York’s First Newspaper–The Pennsylvania Gazette
York County was forever changed when the British occupied Philadelphia, then the capital of the recently united states, in 1777. Continental Congress needed a fairly safe place to meet, eventually settling into a small town 100 miles to the west, putting a fair distance and a wide river between themselves and the British.
Imagine the changes that came with the congressmen. There was a war going on, and here were the instigators, right in our midst, a potential magnet to draw the enemy army, just like it had been drawn to Philadelphia. Besides that, all these extra people–the delegates, other officials and everyone who had business with Congress–needed food and places to sleep.
Not all changes were negative. One of the most important changes that came to York because of Congress was a press. There were few newspapers in the colonies in the 1770s, and they were in larger cities. Baltimore’s first newspaper wasn’t published until 1773. Congress quickly realized that a nearby printing press was essential for the operation of the fledgling, so less than three months after Congress arrived here the first York-printed edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette was pulled from the press.
For more on the York issues of the Pennsylvania Gazette see my recent York Sunday News column below.
The York Daily Record/York Sunday News and York County Heritage Trust are again sponsoring an essay contest in recognition of our role in our nation’s history. Cash prizes will be given to the winners in three different groups of students from grades three through high school. Click here for essay contest guidelines or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Pennsylvania Gazette–York’s Congressional Newspaper
In 1777 the Second Continental Congress had moved the capital of the United States to York because of the British occupation of Philadelphia. Soon after convening at the York County Courthouse on September 30, 1777, Congress urged the establishment of a printing press in York. Since there was no press in York, anything to be printed was sent to Lancaster, including the Articles of Confederation, which was sent in November 1777 to printer Francis Bailey.
John Dunlap was also printing in Lancaster, having moved his press and newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet, from Philadelphia. This was convenient for the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, which had also fled to Lancaster during the British occupation, but wasn’t convenient for Congress in York.
The process of sending documents to be printed from York to Lancaster was unwieldy and frustrating. Congress, therefore, needed to have a press available in York to issue official proceedings and edicts, currency and other items. In response, William Hall and David Sellers, formerly of Philadelphia, set up their press in York in early December 1777. Working to quickly get out the news of congressional proceedings, the first Pennsylvania Gazette printed in York was issued on December 20 and continued publication in York for six months. Hall and Sellers moved their press back to Philadelphia after the British left there, and Congress reconvened there too after meeting for the last time in York on June 27, 1778.
In 1936 Henry J. Young, of the Historical Society of York County, gathered all 24 known York issues and two “postscripts” as negative photostats, the copying process at the time. At that time he found 41 original copies of The Pennsylvania Gazette printed in York. Some were duplicated at one or more repositories, but 16 were unique with only one existing copy known. The owners of the originals included the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania State Library, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Athenaeum, British Museum, New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress.
There are still four “missing” copies: those of December 27, 1777; January 3, 1778; January 31, 1778 and March 28, 1778. It is hoped that copies of these four issues will someday be located. It is assumed that they originally did exist, especially since one known issue (April 4) begins with the conclusion of a speech, the beginning of which seems to have been printed in the missing March 28 issue.
Each weekly issue was printed double-sided on one large sheet of paper and folded to produce a four-page newspaper. Two additional one-sided, one-page broadsides were published in May, 1778 as “Postscripts.” The first outlined the French Treaty of Alliance, and the second contained news of the British reaction to being informed by France of the treaties with the United States.
World news was supplied to the printers through letters or by obtaining copies of other newspapers. The Gazette quoted British speeches in Parliament and British newspapers at length, showing the readers that the war was very unpopular with many British people, including some members of Parliament. Signing of the Treaties of Alliance and of Amity and Commerce with France, the first recognition of the United States by another nation, was at first rumored in foreign papers and then confirmed.
Actions of Congress were obtained first hand. Congress was facing the daunting task of supplying the soldiers over the winter. Prices were set to help stave off unfair profits for food, clothing and other needs of the soldiers. Congress rejoiced at the news of the American victory at Saratoga but agonized over the Convention terms agreed to by General Gates concerning the British soldiers. Counterfeiting of Continental notes was so rampant that Congress eventually called in the issue printed in York on April 11, 1778 by Hall and Sellers, as well as the previous Philadelphia printing of May 20, 1777.
The United States didn’t have much of a Navy, but the Gazette often reported that privateers (private ships commissioned to harass the enemy) were successful in their mission to keep British ships from provisioning Philadelphia and New York, both of which were in British hands at the time.
Desertion from the often unpaid and unfed Army was common. Ads described the deserters and offered rewards for their return. Notices of civilian jobs with the military were also advertised. Not all ads concerned the military–runaway servants were advertised, as were strayed, stolen and found livestock. Merchants’ stocks of goods were listed and public sales were posted. The future was uncertain, but life went on in these newly formed United States.
As part of a recent grant project, this writer has transcribed or abstracted the Pennsylvania Gazette issues printed in York, as well as numerous Philadelphia-printed issues published before and after the York issues. All items, including ads, pertaining to happenings in the York area are transcribed fully. Items pertaining to Congress’s actions in York are transcribed in full if they are not quoted verbatim in the printed Journals of Congress. Other items are abstracted unless they are of special interest.
The issues printed in York from December 20, 1777 through June 20, 1778, were not included in the numbering system used before and after that period by The Pennsylvania Gazette. Perhaps that is why these important copies have been largely neglected. They are not included in the print facsimiles of The Pennsylvania Gazette published by Microsurance, Inc. in 1968 or in the Automated Archives CD and online editions.
The transcriptions described above are available for research at the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives, along with positive and negative copies of the photostats gathered by Henry J. Young in 1936.
Click the links below for some local news from the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Lost lottery tickets.
York County soldier deserts.
Former soldier runs off with another woman.
What Yorkers shopped for in 1777.