York County History

The History of York County

Founded in 1749, York County has played a proud role in the long and exciting drama that is the history of the United States of America. Our county was in the forefront of organized resistance during the American Revolution. It was here that the Articles of Confederations, the precursor to the U.S. Constitution, was drafted. York was also a great source of strength to the Union armies during the most critical period of the Civil War.

In modern times, York County residents have made notable contributions to the victory effort in two World Wars and numerous armed conflicts. Beyond that, our community has utilized its resources to create a community nationally admired for its agricultural richness, industrial vigor and cultural enterprise.

Early Days

The history of the County begins with agreements established by William Penn with the American Indians who made their homes along York County’s streams and rivers. As early settlements along East Coast grew in size and number, the need for westward expansion became apparent.

In 1722, the American Indians who inhabited what is now York County granted permission for a survey of land west beyond the Susquehanna River. The Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida and Tuscarora nations subsequently signed a treaty of peace and deeded to the Penns "all the river Susquehanna and all land lying on the west side of said river to the setting of the sun..."

First Settlements

In 1729, John and James Hendricks established the first authorized settlement in what is now called Kreutz Creek in York County. Germans, originally lured from the Rhenish Palatinate by William Penn's agents, soon followed Englishmen into the new frontier. Pamphlets and even playing cards extolled the opportunities to be found in Pennsylvania.

The first Irish and Scotch took over the land in the southeast, then known as "York Barrens." To the north, families - mostly Quakers moving on from Chester County - settled Newberry Township and its surroundings, dubbed the "Redlands". The town of York was laid in 1741. On Nov. 23, 1741, applicants agreed to pay seven shillings a year for the use of lots measuring 230 feet long and 65 feet wide, and to erect on it "a substantial dwelling of 16 feet square at least...within the space of one year."

On August 17, 1749, nearly eight years later, the provincial Assembly separated York County from Lancaster County and officially partitioned the new county. The French and Indian Wars, which were fought so bitterly in western Pennsylvania in the 1750's, spread within a day's march of York County. Refugees from Cumberland County fled to York’s settlements. In 1755, famed scientist and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin spent time in York, where he hired 150 wagons, 259 pack horses and bought flour to support the conflict. In 1758, four companies of militia from the County took part in the capture of Fort Duquesne (later renamed Pittsburgh).

Hanover, York County’s second-largest municipality, was a thickly grown grove of hickory trees until 1763, when Richard M'Alister laid out a town in a "no-man's land." It was claimed by both Maryland and Pennsylvania, but itself accepted neither authority. The border between Maryland and Pennsylvania was so hotly contested that the British government arranged a survey to settle the dispute. The line laid down by engineers Mason and Dixon on 1763-67 became known as the Mason-Dixon line, and would become most famous as division between the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The American Revolution

As early as July 4, 1774, York countians selected a committee to protest against British taxation and other oppressive measures. When Boston was blockaded as a result of its famous tea party, York County provided financial help and military support. A local company of militia riflemen were among the first from west of the Hudson River to march to Massachusetts. In 1775, there were 3,349 "associaters," or volunteer militiamen, within the County and by 1778, a total of 4,621 York Countians answered the call to arms. This total is remarkable considering the county’s population at the time was just shy of 25,000.

In 1779 Colonel Thomas Hartley observed that "the York districts has armed first in Pennsylvania and has furnished more men for the war and lost a greater number of men in it than any other district on the continent of the same number individuals." Innumerable organized protests against parliamentary restrictions and sporadic fighting throughout the colonies swelled into organized revolution. In July 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read to cheering Yorkers who gathered before the two-story red brick courthouse on the center square. . Fourteen months later the Continental Congress, having put the Susquehanna between themselves and the British (who occupied Philadelphia), assembled in the same courthouse to administer a nation not quite fully born. The presence of the Congress in York, from September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778, brought the first printing press to the County. The press was necessary so military and legislative news could be sent throughout the colonies. It was also used to print about $10 million worth of currency; money that was so inflated it was almost worthless. Undoubtedly the most important business conducted here was the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, which in 1781 would be ratified by the required two-thirds of the colonies. It established the "United States of America.”

Victory and independence from England would finally come for the new nation in 1783. Many unforgettable figures in our national history hurried resolutely through York County in those days. Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States, worked as secretary to the committee of foreign affairs, and in his spare time while in York wrote some of the articles that made up his literary work, "The Crisis." This commentary was distributed throughout the colonies and helped convince many people to oppose British rule. It was in York County that the Marquis de Lafayette, with his toast in support of General Washington, disrupted the Conway Cabal, an effort to remove Washington as commander of the Continental Army. General Anthony Wayne, Baron von Steuben and Count Pulaski were here on military errands. Less distinguished visitors were the English prisoners-of-war quartered at Camp Security. Many later remained in York County upon release and settled here.

In 1800, immediately after the separation of Adams County from York County, the County boasted a population of 25,643. During the first half of the 19th century York remained primarily an agricultural community, but residents continued to contribute to its growing industrialization. Conestoga wagons in York and Lancaster gradually disappeared as railroads, canals and waterways increased mobility. The Codorus Creek was navigable from York to its mouth on the Susquehanna River. In 1825, John Edgar tested the first iron steamboat on the Susquehanna River. Phineas Davis, a well-known clock maker, perfected his revolutionary coal-burning locomotive in York County. As the question of slavery became a more prominently debated moral and political issue, York County helped maintain a more unusual form of transportation. The phrase "underground railway" supposedly originated in the southern Pennsylvania area to denote an operation whereby runaway slaves were assisted in their flight to more tolerant states.

The Civil War

After the guns off Fort Sumter thundered the call to war in 1861, York County sent the first fully-equipped volunteers to march from Pennsylvania. Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorville, Richmond and Appamatox were some of the battlegrounds on which York countians died and distinguished themselves. Within the County, Camp Scott was established as a training post for as many as 5,500 men.

In July 1862, a hospital to care for the wounded was established and operated until the end of the war.

It reportedly treated 14,000 soldiers. Late in June 1863, Confederate troops made their most extensive thrust into northern territory when they spread across York County as far as the Susquehanna River. Union forces fled into Lancaster County but further Confederate advances were checked when the bridge at Wrightsville was burned. Within the City of York, a committee raised more than $28,000 and gathered supplies of food and clothing to appease Confederate commander, General Jubal A. Early. He threatened to burn railroad car shops, but was forestalled when he received urgent orders to withdraw and join other Confederate armies massing at Gettysburg in neighboring Adams County.

The first Civil War battle on Pennsylvania soil was fought at Hanover on June 30th, 1863. Because of this engagement, Confederate General J.E.B Stuart and his much-heralded cavalry forces were unable to join General Robert E. Lee's armies at Gettysburg until after the decisive battles had been fought. This delay in Hanover played an important part in the Union victory at Gettysburg, which is considered to be the turning point in the Civil War. The passing of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train through York County marked a somber close to this period. A large part of the local population was at the railroad station to pay tribute to the martyred president on April 21, 1865, as his funeral train passed through York.

20th Century

During the "Great War of 1914-1918,” more than 6,000 York countians were members of the nation's armed services. A total of 197 York countians lost their lives in battle or as victims of influenza and other diseases that swept across the land, both here and abroad. With the advent of World War II, local industries were instrumental in formulating a program for combining community resources to increase productivity. A 14-point York plan soon proved its efficacy and was widely copied throughout the nation. The objectives of the York Plan were to:

• Educate workers and assure them of the best available housing and health facilities;

• Integrate work that could be done by subcontractors and primary contractors within the local area; and

• Utilize all available machines and workers to meet the demand for war material.

Before the war ended with the Japanese surrender on August 4, 1945, 10 percent of York County's population (which then totaled more than 178,000) served in the armed forces. Of these, 371 were killed, 822 were wounded, 152 were reported missing and 192 were taken prisoner. Two outstanding heroes of World War II were from York County. General Jacob Loucks Devers, commander of Army Ground Forces in the European Theater, and Lieutenant Alexander B. Goode, one of four chaplains who bravely died aboard the troop transport S.S. Dorchester. Lieutenant Goode and his colleagues were recognized for giving up their lives so others might live.

The 1950's brought another crisis to York County as once again county troops served bravely during the Korean conflict. Of the 263,721 Pennsylvanian Korean Veterans, 6,910 were from York County and of that number 63 were killed, either from wounds or from disease. Since World War II, the nation and York County has experienced periods of prosperity and times of turmoil. York Countians have answered the call for several armed conflicts including the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.