Petition For The Establishment Of Lancaster County, February 6, 1728/9
Lancaster County was the first of the sixty-four counties created by Pennsylvania's legislature beyond the original three of Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia that William Penn organized. The population of Penn's colony increased rapidly. Founded in 1681 it was next to the last colony in British America. (Georgia, in 1732, was the last). By the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783), it was one of the most heavily populated with close to 300,000 residents. Approximately 2,000 people lived on the west bank of the Delaware River when Penn received his charter in 1681. With Penn came 2,000 emigres in 1682. By 1700, the colony included about 30,000 residents. In the late 1720s, there may have been 75,000 present. The earlier arrivals settled in the province's eastern corner. Although some of the later immigrants remained where they landed at Philadelphia, most had to go into the interior to find sufficient land for their homesteads. They moved north up the Delaware River Valley toward what became Easton, northwest to the Schuylkill River Valley toward what is now Reading, and west to the Conestoga region where in 1729 there were about 3,500 settlers. In that year a group of the residents requested the establishment of a new county.
Their petition contained several reasons that Pennsylvania's later officials would receive from similar denizens of the interior. The residents claimed that the Conestoga region was too heavily populated to be administered effectively from a county seat "eighty to one hundred miles away" in Chester. Because of the distance, the "arm of justice" was weakened. It was too expensive and time-consuming to travel to the courthouse to conduct legal business. "Grievances were not likely to be Redressed," among which were unfair assessment of taxes, townships that were "undivided," and bridges were not built "where they are wanted." Another problem was the presence of "Thieves" and "Vagabonds" who considered themselves in that area "beyond the Reach of the law." Unexpressed but possibly also valid was the desire of capable and ambitious leaders in the interior for political power. Among the petitioners were John Harris who operated a ferry across the Susquehanna River and Samuel Blunston who later issued unofficial "Blunston's licenses" to the settlers and then carried their claims to the land office in Philadelphia. Despite the large number of Germans and Swiss in the area, only about twelve of the 182 petitioners were of that background.
The authority to create new counties rested with the proprietor or his agent, in this case with Governor Patrick Gordon (served 1726-1736). Because the legislature would have to establish courts, the Governor submitted the petition to the Assemblymen who approved it on May 9, 1729. He signed it on the following day. The Governor appointed twelve commissioners, several of whom were experienced surveyors, to set the eastern boundary with Chester County. The western boundary was not defined until later.
Next came the organization of the county. Governor Gordon named it Lancaster possibly at the behest of John Wright, a prominent leader in the movement to create it, who was born in Lancashire, England. The Governor appointed eight justices of the peace who constituted the county court. In consultation with residents, they specified the townships' names and defined their boundaries. They appointed a temporary sheriff and coroner. When elections were held in the fall of 1729, voters elected these officials along with an assessor, and three commissioners. They elected a treasurer in the following year. Over two other sites, the commissioners selected as the county seat, "Gibson's Pasture," which became the city of Lancaster. They purchased land for a courthouse that they erected in the center square and for a jail that they built nearby.
The size and boundaries of Lancaster County are not now what they were when it was founded in 1729. From parts of its territory were created York (1749), Cumberland (1750), Berks (1752), Northumberland (1772), Dauphin (1785), and Lebanon (1813). Although Lancaster has not been divided since the early 1800s, the process of creating new counties from existing ones continued from the first instance with Lancaster in 1729 until the most recent county, Lackawanna, was established in 1878.