Throughout this year, the Bedford County Sestercentennial Celebrations Committee will be presenting a series of articles by means of the kind assistance of the Bedford Gazette (itself, a gem in the crown of Bedford County history). This series will be comprised of a variety of subjects carefully chosen to tell the story of Bedford County. The Sestercentennial Celebrations Committee sincerely hopes that you will enjoy this series. But more importantly, we hope that you will learn something that you didn’t know before. As chair of the Sestercentennial Celebrations Committee, I want to thank the individual historian/authors who have submitted articles for this series. — Larry Smith
On 9 March 1771, the county of Bedford was erected out of Cumberland County. What that meant was that a courthouse would need to be built and men chosen to fill the many positions of the county government.
There was more to the development of a county than merely proclaiming its existence by an act of the Legislature. Finding or choosing people to fill positions with specific job duties and appropriating or constructing buildings in which they would perform their jobs were the two most basic necessities of a new county government.
At the very beginning, in March 1771, there was little in place in the western bounds of Cumberland County to stimulate the growth of a new county. The people living in the vicinity of the 13-year-old Fort Bedford seemed to make most of it up as they went. There was only one village of any size in the region — the five year old town of Bedford — so it became the county seat without question. There was no courthouse in the town, so one had to be built or an existing building needed to be renovated to serve as a courthouse. Previously, if a crime was committed, the miscreant would be carried to Carlisle, the Cumberland County seat, where a courthouse and jail were located and where county officials were found.
There actually were some officials in this frontier region who were ready to take hold of the reins of government. When this region was part of Cumberland County, six townships had been laid out: Ayr in 1754; and Barree, Bedford, Colerain, Cumberland and Dublin in 1767. Although each township did not have a justice of the peace of its own, there were a couple justices who had previously served or were currently serving Cumberland County who resided in this region. They included John Fraser, Bernard Dougherty, Arthur St. Clair, William Crawford and Thomas Gist.
No records exist to suggest that there was any period of training for the new justices. But the fact that Crawford, Dougherty, Fraser, Gist and St. Clair had at one time, or were currently, serving as justices of the peace for Cumberland County, suggests that they were knowledgeable of the job and no doubt trained other men and guided the new county’s progress.
The provincial authorities in Philadelphia were not going to let the new county flounder. They figured that additional men were needed to serve as justices. Two days after the act was passed creating the new county, at a meeting of the Provincial Council, Gov. John Penn “acquainted the Board that he thought it necessary to issue a Commission without delay, appointing Justices of the Peace, &c” At Penn’s suggestion, the Provincial Council, using a “List of Persons residing therein, who had been recommended to him as the best qualified to execute the Duties of the Magistracy” commissioned 15 men as justices of the peace. In addition to the five already mentioned, James Milligan, Dorsey Pentecost, William Proctor Jr., John Hanna, William Lochry, John Wilson, Robert Cluggage, William McConnell and George Woods received the commissions.
The new county government needed more than just justices of the peace to conduct all of the business that would come its way. On the 12th of March, Gov. Penn appointed Arthur St. Clair to serve in four positions: prothonotary, recorder of deeds, clerk of the Court of Common Pleas and Register of the Orphan’s Court.
With the men chosen and duly commissioned to carry out the duties of the new county’s government, thought could be given to the physical structure in which the officials could work.
Traditional folktales claim that the earliest courts were held in local taverns. Without specifying where he got his information, the early historian, William P. Schell, stated that the first court was held at Henry Wertz’s Rising Sun Tavern. There were four courts held in a year, which is why they were called courts of “quarter sessions.” The first Court of General Quarter Sessions, held on 16 April 1771 and the next one or two might have been held in a local tavern, such as the Rising Sun, but it did not take the early settlers very long to build a courthouse. A single man, building himself and his family a log house, did not take years to build it. If more than one man were working together, a log structure might have been raised in a few weeks or a couple months at the most.
Five men had been commissioned in the act erecting the county to find a location for a courthouse. On 13 November 1771, they purchased Lot #6 from James McCashlin. That lot bordered on the public space on the northeast corner of the Square. It had been one of the 21 lots reserved for the proprietaries when the town was surveyed in 1766. Arthur St. Clair, Bernard Dougherty, Thomas Coulter, William Proctor and George Woods purchased the lot for the county for the sum of £100.
It is known that two log structures were built on Lot #6 and the open space to the west of Lot #7. Both structures would probably have been only a single floor in height, but that is just a guess since records describing it do not exist. One of the log structures was the first Bedford County courthouse. The second one was the jail. The jail had no doors or windows through which a prisoner might escape. A trapdoor was cut in the roof and a ladder was dropped down when a prisoner was to be put in or brought out. The log courthouse and jail were used from 1771 until a new stone courthouse was built on the opposite corner in 1774.
A curious document was uncovered by historian Helen Greenburg that described a transaction undertaken by the five men commissioned to secure a courthouse for the county. Dated the same day as the date of the purchase of Lot #6, the document indicated that a loan was obtained from a man in Carlisle to pay a merchant at Baltimore the sum of £200. The item(s) to be purchased were not named. The merchant in Baltimore was Samuel Purviance. He was an esteemed merchant who imported furniture and other fine goods from Europe. Although not proven, it is possible that the commissioners were purchasing a table and chairs for use in the courthouse. Despite the fact that the building itself would not be impressive, being log, an elegant and imposing judge’s bench would impart a greater measure of authority to that office than a sawn plank table would. The residents of the new county would have had more respect for the Justices of the Peace if they were sitting behind a formal, well-constructed table than if they were sitting on a split log bench at a split log table. Imagine if you were to go before a judge today. Standing before a judge sitting behind a highly polished mahogany desk is more intimidating than standing before a judge sitting behind a white polyvinyl folding table.
The log courthouse was used for only the few years of 1771 to 1774, until a more substantial one could be constructed of stone on the opposite side of Juliana Street. A loan for the amount of £800, specified for the use in constructing a new courthouse, was received from the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly on 23 July 1774 and the construction on the stone courthouse began. George Woods was the general project manager and William Doe managed the stone quarrying, hauling and construction. The necessary woodwork was managed by Mathew McCallister. Payments were approved and paid throughout the construction period. The last one was made on 14 October 1776.
A bronze marker, holding incorrect information, was set in a large stone on the northwest corner of the Square. It was placed there and dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The marker states that the courthouse built on that site had been the first Bedford County courthouse. The marker is a good example of a group rushing to have a marker placed without actually researching the information that it will hold. We know now that it was the second courthouse.
The stone courthouse was two and one half stories in height. The ground floor served as the jail and included a section that served as the jailor’s residence. The jail rooms were located to the left of the entrance, and consisted of three units: a dungeon for the worst criminals, a cell for the less dangerous offenders and a debtors’ prison. The debtors’ prison was the only one of the three sections that had the benefit of a window, which of course was covered with a metal grating. The central cell would no doubt have been dark, but it might have received light that spilled into it from the window in the debtor’s prison. The dungeon would probably have been very dark.
The dungeon has been the object of imaginative speculation over the years. Some historians have claimed that the dungeon was dug in a part of the floor since their romantic idea of a dungeon meant that it had to be underground. A ‘dungeon door’ was noted on one of the carpenter’s lists, suggesting that it was at ground floor level. The second floor served as the courtroom. It was accessed by a stairway built on the outside of the building. The half story at the top was called a garret and was accessed by a stairway in one corner of the second floor courtroom. Grand juries would be…