On March 4, 1681, King Charles II of England signed a land charter granting ownership of land in the New World (America) to his friend, William Penn. The Charter settled a debt in which the English government owed the amount of 16,000 pounds to William Penn's father, a distinguished admiral, Sir William Penn, in honor of whom Pennsylvania was named.
The land provided a place of religious freedom for Penn's fellow Quakers and other sects led to European's settling on the fertile tract of land around the Brandywine Creek, or the area known as Chester County.
On August 30, 1682, Penn sailed from Deal, England, for Pennsylvania aboard the ship "Welcome" in company with over 100 passengers, most of who were Quakers from Sussex.
Penn landed at New Castle, Del., October 27, 1682 and either on the 28th or 29th of that month, arrived at Upland. He turned to his friend Pearson and asked what he should call the place. Pearson said, "Chester in remembrance of the city in England." Penn answered that Chester it should be called and that when he came to divide the land into counties, one of them should be called Chester.
Recalling the pride, glory and memories of the early history of the ancient city of Chester, west of England, it was known in remote times by the Welsh name of Caereleon Vour, which meant the great camp of the legion on the Dee. Chester on the Dee was 20 miles from the sea and stands where three Roman roads converged and where the renowned XXth legion of Rome was encamped as early as the second century. It was fought over by Britons, Danes and Saxons, memorable for its terrible siege lasting from 1643 to 1646 and has often been honored by the presence of its monarchs. It is the only city in England that still retains its walls, perfect in their circuit, and the forest surrounded the town, which gave Pearson the honor of having the first town of Pennsylvania named after it.
Of those who first settled in the territory of our present county, there has been little information. All the accounts of early settlers have been related to the English, Germans, Welsh and Scotch-Irish, who settled in the county between 1682 and 1715. Some Swedes or Finns may have settled in the present Southeastern Townships of Chester County. The English settlers were chiefly Quakers and settled in the eastern and central parts of the county.
The Germans were mostly Lutherans, German Reformed Mennonites, Dunkers and Moravians, and made their homes principally in what is now East and West Vincent Townships.
The Welsh were principally Baptist in religion and settled in the eastern and northern parts of the county, also known as the Welsh Tract.
The Scotch-Irish were Presbyterian by faith and commenced to come from the North of Ireland and settled in the western part of Chester County.
During the early part of the 18th century, the English government persecuted the Scotch-Irish and they emigrated from the North of Ireland to the American colonies, where they became earnest patriots and active in the cause of American Independence.
One such patriot in Chester County, a Scotsman, was William Fleming, who acquired land from William Penn. He bought 207 acres of land for 300 pounds and was believed to have arrived in America as an indentured servant in the early 1680s. After working off his indenture, Fleming became a constable and a respected member of the community in Bethel Township. When he decided to relocate along the Brandywine in what was then Caln Township, he brought with him his wife, Mary Moore Fleming, and their eight children.
Following the death of William Fleming in 1726, his offspring began to spread out in the county as his sons took possession of the original 207 acres and started buying established farms and other adjoining property. By the mid-18th century, the Fleming family members owned 621 acres of land, most of which would later form the Borough and now, the City, of Coatesville.
During the turbulent period of the 1770s, the lives of the Flemings changed, as they were among those who courageously took part in the struggle for independence, as many of their Scotch-Irish neighbors in the area, declared and fought for their independence from England.
During the early 19th century, members of the Society of Friends had much to do with the developing of the village that eventually became the City of Coatesville.
Coatesville was named for the Coates family, founded by Moses Coates, who came from Ireland around 1717. The post office was established April 1, 1812, with Moses Coates as the first postmaster.
On many issues the Quakers and Scotch-Irish did not see eye-to-eye. The English-hating Scotch-Irish were not much for diplomacy. Their voices were the first in America to call for dissolving all connection with Great Britain.
The Irish families were instrumental in stimulating interest in religion among other Catholics throughout Chester County and would settle on fertile tracts of land around the Brandywine Creek, an area that would become known as Milltown, Downing's Town and, finally, Downingtown.
Since the town was situated on the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike (Route 30) and was a convenient stop for weary, thirsty travelers, the rapidly growing village had a postmaster, its own newspaper and its first established house of worship, built for the Society of Friends in 1806. Soon other denominations followed suit. As the village grew with new businesses, with millwrights, hotels, leather shops, agricultural depots for coal and lumber, and the railroad.
The construction of the railroad between Philadelphia and Columbia was begun in 1830, stopping the stagecoach line between the two locations. In 1881, S. Austin Bicking erected the first paper mill in Downingtown. Grist mills and flour mills took advantage of the water power and during the two and a half centuries, glass companies and pottery manufacturers opened and closed.
As a labor force was needed to work in these establishments, it attracted the Irish, Italians, Blacks, etc. The Irish lived in the West Ward on Bradford Ave., Viaduct Ave., Church St., Penn St., St. Joseph Alley, W. Lancaster Ave., and shared Prospect Ave. with the Blacks and Italians.
Construction and operation of the railroads supplied job opportunities, first to the many Irish immigrants who lived with friends or relatives until they accumulated enough money to be self-sufficient. The Italians migrated into Downingtown in the early 1800s.
Mass, an integral part of Irish religious life, was celebrated once a month, first at 104 Bradford Ave. and then on the top floor of the Michael McFadden Hotel, before the construction of their own church.
Michael McFadden was an immigrant from Ireland and proprietor of the McFadden Hotel. In 1851, he applied to the county court for the first license to operate a hotel and by 1856, he changed the name of the establishment to the Railroad Hotel and offered the use of the upper floor in the hotel for worship prior to the formal organization of a congregation.
In September, 1851, the cornerstone was laid for the new building. The construction was completed in the spring and St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church was dedicated the following June.
The Irish in Johnsontown formed the St. Joseph Beneficial Society, a chapter of the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union. They purchased land on Bradford Ave. and built a hall and two houses in 1902. Members played pool and shuffleboard on the first floor and used the second floor for meetings and formal entertainment. The Society sponsored fairs and picnics and hosted balls in Downingtown's Opera House.
In 1894, one of the earlier pastors, the Rev. James O'Reilly, who came from Ireland, was an energetic pastor. One of his first tasks was to install a new church bell in the church tower. The bell was a gift from a parishioner and weighed 1,500 pounds. Father O'Reilly was so proud of the bell that he insisted that it be rung exactly on time. The rope pullers, young boys of the parish, knew better than to be late for duty. It was rumored that the bell was so accurate that the townspeople set their watches by its tolling.
Downingtown originally was called Milltown, the first building was built in 1700 and is now known as the Downingtown Log House. Downingtown was incorporated into a city as the Borough of Downingtown May 12, 1859, covering 760 acres.
And thanks to the Scotch-Irish settler patriots who invaded Chester County, who helped make the towns of Coatesville and Downingtown. A place of religious freedoms and the land of the proud. It all started with the sixth century Irish Monk, St. Brendan, who used his voyage of discovery across the Atlantic to claim America.
Until next time,
P.S. Here are some interesting facts:
There are 34 million U.S. residents who claim Irish ancestry, almost nine times the present population of Ireland itself. There are three states in which Irish is the leading ancestry group. Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Irish is among the top five ancestries in every state but two (Hawaii and New Mexico). And do you know what "Erin Go Bragh" means? It is a phrase heard often on St. Patrick's Day and means, "Ireland Forever."