In 1681, King Charles II of England granted a sizable piece of his land holdings in America to William Penn to satisfy a debt owed to the Penn family. The next year, Penn established the three original counties in the Pennsylvania Colony, including Bucks County. Immigrants, primarily from the British Isles and Germany, arrived and settled on small farms, producing potash, wheat, salted pork and other products.
During the Revolutionary War, in the summer and fall of 1776, General George Washington's Continental Army suffered a series of losses in New York and New Jersey. By December, the British offensive forced General Washington and his troops to withdraw into Pennsylvania and decamp in Bucks County. The general was in desperate need of a military victory to resuscitate the morale of his army and the American public.
General Washington suspected that the British were complacent after their successes, and sought an offensive maneuver that might catch them off guard. On the night of December 25–26, 1776, Washington led his troops across the Delaware River in the first movement of a surprise attack against Hessian forces in British service. The Continental Army won the subsequent Battle of Trenton and provided the Americans with a much-needed victory.
The Delaware River crossing was more than a strategic triumph. It grew to symbolize both Washington's heroism and the resiliency of the burgeoning republic at one of the darkest hours of the revolution. German artist Emmanuel Leutze depicted this momentous event in his 1849 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, to inspire supporters of democracy and greater political representation in Germany in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Revolutions of 1848. The idealized and historically inaccurate scene has become an iconic depiction of the crossing; copies hang in the White House and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Today, both sides of the Delaware River are preserved as part of the Washington Crossing National Historic Landmark district, composed of Washington Crossing Historic Park on the Pennsylvania side, and Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey.
The character of Bucks County continued to be primarily agricultural throughout the 19th century and into the next, with pockets of industrial activity near the Delaware River. Suburbanization accelerated after World War II as the economy expanded, automobile ownership increased, and the extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike stimulated local housing construction. Levittown, an early subdivision developed by the pioneering suburban developer Levitt & Sons, is located in the southern part of Bucks County. In 1951, U.S. Steel opened a mill in Bucks County, which sparked even more growth.
Today, Bucks County is suburban in areas nearest to the Delaware River. The northern region is more pastoral, and is popular with tourists in search of natural scenery, historic covered bridges, and the location of General Washington's crossing.
Washington Crossing National Cemetery is located approximately three miles southwest from the location where General Washington crossed the Delaware River. The cemetery is located on land that William Penn deeded to Euro-American settlers in 1698, and was used as farmland for centuries. In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs purchased the property from Dolington Land, L.P., a subsidiary of the homebuilding company Toll Brothers. The cemetery was formally dedicated in 2009 and opened for burials the following year. Washington Crossing National Cemetery is the fourth national cemetery established in Pennsylvania and the 131st in the national cemetery system.