Northumberland County, established in 1772 from parts of Northampton, Berks, Lancaster, Cumberland, and Bedford counties, was the last county founded by the Penn family. Thomas and Richard Penn Sr. acquired the territory with the New Purchase of 1768, and named it after the northernmost county in England. At its greatest size in 1785, the county extended from the Lehigh to the Allegheny rivers, encompassing a third of the state. Beginning with the separation of Luzerne County in 1786, “Old Mother Northumberland” eventually yielded portions of twenty-eight counties.
When Joseph Priestley, pioneering chemist, Unitarian theologian, and political philosopher, was driven from his home in England for supporting the American and French revolutions, he was encouraged by Benjamin Franklin to join the scientific community in Philadelphia. After a few years in Philadelphia where his lectures led to the foundation of the Unitarian congregation, he decided to build his laboratory at the forks of the Susquehanna, in Northumberland County, stating, “I do not think there can be, in any part of the world, a more delightful situation than this.” Inspired by Priestley, the youthful Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his friends Robert Southey and Thomas Poole made plans to found a utopian community called “Pantisocracy” in the “new back settlements.” They chose Northumberland because of its cheap land, established English settlement, climate suitable for farming, and peaceful relations with the Indians. Like Penn's Holy Experiment, Pantisocracy would be a republic with equal government for all. Although Coleridge never made the trip to America, the dream of Pantisocracy lived on through his poetry.
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