I grew up in a beautiful and historic spot on the East Coast – Lancaster, Pennsylvania, county seat of Lancaster County which was founded in 1729. Lancaster is often called the oldest inland city in America… granted a moniker that other cities could also claim. I was always proud of the region’s rich history, and miffed that it was overshadowed in public conscience by the Amish. Tourists by the busloads came, not for the history, but to gawk at the Amish, a religious people living throughout the area and known for their distinctive dress, tidy farms, and horse-drawn buggies. The Amish remain an oddity of modern life and I can understand why they pique curiosity. They descend from some of the county’s earliest Swiss German settlers, and their farms have contributed to the area’s reputation as breadbasket of the nation (the county remains one of the most agriculturally productive non-irrigated regions in the country).
So, for anyone who thinks only of the Amish when they hear of Lancaster, let me offer a few facts that illustrate how Lancaster contributed to the larger themes of American history.
First and foremost, during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia to escape the invading British and traveled west. On September 27, 1777 Congress met in Lancaster, making the city capital of the colonies for a day, a fact that every Lancaster student learns. The city was also capital of Pennsylvania for thirteen years. It was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence (George Ross) and to famed surveyor Andrew Ellicott who tutored Meriwether Lewis in his home prior to the famous Lewis and Clark expedition.
The Lancaster area gave the nation two iconic symbols of the frontier. The Pennsylvania long rifle (better but inaccurately known as the Kentucky rifle) and the Conestoga wagon. The long rifle was the product of Swiss German gunsmiths who emigrated to Pennsylvania. Martin Meylin erected a gun shop in 1719 near present-day Willow Street, Pennsylvania and this small building, still standing in the countryside, is considered the birthplace of the long rifle.
The 18-foot long Conestoga wagon became the preeminent freight vehicle after the Revolution and connected eastern settlements to the interior and the Appalachian Mountains. Named for the Conestoga River valley in Lancaster, the wagon’s shape like a boat made it easier for it to cross rivers.
Lancaster was also home to America’s fifteenth president, James Buchanan. Historians consistently rate Buchanan among the worst of America’s presidents and for some reason, I always feel the need to defend him. He had a distinguished career as Congressman, minister to Russia, ambassador to Britain, and Secretary of State. Then he had the misfortune to win the presidency as the country was tearing apart with Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s raid. He retired to his home Wheatland,
outside of Lancaster, after his term, thankful to be an ex-President. (Wheatland is restored and open to the public). He remains Pennsylvania’s only contribution to the White House.
Lancaster was also home of Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist and radical Republican, birthplace of inventor Robert Fulton (steamboat), site of the first Woolworth store in America and the first paved road in the country.
The list goes on. Needless to say, many eighteenth and nineteenth century homes grace the central part of the city today. The Fulton Opera House (1852) still presents a busy season of concerts and theater. Central Market claims to be one of the oldest farmers markets in the nation and its sights and smells make it worth a visit. Several historic church steeples dot the skyline.
If you decide to explore the Amish, don’t miss the history, too.