Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia


A map depicting the Philadelphia region during the American Revolutionary War.

This map, charted by a British cartographer during the American War for Independence, illustrates the extent of the economic region Philadelphia commanded. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia served as a commercial hub for a region that spanned parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. (Library of Congress)

Since its founding, Philadelphia has acted as a commercial hub for the surrounding region, its hinterlands. Although New Jersey and Delaware had European settlers before Philadelphia’s establishment in 1682, Pennsylvania and its founding city quickly became the focus of economic activity in the region extending both east and west of the Delaware River. With an advantageous location, Philadelphia acted as the region’s principal port, allowing goods from Great Britain, the West Indies, and elsewhere to flow in and serving as a gathering point for produce to be exported. From the late seventeenth through the eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s hinterlands grew in size and diversification of products, but as the region developed, other commercial hubs developed to support and rival Philadelphia.

A color image of a map, showing a southern section of the state of New Jersey. Small houses on the map show the locations of various Lenape tribes.

This 1673 map of lower West New Jersey displays the locations of Lenape and other Native American settlements. (Library of Congress)

The Delaware River Valley was originally populated by the Lenape, or Delaware, people, who shaped the region’s initial economic activity. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Lenapes retained a strong presence in the river valley, and the various native and European groups generally worked with each other through trade and negotiated rights and privileges. Native American trails became the earliest paths for the colonists, aiding travel, communication, and commerce into the densely forested hinterland. During this early period, Europeans tapped into the preexisting fur trade before developing their own settlements inland. The territory that later became the state of Delaware was first colonized in 1638 by the Swedish, who adopted a plantation pattern in an attempt to emulate Virginia’s success with tobacco. However, these settlements were underpopulated, of limited profitability, and experienced conflicts with the local Lenape groups. From 1676 through 1702, New Jersey was divided by a line running from the northwest to the southeast, creating the distinct provinces of East and West New Jersey. West New Jersey was administered by a group of wealthy Quakers, including William Penn (1644–1718), but it was sparsely populated and had no major cities of its own.      

After the founding of Philadelphia in 1682, the region’s producers saw the new city as a natural commercial center for the Delaware River. William Penn (1644-1718), founder and first proprietor of Pennsylvania, selected a site near the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers to better facilitate shipping. Pennsylvania grew quickly during the five decades before the American Revolution, adding eight inland counties to the original counties huddled by the river (Bucks, Philadelphia, Chester, and the lower counties that later became Delaware). Immigrants—free, indentured, or enslaved—strengthened the hinterlands’ connection to the burgeoning urban center as they spread through the countryside. In addition to Quakers and other English colonists, Pennsylvania attracted Scots-Irish, Germans (including the “Pennsylvania Dutch”), and dissenting religious groups. 

Population Boomed

An eighteenth century engraving featuring a view of Philadelphia from the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Also featured in the bottom right of the engraving is an eighteenth century street map of Philadelphia. To the bottom right are engravings of prominent buildings in Philadelphia including an engraving of the Pennsylvania State House (after the American Revolution it became known by a new name, Independence Hall).

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Delaware River connected Philadelphia to some of its hinterlands and the rest of the British world. (Library of Congress)

At first, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Philadelphia primarily exported raw farm products and timber from these homesteads of the fertile Delaware River valley lands, and the numerous creeks and rivers served as transportation routes for the goods. In the eighteenth century, the European colonists developed their own settlements in the hinterland areas. Timber resources allowed for a vigorous shipbuilding enterprise. The plantations of Delaware Bay moved away from tobacco to more diversified farm products such as meat, grain, and timber. The population boomed from migration from the Chesapeake Bay region and immigration abroad, though the towns and cities that grew remained satellites of Philadelphia.


During the 1750s the Philadelphia hinterlands evolved into the breadbasket of the British Empire. Grain mills like this one, Roberts’ Old Grist Mill in Philadelphia County, developed in Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

By 1750, increasing grain production made Philadelphia’s hinterland the breadbasket of the British Empire. The new emphasis led to an increase in flour mills for processing the grain. Mills of various kinds operated throughout the hinterland but had the highest concentration and outputs in Pennsylvania and northern Delaware, where fertile lands combined with strong streams for waterpower to facilitate the milling of grain. Likewise, iron production and its attendant forges and foundries grew during the same period, primarily in Berks and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania and in western New Jersey. 

Black and white photograph of the exterior of an iron furnace.

Iron furnaces, like this one in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, began to operate during the 1750s in West New Jersey (now southern New Jersey) and Berks and Lancaster Counties in Pennsylvania. (Library of Congress)

Supplies of timber, flour, iron, and similar stores made Philadelphia an important provider of war materials during the colonial wars. However, the Seven Years’ War (1754-63), which erupted from conflicts in far western Pennsylvania, interfered with trade. In Pennsylvania specifically, it created conflicts over the extent of protection the colonial assembly would provide for the hinterlands as the area suffered from destructive raids. During the War for Independence, Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania hinterlands experienced disruption but not for extended periods of time, allowing economic activity to largely continue and cement its role as a producer. By the end of the eighteenth century, it led the new nation in production of textiles and leather goods, as well as metalworking and carpentry. 

Road Improvements

In the late eighteenth century, the creation and improvement of roads from Philadelphia deep into the hinterlands eased travel, improving freight transportation but also pushing the frontiers beyond its reach. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) advocated for improving road networks, emphasizing the communication benefits as postmaster general. Improving communication and mail helped information from centrally located Philadelphia reach its hinterland and other colonies (later states) faster than ever, further increasing Philadelphia’s economic and political influence. In 1794, Pennsylvania completed a paved turnpike connecting Philadelphia with Lancaster, which lowered transportation costs by as much as two-thirds and was the first of its kind in the nation. This simultaneously drew Lancaster more into Philadelphia’s orbit, and made it a commercial center in its own right, as a gathering point for central Pennsylvania’s goods.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s hinterland reached as far west as Lancaster and Reading on the Schuylkill River, and the city’s influence extended to the edge of the Appalachian Mountains and the Susquehanna River watershed. The city commanded the Delaware River Valley as far north as Trenton at the falls of the Delaware. Ships going in and out of Delaware Bay called on Delaware’s smaller ports, such as Wilmington and New Castle, creating a connection for Philadelphia at those locations as well. During the same period, however, New York City to the north and Baltimore to the south increasingly grew and rivaled Philadelphia as leading international ports for the mid-Atlantic states, especially from north of Trenton and the Susquehanna Valley, respectively.

From the time of its founding, Philadelphia’s location and natural resources made it a commercial hub for the surrounding region. As the eighteenth century progressed, manufacturing capabilities increased and Philadelphia’s exports became more diversified while the city increasingly grew as a commercial and political center through the periods of the American Revolution and early Republic. 

Jordan AP Fansler grew up in Pennsylvania, is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and has worked at multiple museums in Greater Philadelphia.  His doctoral thesis and scholarly work focus on the relationship of citizens to their state, national, and imperial governments in the early-modern Atlantic World.

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Fleming, Thomas. New Jersey: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985.

Frantz, John B. and William Pencak, eds. Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Jennings, Francis. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from its beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.

Miller, Randall M. and William Pencak, eds. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002

Munroe, John A. A History of Delaware. 5th Ed.  Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2006.

Shepherd, James F. and Gary M. Walton. The Economic Rise of Early America. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Soderlund, Jean R. Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Wacker, Peter O. Land and People: A Cultural Geography of Preindustrial New Jersey Origins and Settlement Patterns. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1975.


Business Records Collection, 1681–1963, Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, Pa.

Joseph Shipley Papers (1757-1889), Delaware Historical Society, 505 N. Market Street, Wilmington, Del.

Union Canal Papers, Berks History Center, 940 Centre Avenue, Reading, Pa.

Thomas Leiper and Family Business Records, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Wright Family Papers, Center for the History of Business, Hagley Museum & Library, Greenville, Del.

Mills and Bridges of Lancaster County, R. Harold Barton Collection (1637-1916), Lancaster County Historical Society, 230 N. President Avenue, Lancaster, Pa.

Armitage Collection and Weaver’s Account Book (1749-55), Mercer Museum, Bucks County Archives, 84 S. Pine Street, Doylestown, Pa.

Burlington County Historical Society, 457 High Street, Burlington City, N.J.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Hopewell Iron Furnace, 2 Mark Bird Lane, Elverson, Pa.

Dock Street and Penn’s Landing (sites of Philadelphia’s early waterfront and docks, though much altered), Dock Street and South Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia.

Dutch House Museum, 32 E. Third Street, New Castle, Del.

Zwaanendael Museum, 102 Kings Highway (Kings Highway at Savannah Road), Lewes, Del.

2 Comments Comments

  1. This fine entry might have cited some benchmark dates regarding New Jersey’s role in the hinterlands of Philadelphia.

    #1: indicative of the process of building overland links, what we know today as Princeton — established circa 1680s — was isolated until the King’s Road was widened in 1716. Then in 1738 a series of newly constructed bridges linked it to New Brunswick to the north and Trenton to the South.

    #2: The embryonic transportation revolution, taking hold during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, inspired construction of the Trenton & New Brunswick Straight Turnpike in 1808. Though a primitive road, it was the precursor to what eventually became US Route 1. By the 1830s stage coaches traveling between Philadelphia and New York City regularly stopped in Princeton, spurring its commercial economy.

    The historian Wheaton J. Lane, in ‘From Indian Trail to Iron Horse’ (1940) aptly regards New Jersey in the 19th century as the “great transit state.”

    Michael H. Ebner Posted November 30, 2016 at 7:52 am
  2. Our Joanna Furnace should be mentioned as a great historical iron Furnace to visit. Tours, casting molten metal, and festivals!

    Jack Woods Posted January 29, 2017 at 5:33 pm

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