1. Travel

Southwestern Pennsylvania Genealogy

Trace Your Ancestors from the Greater Pittsburgh Region


With settlements stretching back to pre-revolutionary days, Southwestern Pennsylvania is an area rich in genealogy and history. Records date back to the 18th century and immigrants hail from all parts of Europe, often leading people researching their Southwestern Pennsylvania ancestry on a fascinating journey.

The Settlement of Western Pennsylvania
Settlement of the land west of the Allegheny Mountains began nearly a century and a half after the founding of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Military expeditions during the French and Indian War established a major transportation artery, Braddock's Road, into Western Pennsylvania. This road provided easy access to the area for immigrants from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. The building of a second road, stretching from Carlisle to present-day Pittsburgh in 1758 by Brigadier General John Forbes, opened the region for settlers from eastern Pennsylvania. By eighteenth century frontier standards, the Forbes Road, as it was named, existed as a "superhighway" into the western Pennsylvania wilderness.

The end of the French and Indian War brought about the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade English settlement into the Indian land west of the Appalachian Mountains. British authorities soon recognized that the western boundary drawn by this proclamation was unacceptable to land-hungry white settlers and ambitious fur traders. In November of 1768 at Fort Stanwix, the Iriquois Confederacy ceded the land which finally permitted settlement west of the Alleghenies. The region was formally opened in April 1769, with the establishment of Pennsylvania's Land Office, which issued warrants for land purchases. Fueled by glowing accounts from soldiers of this land to the west, settlers poured into western Pennsylvania.

The majority of these early immigrants were Scotch-Irish, German, English, French Huguenot and Swiss. In the 1870s the region attracted large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. These included Slavs, Poles, Italians, Jews, Russians, and Greeks. During the 19th and especially the 20th centuries, blacks from the southern states also moved to Pennsylvania in large numbers.

Western Pennsylvania County Timeline

Beginning at the province line, where the most westerly branch commonly called the South of Great Branch of Youghiogheny crosses the same; thence down the easterly side of said branch and river to Laurel Hill, thence along the ridge of said hill, northeastward, so far as it can be traced, or till it runs into Allegheny Hill, thence along the ridge dividing the waters of Susquehanna and the Allegheny River, to the purchase line at the head of Susquehanna; thence directly west to the limits of the province, and by the same to the place of beginning.

-- formation of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, 1773

Westmoreland County (1773) was the first county established in the Colony of Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Mountains. As such, it was the parent county for all or parts of ten Southwestern Pennsylvania counties. In 1781 it was divided to create Washington County, with another portion carved out to form Fayette County in 1783. Allegheny County was created in 1788 from parts of both Washington and Westmoreland Counties and Greene County was born from a portion of Washington County in 1796. Seven more Western PA counties were created in 1800: Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango.

  • Allegheny County - from Westmoreland and Washington on 24 Sep 1788
  • Armstrong - from Allegheny, Lycoming and Westmoreland on 12 Mar 1800
  • Beaver - from Allegheny and Washington on 12 Mar 1800
  • Butler - from Allegheny on 12 Mar 1800
  • Crawford - from Allegheny on 12 Mar 1800
  • Erie - from Allegheny on 12 Mar 1800
  • Fayette - from Westmoreland on 26 Sep 1783
  • Greene - from Washington on 9 Feb 1796
  • Mercer - from Allegheny and Crawford on 12 Mar 1800
  • Somerset - from Bedford on 17 April 1795
  • Venango - from Allegheny and Lycoming on 12 Mar 1800
  • Westmoreland - from Bedford in 1773
  • Washington - from Westmoreland on 28 March 1781

Knowledge of county formation is important for genealogical research because the majority of Pennsylvania genealogical records are found at the county level. If, for example, your ancestor lived in what is now Washington County prior to 1781, then you'll need to look in Westmoreland County for the earlier records.

Next Page > Pennsylvania Record Highlights

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.