Pennsylvania: Commentary

Pennsylvania Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2008

Special Topics

A series of events in the 1780s laid the foundation in Pennsylvania for the northward and westward spread of Euro-American settlement, which was accompanied by the rapid creation of new counties. These included the settlement of territorial disputes with Virginia (1780) and Connecticut (1782) and the end of the War of the American Revolution (1783), as well as the final transfer to Pennsylvania of all claims to the northwestern quarter of the state by the Delaware, Iroquois, and Wyandot Indians (1784–1785) and the organization of the Northwest Territory (1787). From the early 1790s onward, the previously unsettled regions of the state offered land and opportunity in an administrative environment of relative stability and safety. Effective government and administration (especially that of the courts) were demanded by people whose migration to newly opened lands took them farther and farther from older settlements and established centers of local government.

While colonial and state officials generally respected Indian rights to the land and systematically purchased land from the Indian tribes, they ignored the various Indian purchase lines in creating new counties. County boundary lines usually were extended to the limits of the colony/state, and thus anticipated the migration of non-Indian settlers into northern and western Pennsylvania. In this atlas the boundary lines are drawn as described in the laws, with no allowance for the gradual purchase of Indian lands by colonial and state officials.

Until a new state constitution went into effect in 1873, only the state legislature had the power to create new counties and to alter the boundaries of counties already in existence. One result was that the spatial organization and administration of local government were subject to frequent rearrangements and alterations, especially during the period between the end of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

The Pennsylvania constitution of 1873 reflects one of the reform movements of the post–Civil War era; it denied the state government the authority to enact special legislation, a category of lawmaking that had included the creation and alteration of local governmental units, including counties, as well as the passage of acts of incorporation for individual companies and the granting of pensions to individual veterans. The 1873 constitution required a comprehensive statute to provide for the creation of counties. It also stipulated that existing boundaries could be altered by local petition to, hearing in, and final judgment of the local courts of quarter sessions. By the early twentieth century, general acts had so circumscribed the changing of county boundaries with restrictions on area, size, population, and location that the county lines of Pennsylvania have been stable for nearly a century. The creation of Lackawanna County in 1878 was the last significant change in Pennsylvania's county boundaries.

Shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, the Pennsylvania legislature on several occasions created several counties in a single act, but then temporarily attached the newly created counties to neighboring counties for nearly all governmental purposes. In 1800, for instance, Erie, Mercer, Warren, and Venango counties were created, but attached to Crawford. These new "county districts," as they were later termed in similar legislation, had to attain a certain population and select a county seat location (usually required to be very near the geographical center of the county) before they could be fully organized and elect their own county officers and operate their own courts and courthouses. Contemporaneous statutes termed this dependent status "annexed," but in other states and in more recent times the word "attached" has been employed; the latter, which describes more precisely the actual situation, is the term used in this atlas. Each "county district" was a county; it had its own area with boundaries described in the originating legislation, was listed separately in the censuses, and had separate records for deeds to land within its bounds, even though governmental functions were administered by officials of the county to which it was attached. Furthermore, residents having business at the courthouse had to travel to the county seat of the county to which their own was attached. In effect, every attached county, before becoming fully organized, had a county seat outside its own territory.

Some boundary descriptions were based on the knowledge of local residents whose petitions initiated the changes. In the decades before accurate large-scale maps of Pennsylvania were available, legislators were severely handicapped by a lack of adequate geographic information. They had to depend on local information, which often was not very reliable. As a result, some boundary lines were vague or poorly defined and thus difficult to demarcate or to plot on a modern map. One legacy of this difficulty was the frequent readjustment of particular lines as the affected parties tried to achieve a satisfactory, well-defined boundary. The northeastern line of Centre County is an excellent example of this phenomenon; it was redefined and adjusted several times, sometimes directly and other times indirectly and possibly inadvertently.

In one instance, the legislature rearranged the county lines for the sole purpose of ousting an unpopular legislator, John Franklin of Luzerne County. Many of Franklin's constituents had settled under the aegis of the Susquehannah Company and had supported Connecticut's attempt in the 1770s to take over what is now the northeastern part of Pennsylvania. In championing their cause Franklin angered many fellow legislators. To defeat him, the legislature in 1804 transferred the northwestern corner of Luzerne (around the East Branch of the Susquehanna River where Franklin lived) to Lycoming County, thus forcing Franklin into a new legislative district. Therefore, until 1810, when Ontario (now Bradford) County was created, Lycoming County was in two separate parts. (Franklin, incidentally, won reelection from his new district.)

Several county boundaries were changed not by redrawing lines according to geographic features such as rivers and ridges, but by shifting minor civil divisions (e.g., townships) from one county to another. Extant records from the early decades of the nineteenth century do not always give a clear picture of those township lines, and it is often necessary to infer the configuration of the resulting county boundaries from later maps and descriptions.

Occasionally, changes in the status of a municipality produced incidental changes in county lines. Such were the results in 1854 and 1855 of converting the townships of Jamestown (Mercer County) and Cherry Tree (Indiana County) to boroughs. Each of these townships was situated near a county line and had developed a functional area that extended across the county boundary. When each was incorporated as a borough, it annexed its peripheral areas, shifting the county lines to avoid splitting the borough among two or more counties.

Sometimes, especially in the early nineteenth century, Pennsylvania county lines were not surveyed until long after they were described in the statute books. Such omissions were usually corrected later by the state, but the local people occasionally took matters into their own hands. For example, the line between Ontario (now Bradford) and Lycoming counties was not surveyed for some time; it ran through an area with rugged terrain and few people, and over the years the local residents developed an informal understanding of the boundary. Later attempts to survey the line according to the original description revealed how poorly some of the residents had understood the jurisdictional arrangements. The natural solution was to settle on a line that conflicted least with the de facto boundary that had developed over the years. This the local officials did, and then they secured state approval of their adjustment of the line.