By Ann Lawthers
Pennsylvania’s size and central location on the Atlantic seaboard means it has played a significant role in America’s history. The first European settlers of Pennsylvania hailed from Sweden (“New Sweden” 1638-1655), the Netherlands (“New Netherlands” 1614-1664), and England (1664-1682). In 1681, King Charles II of England granted the Quaker, William Penn, a charter for a large parcel of land in what is now Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania.
Upon arrival in the colony in 1682, William Penn established a firm policy of religious tolerance and a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania that led to many of the records genealogists find so useful today.
How-To and Other Guides
The following resources at NEHGS can help orient the family historian to the vast genealogy resources of Pennsylvania.
A Genealogist's Guide to Pennsylvania Records by Helen Hutchison Woodroofe
NEHGS, 5th Floor F148 .W66 1994
Guide to Genealogical Sources at the Pennsylvania State Archives by Robert Dructor
NEHGS, 5th Floor F148 .D78 1998
Pennsylvania Genealogical Research by George Keene Schweitzer
NEHGS, 5th Floor F148 .S32 1986
Research in Pennsylvania by Kay Haviland Freilich
NEHGS, 5th floor F148 .F74 2007
The current outline of Pennsylvania did not solidify until 1792 when the “Erie Triangle” in northwestern Pennsylvania was purchased. The website MapofUS shows the formation of counties as they split off from parental units. This map is especially helpful for individuals researching 17th and 18th century ancestors as it displays the names of the governmental unit that might have their ancestor’s records. For additional information, Wikipedia presents a helpful table of facts about Pennsylvania counties with embedded maps showing county locations.
Civil Vital Records
Pennsylvania civil record keeping did not begin until the mid-19th century.
|Earliest (County Level)||1852-54, 1893||1885, some in 1700s||1852-54, 1893|
|Statewide Registration||January 1906||January 1906|
Ancestry has recently published death certificates for Pennsylvania from 1906-1963.
Other Vital Records
Online vital records for Pennsylvania include a mix of church and civil data and are available at both the Family History Library ( births from 1709-1950, marriages from 1709-1950, county marriages from 1855) and Ancestry (births, marriages, deaths—check the card catalog for statewide and individual county holdings). The preceding links are only examples of the holdings of both FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. Online records for the city of Philadelphia are particularly robust.
The NEHGS Library has several unique sources that may fill in the gaps in the online databases.
Pennsylvania Vital Records: From the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
NEHGS, 7th floor F148 .P48 1983 volume 1-3. This collection spans the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century and covers all counties in the state.
Names of Persons for Whom Marriage Licenses Were Issued in the Province of Pennsylvania Previous to 1790
NEHGS, 5th floor F146 .P41 2d ser.v.2
Central Pennsylvania Marriages, 1700-1896
NEHGS, 5th floor F148 .F47 1946
Record of Pennsylvania Marriages Prior to 1810
NEHGS, 5th floor F148 .R4 1987 volumes 1 and 2
Colonial immigrants to Pennsylvania represented a wide variety of religious traditions including Quaker, Baptist (these groups often from the British Isles), Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, Dunkard, Moravian, Schwenkfelder, Calvinist (typically German speaking), Huguenot (French), and Presbyterian (Scots-Irish). Later records include Congregational and Roman Catholic. A sampling of the NEHGS offerings for selected denominations may be found by following the links above. Additionally, NEHGS holds church records by county, e.g., Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware. Another useful source is the three-volume set of Pennsylvania German Church Records, edited by Don Yoder.
Thanks to William Penn, land records in Pennsylvania are generally excellent. However, they are complex and sometimes challenging to navigate. Donna Munger’s book Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research provides the family historian with strategies for making the most of the records.
As described on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website, the process of conveying land involves five types of records:
- Application - a request for a warrant to have a survey made; usually a slip of paper that does NOT bear applicant's signature.
- Warrant - certificate authorizing a survey of a tract of land; initiates title of a property and provides the basis for legal settlement, but does not convey all rights to the property.
- Survey - sketch of boundaries of tract of land with exact determination of total acreage.
- Return - description of property boundaries; function is similar to that of a patent; internal document sent from Surveyor General to Secretary of the Land Office
- Patent - final, official deed from the Penns or the Commonwealth, which conveys clear title and all rights to the private owner.
Probate records -- wills, letters of administration, and inventories—are among the most valuable sources for the family historian.
FamilySearch.org has a robust collection of probate records that, while not indexed, are organized by county and may be browsed online: Pennsylvania Probate Records, 1683-1994.
Unique resources at the NEHGS library include will abstracts for many counties as well as will indices for additional counties across the state.
Pennsylvania Will Abstracts at NEHGS
|Counties Covered||Time Period||Location at NEHGS|
|Adams||1800-1826||5th Floor Stacks, F157.A2 G74 1988|
|Alleghany||1789-1844||5th Floor Stacks, F157.A4 H293 1986|
|Berks||v. 1. 1752-1785 – |
v. 2. 1785-1800 –
v. 3. 1800-1825
|5th Floor Stacks, F157.B3 M37 1993|
|v.1 1752-1798 |
|5th Floor Stacks, F157.B3 A27|
|5th Floor Stacks, F157.B8 W754 1995 |
F157.B8 M952 2002
F157.B8 M95 2000
|v.1. 1685-1795 |
|Chester||v. 1. 1714-1758|
v. 2. 1758-1777
v. 3. 1777-1800
v. 4. 1801-1825
|5th Floor Stacks, F157.C4 A27|
|Cumberland||1785-1825||5th Floor Stacks, F157.C8 A28 1998|
|1750-1825||5th Floor Stacks, F157.C8 A27|
|Delaware||1789-1835||5th Floor Stacks, F157.N8 F57 1950|
|Lancaster||v. 1. 1732-1785|
v. 2. 1786-1820
|5th Floor Stacks, F157.L2 W75 1995|
|1821-18305||F157.L2 W49 2000|
|5th Floor Stacks, F157.M7 A27|
|Philadelphia||1893-1896 to 1901-1904||5th Floor Stacks, F157.P56 A27|
|Synder||1772-1855||5th Floor Stacks, F157.S5 F4 1940|
|York||1749-1819||5th Floor Stacks, F157.Y6 W75 1995|
Census and Tax Lists
Census and tax lists help establish a person’s presence in a particular place at a particular time. Prior to the first federal census, many counties kept lists of property owners for purposes of taxation. Property included real estate as well as livestock. NEHGS has pre-1790 tax lists for Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Westmorland, Washington, and York counties (multiple years). Another useful source of information is the Pennsylvania septennial census conducted every seven years beginning in 1779 for tax and representation purposes. These censuses help the family historian fill in the gaps between the decennial federal censuses and are available at Ancestry.
Passenger Lists and Naturalization Records
The City of Philadelphia, on the Delaware River, has been a major port of entry into the country since the 1600s. Several excellent online and published lists for the port exist:
Collection of 30,000 Pennsylvania Immigrants from 1727-1776 by I. Daniel Rupp
NEHGS, 5th floor Stacks, F152.R9614 1985; also available at FamilySearch.org
Pennsylvania German Pioneers: A Publication of the Original Lists of Arrivals in the Port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808 by Ralph Beaver Strassburger
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference, F160.G3 S8 1934; also available at Archive.org
Passenger Arrivals at the Port of Philadelphia, 1800-1819: The Philadelphia Baggage Lists by Michael Tepper
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference, CS68 .T48 1986; also available at Ancestry.com
Emigrants to Pennsylvania, 1641-1819: A Consolidation of Ship Passenger Lists from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography by Michael Tepper
NEHGS, 5th Floor Stacks, F148 .E5 1975
Philadelphia Naturalization Records: An Index to Records of Aliens' Declarations of Intention and/or Oaths of Allegiance, 1789-1880 by P. William Filby
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reference, CS68 .P47 1982; also available at Ancestry.com
Migration To and Within Pennsylvania
In addition to the Swedish, Dutch, and English settlers mentioned in the introduction, other important groups emigrated to and settled in Pennsylvania: Germans (many from the Palatinate), Scots-Irish, and of course, Quaker. While some individuals stayed in the Philadelphia region, others used old Indian trails and new roads, such as the Great Valley or Wagon Road from Philadelphia, through Lancaster, Gettysburg, to Western Maryland and into Virginia. William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815 provides historical context for the development of the major migration routes through Pennsylvania. For a more in-depth view of migration routes within Pennsylvania, consult the wonderfully detailed and heavily illustrated with maps, Indian Paths of Pennsylvania by Paul Wallace.
The following NEHGS sources provide information about each of the major immigrant groups.
Dutch: New Netherland : a Dutch colony in seventeenth-century America, by Jaap Jacobs (general history); Genealogical and Biographical Directory to Persons in New Netherland, from 1613 to 1674, by David Riker; and Ancestral Lines: 232 Families in England, Wales, the Netherlands, Germany, New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, by Carl Boyer (family names and genealogical abstracts)
German: For an overview of the German migration to Pennsylvania, consult, William Parsons’ Pennsylvania Germans. Henry Jones’ Even more Palatine families: 18th Century Immigrants to the American Colonies and Their German, Swiss, and Austrian Origins provides a comprehensive overview of families emigrating from the Palatinate. Another good source is Annette Burgert’s extensive series of helpful books on the German origins of Pennsylvania settlers. In the online Library Catalog, click the “Author” tab and enter “Burgert” in the search box.
Scots-Irish: The Scotch-Irish of Colonial Pennsylvania, by Wayland Dunaway (general history)
Quaker: The Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, by William Hinshaw. Volume II focuses on Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Periodicals represent the scholarly work of hundreds of local, state, national, and international societies and organizations. In a periodical, the family historian might find newly transcribed manuscript materials, indexes and abstracts of source materials, local genealogies, as well as newly uncovered information about residents of the area. The following NEHGS holdings may be of use to the Pennsylvania researcher.
Mennonite Family History Holdings: 1982 to present
NEHGS, 5th Floor E184.M45 M46
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Holdings: 1877 to present
NEHGS, 5th Floor F146 .P65 – online at the University of Pennsylvania (1907-2010) with searchable index. Additional issues available at JSTOR (requires subscription).
Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society Various holdings: 1891 to present
NEHGS, 5th Floor F146.P23 and F146 .P24
Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Quarterly Holdings: 1974 to present
NEHGS, 5th Floor F148 .W48 1974
NEHGS’s rich manuscript collection includes over 300 documents related to Pennsylvania. About two thirds of the manuscripts pertain to specific family surnames. You may search for yours by clicking the “Advanced” tab from the main Library Catalog Search page. Type your family name into the first search box and then click “Collection” to select manuscripts.
The remaining manuscripts cover unpublished church and cemetery records as well as a few deeds and other land records. For church and cemetery records, the early settlement counties are especially well represented (York, Lancaster, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia).
Maps and Atlases
Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Pennsylvania
NEHGS, 5th floor G1201.F7 A8 1993 Pa.
Combination Atlas of the County of Mercer and the State of Pennsylvania: From Actual Surveys & Official Records
NEHGS, 5th floor Atlas Oversize G1263.M4 G5 1978
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in Philadelphia maintains the most extensive historical and genealogical collection in the state of Pennsylvania. Multiple online subject guides, including one about researching Pennsylvania family history, assist the family historian. If your ancestor was a miner or a railroad worker, your first stop should be the HSP to explore their far-reaching manuscript collection.
Pennsylvania Genealogical and Historical Societies – A listing of county genealogical and historical societies
Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh – a Pennsylvania-based genealogical research focused organization
Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.
Meet one-on-one with our genealogists
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