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Finding Our Roots

Dr. Louis Gates narrates a wonderful television program called "Finding Our Roots." The show's premise is to dig deeply into the genealogical heritage of famous people and show their humble beginnings as far back as talented researchers can find. As I watched multiple episodes of this interesting program, I pondered the very foundation of Townships in Pennsylvania. As I delved into a line of investigation, I realized that very few of us really know how and why Townships came to be. Well, now you have the truth and can hold your head just a little prouder regarding your role as Pennsylvania Township Supervisor. A position steep in history for one of the original 13 colonies.

The evolution and history of township government in Pennsylvania can be traced back to the colonial era. Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn in 1681 and was structured as a proprietary colony with Penn as its proprietor. The early governance of the colony was primarily based on Penn's Charter of Privileges, which established a system of local self-government.

Townships in Pennsylvania were initially established as land divisions for administrative purposes. They were typically rectangular in shape and varied in size, ranging from six to forty square miles. The earliest townships were organized to facilitate the settlement and development of the colony.

In 1700, the colonial government of Pennsylvania passed an act known as the "Charter of Liberties and Privileges," which provided for the establishment of local government units called townships. These townships were responsible for maintaining law and order, constructing roads, and providing other basic services to the residents.

During the colonial period, township government in Pennsylvania was characterized by direct democracy and citizen participation. Town meetings were held regularly, allowing residents to discuss and make decisions on local matters. Township officers, such as supervisors and assessors, were elected by the residents to administer township affairs.

With the passage of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, townships gained formal recognition as a fundamental unit of local government. The constitution provided for the election of township officials, including supervisors, assessors, and constables, and granted townships the power to levy taxes and make local regulations.

Throughout the 19th century, township government in Pennsylvania continued to evolve. The Township Code of 1834 standardized township organization and provided guidelines for township governance. It established a three-member board of supervisors as the governing body of each township, with additional elected officials such as auditors and tax collectors.

In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania enacted the First-Class Township Code in 1917, which allowed townships with a population of over 300 to operate under a commission form of government. This form of government replaced the board of supervisors with a three- or five-member board of commissioners elected by the residents.

Over time, Pennsylvania townships have expanded their responsibilities and services to meet the needs of their residents. Today, townships in Pennsylvania provide a wide range of services, including road maintenance, land use planning, zoning regulations, police protection, emergency services, parks and recreation programs, and much more.

The governance structure of townships in Pennsylvania may vary based on population size and specific provisions of the Pennsylvania Township Code. The code provides flexibility for townships to adopt various forms of government, including the board of supervisors, board of commissioners, or home rule charters.

In summary, the evolution of township government in Pennsylvania has seen the development of local self-government from the colonial period to the present day. Pennsylvania townships have played a vital role in providing essential services and maintaining the quality of life for their residents throughout history. “Fire this thing up and spread the word.”


About the Author

David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 33 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.

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