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How Pennsylvania Counties Got Their Names

Pennsbury Manor

That the names [1] by which we know the sixty-seven counties of Pennsylvania were well chosen and fittingly bestowed must be apparent to anyone who has given even passing attention to the subject.

It is true that these names have been popularized by long usage, and the associations which cluster about them give them a meaning and significance which in some instances they did not originally possess. But leaving such considerations aside and appraising them at their intrinsic worth, the county names of Pennsylvania are appropriate and have a satisfying sound.

Not a few of the names are among the greatest in American history; others hark back to the mother country and helped to make the first settlers feel at home in their new environment; those of Indian origin are pleasant to hear and for the mind to dwell upon, and there is probably not a single one among the sixty-seven that our people would wish to have changed.

Arranging the list in alphabetical order, the significance of the county names of Pennsylvania is as follows:

Adams county is the namesake of John Adams, second President of the United States. The county was organized in the year 1800, and it is recorded that about the time its name was to be selected, Adams, with a train of attendants and a military escort, traversed the county on his way to the then new seat of government at Washington. It was this incident largely that determined the name of the county.

Allegheny is of Indian origin. According to Indian tradition, a tribe known as the Alligewi, a people of gigantic form, inhabited the territory between the Allegheny mountains and the Mississippi river. They were vanquished by the Iriquois and Lenni Lenape, abandoning the country of their fathers and fleeing southward, never again to return.

Armstrong county is one of the large number that were organized in 1800. It bears the name of Colonel John Armstrong, who commanded the forces that defeated the Indians at Fort Kittanning in 1756. He also served in the Revolution under Washington.

Beaver was named in honor of a celebrated Indian chief, Tamaque, the equivalent of Beaver in English.

Bedford was so named for the English Duke of Bedford.

Berks county derives its name from the fact that Admiral Penn, the father of the founder of Pennsylvania, owned lands along the Thames in Berkshire, England, and for this reason the descendants of William Penn, in 1752, named the new county Berks.

Blair county perpetuates the name of Honorable John Blair, Jr., an early resident, who was prominent in the affairs of Pennsylvania.

Bradford county was originally called Ontario. At the suggestion of John Bannister Gibson, who when a young man, served as judge of the district, the county was given it's present name, in honor of William Bradford, who served as Attorney General during the second administration of President Washington.

Bucks, one of the three original counties, was in some of the early papers designated as Buckingham, the name of one of the important shires of England.

Butler was named for General Richard Butler, of Carlisle, PA. He won distinction as a soldier under Gates at Saratoga, Washington at Monmouth, Wayne at Stony Point, and Lafayette at Yorktown. He lost his life while leading a division of General St. Clair's forces against the Indians in Ohio in 1791.

Cambria county numbered among its early settlers a colony of Welsh, and when the county was formed, they were instrumental in having it called Cambria.

Cameron county came into being in 1860, when Simon Cameron was a dominant figure in Pennsylvania politics. He was for a short time Secretary of War in Lincoln's cabinet, served as ambassador to Russia, and was a United States Senator. The county was named for him.

Carbon is one of the group of counties in which anthracite coal is found, and this mineral, largely composed of carbon, supplied the name of the county.

Centre county derives its name from the fact that it occupies the geographical center of the state.

Chester, the town, was first called Upland. When William Penn arrived, he resolved that the name of the place should be changed. One of those who made the voyage across the Atlantic with Penn in the ship Welcome was a friend named Pearson. Addressing himself to Pearson, Penn is reported to have said: "Providence hath brought us safe here. Thou hast been the companion of my perils. What wilt thou that I should call this place?" "Chester," said Pearson, "in remembrance of the place from which we come in England." Penn replied that it should be called Chester, and that when the land should be divided into counties, one of them should be called by the same name.

Clarion county was organized in 1839. According to Day's Historical Collections of Pennsylvania, the name was originally applied to the locality from the "Clarion-like echoes, coming from the defeated Indians of the 'Cornplanter' tribe at the Battle of Brady's Bend."

Clearfield is by some held to have received its name from a comparatively clear field in which the buffaloes roamed. Others attribute the clearing of the field to the Indians.

Clinton derives its name from De Witt Clinton, the builder of the Erie Canal and a governor of New York.

Columbia is a name for whose origin we must go back to Christopher Columbus.

Crawford was named for Colonel William Crawford, a soldier of the Revolution. His home was in Berkley county, Virginia. At the request of Washington he led a force of men against the Indians of northern Ohio. Falling into the hands of the enemy at Sandusky, in 1782, he was tortured to death.

Cumberland county derived its name from one of the maritime counties of England.

Dauphin county was organized in 1785 just after the close of the Revolution. The eldest sons of the kings of France bore the title of Dauphin, and in view of the help France had given the Colonies in their fight for independence, Dauphin county was named in honor of the heir to the French throne.

Delaware county, like the river and bay, commemorate the name of Lord De la Warr, who is reputed to have anchored in the Delaware bay when on his way to Virginia, in 1610.

Elk, as applied to the county, is a name that will be easily understood, even by those who are not faunal naturalists.

Erie is an Indian name which meant panther, or wild cat. There was an ancient tribe on the borders of Lake Erie that were known by this name. They were conquered by the Iroquois.

Fayette county was formed in 1783, and it was named for General Lafayette.

Forest county took its name from the fact that a hundred years after other sections of the state were well populated, the territory of this section was still a primitive forest.

Franklin county, organized in 1784, is one of the numerous namesakes of Benjamin Franklin.

Fulton was named for Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, a native of Lancaster county, Pennsylvania.

Greene perpetuates the name of General Nathaniel Greene, one of the most famous of Revolutionary soldiers.

Huntingdon is a famous English name. The county is said to have been christened in honor of the Countess of Huntingdon.

Indiana county is a fertile region and was well populated by Indians, from whom the name originated.

Jefferson county was formed in 1804, when Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, and it bears his name.

Juniata is an adaption of a word of the Iroquois Indians which meant standing stone. The name Juniata, as applied to the River, was made famous about a century ago by the song called "The Blue Juniata."

Lackawanna is also an Indian name, signifying the meeting of two streams.

Lancaster, the fourth county to be established in the State, later furnished the territory out of which were carved a dozen other counties. It is the namesake of an English county.

Lawrence was formed in 1849. Many of the men of the county had participated in Perry's famous battle on Lake Erie. The name of Perry's flagship, the Lawrence, gave rise to the name of the county. This ship had been named in honor of Captain James Lawrence, the hero of the Chesapeake.

Lebanon derived its name from the far-famed Lebanon of the Bible.

Lehigh is derived from the Indian word Lechau, meaning the forks. The name was first applied to the river Lehigh, a branch of the Delaware.

Luzerne, one of our most historic counties, is named for Chevalier de la Luzerne, ambassador from France to the United States. Luzerne forms a part of the territory which in the early history of Pennsylvania was settled and claimed by Connecticut. These "invaders" organized a county which they called Westmoreland and which was attached to Litchfield county, Connecticut.

Lycoming is an Indian name which signified the place of a sandy lick.

McKean county was organized in 1804. Thomas McKean, who was born in Chester county, was then governor of the State; the county bears his name. Prior to his election to the governorship, McKean was for twenty-two years chief justice of the Supreme court of Pennsylvania. He was a Scotch-Irishman and knew how to behave like one when the occasion demanded. One of the stories preserved concerning him was that while he was presiding in court at Harrisburg, a mob outside disturbed him, and he ordered the sheriff to disperse them. The sheriff replied that he was not able to do so. "Then why do you not summon your posse?" ordered the judge. "I have summoned them, but they are ineffectual," said the sheriff. "Then why do you not summon me?" asked McKean. "I do summon you," said the trembling officer. Not waiting to discard the robes of his office the chief justice rushed out, seized a couple of rioters by the throat and the rest beat a retreat.

Mercer county is named for a Revolutionary hero, General Hugh Mercer, who was born in Scotland. He was with Braddock in the expedition against the Indians in Pennsylvania. He commanded a brigade in the Revolution and was mortally wounded at the battle of Princeton. Mercer county, New Jersey, is also named in his honor.

Mifflin county also perpetuates the name of a Revolutionary general, Thomas Mifflin, who was of Quaker parentage and was born in Philadelphia. He was long prominent the political affairs of Pennsylvania and was the first governor under the Constitution of 1790.

Monroe, is of course named for James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.

Montgomery county is claimed by some authorities to have been named for General Richard Montgomery, who died at Quebec. Others assert the county was named for General John Montgomery who commanded the Pennsylvania militia at Brandywine and Germantown.

Montour is a name that figures largely in the Indian affairs of Pennsylvania. One writer of reputation says the county was named for "Madam" Montour, widow of Roland Montour, a Seneca Indian chief. Another version has it that the county bears the name of Andrew Montour, who was partly of Indian blood.

Northampton was named after Northampton, England.

Northumberland also took its name from an English county of shire.

Perry county was named in tribute to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the naval exploit on Lake Erie.

Philadelphia is a Bible name, meaning "Brotherly Love."

Pike commemorates the name of General Zebulon Pike, who led various exploring expeditions for the United States government. On one of these he discovered Pike's peak in the Rocky mountains. He was killed in the war of 1812.

Potter, formerly noted for its forests and now gaining recognition for its production of potatoes, is the namesake of General James Potter, who was commended by Washington for his "activity and vigilance."

Schuylkill, noted for its coal and for many other reasons, took it's name from the river Schuylkill, which is of Dutch origin, meaning hidden creek or channel.

Snyder was so christened in honor of Simon Snyder, who was governor of Pennsylvania from 1808 to 1817. He was the first of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch governors.

Somerset comes from the English county of the same name.

Sullivan is another county that was named for a Revolutionary hero, General John Sullivan, who was born in Maine and was judge of a United States District Court in New Hampshire at the time of his death, which occurred in 1795. Washington commissioned him to lead the famous expedition against the Indians after the massacre of Wyoming.

Susquehanna is an Indian name which according to the best authorities, is taken from Assiskuhanna, meaning a [broad and shallow] river.

Tioga is a corruption of the Iroquois word or name Diahoga, meaning the forks as of two streams.

Venango derived its name from an ancient Indian village which stood at the junction of French creek and the Allegheny river. Washington was among the first to spell the name as at present. Various explanations have been made as to its meaning. Dr. George Donehoo, the present state librarian, who is an acknowledged authority on Indian lore, says the name comes from the Indian Onenge, meaning a mink.

Warren county was named for General Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was a medical doctor in private life and he took a leading part in the events that led to the Revolution. He died at the age of thirty-four.

Washington was named in honor of the "Father of his country," who had many early adventures in that section of Pennsylvania, which was then claimed by Virginia.

Wayne county was named for General Anthony Wayne, of Revolutionary fame, who was a native of Chester county, Pennsylvania. His capture of Stony Point, where he was wounded, was one of his many exploits. General Wayne commanded a division in the Continental army known as the Pennsylvania Line, which he led in many campaigns. This division was rated as one of the best in the service. It saved the day for Washington at Monmouth. Wayne's last great public service was rendered in his successful campaign against the Indians in Ohio after two other expeditions under less competent leadership had met with disaster. It was at Presque Isle, now Erie, in 1796, that General Wayne, of whom the Indians said that he never slept, slept at last. His death occurred during his fifty-second year.

Westmoreland, part of the territory claimed by Virginia, was organized in 1773. It was christened after the English county of that name.

Wyoming comes from Meschawoming, which in the language of the Delawares meant "great plains." The English poet, Campbell, who never visited this country, immortalized the name by his poem, "Gertrude of Wyoming."

York county, which formed a part of Lancaster until 1749, is one of out most productive agricultural districts. It was named for the English county of York.

There have been no new counties organized in Pennsylvania since 1878, when Lackawanna was carved out of the territory of Luzerne. Several strong efforts have been made, however, to form a new county out of the southern portion of Luzerne and parts of Carbon and Schuylkill. A bill with this intent passed the legislature during the governorship of Daniel H. Hastings during the nineties. To facilitate its passage, the proposed county was called Quay, that gentleman then being the most potent political leader in the State.

There have been no new counties organized in Pennsylvania since 1878, when, but to the chagrin of the new county boosters, Governor Hastings vetoed the measure. He was hanged in effigy on the streets of Hazleton, which would have been the seat of justice of the new county if Hastings had approved the bill.

  1. Evans, L. K., Pioneer History of Greene County, Pennsylvania, Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg PA, 1941; collection is a reprint of a series of articles from the files of the Waynesburg Republican of 1875 and 1876. L. K. Evans, a native of Monongahela Township, was editor of the Republican during the Civil War and for several years following. These articles have always been regarded as containing the most authentic as well as the most interesting account of pioneer history of Green County.