The area that became Lancaster County was part of William Penn's 1681 charter, and John Kennerly received the first recorded deed from Penn in 1691. Although Matthias Kreider was said to have been in the area as early as 1691, there is no evidence that anyone actually settled in Lancaster County before 1710.
Lancaster County was part of Chester County, Pennsylvania until May 10, 1729, when it became the fourth county in the state. Lancaster County was named after the city of Lancaster in the county of Lancashire in England, the native home of John Wright, one of the early settlers. Six other counties were subsequently formed from territory directly taken, in all or in part, from Lancaster County: Berks (1752), Cumberland (1750), Dauphin (1785), Lebanon (1813), Northumberland (1772), and York (1749). Many other counties were in turn formed from these six.
Native tribes in the area included the Shawnee, Susquehannock, Gawanese, Lenape (or Delaware), and Nanticoke peoples.
Among the earliest recorded inhabitants of the Susquehanna River valley were the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannocks, whose name meant "people of the muddy river" in Algonquian. They were also known as the Conestoga, from their principal village, Kanestoge, known to the English as Indiantown. They were viewed by European settlers as a friendly tribe, converted to Christianity, who made brooms and baskets for sale, and named children after their favorite neighbors.
However, the outbreak of Pontiac's War in the summer of 1763, coupled with the conciliatory but militarily ineffective policies of the provincial government, aroused in some suspicion and hatred against all Indians in the frontier counties of the state. On December 14, 1763, the Paxton Boys, led by Matthew Smith and Capt. Lazarus Stewart, descended upon the village, slaughtered the six Indians present at the time, and burned their houses. The fourteen survivors of the tribe were placed in protective custody in the county jail, but the Paxton Boys returned on December 27, broke into the jail, and butchered the remaining Conestogas. The lack of effective government control and widespread sympathy in the frontier counties for the murderers rendered their discovery and arrest futile.
The southern boundary of Pennsylvania, and thus of Lancaster County, was in dispute for years, culminating in nine years of armed clashes during the Maryland-Pennsylvania boundary dispute beginning with the 1730 establishment of Wright's Ferry across the Susquehanna River. Lord Baltimore believed that his grant to Maryland extended to the 40th parallel – about halfway between Lancaster and the town of Willow Street, PA, which line of demarcation, would have put Philadelphia in Maryland.
Spurred by a sudden influx of settlers crossing the Susquehanna and the licensing and formal beginning of the Wright's Ferry ferry services early in the year, acting on behalf of Maryland as a henchman of Lord Baltimore, Thomas Cresap starting in mid-1730, began confiscating the newly settled farms near Peach Bottom and Columbia, Pennsylvania (then — unnamed, but soon would be called "Wright's Ferry"), for the question from Lord Baltimore, was who was to get the income from the lands. He had believed he had a defensible claim on the west bank of the Susquehanna since 1721, that his demesne and grant extended to forty degrees north. That could be jeopardized if Pennsylvanians settled his lands without adverse reaction, and a counter claim to settlements.
Captain Cresap's initial actions were innocuous, establishing a second ferry in the upper Conejohela down river from John Wright's but near his father-in-laws settlement at Peach Bottom, and demanding settlers either move out or pay Maryland for the right bank lands they'd already received from Pennsylvania, but here events soon got out of hand, blew up, and soon started Cresap's War by acting on behalf of Maryland as a henchman of Lord Baltimore confiscating farms near Peach Bottom and Wrightsville, establishing a second ferry there. He started vandalizing farms, killing livestock and driving away settlers in southern York and Lancaster counties, giving those lands to his followers. When a follower was arrested, the Marylanders broke him out of the Lancaster lockup.
Lord Baltimore negotiated a compromise in 1733, but Cresap ignored it, and continued his raids. When an attempt was made to arrest him in 1734, he killed a deputy at his door. The Pennsylvania governor demanded Maryland arrest Cresap for murder; the Maryland governor named him a captain in their militia instead. In 1736, he was finally arrested, and jailed until 1737 when the King intervened. In 1750, a court decided that Lord Baltimore had forfeited his rights to a twenty-mile (32 km) swath of land. The new Pennsylvania-Maryland border was properly established by the Mason-Dixon line in 1767.
The names of the original Lancaster County townships reflect the diverse array of settlers in the new county: two had Welsh names (Caernarvon and Lampeter), three had Native American names (Cocalico, Conestoga and Peshtank or Paxton), six were English (Warwick, Lancaster, Martic, Sadsbury, Salisbury and Hempfield); four were Irish (Donegal, Drumore, Derry, and Leacock), Manheim was German, Lebanon came from the Bible, and Earl the anglicization of the German surname of Graf or Groff.
Lancaster County's native son James Buchanan, a Democrat, was elected as the 15th President of the United States in 1856, the only Pennsylvanian to hold the presidency. His home, Wheatland, is now a museum in Lancaster. Thaddeus Stevens, the noted Radical Republican, served Lancaster County in the United States House of Representatives from 1849–1853 and from 1859 until his death in 1868. Stevens left a $50,000 bequest to start an orphanage that eventually became the state-owned Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. Both men are buried in Lancaster.
Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780, although in a slow manner. The existing 6000 slaves in Pennsylvania remained slaves, and the registered children of those slaves were slaves until their 28th birthday. The last slave child registered in Pennsylvania was Haley, born in 1811, and a freedman no later than 1839. Thus Pennsylvania was legally a free state when the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850.
Being immediately north of the Mason-Dixon line, Lancaster County was an important stop on the Underground Railway. Charles Spotts found 17 stations, including ones with trap doors, hidden vaults, an underground cave and one with a brick tunnel leading to Octorara Creek.
Edward Gorsuch, probably one of the least cruel, did not beat his slaves, and as a wealthy Maryland wheat farmer, he could afford to manumit slaves in their 20s. He allowed his slaves to work for cash elsewhere during the slow season. There was wheat missing, though, sold to a local farmer by his slaves, and he thought a former slave was responsible for this dishonesty. As he had a bad temper, slaves Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Ford, and Joshua Hammond became afraid, and fled to the farm of William Parker, a mulatto who lived in Christiana, Pennsylvania. Parker, 29, was a member of the Lancaster Black Self-Protection Society, and known to use violence to defend himself and the slaves who sought refuge in the area.
Gorsuch obtained four warrants, and organized four parties which set out separately to recover his property. He died in the attempt, though, and others were wounded. Although Gorsuch was legally entitled to recover his slaves, it is not clear who precipitated the violence. The incident was variously called the "Christiana Riot", "Christiana Resistance", the "Christiana Outrage", and the "Christiana Tragedy".
In September, 1851, the grand jury returned a "true bill" (indictment) against 38 individuals who were then held in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia to await trial. The only one who was ever tried was Castner Hanway.
It is not clear that Castner Hanway was responsible in any way for what happened. He was a white man, one of the first on the scene. Hanway and his horse provided cover for Joshua Gorsuch and Dr. Pearce, who were wounded. Hanway was tried in federal court in Philadelphia on November 15, 1851 for liberating slaves taken into custody by U.S. Marshal Kline, for resisting arrest, for conspiracy, and for treason. The jury returned a Not Guilty verdict in 15 minutes. Among the five defense lawyers was congressman Thaddeus Stevens.
The oldest surviving dwelling for European immigrants in the county is that of Mennonite Bishop Hans Herr, built in 1719. In 1989, Donald Kraybill counted 37 distinct religious bodies/organizations, with 289 congregations and 41,600 baptized members, among the plain sects who are descendants of the Anabaptist Mennonite immigrants to Lancaster County. The Mennonite Central Committee in Akron is often among the first to arrive at a disaster scene, quietly providing manpower and material to local organizations that better understand where relief should be directed.
The town of Lititz was originally planned as a closed community founded by members of the Moravian Church early in the 1740s. The town eventually grew and welcomed its neighbors. The Moravian Church established Linden Hall School for Girls in 1746, it is one of the earliest educational institutions in continuous operation in the United States.
In addition to the Ephrata Cloister, the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) trace their beginnings to a 1767 meeting at the Isaac Long barn, near the hamlet of Oregon, in West Lampeter Township. The EUB, a German Methodist church, merged with the traditionally English Methodist church to become the United Methodist Church in 1968,
The first Jewish resident was Isaac Miranda, who owned property there before the town and county were organized in 1730. Ten years later there were several Jewish families in the town; on Feb. 3, 1747, there was recorded a deed to Isaac Nunus Ricus (Henriques) and Joseph Simon, conveying 0.5 acres (2,000 m) of land "in trust for the society of Jews settled in and about Lancaster," to be used as a place of burial. Today, this cemetery is still in use by, and is considered the fourth oldest Jewish cemetery in America.
Today, Lancaster County is home to three synagogues, the Orthodox Degel Israel, the Conservative Beth El, and the Reform Shaarai Shomayim. In 2003 Rabbi Elazar Green & Shira Green founded the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center, a branch of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, that focuses on serving the Jewish students of Franklin and Marshall College as well serving the general community with specific religious services. The larger community enjoys a Jewish Community Center which hosts a preschool, and a catering hall. The Lancaster Mikvah Association runs a mikveh on Degel Israe's property. Central PA Kosher Stand is operated at Dutch Wonderland, a seasonal amusement park.
This area was also settled by French Huguenots. Among its very first resident was Isaac LeFevre, who with a group of other Huguenot's settled in the area of the Pequea Creek.