Background Sources for Pennsylvania

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This entry was originally written by Roger D. Joslyn, CG, FUGA, FGBS, FASG in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Pennsylvania Family History Research series.
History of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Vital Records
Census Records for Pennsylvania
Background Sources for Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Maps
Pennsylvania Land Records
Pennsylvania Probate Records
Pennsylvania Court Records
Pennsylvania Tax Records
Pennsylvania Cemetery Records
Pennsylvania Church Records
Pennsylvania Military Records
Pennsylvania Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Pennsylvania Archives, Libraries and Societies
Pennsylvania Immigration
Pennsylvania Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania County Resources
Map of Pennsylvania


Many of Pennsylvania’s early government records were published in two groups. The first group contained the Minutes of the Provincial Council and The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, usually referred to as The Colonial Records, 16 vols. (1838–53; reprint, New York: A.M.S. Press, 1971). Beginning in 1852, the first of nine series of Pennsylvania Archives was published. The published archives include records concerning military service and pensions, land warrants, naturalizations, baptisms and marriages, tax lists, ships’ lists, Native Americans, boundary disputes, Provincial Assembly journals, and actions of governors, as well as maps. Not all the volumes are indexed and some of the original material from which they were prepared is now gone, but there are helpful guides that should be consulted. Among these are Henry Howard Eddy and Martha L. Simonetti, eds., Guide to the Published Archives of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Pa.: Historical and Museum Commission, 1949; reprint, 1976); Sally A. Weikel, comp., Genealogical Research in the Published Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, Pa.: State Library of Pennsylvania, 1976); Jean S. Morris, comp., Use of the Published Pennsylvania Archives in Genealogical Research, 2d ed. (Pittsburgh: Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society, 2003); and Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer, Lost in Pennsylvania? Try the Published Pennsylvania Archives, Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania Special Publication No. 7 (Philadelphia, 1999). See also Frank B. Evans, “The Many Faces of the Pennsylvania Archives,” American Archivist 27 (1964): 271, and Roland M. Baumann, “Dr. Sheuk’s Missing Series of the Published Pennsylvania Archives,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103 (1979): 415-31.

Norman B. Wilkinson, comp., Bibliography of Pennsylvania History, 2d ed., S.K. Stevens and Donald H. Kent, eds. (Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1957) is a large work divided into sections for state, county, local, and topical history. A Supplement (Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1957), edited by Carol Wall, was published in 1976. Updates through 1985, compiled by John B. B. Trussell, Jr., appeared in six volumes as Pennsylvania Historical Bibliography (Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission). The bibliography was continued through 1989 in Pennsylvania History, edited by Donna Munger, in volumes 56 and 57 (1989–90).

George P. Donehoo, Pennsylvania: A History, 11 vols. (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1926) is one of the better large works, with volumes 5–11 containing biographical data. Philip F. Klein and Ari Hoogenboom, A History of Pennsylvania, 2d ed. (University Park, Pa., and London, England: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), is another useful work. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, ed. Randall M. Miller and William Pencak (Penn State Press and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002), actually includes a chapter about Pennsylvania genealogy. Another excellent introduction to materials about the Commonwealth’s history is A Guide to the History of Pennsylvania, by Dennis B. Downey and Francis J. Bremer (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993).

No study of Pennsylvania is complete without The Papers of William Penn, edited by Mary Maples Dunn and others, 5 volumes published in Philadelphia by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981–86. Each volume is indexed separately.

Other titles include Paul A. W. Wallace, Pennsylvania, Seed of a Nation (New York: Harper & Row, 1962); Joseph J. Kelley, Jr., Pennsylvania: The Colonial Years, 1681–1776 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), which has a useful bibliography; and works by Sylvester Kirby Stevens: Pennsylvania, The Keystone State, 2 vols. (New York: American Historical Co., 1956); Pennsylvania, Birthplace of a Nation (New York: Random House, 1964); and Pennsylvania, The Heritage of a Commonwealth, 4 vols. (West Palm Beach, Fla.: American Historical Co., 1968), of which volume 4 is biographical.

In Pennsylvania, as in other states, “mug” books (printed sources that present pictures and biographies of those who subscribed to the publication) are common and must be used with care. The largest set in Pennsylvania is the Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, published by Lewis Historical Publishing Company of New York in 32 volumes (1914–67). A somewhat better group is Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, 17 vols. (1911–65; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968).

Although covering a small, focused population, an excellent example in the biographical dictionary type of work is Lawmaking and Legislators in Pennsylvania: A Biographical Dictionary, two volumes to date, covering 1682–1756, edited by Craig W. Horle and others (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991– ).

Guides

One of the best overviews is Milton Rubincam’s chapter on Pennsylvania in Genealogical Research: Methods and Sources, vol. 1, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: The American Society of Genealogists, 1980).

Thomas F. Gordon, A Gazetteer of the State of Pennsylvania (1832; reprint, New Orleans, La.: Polyanthos, 1975) is helpful for the early period. A later, related work that is basic on the subject is A. Howry Espenshade, Pennsylvania Place Names (1925; reprint, Baltimore: Clearfield Publishing Co., 1991). Many places not named in these works can be located in Pennsylvania Postal History (Lawrence, Mass.: Quarterman Publications, 1976), by John L. Kay and Chester M. Smith, Jr.

How Pennsylvania Acquired Its Present Boundaries, by William A. Russ, Jr. (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1966) covers the colony’s boundary disputes.

Kay Haviland Freilich’s “Genealogical Research in Pennsylvania,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 90 (2002): 7-36, also available as National Genealogical Society Special Publication No. 68 (2003), provides an excellent introduction to the subject.

Pennsylvania Genealogical Research, by George K. Schweitzer, rev. ed. (Knoxville, Tenn.: the author, 1997) is a good, basic, inexpensive guide.

Pennsylvania Line: A Research Guide to Pennsylvania Genealogy and Local History, 4th ed. (Laughlintown, Pa.: Southwest Pennsylvania Genealogical Services, 1990), contains a wide variety of helpful information, such as place-names; maps of the counties, townships, and cities; and lists of available published and microfilmed books, newspapers, and censuses. A similar but much expanded work of this type will be published in 2004 by Closson Press.

For the western part of the Commonwealth, see Raymond Martin Bell, Searching in Western Pennsylvania (Detroit: Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, 1977), and Bell’s Mother Cumberland: Tracing Your Ancestors in South-Central Pennsylvania (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1989); George Swetnam and Helen Smith, A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976); and the twelve papers from the “Come Home to Pennsylvania Conference,” held in Pittsburgh in May 1983 and published in Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Quarterly, vols. 8 and 9 (1982).

John Daly has produced Descriptive Inventory of the Archives of the City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Department of Records, 1970), and, with Allen Weinberg, Genealogy of Philadelphia County Subdivisions, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Department of Records, 1966), now available as Philadelphia Maps, 1682–1982: Townships–Districts–Wards, Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania Special Publication No. 6 (Philadelphia, 1996), which explains, with maps, the changes of the state’s largest city/county.

Floyd G. Hoenstine, Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research in Pennsylvania, 4th ed. (Hollidaysburg, Pa.: the author, 1978), with supplements for 1985 and 1990, provides a surname index to many published works. Mr. Hoenstine’s collection of over 3000 books, from which he created his Guide, is at the Blair County Genealogical Society, 431 Scotch Valley Rd., Hollidaysburg, PA 16648 <www.rootsweb.com/~pabcgs>, which sells his four-volume set for a small fee.

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