Many American families trace their roots through Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley. This region has been part of America’s story before any colonist ever thought of breaking away from Great Britain. Before Europeans came searching for land, the Delaware and the Susquehannock tribes created trails throughout the valley.
In the 1730s, Scots Irish migrants from the Ulster Plantation in Ireland crossed the Susquehanna looking for a place to call their own. Within a few decades, German-speaking immigrants from the Palatinate region would follow Scots Irish into the valley. These groups of immigrants turned the Indian trails into their own pathways for commerce and safety. They built houses for their families, cleared land for their farms, and formed churches to worship their God. There they celebrated their marriage vows, baptized their children, and buried their dead in adjoining cemeteries. Lancaster County collected their taxes and represented organized authority. By 1750, the number of settlers west of the Susquehanna justified the creation of a new county. In the name of King George II of England, Cumberland County was created with boundaries stretching toward the Ohio River and Carlisle would become the governmental center. The county as well as smaller administrative units called townships and boroughs reflected the names of the early settlers, the ancestral homeland of the early Scots Irish settlers, and the area’s English founders. Some of these families stayed for generations. Others used the Cumberland Valley as a pathway into the Shenandoah Valley and the Ohio River Valley.
The great European powers competed for this territory, and western Pennsylvania became the frontline of the French and Indian War. For the British, Carlisle was the natural place to establish military barracks and soldiers marched from here into the frontier to fight in the name of the Crown. The early paths became roads to move supplies and troops westward. Even after the French and English signed a peace treaty in 1763, the frontier was hardly a safe and calm place to live. People ventured into lands west of modern-day Cumberland County but confrontations with Native Americans led many to return to the safety of the larger community.
These were the settlers who in the next decade sought independence from Great Britain. Cumberland County became a center of the revolutionary movement. Colonists met here in 1774 to declare their independence. The county would remain important to the newly formed United States of America. A father of the Bill of Rights, Robert Whitehill, drafted his 14-point document in Cumberland County. Eight of those points make up the country’s Bill of Rights. President Washington would rally troops here before heading west to Pittsburgh to squash the Whiskey Rebellion.
After the Revolution ended in 1783, Cumberland County remained the frontier pathway for the ever increasing wave of land-hungry migrants moving west. Although their eyes focused on the western horizons, they could not travel with the ease of today. Families moved slowly, stopping along the way sometimes for decades, temporarily making homes in the valley, bearing children, and gathering resources. They moved over the mountains, pushing the frontier across the Ohio River and into the plains of the American heartland and beyond. Others moved south via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. But they often left behind clues to their life in the Cumberland Valley and these clues are stored in the Cumberland County Historical Society.
The military presence in Cumberland County did not cease with the American Revolution. Wars and military engagements were fought on the county’s doorstep and the Carlisle Barracks continued its role as a military installation. Europeans fled violent wars only to find other wars in America and often served in American armies. During the Civil War, Confederate armies invaded the valley three times. Later troops moved through here on their way to both World Wars.
The families of the Cumberland Valley cared about education. In 1783 Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped to establish the first new college in America after the Revolution. Dickinson College would grow to become one of America’s prominent liberal arts colleges. Other educational institutions followed and people came from all over the world to study here.
From 1879 to 1918, the Carlisle Barracks was the home of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the United States’ first off reservation boarding school. The government’s educational policy affected generations of Native Americans. Dickinson College started the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center project to tell the story of the over 10,000 students. A goal of the project is to provide descendants of students forced to attend the school with documents and photographic resources of their ancestors.
In the 1950’s, the U.S. Army War College found a home at the Carlisle Barracks. Here American and world military leaders study leadership and strategies. In 1999, its history as the second-oldest active military installation in America and the Military History Institute made Carlisle the army’s choice to house its premier history center, the US Army Heritage and Education Center with the goal of telling the army’s story…one soldier at a time.
The history of the Cumberland Valley reflects America’s story. Slavery existed here until the 1840’s. In the antebellum era, the Valley became a pathway to freedom for many African Americans via the Underground Railroad. The McClintock Riot occurred in Carlisle during which a slave owner is killed. Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney and President James Buchanan both graduated from Dickinson College. After emancipation, many freed blacks made their home in the Cumberland Valley and African American communities grew. The Historical Society is preserving their family stories and photographs. Local preservation groups in 2016 began to restore an historic African American church and cemetery in Mt. Holly Springs.
In the late 1800’s while Americans struggled with their relationships to Native and African Americans, there was a great wave of migration into America. Ships arrived at Ellis Island with “huddled masses” seeking freedom in America and some found their way to the Cumberland Valley. Immigrants arrived from many countries including Greece and joined family members already here.
The Cumberland Valley continues as the pathway to America. In recent years, Bosnian and Vietnamese refugees fleeing conflict have arrived and the region is home to many migrant workers attracted by employment possibilities in the orchards. Railroads and large trucks carry freight and products through the valley. Our military uses the Carlisle Barracks just as it always has to develop leaders and for strategic planning. American and world military leaders and their families find a home in the Cumberland Valley while they study at the Army War College.
The Great American migration story continues. As in the days of the Susquehannock and the Delaware, commerce flows through the Cumberland Valley. The great valley still beckons people. Some stay and put down roots while others move on. Just like those who came before them, they will leave traces in the Cumberland Valley for their descendants to find.
The images on the page were taken from the Cumberland County Historical Society Photo Archives.