Dauphin County History
Dauphin County is one of the oldest and most influential counties in the development of our nation. Located in south central Pennsylvania, this 557.7-square-mile area is approximately 100 miles west of Philadelphia and 200 miles east of Pittsburgh. Today, the days of the Harris Ferry, Indian trails, canals, and Conestoga wagon and stagecoach routes have yielded to a vast network of highways and air routes.
John Harris, a native of Yorkshire, England, arrived in Philadelphia as one of the first emigrants to accompany William Penn. In approximately 1719, Harris moved with his wife Esther from Chester County to Lancaster County. They then eventually built a log cabin on the banks of the Susquehanna, near the present juncture of Paxton and Front streets.
In about 1727, John Harris, Jr. was born. Harris, Jr. became the founder of Harrisburg and the leader in the movement to establish Dauphin County. Other settlers soon followed in the footsteps of John Harris, Sr., and on December 17, 1733, the proprietaries of Pennsylvania granted to him by patent, 300 acres of land, within which was included the present site of the Dauphin County Court House. He developed a large trade with the Indians in fur and skins and established numerous trading posts. He also began farming on a small scale and introduced the first plow to the vicinity. Harris, Sr. established the first ferry across the Susquehanna, which in time became so popular that that place was no longer called by its Indian name of Peixtan, but Harris’ Ferry.
John Harris, Sr. died in 1748, and was buried, at his request, beneath the shade of a mulberry tree in River Park below Harrisburg Hospital. He had once been tied to this tree by hostile Indians who were prepared to burn him, but fortuitously, his Indian friends rescued him in the nick of time. John Harris, Jr. operated the ferry established by his father, over which were taken many boatloads of supplies for the Continental army west of the Susquehanna River.
In the beginning of Provincial government in Pennsylvania, what is now Dauphin County was part of Chester. An act of Assembly of 1729 included a major portion of it in the new county of Lancaster. John Harris, Jr. argued against the inconvenience of having to travel to Lancaster for the conduct of legal business and court sessions, so he presented an appeal to the General Assembly in 1782 to carve out a separate county around Harris’ Ferry.
Although a stormy debate ensued over whether the county seat should be in Middletown or Harris Ferry, Harris ultimately won out, and by an act of the General Assembly of March 4, 1785, Dauphin County was established, providing that its seat of government and justice should be "near Harris’s Ferry."
John Harris gave two lots on Market Streets and two on Walnut Streets for the use of the county, and with amazing foresight, gave the southern part of Capitol Park for the use of the Commonwealth should the seat of state government be chosen for this centrally located area. In 1785, Harris’s son-in-law, William Maclay, laid out the town proposed by Harris.
The county was named "Dauphin," in honor of the eldest son of the King of France, who had come to the aid of the American colonies during the American Revolution.
In 1791, the city was named "Harrisburg," after a brief stint as "Louisbourg" in honor of the French King Louis.
The first court house was a humble log cabin on South Front Street, owned by John Harris. The first real courthouse was an unpretentious two-story red brick building by the side of the old Lancaster Road. Its construction was financed largely from the proceeds of the operation of the nearby Harris Ferry. Today’s imposing Georgian-style marble courthouse stands by the side of the same road.
The first courthouse became the temporary Capitol of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1812, when state government was moved from Lancaster to Harrisburg, under the Act of February 21, 1810.
In January 1822, the first State House was completed on Capitol Hill, and the courthouse used as the Capitol was returned to the county for its courts and business.
In 1860, a second brick courthouse was built on the same site and enlarged in 1894. Today’s courthouse, made of stately white Georgia marble, at the corner of Front and Market streets, was erected between 1941-1943, and dedicated on December 21, 1943.
Over the years, the county has furnished leaders in religion, patriotism, education, the arts, science, professions, industry and agriculture.