Was Lancaster County formed to rid Chester of its “thieves, vagabonds, and ill people”?

Infested with Thieves, Vagabonds, and Ill People

In 1728, residents living in the backwoods of Chester County began to complain that “thieves, vagabonds, and ill people” had infested the rural areas of what is now Lancaster County. They petitioned William Penn’s son for the creation of a new county to jettison these undesirable residents.

So 290 years ago today, on May 10, 1729, Lancaster County was formed. It was the first county created beyond the original three counties of Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia.

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Map showing county formation in Pennsylvania.

However, a more likely reason for the creation of Lancaster County was Chester’s size. At that time, Chester County’s borders were Philadelphia County to the north, the ill-defined western edge of the colony (approximately the Susquehanna River) to the west, the Delaware River to the east, and Delaware and Maryland to the south. 

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A buckboard is a four-wheeled wagon of simple construction meant to be drawn by a horse or other large animal. The “buckboard” is the front-most board on the wagon that could act as both a footrest for the driver and protection for the driver from the horse’s rear hooves in case of a “buck”.

Residents, especially those near the western border of Chester, had to travel a great distance to reach the Courthouse in West Chester for legal matters like marriage licenses. That’s a long way to go via buckboard. The western edge of Chester County also needed its own jail for local criminals and people to maintain roads. 

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A New Town is Born

Lancaster County was formed with land carved out of Chester County’s western frontier. The following year in 1730, Lancaster with its booming population of 15 was declared the county seat. However, at the time it was called “Hickory Town.” German immigrants, known as Pennsylvania Dutch, who had settled the region 20 years earlier in 1709 had given the Native American village there the name as a giant hickory tree stood in the town’s center. According to legend, the tree stood in the middle of what is now Penn Square.

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James Hamilton

In 1730, most of the land that would become the present-day City was owned by Andrew Hamilton. In 1733, he deeded 500 acres of this land to his son James Hamilton, who designed the layout of the new town using a uniform grid plan of straight streets and rectangular property lots in 1734. A town square—known initially as Centre Square, and later called Penn Square—was placed in the middle of this town plan.

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It was at this time during Hamilton’s redesign that prominent citizen John Wright suggested the name Lancaster after Lancaster, England where he used to live.

Hamilton sold lots to middle-class artisans, merchants, and professionals.  Early residents were required to erect within one year a substantial dwelling house with dimensions of sixteen feet square at least, with a suitable chimney of brick or stone.  Innkeepers were known to acquire 15-20 acre lots for pasturing animals.  By 1742 Lancaster was one of the largest inland towns in the British Empire, with 270 houses and 750 inhabitants. In fact, Lancaster is the oldest inland city in the United States of America.

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Lancaster was incorporated as a borough in 1742 and incorporated as a city in 1818.

In addition to being the county seat, Lancaster served as the state capital from 1799 to 1812 until it was replaced by Harrisburg. The city was even the nation’s capital for one day on September 27, 1777. The Continental Congress met in Lancaster as they were fleeing British forces who had captured Philadelphia.

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