A Short History Of
CHESTER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
Jane L. S. Davidson
Chester County, one of Pennsylvania’s three original counties, was named by William Penn in 1682. Although the northern and western boundaries were not specific, it is known it encompassed present Chester, Delaware and Lancaster Counties.
In the 1680s, English, Welsh and Irish Quakers came through the Port of Philadelphia to settle eastern and middle Chester County, followed shortly thereafter by German-speaking people. These families used the Lancaster Road to migrate into Lancaster County or navigated the Schuylkill River to settle in northern Chester County and parts of what later became Montgomery County or Berks County. Most of the Scots-Irish opted to disembark at New Castle, Delaware, during the 1730s and 1740s and settled western Chester County on either side of the Nanticoke Indian Path, present day Route #10.
Eighteenth Century Settlement
Gradually the homesteaders purchased land from Penn or his heirs after William Penn’s death in 1718 via a land patent system. They struggled to survive; clearing one acre per year, they improved their plantations of 150 to 300 acres, and replaced early shelters with substantial stone or brick houses and barns. Usually the head of the household rode a horse to the Surveyor General’s office in Philadelphia and requested that his claim be surveyed. The office staff drafted a document called a “Warrant” that was used by the Deputy Surveyor as authorization to survey the parcel. Upon completion the hand-drawn survey was returned and filed in Philadelphia. When the respective family had enough money to purchase the land, they traveled once again to the city to pay for their property and received a land patent document. Thereafter, a deed was and still is prepared for each property ownership change.
Rapid immigration and population density gave reason for the Chester County
government to subdivide municipalities and create new ones. The immigration migration pattern also influenced the formation of Lancaster County in 1729 and Berks County in 1752. Neighbor banded with neighbor to lay out new roads, “to mill, to market, and to meeting.” Hamlets appeared around water, corn, or gristmills, sawmills, wheelwright shops and fulling mills. Iron furnaces and forges in the French and Brandywine Creeks watersheds forged a substantial economy beyond the County’s borders. Quaker, Presbyterian and Baptist meeting houses, plus one-room subscription schools dotted the countryside.
Revolutionary Turmoil Affects Chester County
Both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War curtailed the sense of eighteenth century tranquility. Roger Hunt, Commissary General for the French and Indian War, collected wagons and horses from far and wide for wagon trains. Parke’s Ship Inn, west of Downings’ Town accommodated the overflow prior to sending the wagons to the frontier at Carlisle. Less than two decades later farmer were unwilling victims of despair as British troops traversed the Chester County countryside after the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of the Clouds, and Paoli Massacre.
Court sessions ceased, crops were destroyed, subscription schools closed and buildings, structures and meeting houses were converted to hospitals to care for the wounded. Uncertainty permeated the land when General George Washington gathered the patriot troops for the ensuing winter at Valley Forge. Foraging parties continued seeking supplies from the already distressed farmers.
Post Revolutionary War Development
About a decade after the close of the war, the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike laid out across Chester County, east to west, provided a major thoroughfare for commerce expansion between the two cities. Inns by the dozen, hat shops, saddleries, variety stores, etc., joined the millwrights and blacksmiths to service both the traveler and local residents. It continued to serve as an immigrant migration route to the west.
In the meantime, the Chester County was divided between Delaware and Chester Counties and the County seat was moved from Chester to West Chester.
Drovers, who protested paying the turnpike tolls, petitioned successfully the relatively new Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a service road. In 1806 the state created Strasburg Road that accommodated small to large cattle drives to the Wilmington and Philadelphia markets. More inns and service-oriented shops appeared that captured the market needs of the traveler. By mid-nineteenth century some of these enterprises, which depended upon the stagecoach line trade succumbed to new technology – the railroad.
Railroads and the Industrial Revolution
During the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the railroad had the strongest influence on Chester County’s economy and industrial development. In 1834, Black Hawk, a locomotive from England, pulled the first train across the county on the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. The idea spawned the creation of several railroad companies that spanned the breath and depth of Chester County.
In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution, the Schuylkill Canal, the Schuylkill River, the development of a banking system and the railroads became the foundation that formed Chester County’s industrial landscape along the river, near railroad stations and besides its roads. Phoenixville and Coatesville grew to large proportions from the iron and later the steel industry using immigrant labor from several European countries. Road machinery production, textile mill clusters, paper mills and casting enclaves required hundreds of workers to function. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Chester County no longer had a 90% workforce in agriculture.
The smaller railroad companies literally influenced major agricultural economic changes. Farmers were able to retain produce and product freshness because the railroads throughout the countryside were able to deliver the agricultural commodities to the marketplace with ease and a shorter time span. Gradually, as farmers converted their livelihoods to maintaining substantial dairy herds or stock farms, they also established local community creameries for production and distribution on a larger scale. By the turn of the century they diversified their agrarian economy with the addition of poultry.
World War I, the Depression, and World War II, stymied the local economy and numerous companies converted to military production especially during World War II. Although conglomerates during the 1950s and 1960s purchased local businesses and corporations established in the nineteenth century, the development of high-technology industrial parks, beginning with the strip along Route #202 has given Chester County its own business centers.
The County has entered the twenty-first century not as a bedroom community to Lancaster, Wilmington, King of Prussia, or Philadelphia, but as its own economic and residential blend of historic homes, suburbia, crossroads hamlets, industrial complexes and a wonderful selection of municipal and county parks.
If you have questions about the history in your municipality, please contact your CCHPN Board Member.