Pennsylvania Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Even though Pennsylvania is located in the northeastern part of the United States and is called a mid-Atlantic state, it is not on the Atlantic Ocean, as are Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.

History of Pennsylvania

Even though Pennsylvania is located in the northeastern part of the United States and is called a mid-Atlantic state, it is not on the Atlantic Ocean, as are Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. It has access to the Atlantic Ocean’s important shipping routes from the Delaware River, which marks Pennsylvania’s eastern boundary. New York is east and north of it, New Jersey east, and Delaware east and south. Maryland borders it to the south, and West Virginia lies both south and west of it. Its western boundary is eastern Ohio.

Located in the middle of the original thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania is known as the Keystone State. The state is quite mountainous, with the Appalachian Mountains running through much of it. In the east are the Pocono Mountains and to the south the Blue Ridge. These mountains have more than two hundred lakes, the largest of which is Lake Wallenpaupack in northeastern Pennsylvania, between Milford and Scranton.

Early History

Humans lived in Pennsylvania as much as twelve thousand years ago, probably drawn there by its network of rivers. Besides the Delaware, Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and Lackawanna Rivers in the east, the Monongahela, Ohio, Juniata, and Allegheny Rivers run through the western part of the state. The northwestern section of Pennsylvania borders on Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes. These waterways afforded the earliest settlers mobility, food, and water.

Among the people who originally inhabited the area were Algonquian, Delaware, Erie, Lenape, Monongahela, and Susquehannock Indians. The state’s Native American population in the 1990’s of about fourteen thousand were mostly descendants of the Algonquians.

The first Europeans in the area were Dutch explorers Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who sailed into the Delaware River in 1614, and Cornelius Hendrickson, who, in 1615, sailed up the Delaware to its junction with the Schuylkill, near modern Philadelphia. By 1638, Swedish immigrants had built the first European settlement, New Sweden, establishing Fort New Gothenburg on Tinicum Island south of present-day Philadelphia. The Dutch captured New Sweden in 1655. In 1664 the British took it from the Dutch. Shortly thereafter, in 1681, King Charles II of England granted William Penn’s father the area which today is Pennsylvania. The following year, William Penn founded the Pennsylvania colony and the city of Philadelphia, after making peace with the American Indians who lived in the region.

The Importance of Philadelphia

Pennsylvania lay midway between the New England colonies and those in the South. When official business was to be transacted, Philadelphia, a well-developed colonial city, was the logical meeting place. Benjamin Franklin had settled there in 1723 and established a library in 1731. The State House, later renamed Independence Hall, provided a good venue for delegates from the other colonies. Its famed bell, later known as the Liberty Bell, was placed in its tower in 1753.

England was engaged in war against France during the period immediately before the Revolutionary War. To finance the war, the English raised the colonies’ taxes. The outcry against taxation without representation became strident. Beginning in 1774, the leaders of the thirteen original colonies met in Philadelphia. In 1775, they named George Washington to head the Continental Army, and on July 4, 1776, they approved the Declaration of Independence, which was read publicly four days later.

In effect, this declaration began England’s war against the colonies. Although they were clearly the underdogs in this conflict, the colonists ultimately prevailed. England surrendered in 1781 and signed a peace treaty in 1783. A Constitutional Convention was called and met in Philadelphia in 1787, out of which the United States Constitution, ratified on December 12, 1787, evolved. Pennsylvania became the second of the United States. Philadelphia, because of its central location, was the capital of the country from 1790 to 1800.

Pennsylvania’s Growth

From 1732, although England laid claim to the whole of Pennsylvania, the French were building forts in the western part of Penn’s land grant. Conflicts over the ownership of western Pennsylvania resulted in a war between England and France, and it was the financing of this war that led indirectly to the Revolutionary War.

By 1763 England controlled all of Pennsylvania. The English raised Fort Pitt beside the Monongahela River, where modern Pittsburgh stands. This area, because of its geographical isolation, was slower to develop than the eastern region of Penn’s grant, but its rivers and Lake Erie provided it with the potential to grow quickly.

The Pennsylvania colony was quite progressive. It had a circulating library as early as 1731 and a volunteer fire department by 1736. The first hospital in the colonies opened in Philadelphia in 1751. With the discovery of bituminous coal near Pittsburgh in 1759 and anthracite coal in the Wyoming Valley in 1762, ready sources of power became available. This, combined with navigable waterways throughout the state, led to rapid development. The state decreed in 1780 that no black born in Pennsylvania would be a slave. It remained a free state throughout its existence.

By 1812 steamboats transported people and goods down the Ohio River. Canals and roads were being built. In 1829 the state’s first commercial railroad was functioning. The state became a trading center. In 1859 the first commercially successful oil well in the United States was drilled at Titusville in western Pennsylvania.

With plentiful oil, coal, and iron ore available in the western part of the state, it was clear that steel manufacturing would become a major enterprise in and around Pittsburgh, where the first steel mill was established in 1873. Later the Bethlehem Steel Company was established in the eastern part of the state.

The Civil War

A free state since its inception, Pennsylvania was a staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War. Many towns in the state had, since the early 1800’s, been significant waystations along the Underground Railroad, an informal complex of safe havens for slaves escaping from the South and heading to either New England or Canada. Safe houses throughout Pennsylvania offered shelter and food to runaway slaves.

Following President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to fight in the war, Pennsylvanians, in two weeks, created twenty-five regiments to fight against the Confederate forces. A total of more than 340,000 men from Pennsylvania served in the Union forces between 1861 and 1865.

General Robert E. Lee’s army invaded Pennsylvania in 1863. As Lee made his incursions into the state, the Army of the Potomac stood between his army and Washington, D.C., in an attempt to protect the nation’s capital. On July 1, 1863, the two armies met outside Gettysburg in the southern part of the state and, for three days, engaged in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, leaving more than fifty thousand dead or wounded soldiers on the battlefield. This battle was the turning point in the war, although before it ended, Confederate forces attacked Chambersburg in July, 1864.

Pennsylvania’s People

Most Pennsylvanians are descendants of early settlers from Europe. More than 70 percent of all Pennsylvanians live in cities, chief among them Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Easton, Bethlehem, Scranton, Lancaster, Williamsport, Erie, and Harrisburg, the state’s capital since 1812. Nearly four million Pennsylvanians live on farms or in small towns, giving the state the largest rural population in the nation.

The earliest European settlers were from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Britain. Immigrants from Ireland arrived in the 1840’s. In the 1880’s, people began arriving in large numbers from central Europe, notably Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia.

Unique among Pennsylvanians are the Pennsylvania Dutch, German immigrants who live mostly in Lancaster County. These Amish farmers lead simple lives, eschewing electricity, telephones, and automobiles.

About 9 percent of Pennsylvanians are of African American descent. Some lived there as free men before the Civil War, but many flooded into Pennsylvania after the war and again during World Wars I and II, when the defense industries offered them ready work.

The Pennsylvania Economy

About four million Pennsylvanians work in such service industries as banking, insurance, and retail. John Wanamaker established the first American department store in Philadelphia in 1876, mostly to serve visitors to the United States Bicentennial Exposition, which was held in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

Manufacturing industries, mainly of steel, food products, and chemicals, employ almost one million people. Another hundred thousand work on farms. Mining, which was once a major industry, now, because of mechanization, employs around twenty thousand miners. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Erie are thriving ports that employ many people, and Hershey has the world’s largest chocolate factory. Tourism, which brings in ten billion dollars annually, also contributes significantly to the state’s economy.

Dairy products are the leading farm product. The state’s leading agricultural crop is mushrooms. Pennsylvania also has a large timber industry that produces wood for building.

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