The Pennsylvania That Could Have Been

The Pennsylvania countryside

In my personal collection of books, there are numerous works of fiction involving alternative histories of the country with many of them set around a different outcome of Pennsylvania’s most famous battle – Gettysburg. What would have happened if the Confederacy would have won at Gettysburg is a subject numerous authors have presented in their works of fiction. While alternate histories are fun to read, they are mere works of fiction crafted in the minds of authors.

However, Pennsylvania almost had a different look than it does in the current age. From a large section wanting to form their own state to the creation of new counties within Pennsylvania’s borders, the maps almost had a different look than they presently do.

The most famous change in the borders of Pennsylvania was the creation of Delaware. In 1681, the charter for the Delaware colony was granted to William Penn by King Charles II, who wanted it so his colony had access to the Atlantic. The three lower counties of New Castle, Suffolk (originally called Deale), and Kent (originally called St. Jones), were officially annexed to Penn in 1682. By 1704, both colonies had distanced themselves to the point Penn allowed the three “Lower Counties” to have their own assembly under an appointed governor shared by both colonies. This arrangement lasted until the American Revolution, when Delaware completely separated from the Penn Colony.

While Delaware was successful at breaking from Williams Penn’s colony, the attempt to create a new state on the western frontier was not as lucky. Pittsylvania, also referred to as Westsylvania, was the state that almost was and continues to be used to describe the different culture that developed in the southwestern portion of the state.

In George Swetnam’s Pittsylvania Country, he states that the first petition to the Crown for a new colony was made in the spring of 1759. The lands of this proposed colony included: almost the entire present-day West Virginia, the western panhandle of Maryland, portions of eastern Kentucky and western Virginia, and southwestern Pennsylvania south of the Ohio River and east of the Allegheny as far north as Kittanning.

The idea of another colony did not gain favor of the Crown and was denied.

In 1775, a second attempt of creating a new state was presented to the Second Continental Congress, but was ignored. A final attempt at a new state happened in 1791 with the Whiskey Rebellion. President Washington ordered federal troops into the region to end the uprising and ordered the traitors to cease their actions and halted the idea of a new state. It would be almost one hundred years later, in 1863, that the majority of the proposed Pittsylvania would succeed in forming its own state when West Virginia joined the Union.

Pennsylvania has sixty-seven counties, though it may have had more if the proposed counties passed through the legislature and signed by the governor. Many – but not all – of these proposed and failed counties are remembered in A. Howry Espenshade’s Pennsylvania Place Names. In reading the list he provides, it is interesting that many, but not all, of these proposed counties would have been created by splitting either Berks or Lancaster Counties.

Here’s just some of the counties that could have possibly existed within the borders of Pennyslvania.

Finley County – One of the first proposed counties would have been created out of Lancaster, Berks, and Chester Counties. While a petition by residents was signed by residents in the fifteen townships wanting to create a new county, it never reached a vote in the state legislature.

Penn County I – The first attempt at the creation of a Penn County was in the early 1800s. The county would have been formed out of parts of Chester and Lancaster Counties and would have been named in honor of William Penn.

Conestoga County – In 1820, there was an attempt to create Conestoga County out of Berks and Chester Counties. Named in honor of the Native Americans who once lived in the region, it would have seen Churchville as the county seat. The idea of Conestoga County would gain popularity again in 1845 with no success.

Penn County II – In 1824, an attempt was made to create a Penn County out of the northern portion of Berks County with Kutztown as its county seat. The idea of Penn County would be presented again in 1838, where the vote in the legislature ended in a tie and the bill was tabled. The attempt to create Penn County would be revived in 1847 and 1849 with no luck in creating a new county. Interestingly, this county was not directly taking its name from William Penn and his family, but after Penn Township.

Conewago County – In 1824, there were attempts to create a new county from Lancaster, Dauphin and Lebanon counties, with Elizabethtown as the county seat. A second attempt to form Conewago County was unsuccessful in 1826.

Windsor County – Another attempt to form a new county out of northern Berks County occurred in 1838. This time, the new county would include parts of Berks and Schuylkill Counties and would be named Windsor after Windsor Township. Another unsusccessful attempt to create Windsor County occurred in 1850.

Jackson County – In 1845, it was proposed to create a new county in honor of President Andrew Jackson. The county would be created out of Chester, Montgomery and Berks Counties.

Madison County – In 1847 another attempt was made to create a new county out of the lands of Chester, Montgomery and Berks County, the same area that proposed Jackson County would have included two years before. This time the county would have been named in honor of President James Madison. This attempt made it to a vote in the state legislature and was defeated by a vote of 42-36. Two more attempts to create Madison County were made in 1854 and 1855, but it does not appear either attempt made it to the voting stage.

Lee County – A petition was made in 1852 to create Lee County by splitting Berks County. This time the proposed county would have included the western portion of the county, with Bernville as the county seat. The proposal made it to voting stage in the state legislature, where it was defeated. After the defeat of this attempt to split Berks County, it appears that any and all attempts to break apart Berks County were given up.

Anthracite County – In 1853, it was proposed to create a new county out of eastern Schuylkill and southern Luzerne Counties. It would be named after the coal fields and would have Hazleton as the county seat.

Marion County – In 1858, it was proposed to create Marion County from parts of Warren, Crawford, and Erie Counties with Titusville as the county seat. This county would have honored Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion. The proposal for Marion County failed to garner much attention in the legislature. However, had it been introduced one year later with the discovery of oil near Titusville, the proposed county would have had a better chance of becoming reality. Area residents made a second attempt to create a new county in 1870 and was again defeated.

Octorara County – While people gave up on splitting Berks County, Lancaster and Chester Counties they were still being eyed at as a possible split to form a new county. In 1870, the proposed Octorara County was defeated in the state legislature. This would have been created out of Lancaster and Chester Counties, including lands that had previously failed to become a new county in the past, with Oxford as the county seat. After this failed attempt, the idea of using them to create a new county was abandoned.

Billings County – There was an attempt to create a new county out of Lycoming, Tioga, Potter, Bradford, and Sullivan Counties in 1873. The county would be named after Silas X. Billings, a lumber baron from Wellsboro. Despite the bill passing in the House, it failed in the Senate. The failure of the proposed county resulted in a new clause to be added into the State Constitution of 1873, which made it only possible for the state legislature to create and change county boundaries.

Quay (or Laurel, Coxe, Curtin or Hazle) County – Of all the proposed counties, Quay County almost happened. First introduced in 1895, the county would have been created out of Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill Counties and the county seat would have been Hazleton. The original bill had the name Hazle attached as the county name, but the name changed throughout the amending of the bill. Coxe County after Eckley Brinton Coxe, and Curtin County after Governor Andrew Curtin, were also names attached to this new county. Instead, the county had the name Quay attached to it after State Senator Matthew Quay, the controversial politician.

The bill finally made it through the state legislature and was vetoed by Governor Hastings. Officially, the veto had to do with the burden of taxation on the residents of the proposed county, stating the residents would not be able to afford to erect proper governmental buildings. However, the idea that the county was going to be named after one of Hasting’s opponents may have influenced the governor’s veto.

The attempt to form this county happened again in 1905 this time with the name Laurel County and would have also seen Hazleton as the county seat. A third attempt was made in 1913 for creation of this new county. The final attempt was in 1915 and since this defeat no new counties have been proposed.

Monongahela County – The creation of Monongahela County was proposed in 1895 at the same time Quay County was first introduced. It would have included parts of Westmoreland and Fayette Counties.

Since 1915, no new counties have been proposed and with each passing year, the chances of a new county being proposed, making it through the state legislature and approved by the governor becomes more and more improbable. Knowing no new real counties will be a part of the Pennsylvania landscape, I’m going to go read about the fictional Hemlock County in the writings of David Poyer and dream about counties that could have been.

4 thoughts on “The Pennsylvania That Could Have Been

  1. In North central West Virginia including Morgantown, the county is Monongalia. People often question why it is spelled as such. I believe the answer may be because of the proposed Monongahela County you spoke of in this article.

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  2. It’s very interesting to read of Pennsylvania. My Dad grew up in Athens. I have often heard of Potter County, Gaines, and Wellsboro. He and his brothers and sister enjoyed a childhood of hunting and fishing in what I have always envisioned as a paradise. My Dad’s brother was an author from there. My uncle Jim Kjelgaard wrote many fine childrens’books featuring mostly the outdoors with fishing, hunting, and great Indian stories. Thank you for your posts.

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      1. This is so wonderful to know. I’ve never seen his grave and wonder if you would take a picture. What a terrible event it was when he went. We kids just loved his stories and were so proud of him. My Dad was Winfield K and Jims’ book ‘Desert Dog’ was dedicated to our baby sister, Christine.

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