The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania’s oldest cities

The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania's oldest cities

Photo courtesy of Dave Pape

By Kalena Thomhave

November 6, 2023

You can trace the roots of our country’s history by visiting some of the oldest cities in the commonwealth, each of which have fascinating origin stories.

Pennsylvania certainly played a key role in the history of the United States — some might even say it was a keystone of states — given that the Continental Congress met in the state, the Declaration of Independence was signed here, and Taylor Alison Swift was born in West Reading the Constitution of the United States was drafted and adopted in the commonwealth.

Because of all this history, and with Pennsylvania one of the original 13 colonies, some of the cities and towns in our state are pretty old. Of course, many Native American communities existed in Pennsylvania before colonial settlement; their influence helped chart the course of some of the cities and towns that still exist today.

We’re highlighting eight of the oldest towns and cities in Pennsylvania, starting as far back as 1682. You can visit all of these communities today, though they do look pretty different after hundreds of years.


The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania's oldest cities

Chester, the oldest town in Pennsylvania, was the first place Pennsylvania founder William Penn visited when he arrived in the province he would found for Quakers fleeing religious persecution. Soon after making land in the area in 1682, Penn named the community after the English town of Chester. But it had been settled even earlier by the Swedes and Finns, who arrived in 1638; an area of Chester had been known as Upland as a part of New Sweden, and there was also a Finnish settlement called Finland. The people indigenous to the land, the Ockihocking, were part of the Lenape; they knew Chester as Meechoppenackhan, or “the stream along which large potatoes grow.” In this historic town, you can visit an old stone monument near the site where Penn first landed that was erected at the bicentennial of Penn’s arrival.


At the same time William Penn was getting his charter for Pennsylvania from the British king, another colonist was getting a land grant from the governor of New York. That’s how Bristol, named after Bristol in England, was first settled in 1681. It mainly served as a dock and a port, and there was a ferry station that took people down the river to New Jersey. Eventually, the steamboat ferry took people all along the Delaware River, including south to Philadelphia. Today, you can explore the Bristol Historic District along the town’s charming waterfront.


The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania's oldest cities

Photo courtesy of G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia

The state’s biggest city is also one of its oldest. After Penn founded Chester, he moved northwest along the Delaware River and established in 1682 what would become one of the most important cities in the colonies and then the entire country. In Philadelphia, there are numerous historical sites you can visit, and not merely Independence Hall. For instance, the Boelson Cottage in Fairmount Park is believed to have been built as early as 1678, and is still standing as what may be the oldest building in the city. It’s not open to the public, but you can still view it. You can, however, visit and tour the 1707 Rittenhouse Homestead within Historic Rittenhouse Town near the beautiful Wissahickon Valley Park.


The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania's oldest cities

Photo courtesy of Discover Lancaster

For several decades, the province of Pennsylvania had just three counties — Chester, Bucks, and Philadelphia. Many German immigrants lived in the harsh, rural frontier of the western areas of Chester County, settling an area called “Hickory Town” in 1709. But their experiences were so different from those who lived close to Philadelphia that they wanted to form their own county. In 1729, Lancaster County was born, and the city of Lancaster, née Hickory Town, became the county seat, thus cementing itself as one of the oldest inland cities in the country. In 1730, the Lancaster Central Market began serving the community, making Lancaster a market town and also giving it the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating public farmers market in the US. Today, you can give the market a visit yourself to sample some local Lancaster history. You can also visit the 1719 Museum, home of the 1719 Herr House — the oldest building in Lancaster County — as well as the Lancaster Longhouse, a full-size replica of a Native American longhouse.


The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania's oldest cities

Photo courtesy of Joe Zlomek

Colonists continued expanding west, and around 1729, settled what would later become York County; the town of York was officially founded in 1741. Though named for the English city of York, the city in Pennsylvania has a rather patriotic history. It was known as Yorktown for much of its early days, which may clue you into the fact that it was the site of the Battle of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War. York also hosted the Continental Congress for several years and was the site where the Articles of Confederation, the country’s original governing document, was drafted. You can visit the York County History Center museums, including the Colonial Complex, to learn more — and to visit buildings that are hundreds of years old.


The fascinating history behind Pennsylvania's oldest cities

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Emerson

Shippensburg is quintessential small-town Pennsylvania, and one of the oldest towns in the state. Shippensburg was founded as the first town in the Cumberland Valley in 1730 by 12 families of Scotch-Irish immigrants, who established their community with a series of log cabins. Today, Shippensburg is a college town with college town attractions mixed with colonial history. The school that eventually became Shippensburg University, Cumberland Valley State Normal School, opened in 1871 and operated entirely within the beautiful (and still standing) 1870 building known as Old Main. But the oldest building in town is the Widow Piper’s Tavern, built circa 1735 to serve as a tavern and inn. You can take a docent-led tour of the tavern and learn more about old Shippensburg and the Widow Piper herself.


Easton was known to the Lenape, the people indigenous to the area, as “Lechauwitank,” which means “the town within the forks” — an apt name, since Easton is located at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. Europeans first settled the area in 1739 after the 1737 “Walking Purchase,” by which the Lenape ceded the land to William Penn’s sons (an agreement the Lenape have disputed, including in court, as late as 2006). Before it became an important canal town in the 19th century, Easton was the site of one of three public readings of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, an event the town celebrates each year during July’s Easton Heritage Day.


Yes, other towns were established on the trail to Pittsburgh from the east, but historic Pittsburgh is not to be missed. Pittsburgh was given its name in 1758 during the French and Indian War, throughout which Pittsburgh played a role of strategic importance. Pittsburgh was home to the confluence of three rivers and was thus home to control of the interior. British and French forces clashed during the Battle of Fort Duquesne, when France had control of the site. The French pushed the British back, but then new British troops approached that would surely overwhelm the French — so they burned their fort and fled, leaving the Brits to arrive and build Fort Pitt. Today, you can visit the Fort Pitt Museum to learn more about the French and Indian War and how it influenced the development of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania.

Another early town in the area was Shannopin’s Town, a Lenape town within present-day Pittsburgh, though the community had disappeared by the time Fort Pitt was being built in 1759. The Lenape were forced west from their historical territory surrounding the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers and set up several communities around Pittsburgh during the early 18th century.


READ MORE: Welcome to Flavortown: 10 Pennsylvania Restaurants Featured on the Food Network


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