For three hundred years courthouses and court records have been an integral part of the history of Eastville, county seat of Northampton County, Virginia.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia, which lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1608. A temporary settlement for the extraction of salt from seawater was made in 1614, and by 1619 the English were permanently settled here. It was one of the eight original Virginia shires, or counties.
The first name of the peninsula was "Ye Plantacon of Accawmacke," meaning "over-the-water" or "on-the-other-side-of-the-water" place. In 1643 the name was changed to Northampton after Northamptonshire in England, birthplace of two prominent local citizens. Twenty years later the peninsula was divided into two counties and both historic names came into use, the lower portion retaining the name Northampton, brought across the sea from the mother country, and the upper portion reverting to Accomack, a name native to the region and in use by the Indians long before the arrival of the English settlers.
Local government began on the Eastern Shore late in 1632 with the commissioners (or justices, as they later came to be known) meeting as a court. They gathered in homes of individual members or in other privately-owned buildings such as taverns and ordinaries, migrating from one meeting place to another. The early court records kept by the clerks in their homes miraculously have survived to the present day and are the oldest continuous county court records in the United States, dating from 1632.
In 1663, following the division of the peninsula into the two counties of Northampton and Accomack, the first courthouse was built at the "Towne," a small settlement on the Bayside between Cherrystone Inlet and Kings Creek.
With the increase in population and its shift northward, and the resulting dissatisfaction of county residents with the long distances involved in traveling to court, this first courthouse at the Towne was abandoned and in 1677 a new site selected at "the Hornes," so named because of its location between the curving, prong-like branches of another Bayside creek. "The Hornes" later became Peachburg Town and finally Eastville. It has been the county seat of Northampton County for over three hundred years.
The decision to locate at "the Hornes" was made not only because of its central location and easy access by water, but also because there was a tavern there and a cooperative tavern owner named Matthews who offered to provide a meeting place for the justices free of charge, well aware of the trade that would accrue on busy court days.
Ten years later, after marriage to Sarah Matthews, widow, William Kendall offered 50 acres of land at the Hornes for the erection of "a Courthouse of Twenty-Five foot long, with an outside Chimney, a convenient prison, and all other things necessary for a Court." However, before this was accomplished another tavern keeper made an offer of 40 acres of land with the construction costs of the court buildings to be borne by him rather than at taxpayers' expense. Needless to say, the latter offer was accepted and the building, probably built to the preceding specifications, was in use by 1690.
This building served as a meeting place for the court for about twenty-five years and in 1715 was replaced by another frame structure, this one two stories tall, with a floor of hard packed earth and a raised platform for the justices "layed with Planed Old pine Plank."
In less than 15 years, this second courthouse was "much out of repairs and not in condition for the Justices to do the County business in" and so in 1731 the court awarded the contract for a new courthouse to John Marshall, to be built of brick laid up in Flemish bond at the cost of 50,000 pounds of tobacco. This is the present Old Courthouse, though altered somewhat from its original size (it formerly measured approximately 35 by 23 feet) and from its original site, which was in the area of the Confederate monument on the Court Green
The Clerk's Office nearby, also of brick, dates after 1750, probably some time in the third quarter of the 18th century. Its diagonally-battened door fastens with an old wood and iron lock, tall cabinets for storage of records extend from floor to vaulted ceiling, and the floor is paved with large, odd-sized flagstones.
Northampton County records make fascinating reading and frequently portray the character of the 17th century inhabitants of this peninsula: sturdy English stock, proud and fiercely independent. Two petitions sent to the Assembly in Jamestown indicate a certain propensity for contentiousness.
In March 1752 a group of citizens signed a protest against "public Taxacons," stating that Northampton County had not had an elected burgess as representative in the Assembly since 1647 and consequently the forty-six pounds of tobacco levied per poll was not only considered excessive, but "arbitrarye and Illegall" and should not be collected. This Northampton Protest was perhaps the first cry of "taxation without representation" in the New World.
A later petition in 1766 was somewhat milder in tone, without the arrogance of the earlier protest, and appeared to have some legitimacy. Redress was asked for seventeen grievances, hence the name Northampton Grievances. It is instructive to read, in light of earlier decisions on the location of the monthly court meetings, that ". . . no Drink may be sold within a mile of the Courthouse at any of the Court sitting days, Considering the detraction of time and the Ruddness of people where Drink is sold at court, neglecting their business, spending and wasting theire Estates, abusing themselves and Authority, Quarelling and fighting with all Imaginery illconviences, and evil consequences, thereby accruing."
In 1766, ten years before the colonies collectively denied Great Britain, the justices expressed strong disapproval of the Stamp Act passed by Parliament as a revenue measure. Patrick Henry had denounced the act in the House of Burgesses, and at a court held on February 11, 1766, the Northampton justices declared that it "did not bind, effect or concern the inhabitants of this colony inasmuch as they conceived the said act to be unconstitutional" What the Burgesses hesitated to say officially to Parliament this small county court declared on its own!
Disapproval and dissatisfaction may have been the tone of many edicts handed down by the justices and recorded by the clerk, but on August 13, 1776, upon arrival in Northampton County of the news that the Continental Congress had "Declared the thirteen United States of America free and independent," the justices caused the declaration to be "acclaimed at the door of the Courthouse" and then "proceed to take the Oath of fidelity to the state and the Oath of Office, in order to take upon them the administration of Justice."
When this Court building erected 1731 proved too small for the growing population , a new court building was erected in 1795 (later razed to make way for the present 1899 Courthouse). The colonial building with its steep gabled roof was leased as a store for one dollar a year on condition that the lessee would put a new roof on it, the lease to last as long as the roof lasted and the rent paid. With a view to prolonging his lease, the lessee is said to have soaked his shingles in linseed oil and for more than a hundred years the building remained in possession of the lessee's heirs.
In 1913 the county bought the property at a purchase price of $4,000.00. Mrs William Bullitt Fitzhugh, as directress for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, had the building moved to its present site, thereby saving it from destruction. An old jail, part of the wall around it, and a later Clerk's Office had been torn down, but it was ordered that the Old Courthouse should be moved next to the Old Clerk's Office, and these two buildings and the Debtors' Prison which stand to the rear were turned over to the APVA for preservation.
In 1922 the Old Courthouse was completely restored by the Northampton Branch of the APVA with Miss Nell Nottingham as directress. The entire front is a replacement: the door frame was taken from an old house on Granby Street in Norfolk and the door is a reproduction. At the rear of the building may be seen an example of the early fine brickwork that survived virtually intact the move across the court-yard.
The Old Clerk's Office remains on its original site and has had almost no restoration. Now a museum, it contains an interesting collection of Indian relics and colonial artifacts.
No date has been established for the Debtors' Prison. A 1743 court order directed that a "good and sufficient Prison" be built 17 feet square, and the Debtors' Prison measures 17.2 feet square. However, this evidence is not conclusive. Several architectural authorities disagree with the assumption: it was not the custom in the 18th century to segregate debtors and the brickwork is not Flemish bond as was usual in buildings of that period. Possibly the present Debtors' Prison is the jail ordered built in 1814 for the exclusive use of debtors. It now houses a collection of 19th century tools.
In 1950-55 Mrs. E. Ailworth Scott, Northampton Branch directress, and her director of properties, and Mr. Ralph Gifford, accomplished a major and much-needed refurbishing and repair of the three buildings. Branch funds, a generous gift from the parent APVA, and a contribution from the Northampton Board of Supervisors provided the necessary money for this project, which was done painstakingly and authentically with advice from an architect recommended by Colonial Willaimsbrurg.
The complex of the three buildings has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark and continues in the care of the Northampton Branch APVA. The Notrhampton County Board of Supervisors has generously voted funds to paint the buildings inside and out and plans to replace the badly deteriorated steps of the Old Courthouse with steps more suitable to the design and period of the building.
Frances Latimer, Eastville, Virginia
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