Revolutionary War: A Q&A on York’s role

York County historian Jim McClure answers important questions about the American Revolution and York’s role.

In this image courtesy of the York County Heritage Trust, artist William Wagner captures the office of The Gazette, predecessor to the York Daily Record/Sunday News, on the southeast corner of West Market and South Beaver streets in 1830. During the American Revolution, the building was occupied by the Hall and Sellers press, where currency and acts of Congress were printed.

In this image courtesy of the York County Heritage Trust, artist William Wagner captures the office of The Gazette, predecessor to the York Daily Record/Sunday News, on the southeast corner of West Market and South Beaver streets in 1830. During the American Revolution, the building was occupied by the Hall and Sellers press, where currency and acts of Congress were printed.

What was the American Revolution all about?

Britain’s 13 American Colonies revolted against their mother country to win independence. The armed insurrection started as a skirmish in Massachusetts between farmer-soldiers – minutemen – and red-clad British soldiers in 1775 and evolved into major land and sea battles between two trained armies.

The war became international when the United States received backing from France in 1778 (when Congress met in York Town), Spain in 1779 and the Netherlands in 1780. The Revolution was, in effect, a civil war, caused by irrevocable disagreements over Britain’s handling of Colonial affairs.

When did the Revolution begin and end?

The Battle at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, marked the war’s first battle. Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ surrender to Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, Va., on Oct. 19, 1781, came after the last major battle. The United States and Great Britain signed a final peace treaty in Paris on Sept. 3, 1783.

Did all Americans join in the Revolution?

An estimated 50,000 Americans fought for the British, and roughly 100,000 other Loyalists, or Tories, went into exile. The war divided families, similar to America’s Civil War 100 years later. The patriots backing the American cause often persecuted the Tories and confiscated their property. The British viewed the patriots as rebels, occupied their homes and, likewise, helped themselves to their property.

A large third group – Quakers and German peace churches – opposed the war, but favored independence. Scholars have pointed out another, less principled part of this third group – those that joined either side, depending on which army was closer.

Who ran America during the Revolution?

The Continental Congress, made up of delegates from the 13 Colonies, provided the tie that bound, albeit loosely, the Colonies during the American Revolution.

The Colonies, later known as states, sent delegates to Congress, which governed under the Articles of Confederation for much of the war.

Did the United States have an advantage fighting the war on its home turf?

Yes, the Continental Army was familiar with climate and terrain. The French and Indian War gave Colonial officers tactical experience fighting under frontier and wilderness conditions.

Colonial soldiers were not as skilled with guns as is often believed today, but the Continental Army could brag of a large number of marksmen who had honed their skills on the frontier.

Further, American soldiers fought for a deeply felt cause. British soldiers, many of whom were impressed, or forced, into service, lacked a sense of purpose. Any resolve dissipated as public opinion against the war in Britain grew as the war wore on.

When did the Continental Congress meet?

The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia from Sept. 5, 1774, to Oct. 26, 1774. Fifty-six delegates from 12 colonies made up the First Continental Congress. (Georgia did not send delegates but agreed to support the plans of Congress.)

The Second Continental Congress met from May 10, 1775, to March 2, 1789. Most members of the Second Continental Congress, including James Smith of York Town, signed their names to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This treasonable action was akin to signing their own death warrants.

Why did the Continental Congress first meet?

Beginning in 1763, the British government changed its policy from passive to direct control of its colonies.

Britain was staggering under debt incurred in the French and Indian War. The mother country started levying taxes and duties, which colonists took as infringements on their rights as Englishmen.

The Colonies elected delegates to Congress in 1774 to discuss what they considered British tyranny, particularly taxation without representation in the British Parliament.

Where did Continental Congress meet?

Congress met in eight different places, sometimes more than once – Philadelphia, Lancaster and York Town, in Pennsylvania; Baltimore and Annapolis in Maryland; Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey; and New York City.

The Congress of the United States, established by the Constitution, moved to a ninth location, Washington, D.C., in 1800.

Under what authority did the Continental Congress meet?

Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation while meeting in York Town in 1777, and the last state – Maryland – approved the document in 1781.

The Articles loosely bound the Colonies into the United States. It took the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, to create a strong central government.

When did the Continental Congress finally recess?

The Congress of the United States, America’s top legislative body to this day, began meeting under the authority of the newly minted U.S. Constitution on March 4, 1789.

Why did the Continental Congress meet in York Town?

Delegates fled Philadelphia because the British occupation was imminent in September 1777. America’s Founding Fathers convened in the remote village of York, or York Town as it was commonly called, on Sept. 30, 1777, and adjourned on June 27, 1778, to return to Philadelphia after the redcoats withdrew.

Who were some of the famous patriots staying in York Town?

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Henry Laurens were among the most illustrious.

Why didn’t George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson make it to York Town?

During the winter of 1777-78, Washington stayed with his men at his Valley Forge camp, strategically located between Philadelphia and York Town. Franklin was enjoying French cuisine in his ultimately successful diplomatic efforts to persuade France to ally itself with America against Britain. In an ironic twist, Franklin had visited York County in 1755 to raise supplies for Britain in its fight against the French in the French and Indian War.

Jefferson wanted to be closer to his family and work for the patriot cause in his native Virginia after his brilliant work on the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He was not a member of the Continental Congress during its exodus from Philadelphia to York Town.

Did George Washington ever sleep in York Town?

Washington passed through York County at least four times, both before and after the Revolution. As a young surveyor, Washington stopped by on his way to the Philadelphia land office. He journeyed through the county in 1773 after taking his stepson, Jack Custis, to King’s College, now Columbia University.

His third visit came in July 1791 as part of a presidential tour of northern states. Two events characterized that trip: Some Yorkers complained because of the $14 spent for the 722 candles that burned all night in the York County Court House. Also, the president attended a German service at the Reformed Church on West High (Market) Street. He noted that he was in no danger of changing to the Reformed denomination because he couldn’t understand the German proceedings.

His fourth visit came in 1794 when he led a militia to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. A fifth undocumented visit reportedly came in 1797 after his retirement as president.

What were the most important events that occurred when Congress met in York Town?

Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation on Nov. 15, 1777 and sent copies to the states for ratification.

Only two weeks before, Congress had received some good news: Colonial forces had accepted the surrender of thousands of British troops at Saratoga, N.Y. – considered by some to be the war’s turning point. This victory, in turn, helped Franklin and fellow commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, negotiate treaties with France to fight the British. Congress also ratified the treaties while meeting in York Town.

A reported organized attempt to oust Washington as commander of the Continental Army, called the Conway Cabal, lost steam during Congress’ visit west of the Susquehanna.

What impact does the Continental Congress’ visit have on York County residents today?

Much happened in America – and in York County – during the nine-month visit. The delegates and nation were in low spirits in September 1777. Positive results from the British surrender at Saratoga, the alliance with France and a refitted Army brightened the patriot outlook upon their return to Philadelphia in June 1778.

York County residents have looked on this reversal of fortunes with pride ever since, placing a Colonial stamp on the community that has lasted 225 years. It has been said that York County frames historical images of its heritage with wood from the York County Court House, widely known as the Colonial Courthouse.

How did the Revolutionary War change York Town and York County?

Throughout history, wars have produced many byproducts. They serve, for example, as a means of internal transformation in communities. Certainly, in York, the war sped up socioeconomic and political development.

Congress’ visit added to or accelerated change. “As a result,” historian Paul Doutrich has observed, “by the mid-1780s the county was well on the way to making the transition from a region of remote cultural settlements to an economically progressive ‘modern’ American community.”

Did York County support the war effort?

Early in the war, many county residents fervently backed the war, immediately enlisting and serving in great numbers. As the war continued, residents kept their high view of America’s independence, but became more skeptical about the conflict and did not provide as many recruits.

Abuse by the military, perceived lavish living by congressional delegates, disagreements with Pennsylvania’s Assembly and a sagging economy contributed to local concerns.

What are some of structures standing today in York County that come from the Revolutionary War period?

The Golden Plough Tavern/Gates House on York’s West Market Street housed soldiers, delegates and officials. The nearby Colonial Courthouse is a well-researched replica of the Centre Square Courthouse where Congress met. The original was demolished in 1841.

The Cookes House, dating from before the war, stands on Penn Street. The Friends Meeting House on West Philadelphia Street and the Willis House near Prospect Hill Cemetery stood during the visit. The Schultz House in Springettsbury Township is near the site of Camp Security, a prisoner-of-war camp.

Who were the most prominent local leaders in York County during the Revolution and its aftermath?

James Smith stands out because of the scope of his involvement. He was noted for his roles in politics: member of Continental Congress and signer of Declaration of Independence; business: attorney and owner of Codorus Furnace; and military: captain of a company of volunteers.

Thomas Hartley also excelled in the military arena as a colonel in the Continental Army and in politics as York County’s first delegate to the U.S. Congress.

Archibald McClean, a former surveyor with the Mason and Dixon surveying team, was another prominent citizen. McClean ran order through chaos at a time when a new revolutionary government was being organized on the county level. His positions included commissioner, prothonotary, register of wills and recorder of deeds.