Historical Markers
Provincial Courthouse Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Provincial Courthouse

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
SE section of Square, York

Dedication Date:
December 15, 1949

Behind the Marker

Several places claim to have been "capitals" of the United States, based on brief and transient stays by various branches or agencies of the early American government, but at York, for nine crucial months during the American Revolution, the national government actually transacted serious and sustained business. There, the Continental Congress -reluctantly and sometimes, it seemed, just barely - managed to stay in control of the revolution that it had proclaimed, to frame a long-term instrument of national government, to conduct the nation's foreign policy, to think seriously about public finance and political economy, and to confront the gap between its military ideals and realities.
Black and white image of old courthouse
Etching of the Provincial Courthouse

Founded in 1741, York served as a market center for the large populations of German and Scots-Irish farm families who were streaming into the area from the east. Eight years later, when York County split off from Cumberland, the town became the seat of the new county's government. York provided the same mix of trading and administrative functions that Lancaster did for its county, or Reading for Berks, or Bethlehem for Northampton.

Unlike the settlements east of the Susquehanna, however, York traders and farmers conducted considerable business with Baltimore, down river in Maryland. This helped to sustain the sense of distance between the locality and Philadelphia when the Revolution moved west in 1777. Despite a sense of mutual distrust and sometimes even contempt between locals and the cosmopolitan leaders of the Revolution, however, York County tended to support the effort for Independence, and both to isolate and abuse its citizens who sided with the British.
Color photograph of the Courthouse.
Provincial Courthouse

In the fall of 1777, as the Delaware Valley became the "seat of war," the government bodies residing in Philadelphia fled to the west. Claiming the most secure site west of the Susquehanna, the Continental Congress met at the York Provincial Courthouse for almost nine months. Here Congress heard the joyous news of markerGeneral Horatio Gates's victories at Saratoga, New York, the first unequivocal American victory in the war. They also received General Washington's gloomy and sometimes angry reports on the military situation around Philadelphia, and his requests for more material and organizational support. The inflation caused by the Continental currency also appeared in York, often in the form of unpleasantly high room and tavern bills for the Congressmen themselves.

Congress waited anxiously for news from markerBenjamin Franklin, then in France, about his efforts to secure foreign recognition of American independence and military assistance. Here, too, the delegates in November of 1777 drafted new "Articles of Confederation." (These would not be formally ratified until 1781.) At York, too, early luminaries of the revolutionary generation, such as president of Congress, John Hancock, began to turn their attention back to political affairs in their home "countries," which is what they called such places as Massachusetts and Virginia.

News of the successes at Saratoga and anxieties over silence from Franklin in Paris ignited philosophical and personal jealousies in Congress over how the war should be prosecuted. These passions interacted with divisions within General Washington's staff to nourish rumors that a "cabal" in Congress, organized around Horatio Gates, was plotting Washington's demise as commander in chief.

Early in the "Valley Forge Winter," Congress agreed to send a committee to consult Washington about military reforms. While the committeemen labored in camp, two weeks of bad weather and the resulting collapse of the army's supply departments brought the army to the brink of dissolution in mid-February of 1778. This helped Washington to persuade Congress to change the army's enlistment policies and to promise officers lifetime pensions for faithful service. None of these developments changed the fundamental course of the Revolution in the short run, and the Valley Forge winter was hardly the "turning point" in the war that has sometimes been suggested. The Congress's list of accomplishments and endeavors, however, more than justifies York's claim to have been the capital of the nation at a critical time during the War for Independence.
Back to Top