Kathryn Pippin - October 2007

Queen Anne's County Courthouses


Kathryn Pippin

   No structure more symbolizes a people’s faith in justice and equitable relations than a courthouse. Usually located at the center of a town, its very presence imposes a sense of wisdom, security and permanence.
    Courthouses in Queen Anne’s County, named for Her Royal Majesty (1665-1714), tell the history and tradition of this county. Located in the heart of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Queen Anne’s County is bordered by the Mason-Dixon Line and Delaware, Chesapeake Bay, and the Maryland counties of Caroline to the west, Talbot to the south and Kent to the north.
    Since William Claiborne’s settlement on the south side of Kent Island in 1631, judicial procedures proved paramount to the success of the British colony. Court-baron (baron disputes) and court-leet (all other disputes) were held in the great hall of the manor house. A bailiff opened a court-leet proclaiming 3 “oyez,” followed by “all to draw near and answer to their names upon pain and peril.”
    The Maryland colonial assembly initially introduced legislation for establishing a county court system in 1636. By 1642, the county court system was in place and the Kent Island Court began in 1654. Extant records of the Kent Island Court, the first east of the Chesapeake, speak of one Thomas Bradnox, whose anti-social behavior was frequently reprimanded. His wife served as his attorney in 1660.
    In the beginning, the county court had jurisdiction only over civil cases not exceeding 3,000 pounds of tobacco and criminal cases not jeopardizing life or member. The Provincial Court shared in much of the litigation. However, throughout the 18th century, the county court gained greater jurisdictional duties. By 1785, the county court had acquired full jurisdiction in all civil cases.
    In 1662, Talbot County, including the area of Queen Anne’s, was formed out of Kent County. Maryland’s Proprietary Charter was based on the organization of the county palatine in England. As early as 1637, one James Baldridge was commissioned sheriff and coroner of St. Mary’s, seat of the Provincial Council. The Sheriff, a title whose authority was established in England by the Magna Carta in 1215, served as the county’s chief administrator. The sheriff issued summons, impaneled juries and apprehended persons. The office also collected and paid out the county levy, supervised preparation of tax lists.
    The Palatine of Durham, the model of Maryland government, vested much power in the county court. Powers of the county court included dividing the county into hundreds; appointing constables; dividing the county into highway precincts; hearing petitions for new highways; letting contracts for ferries and repairing/constructing county buildings; appointing inspectors for weights/measures and tobacco; levying taxes; granting rights to keep ordinaries (taverns); training and organizing militia; engaging physicians for sick paupers; and binding out orphans as apprentices.
    Talbot County Court records document the first court term in April 1662 as being held at the private home of Justice William Coursey. The second court met at the private home of Justice Richard Woolman. By 1674, Jonathan Hopkinson of Wye River contracted to sell his house and surrounding acreage for court and jail purposes. Hopkinson was paid 10,000 pounds of tobacco for his domicile and parcel. In 1679, the Talbot justices discussed occupying a part of Elizabeth Winkles’ house to “Keep Court in,” paying Richard Swetnam to run an ordinary in another portion of the Winkles house, and constructing a new courthouse.
    In 1679, Talbot County Commissioners Richard Woolman, Major William Coursey, Capt. George Cowley, James Murphy and William Combes contracted with Richard Swetnam, carpenter, for 30,000 pounds of tobacco to construct the new 50’ by 23’, three-story clapboard courthouse. The courthouse was to have an 18‘ by 18’ Court Hall with an 8’ by 8’ porch.
    The Commissioners instructed Swetnam concerning additional specifications: 12 windows, cornices, 2 brick chimneys, folding wainscot doors and enclosed well-lighted wainscot rail and banister Court Hall. The Commissioners also ordered the courthouse’s clapboard siding to become brick-covered in its second year.
    Located at York, the three-story courthouse was completed in 1685. York sat on Skipton Creek at the Wye River near Longwoods. The 1685 Courthouse, in the area of the future Queen Anne’s County, was surrounded by a jail, an ordinary (kept in the courthouse), a tobacco warehouse, and a few houses. A half-mile race track ran in front of the courthouse.
    A very colorful incident roused the York Courthouse in 1692 – political discord expressed in a humorous fashion. The 17th century was a tumultuous time for Europe and her colonies. In 1688, the English Glorious Revolution caused the bloodless overthrow of King James II. William and Mary then came to the throne. Their reign promoted Protestantism over Catholicism. In Maryland, Catholic Lord Baltimore was reticent in recognizing the new rulers.
    Upset by what they believed to be Lord Baltimore’s rebellion and staunch catholicism, Marylanders John Coode, Kenelm Chesaldine and their supporters issued a number of indictments against Lord Baltimore and his Deputy Justices, Richard Hill, Henry Coursey and Edward Dorsey. Coode’s supporters included H.P. Jowles, Henry Trippe, Nehemiah Blackiston, Nicholas Greenberry, John Edmondson, John Brooke, David Brown and Robert King.
    Coode’s faction also had established a government in opposition to Lord Baltimore’s loyal Provincial Council. What eventually erupted was a protest filled with frivolity – “the celebrated drinking bout at York Courthouse.” Devout Catholic Richard Bennett, the wealthiest man in Maryland, Protestant Episcopal Reverend John Lillingston, and other leading citizens including Michael Earle, Joseph Green, John Hinson, Thomas Smith, Joseph Lambert, Thomas Hinds, William Coursey, Samuel Withers and Richard Macklin descended upon York Courthouse on the third Tuesday of February, 1692.
    According to October 1, 1692 court records, a “tumultuous meeting and disturbance” made by John Lillingston and his associates began on that Tuesday morning. The parties took the upper room over the Commissioners Chambers at the courthouse. They stayed until Friday, drinking and frolicking. The courthouse and tavern were on the same premises.
    Records described the actions of the “disaffected to the present government” as they “...did put their heads into the Pillory, other took their horses, and rode into the Court, and did carry their horses upon the Benches where the Justices usually sat.”
    Over the four-day spree, they picnicked along Skipton Creek, “carousing,” cuffing and throwing one another into the water, and finally “were so drunk that they fell together by the ears.”
    Upon tavern keeper John Salter’s testimony and witness John Lee’s deposition, Lillingston, Bennett, and others were arrested and tried at St. Mary’s. They were found guilty but were freed as an act of clemency. Court records state: “Mr. John Lillingston accused for a late tumultuous Riot and meeting at Talbot County Court House is also called in and thereof acquitted and discharged upon the account aforesaid with caution given him for his good and more orderly Behaviour for the future, and to encourage him heartily to join with the rest of their Majesty’s subjects in solemnization of thanksgiving day appointed.” The thanksgiving was proclaimed after a recent British victory over France.
    Despite the turmoil and political unrest, the York Courthouse remained the county seat until Queen Anne’s County was formed on April 18, 1706. York’s close proximity to the Queen Anne’s County line made it no longer a viable site for the Talbot County seat. With the formation of Queen Anne’s County, a courthouse was constructed at Queenstown in 1708, as noted in its end gable.
    Chapter XV, Court records of MD, Pt. 1 describes the formation as “...100 acres on Major John Hawkins’ Plantation on Coursey Creek, and the lands adjoining to be erected into a Town; and the Courthouse to be built there.” In 1710, title problems were resolved when Mrs. Elizabeth Coursey was paid 1,100 pounds of tobacco for courthouse and church property.
    A south wing was added in 1825 to the structure serving as the Queen Anne’s County seat from 1707-1782. An important shipping port, Queenstown was called Queen Anne’s Town at first. A whipping post was erected in 1718.
    In 1782, the state assembly legislated the removal of the Queenstown Courthouse and Queen Anne’s County seat of government to a more central location. A decade later, with land acquisition at Centreville near the headwaters of the Corsica River, the building of a federal-style courthouse began. The first recorded case was heard there in 1794, making it Maryland’s oldest courthouse in continuous use.
    The courthouse was built on the plantation known as Chesterfield, ancestral home of Judge Joseph Hopper. The Queen Anne’s Courthouse was white brick with a center section of 2 rooms deep, flanked by matching wings, one room deep. The structure was renovated in 1868 and 1876 to include a rear addition and cast iron columns supporting a coffered tin ceiling. James Tilghman was the first chief judge in 1791, followed by Richard Tilghman, Philemon B. Hopper and Richard Bennett Carmichael, term ending 1864.
    Centreville Courthouse has had many memorable cases and events. For Queen Anne’s County Day celebration on Saturday, June 18, 1977, Her Royal Majesty Princess Anne ceremoniously unveiled the bronze statue of Queen Anne, a gift of Wye Institute, on the courthouse green. In Queen Anne’s left hand she holds the charter establishing Queen Anne’s County.