PENNSYLVANIA was explored by the Dutch in the early 1600s, settled by the Swedes forty years later, and claimed by the British in 1664. Charles II of England, who owed a debt to the Penn family, rid himself of the potentially troublesome young William Penn, an enthusiastic advocate of religious freedom, by granting him land in the colony in 1682. Penn Jr immediately established a “holy experiment” of “brotherly love” and tolerance, naming the state after his father and setting a good example by signing a peaceful cohabitation treaty with the Native Americans. Most of the early agricultural settlers were religious refugees, Quakers like Penn himself and Mennonites from Germany and Switzerland, to be joined by Irish Catholics during the potato famines of the nineteenth century.

“The Keystone State” was crucial in the development of the United States. Politicians and thinkers like Benjamin Franklin congregated in Philadelphia – home of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – and were prominent in articulating the ideas behind the Revolution. Later, the battle in Gettysburg, in south Pennsylvania, marked a turning point in the Civil War. Pennsylvania was also vital industrially: Pittsburgh, in the west, was the world’s leading steel producer in the nineteenth century, and nearly all the nation’s anthracite coal is still mined here.

The two great urban centres of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, both lively and vibrant tourist destinations, are at opposite ends of the state. The three hundred miles between them, though predominantly agricultural, are topographically diverse. There are more than one hundred state parks, with green rolling countryside in the east and brooding forests in the west. Lancaster County, home to traditional Amish farmers, the Gettysburg battlefield and the Hershey chocolate factory, minutes away from state capital Harrisburg, draw visitors by the thousands. Finally, in the far northwest, Lake Erie provides the state’s only waterfront, centred upon the eponymous town.

Lancaster County: Pennsylvania Dutch Country

Lancaster County stretches for about 45 miles from Coatesville, which is forty miles west of Philadelphia on US-30, to the Susquehanna River in the west. Although tiny, uncosmopolitan Lancaster, ten miles east of the river, was US capital for a day in September 1777, the region is famed more for its preponderance of agricultural religious communities, known collectively as the Pennsylvania Dutch. They actually have no connection to the Netherlands; the name is a mistaken derivation of Deutsch (German). A touristy place even before it was brought to international fame by the movie Witness, most of Lancaster County has maintained its natural beauty in the face of encroaching commercialization. It is a region of gentle countryside and fertile farmlands, eccentric-sounding place names such as Intercourse, horse-drawn buggies, tiny roadside bakeries and Amish children wending their way between immaculate, flower-filled farmhouses and one-room schoolhouses.

However, attempting to live a simple life away from the pressures of the outside world has proved too much for many Pennsylvania Dutch. A few (mainly Mennonites) have succumbed to commercial need by offering rides in their buggies and meals in their homes, while members of the stricter orders have moved away to communities in less touristic mid-Western states. When visiting, remember that Sunday is a day of rest for the Amish, so many attractions, restaurants and other amenities will be closed.

Though useful for a general overview and historical insight, the attractions that interpret Amish culture tend toward overkill. It’s far more satisfying just to explore the countryside for yourself. Here, among the streams with their covered bridges and fields striped with corn, alfalfa and tobacco, the reality hits you – these aren’t actors recreating an ancient lifestyle, but real people, part of a living, working community.

The Pennsylvania Dutch

The people now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch originated as Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Switzerland, under the leadership of Menno Simons. His unorthodox advocacy of adult baptism and literal interpretation of the Bible led to the order’s persecution; they were invited by William Penn to settle in Lancaster County in the 1720s. Today the twenty or so orders of Pennsylvania Dutch include the “plain” Old Order Amish (a strict order that originally broke away from Simons in 1693) and freer-living Mennonites, as well as the “fancy” Lutheran groups (distinguished by the colourful circular “hex” signs on their barns). Living by an unwritten set of rules called Amish Ordnung, which includes absolute pacifism, the Amish are the strictest and best known: the men with their wide-brimmed straw hats and beards (but no “military” moustaches), the women in bonnets, plain dresses (with no fripperies like buttons) and aprons. Shunning electricity and any exposure to the corrupting influence of the outside world, the Amish power their farms with generators, and travel (at roughly 10mph) in handmade horse-drawn buggies. For all their insularity, the Amish are very friendly and helpful; resist the temptation to photograph them, however, as the making of “graven images” offends their beliefs.

The Rough Guide to USA and related travel guides

In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Find even more inspiration for USA here

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

author photo
Andy Turner
10/2/2020
Ready to travel and discover USA?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels