Formed out of Allegheny County in March 1800, Butler County covers 789 square miles, with the city of Butler located at its approximate geographical center. The county was named after General Richard Butler, who was killed in 1791 by Native American warriors during St. Clair's Defeat near what became Fort Wayne, Indiana. The two most important Native American trails crossing this county—the Venango Trail and the Pittsburgh-Franklin Pike—intersected a dozen miles north of the city of Butler.
The first European settlers were of German and Irish descent. They came from Westmoreland or Allegheny counties to the headwaters of Bull Creek in the southeast corner of Butler County in the 1790s, seeking better farmland for their families. Their numbers increased after General Daniel Brodhead's expedition to the headwaters of the Allegheny in 1796 burned Native American villages and essentially ended attacks in the region. It was only after lots were sold at the county seat beginning in 1803 that the county's population began to grow. One of the most influential early German settlers was Dettmar Basse, who came to southwestern Butler County in 1802 and sold land to the Harmonists in 1804. German influence continued when the Mennonites succeeded the Harmonists near Zelienople, and John and Karl Roebling arrived in Saxonburg with a group of German neighbors in 1831.
On August 27, 1859, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, a native of Butler County, became the first to successfully drill an oil well in Venango County. Over the course of the next forty years, oil drilling spread into Butler County and dominated its northern half, making it one of the largest producers in the world for a short time. Nearly a dozen boomtowns sprang up, including Petrolia and Karns City. Small amounts of oil continue to be pumped by wells, such as the Diviner Well (1874) southwest of Chicora. A second major industry, the Standard Steel Car Company, produced railcars and employed nearly 4,000 Butler residents at its peak in the mid-twentieth century. In 1982, the enormous railcar factory abruptly closed, wreaking havoc on the county's economy. Fortunately, specialty steelmaker AK Steel is operating at full capacity, and the petroleum operators near Karns also offer employment. From 1914 to 1937, a series of automobile manufacturers operated in Butler, beginning with the Standard Steel Car Company and including the Bantam Car Company.
Eight miles northwest of the city of Butler is the enormous (3,225 acres) reclaimed glacial Lake Arthur, created by the damming of Muddy Creek in 1968. The land had been deep mined, strip mined, and drilled for oil and natural gas. Its reclamation as part of 16,000-acre Moraine State Park is a fine example of environmental engineering. One of the park's attractions is the two-story cedar-log Davis house (c. 1798, 1920s; N. Shore Drive, northeast of Davis Hollow Marina) built of local sandstone. Today, the house is leased by the North Country National Scenic Trail Association, which uses it as their Pennsylvania headquarters.
Butler County Community College (College Drive in Butler), founded in 1965, was the first community college in western Pennsylvania. It opened with three buildings donated by Armco (now AK) Steel's Butler Works. Today the campus has sixteen buildings, including an award-winning Science, Technology, and Cultural Center designed by DRS Architects of Pittsburgh, with the 446-seat, state-of-the-art Succop Theater in one wing. During the last decades of the twentieth century, with the completion of I-79, southern Butler County has become a suburb of Pittsburgh. Numerous farms were sold for housing developments and strip malls, which has transformed and continues to change the rural character of Butler County.
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