State Research Guide: Pennsylvania

State Research Guide: Pennsylvania

Unlock the records of your Keystone State ancestors.

Long called the Keystone State by virtue of its central location in the original 13 Colonies, Pennsylvania also is central to the roots of many US families. Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America and by far the top port of entry into Colonial America. It remained one of the top five immigration ports well into the 20th century.

The Swedes were the first Europeans to settle permanently in the Keystone State in the 1640s. Although they came in small numbers, they were well-documented, especially in Peter Stebbins Craig’s 1671 Census of the Delaware (Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania). Perhaps the most ethnically diverse Colony, Pennsylvania also became home to English, Welsh, Irish, Germans, Scots-Irish, Swiss and French Huguenots in the 1700s; and Slavs, Poles, Italians, Jews, Russians and Greeks in the late 1800s. Passenger arrival records (mainly for the 1800s) for Pennsylvania ports are available on microfilm at the Family History Library (FHL) <> and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <>. You also can search passenger lists in’s < > US Deluxe Collection ($155.40 per year).

Conflict among Colonial powers left the region in British hands in 1681, when King Charles II chartered the land to William Penn, the son, heir and namesake of the British admiral to whom he owed a huge debt. The king dubbed the colony Pennsylvania (Latin for “Penn’s Woods”).

Penn, a religious dissenter and member of the Religious Society of Friends (nicknamed the Quakers), tolerated all faiths in his colony, an oddity in an era of state-sponsored churches. This “Holy Experiment,” teamed with Penn’s aggressive marketing, lured different groups to the state.

Penn and his heirs didn’t just rely on the charter — they also bought land from American Indians. In the infamous Walking Purchase, Delaware Indians agreed to let Penn’s sons buy land according to the distance a man could walk in a day and a half. The Indians expected a leisurely stroll, but the Penns hired runners to cover more ground. It took 30-some purchases to acquire all of what’s now Pennsylvania.

The Keystone State’s boundaries stayed in flux because of disputes with other Colonies: Connecticut claimed the northern tier and Virginia disputed southwestern Pennsylvanian borders. Surveyors named Mason and Dixon established the line with Maryland.

In the 19th century, Pennsylvania became an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. Industries such as coal and steel needed manpower, and drew German, Irish, Italian, Polish and Russian immigrant workers. Lucky for you, the Keystone State’s genealogical records are just as diverse as its residents’ ethnic backgrounds.

Keys to success

Officials and residents largely ignored Pennsylvania’s vital-records laws before the mid-1800s. Even after the state required counties to record births, marriages and deaths in the 1850s, compliance was low. County registration of births and deaths — tried from 1893 to 1905 — was more successful. You can find all existing records at the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Statewide registration of births and deaths started in 1906, but marriages are still recorded by counties. You’ll find microfilmed copies of these records at the FHL and the state archives. Check with the county for the actual records.

Get birth and death certificates dated 1906 and later from the state’s Division of Vital Records. Access to birth records is more tightly restricted than death records. For full details, visit the division’s Web site.

Large cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Reading began keeping vital records in the 1860s and 1870s, and all counties began recording marriage licenses in 1885. Each city keeps those original records in a different place: I’ve found them in the city archives for Philadelphia, health department for Reading and county courthouse in Pittsburgh. Check the FHL for microfilmed records, too.

In lieu of an official vital record, look to records of religious organizations. Quakers, who were divided into geographic “meetings,” documented births, marriages and deaths, as well as minutes with details on congregation members.

Amish and Mennonites, today the most visible Pennsylvania Germans (sometimes called Pennsylvania Dutch), made up a relatively small portion of the 1700s German-speaking immigrants in Pennsylvania. Churches produced the most useful records of the early Pennsylvania Germans: The two biggest groups, Lutheran and Reformed (the latter became Evangelical and Reformed, now part of the United Church of Christ), kept good baptism, marriage and burial records. Moravians — also called Unitas Fratrum — who founded cities such as Bethlehem, kept church members’ memoirs called Lebenslauf (literally, “walk of life”) and congregational diaries that provide background on 18th-century life.

Germans were by far the largest group of Europeans to come to 18th-century America as aliens (in Colonial times, everyone from the British Isles was already a citizen). As such, they generated two large sets of records. Beginning in 1727, men age 16 or older had to sign oaths of allegiance to the British king upon arrival in Philadelphia. You can find the surviving passenger lists in Pennsylvania German Pioneers by Ralph B. Strassburger and William J. Hinke (Picton Press). Additionally, many of these German immigrants later became naturalized through local, state or federal courts.

Roman Catholics, who arrived in large numbers during the 19th century, created helpful records — but access varies by diocese. For example, you’ll find early records of the Johnstown-Altoona diocese in Catholic Vital Records of Central Pennsylvania by the Rev. Albert H. Ledoux (Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, out of print). But many others, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Diocese of Harrisburg, don’t allow direct access to original records.

State of the records

When you talk about the “Pennsylvania archives,” know that the phrase can mean either a place (Pennsylvania State Archives) or a publication (Pennsylvania Archives). The latter, a 132-volume set of published records, contains everything from the early government’s official correspondence to land, military and church records. Retrospect Publishing <> offers searchable CDs with some of the tax lists from these volumes.

One of the state archives’ major collections is land records documenting initial purchases of land from the Penns in Colonial times, and the state after the Revolutionary War. Related survey maps with data about the original landowners exist for some counties; Ancestor Tracks <> sells many of these warrantee township maps in book-and-CD sets.

Federal censuses for Pennsylvania began with the country’s first head count in 1790 and are relatively complete. They’re at HeritageQuest Online <> (access it through subscribing libraries), and many public libraries.

Tax lists — not complete for every county, but worth checking — may offer similar information for earlier years; Pennsylvania Archives contains many from the 1760s to 1780s. Remnants of the only state census, taken between 1779 and 1863, are available at the state archives. This enumeration shows only the head of household’s name, sometimes his occupation, and the number of people living there. You also can find information on residents in most Pennsylvania counties in records of the 1798 US Direct Tax (nicknamed the “Window Tax” because the number of windows helped determine houses’ valuations), available at the NARA and the state archives.

For records of Keystone State soldiers, check the Archives Records Information Access System. It has indexed images of the card files showing records of Pennsylvanians in conflicts from the Revolutionary War up to the Spanish-American War.

The Keystone State also has many fine county and local genealogical and historical societies, some covering just a township or two. The best way to find these societies is either through the listings of organizations on the Pennsylvania Gen Web sites <> or from the State Library of Pennsylvania’s Web site. (To access this list, go to <″Q=40561>.)

Lineage societies are good places to look for records, too. Philadelphia, especially, has active groups: Where else would you expect to find an organization called Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence? Consult <> to find other societies. Many have published well-researched lineages that might include your ancestors.

If you’re one of the many people with Pennsylvania ancestors, you’ll find the state isn’t just the center of the original Colonies. It’s also a center of genealogical resources that’ll help you unlock your family’s history.

From the February 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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