in the whole area.

British colonial period

On March 4, 1681, Charles II of England granted a land tract to William Penn for the area that now includes Pennsylvania because of a £16,000 (around £2,100,000 in 2008, adjusting for retail inflation) debt the King owed to William’s father. Penn then founded a colony there as a place of religious freedom for Quakers, and named it for the Latin sylvania meaning “woods”.

A large tract of land north and west of Philadelphia, in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties, was settled by Welsh Quakers and called the “Welsh Tract”. Even today many cities and towns in that area bear the names of Welsh municipalities.

The colony’s reputation of religious freedom also attracted significant populations of German and Scots-Irish settlers who helped to shape colonial Pennsylvania and later went on to populate the neighboring states further west.

In order to give his new province access to the ocean, Penn had leased the proprietary rights of the King’s brother, James, Duke of York to what became known as the “three lower counties” on the Delaware. The Province of Pennsylvania was never merged with the Lower Counties because the Duke of York, and therefore Penn, never had a clear title to it. He did govern them both, however, and his deputy governors were assigned to both as well. In Penn’s Frame of Government of 1682, he tried to establish a combined assembly by providing for equal membership from each county and requiring legislation to have the assent of both the Lower Counties and the Upper Counties of Chester, Philadelphia and Bucks. The meeting place also alternated between Philadelphia and New Castle. Once Philadelphia began to grow its leaders resented having to go to New Castle and gain agreement of the assemblymen from the sparsely populated Lower Counties and so there was a mutual agreement in 1704 for the two assemblies to meet separately from thenceforth.

French and Indian War

The western portions of Pennsylvania were among disputed territory between the colonial British and French during the French and Indian War. The French established numerous fortifications in the area, including the pivotal Fort Duquesne on top of which the city of Pittsburgh was built. Britain’s victory in the war secured Pennsylvania’s frontier, as the Ohio Country came under formal British control following the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Shortly after this Pontiac’s Rebellion began, which led to the British government passing the Proclamation Act barring any further settlement west of a certain point.

American Revolution

Most of Pennsylvania’s residents generally supported the protests and dismay common to all 13 colonies after the Proclamation of 1763 and the Stamp Act. Pennsylvanians originally supported the idea of common action, and sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. When difficulties continued, they sent delegates to the first Continental Congress and its later meetings, and even hosted the Congress in Philadelphia.

Statehood and constitutional government

After elections in May 1776 returned old guard Assemblymen to office, the Second Continental Congress encouraged Pennsylvania to call delegates together to discuss a new form of governance. Delegates met in June in Philadelphia, where events (the signing of the Declaration of Independence) soon overtook Assemblymen’s efforts to control the delegates and the outcome of their discussions. On July 8 attendees elected delegates to write a state constitution. A Committee was formed with Benjamin Franklin as chair and George Bryan and James Cannon as prominent members. The convention proclaimed a new constitution on September 28, 1776 and called for new elections.

Elections later in 1776 turned out the old Assemblymen out from power. But the new constitution was problematic as it was possibly too democratic in its lack of a governor or upper legislative house to provide checks against popular movements. It also required test oaths, which kept the opposition from taking office. The constitution called for a unicameral legislature or Assembly. Executive authority rested in a Supreme Executive Council whose members were to be appointed by the assembly. In elections during 1776 radicals gained control of the Assembly. By early 1777, they selected an executive council, and Thomas Wharton, Jr. was named as the President of the Council. This constitution was never formally adopted, so government was on an ad-hoc basis until a new constitution could be written fourteen years later.

Pennsylvania ratified the U.S. Constitution at the Philadelphia Convention on December 12, 1787, the second state to do so after Delaware. The state’s name is spelled “Pensylvania” in the Constitution. A new state constitution was formed in 1790.

Westward expansion and land speculation

After Revolutionary war soldiers received depreciation land grants for military service, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a general land act on April 3, 1792 authorizing the sale and distribution of the large remaining tracts of land east and west of the Allegheny River in hopes of sparking development of the vast territory. The process was an uneven affair prompting much speculation but little settlement, with most soldiers selling their shares sight unseen under market value and many investors were ultimately ruined. East Allegheny district consisted of lands in Potter, McKean, Cameron, Elk, and Jefferson counties, at the time worthless tracts. West Allegheny district was made up of lands in Erie, Crawford, Warren, and Venango counties, relatively good investments at the time. Three great land companies participated in the land speculation that followed. Holland Land Company and its agent, Theophilus Cazenove, acquired 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km2) of East Allegheny district land and 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) of West Allegheny land from Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice James Wilson. The Pennsylvania Population Company and its President, Pennsylvania State Comptroller General John Nicholson, controlled 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) of land, mostly in Erie County and the Beaver Valley. The North American Land Company and its patron, Robert Morris, held some Pennsylvania lands but was mostly vested in New York State.

Antebellum and Civil War

Pennsylvania was the target of several raids by the Confederate States Army, including cavalry raids in 1862 and 1863 by J.E.B. Stuart, in 1863 by John Imboden, and in 1864 by John McCausland in which his troopers burned the city of Chambersburg.

Pennsylvania also saw the Battle of Gettysburg, near Gettysburg. Many historians consider this battle the major turning point of the American Civil War. Dead from this battle rest at Gettysburg National Cemetery, site of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

A number of smaller engagements were also fought in Pennsylvania, including the Battle of Hanover, Battle of Carlisle, Battle of Hunterstown, and the Battle of Fairfield, all during the Gettysburg Campaign.

Industrial Power, 1865-1900

In the latter half of the 19th century, the U.S. oil (kerosene) industry was born in western Pennsylvania, which supplied the vast majority of U.S. kerosene for years thereafter, and saw the rise and fall of oil boom towns, like Titusville. See the Pennsylvanian oil rush.

Ethnicity and Labor 1865-1945

During this time, America saw the arrival of millions of immigrants, mainly Europeans. Pennsylvania and New York received the bulk of them. Many of these poor immigrants took jobs in factories, steel mills, and coal mines throughout the state.

Depression and War 1929-1950

During the Depression, the Commonwealth attempted to fund public works through passage of the Pennsylvania State Authority Act in 1936. The Act caused the incorporation of the General State Authority, which would purchase land from the state and add improvements to that land using state loans and grants. The state expected to receive Federal grants and loans to fund the project. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Kelly v Earle, found the Act violated the state constitution.

Decline of manufacturing and mining: 1950-75

During the 20th century Pennsylvania’s existing iron industries expanded into a major center of steel production. Shipbuilding and numerous other forms of manufacturing flourished in the eastern part of the state, and coal mining was also extremely important in many regions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pennsylvania received very large numbers of immigrants from Europe seeking work; dramatic, sometimes violent confrontations took place between organized labor and the state’s industrial concerns. The state was hard-hit by the decline of the steel industry and other heavy U.S. industries during the late 20th century.

In 1962, the Republican party which had lost the two previous gubernatorial elections and seen the state’s electoral votes go Democratic in the 1960 presidential election, became convinced that a moderate like Bill Scranton would have enough bipartisan appeal to revitalize the party. He ran for Governor of Pennsylvania against Richardson Dilworth, the mayor of Philadelphia. The ticket was balanced by having Raymond P. Shafer, who would succeed him as governor, as his running mate. After one of the most acrimonious campaigns in state history, the Scranton/Shafer team won a landslide victory in the election besting their opponents by nearly half a million votes out of just over than 6.6 million cast.

As governor 1963-67, Scranton signed into law sweeping reforms in the state’s education system including creation of the state community college system, the state board of education, and the state Higher Education Assistance Agency. Furthermore, he created a program designed to promote the state in national and international markets and to increase the attractiveness of the state’s products and services.

The Service State: 1975-Present

Pennsylvania has suffered severely from the fall of steel and coal. Economic failure, severe population loss in many areas, closed-up factories, and much more. However, beginning in the late 1970s, Pennsylvania began to turn around and make a recovery. At every new census, the state grew faster than the previous ten years. Many new immigrants, especially from Asia and Latin America, have arrived for many reasons. Dirty, lifeless towns have become vibrant, growing places. Jobs and companies have begun transferring their headquarters to the state, and Pennsylvania has one of the best economies in the nation. With the turnaround from manufacturing, the state has turned to service industries. Healthcare, retail, transportation, and tourism are some of the state’s biggest industries of this era. Recent studies showed that in the next decade, Pennsylvania could have a population growth similar to that of Georgia currently.


Bob Casey was the governor, 1987-1995—Casey was an Irish American Democrat “pol” of the old school, the son and grandson of coal miners, who championed unions and believed in government as a beneficent force. Casey pushed through the legislature the “Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act,” which placed limitations on abortion, including the notification of parents of minors, a twenty-four-hour waiting period, and a ban on partial-birth procedures except in cases of risk to the mother’s life. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania sued, with Casey as the named defendant, asserting that the law violated Roe v. Wade. The case went to the Supreme Court in April, 1992. The Court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey on June 29th, upholding all of Pennsylvania’s contested restrictions but one (a requirement for spousal notification) and affirming the right of states to restrict abortions. At the national level Governor Casey was the most prominent pro-life Democrat and he demanded publicly to give a minority plank on abortion at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. He was refused, and protested loudly. In 1994, Casey refused to endorse Harris Wofford, the Democrat he had appointed to the Senate and who was running for re-election. The reason was Casey rejected Wofford’s pro-choice views. The result was a deep split in the state Democratic party that helped elect conservative Republican Rick Santorum in 1994. Casey’s critics within the Democratic Party accused him of treason. The Democratic divisiveness over abortion did not fade away seat so in 2006, five years after Casey’s death, national Democratic leaders promoted Casey’s son Bob Casey, Jr. for Senator as a way of defusing the issue and attracting disaffected pro-life Democrats; the son defeated Santorum by a landslide.