John Pritiskutch Reproductions

History of Berks County

The following is reproduced from the 1876 Atlas of Berks County, Pennsylvania

To a stranger passing through that portion of Pennsylvania known as Berks county, the continually changing scenes are an unfailing source of wonder and admiration. Coming from the coal regions on the north, from the east by way of New Jersey from the south through Philadelphia, or the west via Harrisburg, he is astonished to find himself in a region so blessed by both nature and art. As he beholds the fields of waving corn, wheat and other cereals, the earth abounding in mineral wealth, only awaiting the industrious and skilful hand of man to pluck it from its hiding places and to make it minister to the wants of the human race, as he sees the thrifty population and the splendid farms, the herds of sleek cattle grazing in the fields, the barns filled to overflowing with the productions of the land, he is compelled to acknowledge that the title of "Glorious Old Berks" is in no respect a misnomer. As he ascends some one of the numerous pleasant hills and surveys the neighboring country, he sees all around him indications that it is the abode of a happy and prosperous people. As far as the eye can reach, the substantial homes of Berks County farmers meet his view. He looks upon a land watered by numerous streams, each contributing its share towards making the soil productive. His attention is attracted by the smoke of locomotives in the distance, drawing long lines of cars filled with coal, iron and other freight, or thundering along with their loads of passengers to and from all sections of the country. He sees canal boats slowly wending their way to the metropolis of the State, with their burdens of the natural productions of the country, to be exchanged for the commodities of the city. At night, tile fires from numerous furnaces and rolling mills light up the whole surrounding region. From all sides comes the hum of the varied industries of the county. If the traveler visits the different sections of Berks, and enters the homes of the inhabitants, he learns that the signs of thrift have not deceived him. After becoming well acquainted with the inmates, he is astonished to discover how much wealth there is, even in the homes of those whom lie judged to be in moderate circumstances. By industry and prudence they have steadily accumulated property, and laid up money for the use of their children. Hospitable to their friends, and contented with their lot, they live and die in the neighborhood where they were reared, seldom desiring to change their peaceful life for the tumult of the city.

Great changes have taken place within the past one hundred and fifty years. Then the land all around us was a trackless wilderness. Here the Indians had unmolested possession of the country. Instead of the whistle of the locomotive, were heard the cries of wild animals. The streams then pursued their way towards the sea, unvexed by any contrivances of man. Where now the iron mills and forges belch forth their clouds of blackness, was then only seen the faint smoke rising from some solitary wigwam. Here and there, daring pioneers had cleared a tract of land for their own use, but these were very few in number.

The Indians of this section were of the Lenape, or Delaware tribe. They received William Penn at his arrival with generous hospitality. He found, on conversing with them, that like other people, they had faith in a Deity, and in immortality beyond the grave. Conrad Weiser also bore testimony to the belief of the natives in the overruling providence of God. In proof of this he cited numerous examples of his observation during the time of his acquaintance with them. One of them having had a narrow escape from death, uttered these words: "I thank the great Lord and Governor of this World, in that He has had mercy upon me, and has been willing that I should live longer." Mr. Weiser thought these words proved that the Indians placed their confidence in a higher Being.

But they have all passed away, and left no trace behind.
"Alas for them--their day is o'er,
Their fires are out from hill and shore;
No more for them the wild deer bounds,
The plough is on their hunting grounds;
The pale man's axe rings through their woods,
The pale man's sail skims o'er their floods."

Berks county is situated in the Southeastern portion of Pennsylvania. On the northwest are the Blue Mountains, while the South Mountain range divides the county into two very unequal parts. The Schuylkill river is the principal stream, passing nearly through the centre of the county, and together with its tributaries, watering a most fertile and beautiful valley. In the north-western portion of the county the Little Swatara takes its rise, whence it wends its way to mingle its waters with those of the Susquehanna. The soil is mostly lime-stone formation, although slate abounds in the regions adjoining the Blue Mountains, and elsewhere. Rich deposits of iron are found in different parts of the county, the mining, smelting and manufacturing of which furnishes steady employment to thousands of industrious workmen. But farming engages the attention of the majority of the people, being an occupation, well adapted to the habits and customs of the German population, who prefer its sure and steady profits to the uncertainty and risk attending mechanical and mercantile pursuits. The language used throughout the county is principally German. It is however being rapidly supplanted by the English, due in a great measure to the influence of the public schools, where the latter is required to be taught. The older portion of the community however cling with great tenacity to the language of their ancestors.

Berks was originally a part of the counties known as Chester, Philadelphia and Lancaster. In 1752, petitions were presented to the Assembly, signed by a number of inhabitants of Readingtown on the Schuylkill, representing, that, whereas they were situated so far from the seat of justice as to involve great trouble and expense in obtaining redress, and whereas it was easy for criminals to escape punishment by crossing the river, they therefore prayed that a new county be erected, with Reading for its capital. The petitions were granted during the same year, and men were appointed, some to run the boundary lines, and others to erect a court-house and prison in the town of Reading for the convenience of the inhabitants of the county.

Since the formation of Berks, it has been twice reduced in size, once in 1772, by the taking off of a section to form Northumberland, and also in 1811, by the erection of Schuylkill. For a long time at the point, where the three counties of Berks, Lebanon and Lancaster come together, there stood an immense chestnut tree, which served to mark the boundary line of the three counties. It has since been destroyed by lightning, and a sandstone pedestal has been erected in the centre of the stump, having three sides with the name of the corresponding county cut on each side.

Soon after William Penn had established his colony, he proclaimed to the different religious sects of Europe, that in Pennsylvania they could not only obtain ample sustenance, but also enjoy unlimited freedom of worship. The offer of religious liberty thus generously tendered, was accepted with great alacrity by people of many nationalities, among whom the Germans largely predominated. The first who came hither from 1700 to 1711, finding their expectations fully realized, acquainted their friends in the Old Country, with the great advantages which they were here enjoying. In consequence of this, the fame of the new colony became widely known, and thousands of all ranks and sects arrived annually. They scattered themselves throughout the different counties, and Berks received a large share, principally of the Lutheran and German Reformed denominations.

The Indians occasioned a great deal of trouble to the inhabitants of the county In the year 1744, when war was declared between Great Britain and France, the latter succeeded in exciting the hostility of the natives against the former. The Indians having long been dissatisfied with the English. The French found them all too ready to join them in their acts of plunder and rapine. From the time of Braddock's defeat, in 1755, till 1764. Berks was in a continual state of alarm. Any one consulting the Provincial records of that. time, will find them abounding in accounts, either of murders and burning of dwellings, or expressions of great anxiety for the future, or rumors of impending danger. In 1755, it was reported that the French and Indians were making incursions into the frontier settlements, and fears were entertained that the whole region would be laid waste. In November 1755. a party of Indians murdered thirteen persons, and burned a number of houses, destroyed cattle, grain, and fodder, and devastated a large extent of country. Conrad Weiser, who was then commander of the forces in Berks, wrote letters still in existence to Governor Morris, giving thrilling accounts of the deplorable state of affairs. In one letter during the last of 1755, be exclaimed; "This country is in a dismal condition. It can't hold out long--consternation, poverty, confusion, everywhere." Alarms of this kind were common in Berks and other counties, till 1778, when the Indians were finally driven beyond the Allegheny mountains. During the Revolutionary war, Berks took an active part in the defence of liberty, although the track of war did not reach its territory. From that time the county has steadily increased in wealth and in influence. It has been vastly improved by the construction of roads and railroads; new enterprises have been started; new deposits of mineral wealth have been discovered which have been successfully worked; and the farms have been steadily rendered more productive by the industry and skill of the husbandmen; school houses and churches have been erected, which are generally supported by the liberal people of the county. When the late civil war broke out, the people of Berks were among the first to respond to the President's call for troops. The sons of Berks distinguished themselves in the field, as they have ever done in civil life. During the incursions of the enemy into the southern portion of the State, the inhabitants were greatly alarmed lest all this rich territory should become a prey to rebel forces. Happily, however, the tide of war, which at one time seemed to be steadily rolling in this direction, was turned back, and the people were left to the free enjoyment of the blessings of their favored locality, and to the unrestrained pursuit of their profitable industries: The war, terrible as it was in the destruction of property and of human life, yet served to develop the resources of the county to a wonderful degree. There was a constant demand for the productions of the soil, for which highly remunerative prices were paid to the farmers. The manufacturing interest received an impetus it had never before experienced. Trade was brisk and money was plenty, not only in the banks and marts of business, but also in the pockets of the people. The population and the wealth of the country were greatly increased during the progress of the war, and in the few years of prosperity which immediately succeeded.

Of the future of Berks there can be no question. Situated as it is in the fertile region of the Schuylkill valley, with the tributaries watering the land on all sides, it affords unusual facilities for agricultural pursuits. The large cities and towns within its limits, and in its neighborhood, cause a demand for all its produce. New deposits of mineral wealth are constantly being discovered in various sections of the county, all being without doubt outcrops of an inexhaustible mine. The roads are being constantly improved and new ones laid out. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad with its numerous branches intersects the county With an iron net-work, affording abundant facilities for communication and trade with all parts of the country. The South Mountain Railroad, when finished, will bring the manufactures of New England directly to Berks, and will, in return, enable the people to send their coal and iron to the East. without the delay of passing through New York City. In addition to this, at large share of the travel between the eastern and western sections of the country will pass through its territory. When we take into considersation the natural resources of the county, its favorable location and the enterprise of the people, it requires no great spirit of prophecy to forsee that it is destined to become one of the wealthiest and most densely populated counties of the United States.

Judges of the Courts
Jeremiah Hangenman, President
Augustus S. Sassaman, Add'l Law Judge
George W. Bruckmane, Associate Judge
Daniel Buskirk, Associate Judge
Charles F. Rentschler
George R. Yorgen
Peter Y. Edelman
Jefferson M. Keller
Clerk of Quarter Sessions
Mahlon A. Sellers
Clerk of the Orphans Court
Charles Clouse
Court Crier
Joseph Ritter
County Treasure
A.H. Schaeffer
County Commissioners
H.W. Smith
W. Davidheiser
W. G. Moore
Directors of the Poor
George Heckman
Samuel Strunk
Isaac Y. Breidler
W.Y. Lyon