Pennsylvania Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I have lived most of my life in three out of the four commonwealths (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia – but not Kentucky), with only my two-year residency in West Virginia in the early 1970s breaking this pattern.

What exactly is a commonwealth and how does it differ from those entities referred to as states? In its purest sense, “commonwealth” refers to an entity that is governed by the people, whose goal is to support the “common weal,” or common good. Some individuals, wishing for a clear distinction, would argue that in a commonwealth, landowners do not possess mineral or oil rights to their land, but rather own the use of their land. For most individuals, however, such distinctions appear more than a little arcane. Legally and constitutionally, no differences exist between a commonwealth and a state. The four states mentioned above chose to retain an historic descriptor when they entered the union. The federal government makes no distinction in the manner in which it treats states and commonwealths.

Whenever I begin research in a new state [okay – commonwealth], I read about its history in order to understand how such issues as geography, transportation routes, immigration patterns, ethnicity, and religion, among many others, may have affected the creation of its historical records.

Pennsylvania has a long and interesting history. Following Henry Hudson’s exploration of the Delaware Bay in 1609, the Dutch, the Swedes, and the English all figured prominently in its early period of settlement. William Penn was granted lands in Pennsylvania by King Charles II in 1681, and Penn set out to establish a colony that embodied Quaker beliefs. The initial three counties of Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia were characterized by liberal government, religious freedom, and inexpensive land. Except for a brief period between 1692 and 1694, the colonial proprietorship remained in the Penn family, first with William; following his death, with his wife; then with his three sons and a grandson.

Pennsylvania’s population grew rapidly, in part because of its two major ports of entry at Philadelphia and Chester. In 1683, the Quakers represented the largest group of inhabitants, often employed as artisans and traders who settled in the more populated areas along the coast. Concurrently, German settlers began to arrive, establishing small farms to the west and north of the Quaker settlements. They represented a wide variety of religions including Lutherans, German Reformed, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and German Baptists. In the 1720s, the Scots-Irish began to arrive, adding staunch Presbyterianism into the religious mix. This group, never fans of government or the more populated areas, pushed southwestward, serving as buffers against the Indians on the frontier and in the backcountry areas. This same group, along with German farmers, would later continue their migrations, eventually turning southward into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. By the 19th century, these groups would be joined by settlers from Ireland and Wales who came to work in newly-developing industries and the coals mines during the anti-bellum years. After the Civil War, southern and eastern European settlers came from Italy, Russia, Poland, and Austria-Hungary, as did many newly freed blacks from the southern states. Growth continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the original three counties (1682) were joined by a fourth in 1729. By 1770, there were eight counties, eleven in 1773, sixteen in 1785, twenty-one in 1790, twenty-five in 1798, and thirty-five in 1800. By 1878, all of the current sixty-seven counties had been established. A clear picture of county development can be found in Thorndale and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007) and a detailed discussion can be found in John T. Humphrey’s Pennsylvania Research: County and Township Records (PA Genealogy Books, 2006), The latter title is essential reading for gaining an understanding of the process of county formation in Pennsylvania as well as the records available for each county.


Expansion throughout the commonwealth was facilitated by a network of major rivers (the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Ohio, etc.) leading into wide valleys. By 1832, there were 3,000 miles of toll roads and several canals, with the railroad just beginning to impact transportation and thus migration patterns. Movement over the mountains was facilitated by the Great Pennsylvania Road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, York, Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Bedford, Somerset, Greensburg and Pittsburgh.

The establishment of Pennsylvania’s boundaries was colored by conflict—sometimes armed conflict –with other states arising from claims to portions of its lands; notably over southwestern Pennsylvania with Virginia, with Maryland over a strip along its southern border, and with Connecticut (for lands along its eastern coastal area). Eventually, Pennsylvania would share borders with six states (Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey).

Genealogical research in Pennsylvania requires, in addition to some historical background, an understanding of its court system, so that you can understand how to locate specific types of records efficiently. Case in point: I once travelled to Scranton while researching a client’s family who had lived there for several generations. Unfortunately, I had little knowledge of Pennsylvania’s court system prior to departing, and I was puzzled why something called the “Orphan’s Court” would deal with estates and wills, and why marriage records were in the same record office as the probate records. (I do try to learn from such experiences!) As I would learn, there are local courts that deal with minor violations of the law and disputes over small amounts of money. In addition, there are district courts such as the court of common pleas (civil matters that in Virginia are called chancery suits); the court of oyer and terminer (major criminal suits); the court of quarter sessions of the peace (less major criminal suits); and orphan’s courts (estates, wills, distribution of estates, guardianship). There are also municipal courts (such as in Philadelphia), and superior courts (including the state superior court) which handle appeals.

Regarding vital records, Pennsylvania appears more like its southern neighbors than its northern ones. Between 1676 and 1682, a law was on the books requiring the registration of birth records. This law was largely ignored, and until 1851, virtually no state or county-level records were kept. The legislature tried again in 1852 by requiring that a Register of Wills be established to maintain birth records at the county level, with duplicates to be sent to the state. Again, the law was not adhered to and extant records are very incomplete. Not until January 1906 would a state [okay – commonwealth] law effectively require the registration of births at the state level. Death records follow a similar pattern. Legislation, in effect between 1647 and 1682, requiring the registration of death records, was largely ignored. Almost no official state or county death records were kept until 1851, when a Register of Wills included very incomplete records for a two-year period. Some cities kept records between 1855 and 1893, but only in 1893 was new legislation passed requiring state registration of death with the county-level Orphan’s Court. State-level registration began in 1906.

Given the episodic nature of vital records, then, the Pennsylvania researcher must resort to land records (beginning as early as 1682) and church records, as well as all other available records to fill in the gaps. That research remains difficult as land records are complicated by the several border disputes and church records are complicated considerably by the sheer number of denominations that have flourished throughout Pennsylvania’s history.

Apart from the vagaries of state records, several resources will help provide the necessary background details to assist you in your research:

Only a very brief look into Pennsylvania research and resources can be provided within the space available for this article. If you have Pennsylvania ancestors, I hope you will use this information as an introduction to what is available and continue to identify useful sites and titles to assist in your research.

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