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Lancaster and York: Rival Capitals of the United States

Old Lancaster County Courthouse

Pennsylvania: Capital of the United States, Thrice!

If you ask anybody where the capital of the United States is, they can probably tell you that it’s located in Washington D.C. Perhaps they might even know about how Philadelphia was originally the capital as well. What most people don’t know is that this would not be the last time it would be located in Pennsylvania. In this article, we will talk about the fascinating history of the other times the capital was located within our borders.

Lancaster, PA

There’s a good chance that the first thing that comes to mind about Lancaster is the abundance of Amish folks and horse-drawn carriages. During the time of the Revolution, however, the place was known for an entirely different reason. 

In September 1777, The British Army began marching on Philadelphia, the original, and at the time, current provisional capital of the new nation. The Continental Congress, receiving word of the Red Coat threat in advance, fled in the dead of night west to Lancaster. They would take temporary refuge inside the county courthouse. It was not the most pleasant accommodations, nor was it particularly much better than their previous location for anything besides 65 miles of distance from the city they fled from. It was quickly decided that this would not be enough.

All the legal affairs conducted in the courthouse were done with haste and related solely to military matters, things like passing a resolution to work with General Washington to come up with a plan to continue supplying the Continental Army. According to historians, the last recorded congressional action was to adjourn and agree to meet in the next location on our list, the somewhat nearby town of York. Congress would ultimately spend just a single day here, September 27th.

The courthouse was unfortunately destroyed in an accidental fire less than 10 years later.

Old York County Courthouse

York, PA

The city of York, Pennsylvania was unsurprisingly named after the city of the same name in England. Something you might not know is that it was on these grounds that the original Articles of Confederation were written. It was where Thanksgiving was officially declared a national holiday. It was where fledgling America signed the French Treaty of Alliance, officially teaming the two countries up together in the fight against the British. Perhaps most importantly though, it was where the words “The United States of America” were first spoken. 

The reception Congress had to this location was much more favorable. The town was more established and able to meet the needs of administering a war. The main reason for the move, however, was for defensive reasons. The only practical way to get an army in was by crossing the Susquehanna River. As a result, it made for an excellent position to fortify. Rather than just the single day spent in Lancaster, York lasted much longer. The government would remain located in York from late September 1777 to June 1778, when Congress received word that the British had begun to flee Philadelphia due to the changing tides of war. The government returned to the city and remained there until 1781.


This would not be the last time that the capital of the newly formed United States of America would be moved. The capital would continue to be moved, as needed, many times for over a decade. In total, the official number of locations the capital was based in sits at eight. In sequential order, the locations were Philadelphia (PA), Baltimore (MD), Lancaster (PA), York (PA), Princeton (NJ), Annapolis (MD), Trenton (NJ), and New York City. Even though seven other cities once held the honor of being our nation’s capital, Philadelphia will always have the distinction of having been the very first!

If you want to show your appreciation for these historical Pennsylvanian towns, consider picking up a t-shirt from our store!

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