“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
If there were two eastern states that could be called “Gateways to the Continent,” I would select New York and Pennsylvania. Both have key accessible ports and provide water access to the interior of the country. Both have more than 300 years of history and paper trails for family historians to key into. This article will help prepare you for genealogical research in Pennsylvania – the Keystone State.
Long before the white man landed on the shores of North America, there were the Native Americans already inhabiting the continent. Most of these native people in Pennsylvania belonged to the Delaware, Susquehannock, Iroquois, Erie and Shawnee tribes. Displacement of the Indians started in the early to mid-1600s by the Dutch and English followed by the Swedish. Understanding the history of a state can help a genealogist know when court and church documentation began and where to look when conducting your ancestor search. Timelines help family researchers keep their search realistic and in perspective:
- 1624 – The Dutch established a trading post at Burlington Island in the Delaware River near what was to become Philadelphia.
- 1626 – The Dutch built a trading post at Fort Nassau, now Gloucester City, east across the Delaware River from what developed into Philadelphia.
- 1643 – The first Swedish settlement was constructed on Tinicum Island, near what is now Philadelphia International Airport.
- 1681 – Charles II of England granted the land now known as Pennsylvania to William Penn. Quakers settled in the area of what is now Philadelphia.
- 1682 – William Penn founded Philadelphia. The original counties of Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia were created.
- 1683 – The first Germans arrived in Pennsylvania.
- 1695 – The religious presence increased in Philadelphia with the organization of the Baptists, Presbyterians, and the Church of England congregations.
- 1729 – Lancaster County was formed. Shortly thereafter, the first Amish arrived.
- 1749 – York County was created.
- 1750 – Cumberland County was founded.
- 1752 – Berks and Northampton Counties were formed.
- 1763 – The Treaty of Paris was ratified and France ceded its lands east of the Mississippi.
- 1763 – The Royal Proclamation of 1763 by George III allowed the British to begin organizing their holdings in North America.
- 1776 – The Declaration of Independence was signed.
- 1780 – A law was passed abolishing slavery in Pennsylvania.
- 1792 – The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a general land act to promote settlement.
- 1850s – An early attempt was made to record vital records; this lasted only two or three years.
- 1857 – Saucoma Iron Company was founded. It was the forerunner of Bethlehem Steel.
- 1859 – Oil was discovered at Titusville. Industry became a major part of Pennsylvania’s economy.
- 1878 – Lackawanna was the last county created in Pennsylvania.
- Late 1880s – Pennsylvania, as well as New York, became a destination of immigrants.
- 1906 – The State of Pennsylvania began recording births and deaths.
Philadelphia was one of the major cities in the early days of this country. Its population grew from about 2,500 in 1701 to more than 41,000 in 1800. By 1900, the city had swelled to in excess of 1 million residents.
Pennsylvania has a number of rivers which made transportation easier during its founding and settlement. The Delaware River brought settlers and immigrants from the Atlantic Ocean to Philadelphia. The Susquehanna River was a route from the interior of the state to Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River; it has its beginnings in the western part of the state – in Pittsburgh – at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. Finally, Erie, on Lake Erie, provided access both to the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.
The map is the thing for researching in Pennsylvania, as the location of records is often tied to governmental entities or locations. Family historians need to remember that as cities became more populated, the amount of land needed increased, as well, and that as settlers moved inland, additional counties were created. Pennsylvania is a great example of this. The Western border wasn’t set until the 1780s. The original three counties were Philadelphia, Bucks. and Chester. Located adjacent to each other, the borders then and now are very different. In 1729, Lancaster County was carved from the western portion of Chester County. The last county created was Lackawanna in 1878, not quite 200 years after the first counties were formed. A farm, school, or town may have been in two or three different townships or counties without moving.
Early Pennsylvanians sought religious tolerance, and the state was also one of the first to embrace industrialization. Both brought new immigrants with new customs and ideas to the melting pot. This is what can make the search up the branches of the family tree fun and challenging.
Helpful Websites for Your Search
There are many websites that are helpful to Pennsylvania genealogical researchers. Among my favorites are:
- Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. It is where birth certificates, 1906-07, and death certificates, 1906-1962 can be obtained. It has a good map showing and explaining county formation in the state.
- U.S. GenWeb. Each county has a web site with the county’s history, contact information, and localized data bases. The content varies from county to county.
- Online Death Records, Indexes & Obituaries. Specializing in death information, this web site lists online resources including newspaper obituaries.
- FamilySearch. Data bases on the web site include, Pennsylvania county marriages, Philadelphia passenger lists and naturalization records.
- Cyndi’s List. Internet links are a specialty of this web site and it can help the family historian find a variety of online information relating to Pennsylvania genealogy.
For the genealogist, whether a professional or a family history researcher hobbyist, there are many records to seek out and a multitude of hidden corners to discover in Pennsylvania that will help you trace family history. There’s a lot of history in Pennsylvania and a lot of history in your family. There are court records, land records, school records, church records, and family records. Pennsylvania is known as the Keystone State, because it was the middle colony of the original 13 colonies, but the genealogy research services of RecordClick are your key to a successful ancestor search.
The results of a U.S. census indicated that 50% of U.S. indigenous peoples prefer the description “Native American,” 37% prefer “American Indian,” while others prefer simply “Indian.” I have used the terms interchangeably in this article.