Organization of Counties in Pennsylvania

Genealogical Map of the Counties of Pennsylvania
Genealogical Map of the Counties of Pennsylvania

Chronological Organization of Pennsylvania Counties

The three original counties of Pennsylvania were Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks. Some authorities claim that Philadelphia was the original county and that the others were formed afterwards, and these give the date of the erection of Philadelphia County as March io, 1682. Many Pennsylvania historians, however, generally agree that the three counties were originally erected by William Penn at the same time. Philadelphia County extended towards the northwest, bounded on either side by its neighboring counties, Chester and Bucks. Bucks was first called Buckingham in a letter written by William Penn to the Society of Free Traders, in 1683, at which time its northern boundary was the Kittatinny Mountains, or as far as the land might be purchased from the Indians—a very indeterminate line. Chester County included what is now Delaware County, and all the territory, except a small portion now in Philadelphia County, southwest of the Schuylkill River, to the limits of the Province. The lines of separation of the three counties were confirmed by Provincial Council, February 1, 1685.

The first county to be organized in addition to the three original ones was Lancaster, which was taken from the territory of Chester, May 10, 1729. Its boundaries then comprised “all the province lying to the northward of the Octararo Creek, and westward of a line of marked trees running from the north branch of the said Octararo Creek, northeasterly to the river Schuylkill.” This new county was first reduced in size August 19, 1749, when York County was cut from its territory; and secondly, on January 27, 1750, when the large county of Cumberland was erected from Lancaster. The limits of Cumberland then included the whole country west as far as the preceding Indian purchase.

Bucks County was first reduced in size when Northampton County was erected from its territory, March 11, 1752. On the same day Berks County was erected from Philadelphia, Chester, and Lancaster. Thus the Province continued with the eight counties until March 9, 1771, when Bedford County was formed from Cumberland, the first of many counties organized from her territory.

Northumberland County was erected March 21, 1772, from parts of Lancaster, Cumberland, Berks, Bedford, and Northampton. On account of Indian purchases now reaching to the western boundary of the Province the limits of Northumtjerlan^’ e^tpri’jIeJd t;o theAvesterh’’and northern boundaries of Pennsylvania. Her territory W&s fefo.’extefrsiw that She 1 is ikiiown as the “Mother of Counties,” and all or part of thirty of the present counties have been carved from it.

Westmoreland County was erected February 26, 1773, from part of Bedford, and its territory included the entire southwestern section of the Province. This was the last county erected by the Proprietary Government. Pennsylvania as thus divided politically entered the great struggle of the Revolutionary War. Washington County was erected March 28, 1781, the first taken from Westmoreland. Fayette County was cut from Westmoreland, September 26, 1783, at the very close of that war. Westmoreland was thus considerably reduced in size within ten years of its organization.

Franklin County was erected September 9, 1784, from Cumberland County. On the next day, September 10, 1784, Montgomery County was formed from territory of Philadelphia County, the last to be taken from the original county.

Dauphin County was cut off from Lancaster, March 4, 1785. Luzerne was taken from Northumberland, September 25, 1786. Huntingdon was erected from Bedford, September 20, 1787. Allegheny was formed from Westmoreland and Washington counties, September 24, 1788. Mifflin was erected from Cumberland and Northumberland counties, September 19, 1789.

Old Chester lost part of its territory when Delaware County was cut from it September 26, 1789. Thus the county which comprised the most ancient settlements in Pennsylvania was now formed into the new county of Delaware, and the organization of counties in the southeastern section of Pennsylvania completed.

When Lycoming County was cut from Northumberland, April 13, 1795, it embraced the largest in territory in the Commonwealth. Somerset County was erected from Bedford, April 17, 1795. Greene County was cut from Washington, February 9, 1796, thus completing the formation of counties in the southwest corner. Wayne was set off from Northampton March 21, 1797, when the northeastern corner was completed.

Adams County was erected from York, January 22, 1800. Centre County was formed from parts of Northumberland, Lycoming, Mifflin, and Huntingdon, February 13, 1800. On March 12, following, eight new counties were formed in the same Act of Assembly: Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Crawford, Erie,

Mercer, Venango, and Warren. Thus the remaining corner of the Commonwealth was organized. These new counties were taken from Lycoming and Allegheny, except that Westmoreland furnished a part of Armstrong, and Washington yielded up a part of its territory to form Beaver, but Allegheny furnished the greater amount of territory for the new counties.

Indiana County was cut from Westmoreland and Lycoming, March 30, 1803; and six new counties were erected March 26, 1804, when Cambria, Clearfield, Jefferson, McKean, Potter, and Tioga were formed. The latter four were taken from Lycoming, while Northumberland helped with Clearfield, but Cambria was cut from parts of Huntingdon, Somerset, and Bedford. Bradford and Susquehanna counties were erected February 21, 1810, the former from Lycoming and Luzerne, the latter from Luzerne alone.

Schuylkill County was erected from Berks and Northampton, March n, 1811. Lehigh was cut from Northampton on March 6, 1812. Lebanon was erected from Lancaster and Dauphin, February 16, 1813. Columbia and Union were taken from Northumberland, March 22, 1813. Pike was cut from Wayne, March 26, 1814, and Perry was erected from Cumberland, March 22, 1820.

Pennsylvania remained thus until March 2, 1831, when Juniata County was erected from Mifflin. Monroe was taken from Northampton and Pike, April 1, 1836. Clarion was cut from Venango and Armstrong, March 11, 1839, an d on June 21, following, Clinton was formed from Lycoming and Centre. Wyoming County was erected from Luzerne April 4, 1842. Carbon was formed from Northampton and Monroe, March 13, 1843, an< ^ on April 18, following, Elk was cut from Jefiferson, Clearfield, and McKean. Blair was erected February 26, 1846, from Huntingdon and Bedford. Sullivan was taken from Lycoming, March 15, 1847. Forest was formed from Jefferson and Venango, April 11, 1848. Lawrence was taken from Beaver and Mercer on March 20, 1849. Fulton was cut from Bedford, April 19, 1850. Montour won its long fight by Act of May 3, 1850, when its territory was taken from Columbia. The story of which contest is told in Montour County chapter. Snyder was cut from Union, March 2, 1855. Cameron was erected from parts of Clinton, Elk, McKean and Potter on March 29, 1860. The last of the sixty-seven counties was erected August 13, 1878, when Lackawanna was erected from part of Luzerne County.

Genealogy of Counties in Pennsylvania

The genealogy of the counties is both interesting and historical, and presents some valuable data. The three original counties, Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks, were named by the founder. It is a singular coincidence that Philadelphia County should be surrounded with counties somewhat similar to those which surround London, England; Buckingham, or Bucks, Chester, and Lancashire. The name Philadelphia, meaning “brotherly love,” is sentimental, the other three were given their names in honor of their English importance. In fact all the counties formed and named prior to the Revolutionary War were named identically and relatively after the counties in England in this chronological order in the Province—Philadelphia, Chester, Bucks, Lancaster, York, Cumberland, Berks, Northampton, Bedford, Northumberland, and Westmoreland. Following the independence of the Colonies only three counties of Pennsylvania were afterwards given names of English counties —Huntingdon, Somerset, and Cambria.

The late Dr. Hugh Hamilton, of Harrisburg, read an interesting paper before the Federation of Historical Societies, in January, 1920, of which organization he was then president, in which he grouped the sixty-seven counties etymologically as follows:

Sentimental Counties

Philadelphia, Columbia, Union, and Lebanon.

Familiar Counties

Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Cambria, Chester, Cumberland, Huntingdon, Lancaster, Northampton, Northumberland, Somerset, Westmoreland, and York.

Gratitude Counties

Armstrong, Bradford, Butler, Clinton, Crawford, Dauphin, Luzerne, Mercer, Mifflin, Montgomery, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Lawrence, Montour, Perry, Pike, Sullivan, Warren, Washington, and Wayne.

Political Counties

Adams, Blair, Cameron, Franklin, Jefferson, McKean, Mifflin, Monroe, and Snyder.

Aboriginal Counties

Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Indiana, Juniata, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Lycoming, Susquehanna, Tioga, Venango, and Wyoming.

Topographical Counties

Centre and Clarion.

Faunal Counties

Beaver, Carbon, Clear-held, Elk, Forest, and Schuylkill.”

It would also be well to add that Carbon, Clearfield, and Forest would form a group of natural characteristics; and that Huntingdon and Montour are the only counties named for women, and the two called from Biblical names are Philadelphia and Lebanon.

Many of the counties received their names at times of some important event in history, or when a distinguished person seemed entitled to be thus honored. Washington County was named in honor of the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1781, before he was even thought of as the first President of the United States. It is also interesting to note that Washington County was the first one erected after the Declaration of Independence, thus Washington became first in Pennsylvania, as well as in war, in peace, and in the hearts of his countrymen. It is equally interesting that the very next county to be organized in the patriotic Pennsylvania should be named after General LaFayette. A deserved tribute was paid to Dr. Franklin when a county was named for this great American patriot and statesman. Armstrong perpetuates the memory of Colonel John Armstrong, who led the successful expedition against Kittanning, and who afterwards became a general and rendered distinguished service in the Revolutionary War. The counties of Butler, Crawford, Mifflin, Pike, Potter, and Wayne were named in honor of distinguished Pennsylvania soldiers; while Greene and Mercer were names suggested by General Washington as a tribute to distinguished generals who were much in Pennsylvania. The triumphs of Sullivan and Perry were enacted here, and Warren fell a hero at Bunker Hill.

Bradford County was originally “Ontario’’ in the act creating it, but the name was changed in honor of Attorney General William Bradford, of Pennsylvania. It is the only county the name of which has been changed by Act of Assembly. Lawrence was named for the flagship of Commodore Perry; Fulton for Lancaster County’s favorite son, Robert Fulton, who first successfully ran a steamboat. Clinton was intended to be called “Eagle” County, but the name was changed by a native of New York for its Governor. Montour was named for Madame Montour, ever loyal to the Indians and to the Province. Dauphin and Luzerne were so named in thankfulness to France, the former in honor of the eldest son of Louis XVI, and the latter in tribute to the Minister of France, then in the United States.

It is to be regretted that more of the counties, cities, boroughs and villages do not retain their original aboriginal names, such as have been retained in Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Indiana, Juniata, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Lycoming, Tioga, Venango, and Wyoming.

Attempts to Form New Counties

There have been many projects for the erection of new counties, not a score of which have been of sufficient consequence to be brought to a vote in the General Assembly. These might be termed the most important of the dreams of their promoters and the politicians.

Several attempts have been made to cut away a part of Lancaster County to assist in forming another. The first such unsuccessful effort was made early in the nineteenth century when a petition was signed by residents of seven townships in Lancaster, seven in Chester, and Caernarvon Township in Berks, praying that the General Assembly would erect a new county to be called “Finley.” It failed to reach a vote in either House. The next attempt to erect a new county was made in December, 1819, when it was proposed to take parts of Chester and Lancaster counties to erect the county of “Penn.” In 1820 it was proposed that part of Chester and Berks be formed into the new county of “Conestoga.” Another effort to form “Penn County” was made in 1824, when a bill was introduced to divide Berks County so that Kutztown would be the county seat of the new county which resulted in a tie vote on April 20, and was subsequently defeated. From 1824 to 1826 efforts were made to form a new county to be called “Conewago” from portions of Lancaster, Dauphin and Lebanon counties. This movement was projected by Jacob Gish, a member of the General Assembly, who wanted Elizabethtown to be the county seat. In 1832 another effort was made to form the same townships into “Monroe County.” In 1838 another bill proposed to split Berks County and with a slice of Schuylkill to erect “Windsor County.” In 1845 another effort to divide Berks County was proposed which together with parts of Chester and Montgomery would form “Jackson County.” It failed, as did a second effort. In the same session an unsuccessful effort was made to revive the “Conestoga” County project, but this time the territory was to be taken from Lancaster, Berks and Chester, and Churchtown was to be the county seat. In 1847 an effort was made to cut off part of Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties to form “Madison” County. It was lost bv only six votes, but the project was afterwards twice defeated, in 1854 and 1855. In 1850 an unsuccessful effort was made to revive the “Windsor County” project. The last effort to divide Berks County was made in 1852, when it was proposed to erect “Lee” County, with Bernville as the seat of justice. It was defeated by such a decisive vote that Berks County ever afterwards ceased to be the storm center for new county schemes.

In 1853 it was proposed to erect a new county from parts of Schuylkill and Luzerne, to be named “Anthracite,” but it failed of passage. In 1858 another scheme was proposed, the territory for which was to be taken from Warren, Crawford, and Erie, with Titusville as the county seat, and to be named “Marion,” in honor of General Francis Marion, hero of the Revolution. The bill fell, but it is quite probable that the project may have been successful a year later, when Colonel Drake brought in his famous and historic oil well, and Titusville became a more important place, and could have commanded stronger support in her ambition to be a seat of justice. This project, however, was revived in 1870 and again defeated. In this same session of the General Assembly the last attempt to use a part of Lancaster County for the new county projects was made when it was proposed that six townships of Lancaster, and four of Chester form the new county of “Octorara,” with the borough of Oxford the county seat.

In 1873, Peter Herdic, the renowned ‘dumber king” of Williamsport, was the projector of an unsuccessful effort to erect a new county out of parts of Lycoming, Tioga, Potter, Bradford, and Sullivan counties. He owned a famous summer resort on Lycoming Creek, at Minnequa, and his dream was to make it the county seat of the new county. He endeavored to interest Silas X. Billings, of Wellsboro, who had enormous lumber holdings in the proposed area, and even suggested the name “Billings” for the new county. This movement caused such an uproar that State Senator John I. Mitchell, of Wellsboro, threw his entire strength against the bill, and it was defeated in the Senate, after having received a comfortable majority in the House. This project caused the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of that year to write a new clause on the organization of new counties.

Another unsuccessful new county project was when Governor Hastings vetoed an act to form “Quay” County from parts of Luzerne, Schuylkill, and Carbon, with Hazleton as the county seat. The Governor was hanged in effigy on the streets of Hazleton for his veto. This was the revival of the former effort to erect “Anthracite” County. The “Quay” County effort was again attempted, in 1905, when the proposed name was changed to “Laurel,” and to “Hazle,” but was defeated. In 1913 a bill was introduced by the late William Adams, of Hazleton, and came before the House for consideration. A point was raised by Representative Jones, of Schuylkill, that the bill was unconstitutional, being local and special legislation, since it was framed that it could apply only to the territory embraced in Luzerne and Schuylkill counties, and consequently prohibited by Section 7, Article III, of the Constitution. The point was sustained by Speaker George E. Alter and ended the career of the bill. It was again introduced in 1915, but was reported from committee with a negative recommendation. Since which time no further effort has been made to erect additional counties in “Penn’s Woods.” No future attempts to erect new counties are anticipated, but the pendulum is likely to swing in the other direction. With the advent of the automobile and airplane, the necessity for small counties is no longer apparent and the future may witness the consolidation of counties rather than the erection of new ones.

Organization of counties in Pennsylvania and those from which formed.

  1. Adams, January 22, 1800, formed of a part of York.
  2. Allegheny, September 24, 1788, formed of a part of Westmoreland and Washington.
  3. Armstrong, March 12, 1800, formed of a part of Allegheny, Westmoreland and Lycoming.
  4. Beaver, March 12, 1800, formed of a part of Allegheny and Washington.
  5. Bedford, March 9, 1771, formed of a part of Cumberland.
  6. Berks, March 11, 1752, formed of a part of Philadelphia, Bucks and Lancaster.
  7. Blair, February 26, 1846, formed of a part of Huntingdon and Bedford.
  8. Bradford, February 21, 1810, formed of a part of Luzerne and Lycoming. [Previous to March 24, 1812, this county was called Ontario, but its name was changed to Brad-ford on that day.]
  9. Bucks, one of the original counties of the Province. [Bucks county was one of the three original counties established at the first settlement of the Province of Pennsylvania; the other two being Philadelphia and Chester. See votes of Assembly, vol. i.]
  10. Butler, March 12, 1800, formed of a part of Allegheny.
  11. Cambria, March 26, 1804, formed of a part of Huntingdon, Somerset and Bedford.
  12. Cameron, March 29, 1860, formed of a part of Clinton, Elk, McKean and Potter.
  13. Carbon, March 13, 1843, formed of a part of Northampton and Monroe.
  14. Centre, February 19, 1800, formed of a part of Mifflin, Northumberland, Lycoming and Huntingdon.
  15. Chester, one of the original counties established at the first settlement of the Province.
  16. Clarion, March 11, 1839, formed of a part of Venango and Armstrong.
  17. Clearfield, March 26, 1804, formed of a part of Lycoming and Northumberland.
  18. Clinton, June 21, 1839, formed of a part of Lycoming and Centre.
  19. Columbia, March 22, 1813, formed of a part of Northumberland.
  20. Crawford, March 12, 1800, formed of a part of Allegheny.
  21. Cumberland, January 27, 1750, formed of a part of Lancaster.
  22. Dauphin, March 4, 1785, formed of a part of Lancaster.
  23. Delaware, September 26, 1789, formed of a part of Chester.
  24. Elk, April 18, 1843, formed of a part of Jefferson, Clearfield, and McKean.
  25. Erie, March 12, 1800, formed of a part of Allegheny.
  26. Fayette, September 26, 1783, formed of a part of Westmoreland.
  27. Poorest, April 11, 1848, formed from a part of Jefferson and Venango. [Part of Venango added by act approved Octo-ber 31, 1866.]
  28. Franklin, September 9, 1784, formed from a part of Cumberland.
  29. Fulton, April 19, 1850, formed from a part of Bedford.
  30. Greene, February 9, 1796, formed from a part of Washington.
  31. Huntingdon, September 20, 1787, formed from a part of Bedford.
  32. Indiana, March 30, 1803, formed from a part of Westmoreland and Lycoming.
  33. Jefferson, March 26, 1804, formed from a part of Lycoming.
  34. Juniata, March 2, 1831, formed from a part of Mifflin.
  35. Lackawanna, Aug. 13, 1878, formed from a part of Luzerne.
  36. Lancaster, May 10, 1729, formed from a part of Chester.
  37. Lawrence, March 20, 1849, formed from a part of Beaver and Mercer. 88. Lebanon, February 16, 1813, formed from a part of Dauphin and Lancaster.
  38. Lehigh, March 6, 1812, formed from a part of Northampton.
  39. Luzerne, September 25, 1786, formed from a part of Northumberland.
  40. Lycoming, April 13, 1795, formed from a part of Northumberland.
  41. McKean, March 26, 1804, formed from a part of Lycoming.
  42. Mercer, March 12, 1800, formed from a part of Allegheny.
  43. Mifflin, September 19, 1789, formed from a part of Cumberland and Northumberland.
  44. Monroe, April 1, 1836, formed from a part of Northampton and Pike.
  45. Montgomery, September 10, 1784, formed from a part of Philadelphia.
  46. Montour, May 3, 1850, formed from a part of Columbia.
  47. Northampton, March 11, 1752, formed from a part of Bucks.
  48. Northumberland, March 27, 1772, formed from parts of Lancaster, Cumberland, Berks, Bedford and Northampton.
  49. Perry, March 22, 1820, formed from a part of Cumberland.
  50. Philadelphia, one of the three original counties established at the first settlement of the Province.
  51. Pike, March 26, 1814, formed from a part of Wayne.
  52. Potter, March 26, 1804, formed from a part of Lycoming.
  53. Schuylkill, March 11, 1811, formed from a part of Berks and Northampton.
  54. Snyder, March 2, 1855, formed from a part of Union.
  55. Somerset, April 17, 1795, formed from a part of Bedford.
  56. Sullivan, March 15, 1847, formed from a part of Lycoming.
  57. Susquehanna, February 21, 1810, formed from a part of Luzerne.
  58. Tioga, March 26, 1804, formed from a part of Lycoming.
  59. Union, March 22, 1813, formed from a part of Northumberland.
  60. Venango, March 12, 1800, formed from a part of Allegheny and Lycoming.
  61. Warren, March 12, 1800, formed from a part of Allegheny and Lycoming.
  62. Wayne, March 21, 1798, formed from a part of Northampton.
  63. Washington, March 28, 1781, formed from a part of Westmoreland.
  64. Westmoreland, February 26, 1773, formed from a part of Bedford, and in 1785 part of the purchase of 1784 was added thereto.
  65. Wyoming, April 4, 1842, formed from a part of Luzerne.
  66. York, August 19, 1749, formed from a part of Lancaster.

Sources: Pennsylvania, political, governmental, military and civil, by Frederic A. Godcharles, vol 2 of 4, pp. 1-6; New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1933.

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