Pennsylvania State History

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General State History
Historic Figures

General Pennsylvania State History

William Penn, as proprietor of Penn's Woods, was an aggressive and active promoter of his new land. "The country itself," he wrote, "its soil, air, water, seasons and produce, both natural and artificial, is not to be despised." Pennsylvania still contains a rich diversity of natural and geological features.

One of the original thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania is today surrounded by the states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and Ohio. It has a land area of 44,820 square miles and 735 square miles of the area of Lake Erie. It ranks 33rd in area among the 50 states. Pennsylvania has an average width of 285 miles, east to west, and an average north-to-south distance of 156 miles.

Only the Delaware River on the east and about 40 miles of Lake Erie in the northwest corner form natural boundaries. Elsewhere borders are based on those established in the charter granted to William Penn by King Charles II of England, although it was 1787 before land and border disputes with other states were settled and Pennsylvania took clear title to its land. The most famous border dispute was with Maryland and was ultimately settled when the English Crown accepted the Mason-Dixon Line in 1769, a border which, in subsequent years, became the symbolic demarcation in the United States between the North and the South.

A dissected plateau covers Pennsylvania's northern and western sections, ranging from about 2,000 feet above sea level in the northern tier of counties to about 1,200 feet south of Pittsburgh. A broad belt of wide valleys, alternating with narrow mountains, stretches across the state from the south-central boundary to the northeast corner. To the east of this section is the Great Valley, which is divided into southern, central, and eastern sections - the Cumberland, Lebanon, and Lehigh valleys, respectively. Further to the east is a line of discontinuous mountains, as well as lowlands of irregular form and a deeply dissected plateau of moderate height which gradually slopes to the Delaware River. There is also another lowland along the shores of Lake Erie. Pennsylvania's highest peak is Mt. Davis on Negro Mountain in Somerset County which has an elevation of 3,213 feet above sea level.

Pennsylvania has three major river systems, the Delaware, the Susquehanna, and the Ohio. The Delaware's important tributaries are the Schuylkill and Lehigh Rivers. The Susquehanna has north and west branches as does the Juniata River. In the west, the Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela, and its tributaries include the Youghiogheny, Beaver, and Clarion Rivers. The Ohio system provides thirty-five percent of all the water emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

The state has a great variety of soils, ranging from extremely rich in Lancaster County to very poor in the mountain regions. Through advanced agricultural methods, a large part of Pennsylvania soil which was only marginally fertile has been made very productive. Originally Pennsylvania was a transition zone between northern and southern primeval forests. In the northern plateau area the original species were white pine and hemlock, mixed with beech and sugar maple. In the southern region, white oak, American chestnut, hickory, and chestnut oak dominated. Innumerable forest fires and storms, unrecorded by man, led to gradual change because they altered the soil composition and the degree of shade from sunlight. Because much land was later cleared by settlement and by lumber operations, very little virgin timber remains, but even today half the state is wooded.

Animal and bird life, including the wild pigeon, panther, black bear, and Canada lynx, was abundant in the primeval forest. The first of these species is now extinct, the second has been exterminated, and the last two are no longer abundant. Raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, and woodchucks are still common, as are most of the smaller birds. Today, deer, pheasants, rabbits, ducks, and turkeys are popular with hunters. Pennsylvania's rivers were originally filled with sturgeon, shad, salmon, trout, perch and, surprisingly, mussels. State and federal agencies keep streams and ponds well stocked, and trout, salmon and, walleyed pike are caught in large numbers.

Pennsylvania ranks tenth in value of mineral production among all the states. Coal, petroleum, natural gas, and cement are the principal products. Others are fire clay, iron ore, lime, slate, and stone.

In spite of its proximity to the ocean, Pennsylvania has a continental climate because the prevailing winds are from the west. This makes for extremes of heat and cold but not with so marked a variation as in the central states. There are minor climatic differences within the state because of altitude and geological features. The frost-free period, for example, is longest in southeastern Pennsylvania, in the Ohio and Monongahela valleys in southwestern Pennsylvania, and in the region bordering Lake Erie. The higher lands have only three to five months free from frost. Rainfall throughout the state is usually adequate for temperate zone crops.

Pennsylvania's location and its characteristics of climate, waters, minerals, flora, and fauna helped shape the growth not only of the state but of the entire nation. Midway between the North and the South, the fledgling colony prospered and became the keystone of the young nation.
Pennsylvania Historic Figures

Milton Hershey
1857-1945: Candy manufacturer, philanthropist; born in Derry Township, Pa. His father moved so frequently, Milton attended seven schools in eight years, never progressing beyond grade four. He apprenticed to a Lancaster, Pa., confectioner (1872--76) and then opened his own candy store in Philadelphia. By 1886 he was back in Lancaster where he soon found success making caramels using fresh milk but by 1900 had sold his caramel business to concentrate on chocolate. In 1903 he built a factory near his birthplace to manufacture five-cent chocolate bars; the business so prospered that "Hershey" became virtually synonymous with chocolate in the U.S.A. and he branched out to dominate the cocoa and syrup markets. In order to maintain his constantly expanding need for reliable workers, he began to build a complete town near the factory, including stores, schools, recreational facilities, and a large amusement park. In 1909 he built a trade school for orphan boys. Although often criticized for his paternalism and for running a "company town," he did expand the town's building program during the 1930s depression and he left his vast fortune to various philanthropies including a medical center.


James Buchanan
1791-1868: Fifteenth US president, born near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, USA. Building on a successful law career, he entered politics and served as a Federalist in the Pennsylvania legislature (1815--17) and the US House of Representatives (1821--31), where he went over to the Democratic Party. In 1832--3 he served as ambassador to Russia and returned to serve Pennsylvania in the US Senate (1834--45) until becoming a most effective secretary of state under President Polk (1845--9). After a period of retirement and as ambassador to Great Britain (1854--6), he showed a willingness to accommodate slavery that gained him the presidency in 1856 with the solid backing of the South. During his term (1857--61) he supported laws protecting slavery in the attempt to establish Kansas as a slave state; when pressed by antislavery Americans, he fell back on narrow legal defences such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision (1857). All this split the Democratic Party, allowing Lincoln to win the election of 1860. As a "lame duck' president, Buchanan professed the government's helplessness to prevent secession and turned the problem over to his successor. He returned to his Pennsylvania estate but he did support Lincoln throughout the war.


Daniel Boone
1734-1820: Frontiersman, born near Reading, Pennsylvania, USA. His parents were Quakers. He learned to hunt and trap by the age of 12. He moved with his family to North Carolina (1750--1) and in 1755 he took part in General Braddock's disastrous campaign, where he met John Finley, a hunter who told him stories of the Kentucky wilderness. He explored in Kentucky (1767--8, 1769--71) and led the first settlers there in 1775. He founded Boonesborough, a fortified settlement. He was captured by Shawnee Indians (1778) but escaped in time to defend Boonesborough against an Indian attack. Later, his claims to large tracts of Kentucky lands were not validated and he moved to West Virginia (1788), and then to present-day Missouri (1799) where he remained until his death. He has retained his place as the archetypal American frontiersman.


Betsy Ross
1752-1836: Seamstress; born in Philadelphia. Although she was a well-known seamstress and the official flagmaker for the Pennsylvania Navy, there is no real evidence that she designed or made the first flag of the United States (in 1776). The story was first told in 1870 by a grandson.


Robert E. Peary
1856-1920: Explorer, naval officer; born in Cresson, Pa. He graduated from Bowdoin College and joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1879. He surveyed a proposed ship canal through Nicaragua (1884--88) and began his Arctic journeys during a six-month leave in 1886. He traveled through Greenland (1891, 1893--95, 1896, 1897) and then named the North Pole as his goal. He surveyed northern routes and passages (1898--1902) and sledged to within 175 miles of the Pole in 1906. On his final Arctic journey (1908--09), he, Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. On returning to the U.S.A. he learned that Frederick A. Cook claimed to have reached the Pole one year earlier. Peary's claim was eventually vindicated and he received the thanks of Congress and the rank of rear admiral. He became interested in aviation and organized the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission at the start of World War I. In the 1980s it was revealed that he and Matthew Henson had fathered children by Eskimo women during their years in the Arctic.