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Pennsylvania State History

History | Symbols | Interesting Facts | Famous People


1615—Dutchman Cornelius Hendrickson visits present-day Philadelphia

1638—The colony of New Sweden is founded along the Delaware River

1664—England takes control of the Pennsylvania region from the Dutch

1682—William Penn establishes the Pennsylvania colony

1731—Benjamin Franklin opens the first library in the colonies

1754—The French and Indian War began in Pennsylvania; ends in 1763

1774—The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia

1775—The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia

1776—The Declaration of Independence is adopted in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia

1787—The Constitutional Convention meets in Philadelphia; Pennsylvania becomes the 2nd state

1859—Edwin Drake drills the nation’s first commercially successful oil well near Titusville

1863—The Battle of Gettysburg

1889—The Johnstown Flood kills more than 2,000 people

1920—Station KDKA in Pittsburgh makes the nation’s first public radio broadcast

1956—The Pennsylvania Turnpike is completed

1957—The nation’s first nuclear power plant opens in Shippingport

1979—A serious accident occurs at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg

1985—Tornadoes in Pennsylvania killed 65 and caused $375 million in damage

1988—About 1 million gallons of oil spill into the Monongahela and Ohio rivers near Pittsburgh

Algonquian and Iroquoian Native Americans lived in the Pennsylvania region when Dutch explores first visited in 1609.  Henry Hudson sent word of the area after sailing into the Delaware Bay in search of a trade route to the East.  In 1615, Cornelius Hendricksen reached what is now Philadelphia.

Sweden established the first permanent settlements near Philadelphia in 1643.  Dutch troops conquered the area in 1655 until England took control of it in 1664.  In 1681, King Charles II granted the land to William Penn.  He named the region Sylvania, meaning woods.  “Penn” was added later by the King in honor of William’s father.

William Penn, a Quaker, desired religious freedom and self-government for all who became colonists of Pennsylvania.  Shortly after arriving, Penn signed treaties with the Native Americans and paid them for the land he was given.  In 1682, he founded the city of Philadelphia.  Penn returned to England in 1684.  Several conflicts arose in his absence, and many changes resulted in Pennsylvania’s government.

During the late 1600s to the mid-1700s, many battles were fought between England and France, both of whom wanted the land of North America.  The French and Indian War began in western Pennsylvania in 1754.  One of the worst battles occurred near present-day Pittsburgh, where most of British General Edward Braddock’s troops were killed.  Fighting continued in Pennsylvania until 1758; the war ended with a British victory in 1763.

To pay for the war with France, England forced new taxes and trade restrictions on the American colonies.  The colonies united and refused to pay taxes.  The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774, and voted to stop all trade with England.  In 1775, George Washington was appointed head of the army and the Revolutionary War began.  On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.

English armies invaded Pennsylvania in Sept. 1777.  George Washington’s troops were defeated several times, beginning with Battle of Brandywine Creek.  Britain killed many Americans in the Paoli Massacre just outside of Philadelphia.  They then crossed the Schuylkill River and captured Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 1777.  Washington’s army led an attack to force them out of the city, but the attack failed.  Washington led his troops to nearby Valley Forge, where they spent a very harsh winter and spring.

Many of the settlers in the Luzerne County fled to a fort near present-day Wilkes-Barre.  Just after Britain left Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, several British soldiers and Indians raided this small fort killing about two-thirds of the settlers.  This incident became known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre.

The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787.  Pennsylvania became the 2nd state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and joined the United States of America on Dec. 12, 1787.  Philadelphia served as the new nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800.

Even before the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania led the nation in iron and grain milling production.  Many significant inventions were developed there.  The steamboat was first demonstrated in 1787, and by 1811 became a form of travel on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  Large canals were built that connected railroads and linked Philadelphia with Pittsburgh.  In 1859, the nation’s first successful oil well was drilled near Titusville.  Pennsylvania became a leader of textile, leather, iron and glass production.

By 1860, the issue of slavery divided the nation.  Many Pennsylvanians were leaders of the abolitionist movement, which helped slaves escape to freedom.  Pennsylvania sent 340,000 troops to help fight for the Union.  In 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles in history and also a major turning point in the Civil War.  After three days of fighting, the Confederate armies retreated to Virginia.  President Abraham Lincoln later dedicated part of this battlefield as a cemetery for soldiers who had died there.  It was there he delivered his famous Gettysburg Address.  The Confederacy surrendered in 1865.  

Pennsylvania’s industries continued to expand and develop following the Civil War.  The state became a leading producer of oil, cement, electrical equipment, and aluminum.  In 1873, Pittsburgh established the nation’s first steel mill.  Thousands of immigrants rushed to Pennsylvania looking for work.  Many labor problems resulted from the large influx in population.

During the early 1900s, Pennsylvania continued to prosper.  Much of the coal and steel for the United States was produced in this state.  Many large industrial companies moved there.  As the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Pennsylvania supplied ships, weapons, and steel to help soldiers win the war.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) closed mines and steel mills.  Unemployment of Pennsylvania’s miners and steelworkers reached almost 80 percent, as hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs.  State leaders passed welfare laws and set a minimum wage for women and children.  State programs provided jobs in highway construction, conservation, and production of natural resources.  World War II (1939-1945) also helped to end the Depression.  Pennsylvania provided clothing, coal, steel, ships, and weapons for the army.

After the war, several of Pennsylvania’s large industries were hurt as competition from other states increased and the need for coal and railroad production decreased.  Thousands of workers lost their jobs.  State leaders created jobs through construction projects.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940.  Pittsburgh and Philadelphia experienced major redevelopment of the downtown areas and hundreds of new schools were built.

Pennsylvania has struggled with pollution and natural disasters throughout its history of statehood.  In 1889, a flood near Johnstown killed more than 2,000 people.  In 1936, floodwaters swept across much of the state killing more than 100 people and causing $40 million in damage.  In 1972, a tropical storm resulted in 55 deaths and over $3 billion in damages.  An accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg in 1979, threatened the release of deadly levels of radiation in the area.  And the most recent occurred on May 31, 1985, when a group of tornadoes hit the northern part of the state, killing 65 and causing damages estimated at $375 million.

Recently, state leaders are striving to expand and diversify Pennsylvania’s economy.  More encouragement is being given to educational, financial, and service industries.  Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have also developed many of their historical sites.  This has created thousands of new jobs and attracted new investments to these cities.



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