Pennsylvania History and Research Overview

By Family Tree Editors Premium


William Penn received a Royal Charter in 1681 to establish a colony on land taken from the Dutch. Initially known as Penn’s Woods, the official name of the colony would become Pennsylvania. Penn opened the area to individuals of diverse religious beliefs and published advertisements in European newspapers encouraging immigration. By the early 18th century, Philadelphia was already a bustling city.

In 1749, the Ohio Co. claimed land from Virginia north through the Ohio valley, including what is now western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania had land disputes with Maryland and Connecticut that lasted through the Revolutionary War. Many early immigrants to the western part of the colony came from the eastern Pennsylvania settlements and other colonies, generally not from other countries.

Philadelphia became a center of the Revolutionary War when other colonies sent representatives to the First Continental Congress held there. The city was the site of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence July 8, 1776. In 1787, representatives again met in Philadelphia for a Constitutional Convention to establish the US government. Philadelphia served as the US capital from 1790 to 1800.

Canals — including the 300-mile Pennsylvania Main Line Canal — traversed the state during the early 1800s. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were shipping hubs due to their access to major transportation routes and waterways. Philadelphia merchants imported goods from foreign ports and shipped them west to Pittsburgh. In the 19th century, multiple railroad lines encouraged transportation and trade between the eastern and western parts of the state.

Ulster Scots, Dutch, Finns, Germans, French and Swedes brought religious denominations including the Amish, Mennonites, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Reformed and Lutherans, taking advantage of the religious freedom encouraged by William Penn. In the 19th century, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe established residence. Today, people from all over the world, including Asia and Latin America, call Pennsylvania home.

Pennsylvania is known for agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing, including Hershey’s chocolate and Pittsburgh’s Heinz Co. pickles and ketchup. Manufactured goods include steel, chemicals, clothing and petroleum products.

(click to enlarge)
Pennsylvania state map with county outlines


  • Start your Pennsylvania research from your living room with the websites of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  • Before chasing your ancestors in county records across this large state, know where they lived and when.
  • If you’re researching in Western Pennsylvania, visit the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Blair County Genealogical Society in Hollidaysburg But these regional resources do not thoroughly cover the entire state — you’ll need to delve into the collections of local public libraries and societies.


  • Federal census: 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890
  • Septennial census: 1779-1863


  • African Americans in Pennsylvania: A History and Guide by Charles L. Blockson (Black Classic Press, 1994)
  • Applications for Membership in Alphabetical Order by Member With a Complete Genealogy from the Colonial Society of Pennsylvania (filmed by the Family History Library, 1968)
  • The Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century edited by Charles Robson (Galaxy, 1874)
  • Bibliography of Pennsylvania History, 2nd edition, compiled by Norman B. Wilkinson, edited by Sylvester Kirby Stevens and Donald H. Kent (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1957)
  • Bibliography on the Colonial Germans of North American: Especially the Pennsylvania Germans and Their Descendants by Emil Meyen (Reprint: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982)
  • A Checklist of Pennsylvania Newspapers, Philadelphia County from the Pennsylvania Historical Survey (Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1944)
  • Church and Pastoral Records in the Archives of the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society, Lancaster Pennsylvania by Florence M. Bricker (The Society, 1982)
  • Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, 11 vols., by John W. Jordan, et al. (Lewis Publishing, 1911-65)
  • A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724-1774 by Michael N. McConnell (University of Nebraska Press, 1992)
  • County Government and Archives in Pennsylvania from the Pennsylvania Historical Survey (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1947)
  • Directory of Museums and Historical Organizations in Pennsylvania by Jean H. Cutler (The Federation, 1991)
  • Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, 32 vols., by John W. Jordan, et al. (Lewis Historical Publishing Co, 1914-67)
  • Every Name Index to Egle’s Notes and Queries, 2 vols., by Eva Draegert Schory (Decatur Genealogical Society, 1982-1986)
  • Genealogical Abstracts From Newspapers of the German Reformed Church, 1830-1839 by Barbara Manning (Heritage Books, 1992)
  • Genealogical Abstracts From Newspapers of the German Reformed Church 1840-1843 by Barbara Manning (Heritage Books, 1995)
  • Genealogical and Personal History of the Allegheny Valley, Pennsylvania, 3 vols., by John W. Jordan (Lewis Historical Publishing, 1913)
  • Genealogical and Personal History of Northern Pennsylvania, 3 vols., edited by John W. Jordan (Lewis Historical Publishing, 1913)
  • Genealogical Collections: Families of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Etc., 1700-1950 from the Pennsylvania Historical Society (filmed by the Family History Library, 1966)
  • The Genealogical Records of the Schwenkfelder Families: Seekers of Religious Liberty Who Fled From Silesia to Saxony and Thence to Pennsylvania in the Years 1731 to 1737 by Samuel Kriebel Brecht (Rand McNally, printed for the Board of Publication of the Schwenkfelder Church, Pennsburg, PA, 1923)
  • Genealogies of Pennsylvania Families: From the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, 3 vols., (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982)
  • A Genealogist’s Guide to Pennsylvania Records compiled by Helen Hutchison Woodroofe (Reprinted from the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine; Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, 1995)
  • Guide to Depositories of Manuscript Collections in Pennsylvania by Margaret Sherburne Elliot (Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1939)
  • Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research in Pennsylvania by Floyd G. Hoenstine (Floyd G. Hoenstine, 1978)
  • A Guide to the History of Pennsylvania by Dennis B. Downey and Francis J. Bremer (Greenwood Press, 1993)
  • Guide to the Microfilm of the Records of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Governments, 1775-1790 (Record Group 27) in the Pennsylvania State Archives by Roland M. Baumann (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1978)
  • Guide to the Records Groups in the Pennsylvania State Archives by Frank M. Suran (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1980)
  • Handbook for Genealogical Research in Pennsylvania by John W. Heisey (Heritage House, 1985)
  • Historical Manuscript Depositories in Pennsylvania by Irwin Richman (The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1965)
  • Historic Background and Annals of the Swiss and German Pioneer Settlers of Southeastern Pennsylvania and of Their Remote Ancestors From the Middle of the Dark Ages, Down to the Time of the Revolutionary War … With Particular Reference to the German-Swiss Mennonites or Anabaptists, the Amish and Other Non-resistant Sects by Frank Eshleman (1917; Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969)
  • An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by William Henry Egle (E.M. Gardner, 1880)
  • Index to the Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography by Frederic Antes Godcharles (W.D. Stock, 1996)
  • Memorials of the Huguenots in America, With Special Reference to Their Emigration [sic] to Pennsylvania by Ammon Stapleton (1901; Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969)
  • Merion in the Welsh Tract: With Sketches of the Townships of Haverford and Radnor, Historical and Genealogical Collections Concerning the Welsh Barony in the Province of Pennsylvania, Settled by the Cymric Quaker in 1682 by Thomas Allen Glenn (Herald Press, 1896)
  • The Negro in Pennsylvania: Slavery-Servitude-Freedom, 1639-1861 by Edward Raymond Turner (Negro Universities Press, 1969)
  • Notes and Queries: Historical, Biographical, and Genealogical, Relating Chiefly to Interior Pennsylvania. 1894-1904 edited by William Henry Egle (Reprint: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1971)
  • Penn’s Example to the Nations: 300 Years of the Holy Experiment by Robert Grant Crist (Pennsylvania Council of Churches, for the Pennsylvania Religious Tercentenary Committee, 1987)
  • Pennsylvania: A History, 9 vols., by George P. Donehoo (Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1926-1931)
  • Pennsylvania and Middle Atlantic States Genealogical Manuscripts: A User’s Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania by J. Carlyle Parker (Marietta Publishing, 1986)
  • Pennsylvania Archives by J. Severns (J. Severns, 1852-1856, 1874-1935)
  • Pennsylvania Area Key: A Guide to the Genealogical Records of the State of Pennsylvania, 2nd edition, by Florence Clint (Area Keys, 1976)
  • Pennsylvania Biographical Dictionary by William T. Parsons (American Historical Publications, 1989)
  • Pennsylvania Directory of Historical Organizations, 1970 by Gail M. Gibson (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1970)
  • The Pennsylvania Dutch: A Persistent Minority by William T. Parsons (Twayne Publishers, 1976)
  • Pennsylvania Family Histories and Genealogies by Donald Odell Virdin (Heritage Books, 1992)
  • Pennsylvania Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer (G. Schweitzer, 1986)
  • Pennsylvania Genealogies, Chiefly Scotch-Irish and German by William Henry Egle (Reprint: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969)
  • The Pennsylvania Germans, 1891-1965, Frequently Known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” by Homer Tope Rosenberger (H.T. Rosenberger, 1966)
  • Pennsylvania Historical Bibliography, vols., 1-6, by John B. Trussell Jr. (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1979-1989)
  • Pennsylvania Line: A Research Guide to Pennsylvania Genealogy and Local History, 4th ed., edited by William L. Iscrupe and Shirley G.M. Iscrupe (Southwest Pennsylvania Genealogical Services, 1990)
  • Pennsylvania Newspapers, a Bibliography and Union List edited by (Pennsylvania Library Association, 1969)
  • Pennsylvania Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at http://www/
  • Pennsylvania: The Heritage of a Commonwealth, 4 vols., by Sylvester Kirby Stevens (The American Historical Company, 1968)
  • Record of Eligibility of Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Pennsylvania 1883-1992 (filmed by the Family History Library, 1993)
  • The Scotch-Irish of Colonial Pennsylvania by Wayland Fuller Dunaway (University of North Carolina Press, 1944)
  • Summary Guide to the Pennsylvania State Archives edited by Frank B. Evans and Martha L. Simonetti (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1970)
  • Welsh Founders of Pennsylvania, 2 vols., by Thomas Allen Glenn (Fox, Jones and Co., 1911-1913)
  • Welsh Settlement of Pennsylvania by Charles Henry Browning (William J. Campbell, 1912)
  • The William Hinshaw Index to Quaker Meeting Records in the Friends Library in Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania by William Wade Hinshaw (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1957)
  • Writing on Pennsylvania History: A Bibliography by Arthur C. Bining (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1946)

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From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.