A Brief History of Conestoga Township

This is an edited excerpt from the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County’s 2004 Historic Conestoga Township Architectural Tour book, where I currently serve as a board member. Click here to purchase a hardcopy of this excellent 31-page publication.

Conestoga Township

Conestoga Township was named for the Conestoga River, which in turn was named for a local tribe of Native Americans. In the earliest days of settlement, the term “Conestoga” was used as a rough designation for most of what is present day Lancaster County. Originally Lancaster County was part of an older, larger Chester County until it was separated in 1729. Click here to find out why.

Conestoga Township was designated, probably as early as 1712. Conestoga Township enveloped five communities: Conestoga Center, Rockhill, Slackwater, Safe Harbor, and Colemanville. All of which are highlighted in the 1875 township map below.

Conestoga Township map from 1875
Conestoga Township map from 1875

Conestoga Center was surveyed and planned in 1805 by John Kendig. The 1807 tax list for Conestoga Township does not mention Conestoga Centre but lists John Kendig Sr., tavern keeper, and John Kendig Jr., weaver. The 1815 Federal Direct Tax tax indicates 11 families for a total of 50 to 60 people living in Conestoga Centre. These residents included John Kendig, Sr., John Kendig Jr., Martin Kendig, Magdalene Ponper, Adam Brady, Cornelius Conrad, John Carry, Theophilus Dunning, Solomon Falk, Catherine Grummel, and Jacob Yentzer.


Two years later in the 1817 tax lists adds their occupations: Adam Brady, weaver; Cornealous Conrad, weaver; Theophilus Dunning, weaver; John Kendig, Tavern keeper; Martin Kendig, horse farrier (a combination blacksmith and horse surgeon); John Kairy (Carey), laborer; Catharine Krummel (Crommel/Grommel), no occupation; Magdalene Ponper, no trade; Jacob Yentzer, no occupation.


According to tavern petitions, John Kendig had been operating a tavern at this location since 1790. The name of this tavern was “The Sign of the Conestoga Centre,” although it doesn’t appear on tavern petitions under that name until 1832. The location of John Kendig’s Tavern would appear to be at 3182 Main Street (see the Google Street View below), on the spot where the old Black Bear Tavern was located in 1875, also operated by a John Kendig.


Rock Hill is the community along the Conestoga River mid-way between Slackwater and Safe Harbor. Click here to learn more about Rock Hill.

Slackwater was surveyed around 1866, and houses were built to accommodate the paper mill workers. Safe Harbor was laid out in 1846, and building immediately began for the creation of the ironworks there. Click here to learn more. Colemanville was formed to house employees of the ironworks there. Click here to learn more.

Conestoga Township has seen several reductions in size through the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. The most recent of these separations were the creation of Pequea Township in 1853. At one time, the area was also known as Conestoga Manor. Most of the early settlers were of Germanic or Swiss lineage. A few of the first families were of English or Scots-Irish background, but most of these settlers had moved on by the middle of the 18th century.

Both the character of the land and the quality of the soils in Conestoga Township are somewhat variable. However, agrarian pursuits have dominated the Township’s economy and society since the earliest period of settlement. Benedict Eschelman was granted 600 acres of land and built several homesteads in the mid to late 1700s.

At one time, there were also many mills in operation. The development of other industries was relatively limited, except for iron manufacture around Colemanville in the early 19th century. Safe Harbor emerged to have its own identity for both commerce and industry during the 19th century.

In 1608, Captain John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay as the head of a contingent from the Jamestown Colony on an exploration voyage. He proceeded upstream into the Susquehanna River for about six miles, where he was stopped by the falls that now bear his name. Smith was probably the first to meet the Susquehannock Tribe of Indians, which he wrote: “Such great and well-proportioned men are seldom seen, for they seemed like giants to the English.”

Depiction of a Conestoga man highlighted in yellow on the 1624 Smith Map. The handwritten caption reads (in modern English): “The Susquehannocks are a giant-like people and thus attired.”

From the other direction, in 1616, Etienne Brule, a Frenchman in the service of the governor of Canada, descended “a great river flowing from the country of the Iroquois to the sea,” down the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake, becoming the first known European to travel the full length of the river.

“Etienne Brûlé at the Mouth of the Humber,” 1956 oil painting by Frederick Sproston Challener, Government of Ontario Art Collection Database.

Perhaps the most intriguing reminders of early inhabitants at Safe Harbor are petroglyphs (inscriptions and carvings) still visible on the Big and Little Indian Rocks in the river, about a half-mile below the present Safe Harbor dam.

This is an edited excerpt from the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County’s 2004 Historic Conestoga Township Architectural Tour book, where I currently serve as a board member. Click here to purchase a hardcopy of this excellent 31-page publication.

Visit the Trust’s website to see the original post.


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