Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Dutch Country Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The city and county of Lancaster attracted many German immigrants, especially members of minority religions, beginning in the eighteenth century. Known overall as the “Pennsylvania Dutch,” these settlers have had a great impact on the agricultural and industrial development of the area. Many persons of the Amish faith still farm in Lancaster County, using traditional, nonmechanical methods.

Site Office

Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau

501 Greenfield Road

Lancaster, PA 17601

ph.: (717) 299-8901

The earliest permanent European settlement in Lancaster County was established around 1719 by a group of Swiss Mennonites led by Hans Herr. The Mennonites, established in Emden, Germany, in 1530, were one of the many Protestant sects that had arisen in Europe as a result of the Reformation. In 1683, a group of Mennonites had founded Germantown, Pennsylvania, and became quickly established in the state. Heavily taxed and persecuted in Europe, sects such as the Mennonites were attracted to William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in religious freedom. Penn had extended an invitation to the Quakers and other sects to settle in his state. The Mennonites were particularly attracted to the frontier of a new land because their religious beliefs precluded following secular authority. They would not take oaths and had a distrust of wealth, the arts, and science.

The Amish

In 1693, the Old Order Amish had split from the Mennonites. The Amish, who began arriving in the Lancaster area about 1760, favored religious services conducted in German in their homes and were committed to a simple, frugal life without modern conveniences and with no books other than the Bible. The Amish virtues of order, self-sufficiency, and peace and their values of family, farming, and faith are still evident in Amish settlements in Lancaster County. Another minority sect to settle in the area was the Ephrata Society. In 1732, the Ephrata Cloister was established by Conrad Beissel as one of the first religious communal societies in America. This sect stressed celibacy, even for married couples. New members, therefore, had to be constantly recruited. The actual cloister was built between 1728 and 1733 in northern Lancaster County, and the sect itself disbanded in 1814.

The Ephrata Cloister did not long outlast its founder’s death in 1768, but it produced more than one thousand hymns during its lifetime. The cloister is now a tourist attraction and is an important example of the kind of “Old World” architecture favored by the sects.

German Immigration

The many German immigrants who came to Lancaster County during the eighteenth century were attracted to the level land and rich soil of the area–assets which are still considered the county’s most important resources. The majority of the five thousand Hessian soldiers who fought for the British crown during the Revolutionary War settled in Pennsylvania, including Lancaster. Waves of immigration from Europe continued until World War I.

Because the German immigrants kept their native tongue, they referred to themselves as Pennsylfawnisch Deitsch (Deutsch in the more formal High German). To English ears, the word sounded like Dutch, and the term Pennsylvania Dutch was coined early in the colonial era.

Founding of Lancaster

George Gibson in 1721 opened a tavern in what is now Penn Square in the center of the town of Lancaster and is its first recorded resident. In 1730, the town of Lancaster was established by John Wright, who named it for his home in Lancashire, England. By the time of the American Revolution, Lancaster was one of the largest and most important inland towns in the colonies.

In the mid-1700’s German immigrants in Lancaster County’s Conestoga Creek Valley began making large wagons. These “Conestoga” wagons were sixteen feet long, four feet high and deep, and perched on top of four-foot high wheels with iron tires four inches wide. They were capable of carrying up to six tons and were therefore pulled by specially bred horses. Because of their wide wheels, the wagons were able to travel easily on the dirt roads of the day.

Conestoga wagons originally were used to carry crops to market. Flour and iron ore were typical products carried from Lancaster to Philadelphia, where they were exchanged for tools, clothing, and furniture. As word of the huge, sturdy wagons spread, settlers began using them for their westward journeys and the Conestoga wagon’s ultimate fame rested on the fact that it was the vehicle of choice for carrying pioneers and material westward to the Pacific coast.

Lancaster also became the first American center for the production of rifles. Based on German designs and much more accurate than English-style muskets, these guns became known as Pennsylvania rifles and were widely used during the young nation’s early years. Iron ore furnaces and glassmaking also were important early Lancaster industries.

On September 27, 1777, Lancaster served for a day as the colonies’ capital when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia during the British occupation. However, Lancaster also was felt to be unsafe, and the colonial capital was moved across the Susquehanna River to York, where it remained for nine months. From 1799 to 1812, Lancaster was the capital of Pennsylvania.

The nation’s fourteenth oldest college, Franklin and Marshall College, was established in Lancaster in 1787. Three of its buildings today are on the National Register of Historic Places: Old Main, Goethean Hall, and Diagonothian Hall.

Lancaster County has an important place in transportation development. It was the site of the nation’s first turnpike–a sixty-five-mile road built between 1792 and 1794 linking Philadelphia and Lancaster. Funding for the Lancaster Pike, the first paved road in Pennsylvania, was raised by William Bingham of Philadelphia. In order to pay back the debt, each traveler on the road had to stop every ten miles and pay a toll in order to open a gate. These gates had long shafts known as pikes, and the term “turning the pike” was eventually shortened to turnpike. The inventor of the first successful steamboat, Robert Fulton, was born in southern Lancaster County. In 1807 he launched his boat on the Hudson River in New York.

Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War

During the 1840’s and 1850’s, as the slavery issue began to tear the nation apart, Lancaster County was the site of numerous stations on the Underground Railroad, the path to freedom for escaping slaves. An incident in Lancaster County in which Edward Gorsuch was killed as he attempted to retrieve his runaway slaves in 1851 is considered by some to be the first skirmish of the Civil War.

Because Lancaster was in the heart of the industrial North, Confederate troops invaded the surrounding area in search of supplies during the fall of 1862 and the summer of 1863. This was as far north as the Confederates ever penetrated and this activity culminated in the famous Battle of Gettysburg–only eighty-six miles from Lancaster County’s northern border. Many Union army regiments were composed largely of Pennsylvania Dutch.

The only Pennsylvanian to occupy the White House was elected while living just west of Lancaster. James Buchanan retired to his Pennsylvania estate, Wheatland, after his term ended in 1861 and died there in 1868. He had bought the home in 1848.

Lancaster’s Commercial Development

The city of Lancaster grew into an important commercial and industrial center. It is home to the first successful Woolworth’s variety store. F. W. Woolworth opened the store in 1879 after his initial effort failed in Utica, New York. The store and others that followed originally sold only items costing five and ten cents and were a retail innovation at the time. The largest stockyards east of Chicago operated in Lancaster until the late twentieth century. Today, the Lancaster area remains the site of several well-known businesses, including Armstrong World Industries, maker of floor and ceiling coverings, and Hamilton Watch, one of the few watch factories left in the United States.

The Modern Amish

It is still farming and tourism that are the main industries of the area. The Amish are a strong presence in Lancaster County. They still eschew tractors and most other farm machinery, instead tilling their fields with teams of Clydesdale horses and bringing their crops to the barns in Conestoga wagons.

Many of the Amish still grow tobacco in their impeccably tilled fields. They practice crop rotation almost religiously. In fact, an Amish farmer who does not properly care for his fields is brought before the church for censure.

The Amish are not totally opposed to mechanical improvements when it comes to farming. In the 1920’s they were advised to obey new laws regarding the hygiene of milk products, and now many Amish dairy farms feature refrigeration units run by diesel engines. Cow stalls have been modified to meet modern specifications, and trucks from large dairy cooperatives arrive at Amish farms daily to pick up milk.

Population Growth and Tourism

During the last decades of the twentieth century, threats to the Amish way of life came in the form of population growth in Lancaster County. During this period, more than four thousand new residents a year arrived–making Lancaster one of Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing counties. Some of the world’s richest farmland has been lost forever to suburban sprawl. In 1984 the Lancaster Farmland Trust was established to encourage sensitive planning and preservation. The 1,500-member private, not-for-profit organization is made up mostly of Lancaster County residents committed to maintaining economic growth while preserving resources.

Tourism, too, has had its impact on the Amish. A long-standing Amish taboo against photography has been noticeably eroded by years of contact with camera-toting tourists. Young people, especially, become attracted to the “worldly” ways with which they come into increasing contact.

Lancaster and Lancaster County hold much for the tourist. The town is easily walkable, with most of the historic places located near Penn Square. The original F. W. Woolworth store (1879) and the Fulton Opera House (built in 1852 and one of the oldest theatres in the country) are of particular interest.

In Lancaster County, the 20 buildings of the Ephrata Cloister are open for touring. Tours of several Amish farms are also available. The Strasburg Railroad, the oldest short line in the United States, gives rides using the railroad’s original steam equipment, and a multitude of farmers’ markets, craft shops, and antique fairs are found throughout the area.

For Further Information
  • Curran, Alfred A. German Immigration to Pennsylvania 1683-1933. Columbus, Ga.: Brentwood University Press, 1986. A fascinating scholarly look at how the Pennsylvania Dutch came to be. It covers German influence in Pennsylvania, but there are sections specific to Lancaster. It is short and fairly easy to read and offers insight into Lancaster history not found in other books.
  • Hoffman, William N. Going Dutch. Lancaster, Pa.: Spring Garden, 1991. An excellent guidebook that covers the whole of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It provides phone numbers, visitor information, and schedules of events. It is particularly good in describing the history of each county, town, and attraction.
  • Parsons, William T. The Pennsylvania Dutch: A Persistent Minority. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Difficult to read, as it tends to go off on tangents, but overall it presents solid information on the influence the Pennsylvania Dutch have had on Lancaster history. It is particularly effective in its discussion of the present state of this culture and the pressures now upon it.
  • Steinbicker, Earl. Daytrips Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Philadelphia: Fifty One-Day Adventures from the Philadelphia and Lancaster Areas. Norwalk, Conn.: Hastings House, 2000. A guidebook to Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
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