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The 1771 Court House

The Court House built in 1771 was the first to be used for Bedford County. This first Court House was a log structure. An adjacent log structure served as the first jail. Both structures stood on Lot #6 on the northeast corner of the Square and were in use between 1771 and 1774.

The first Court House was constructed of logs. It would have been only a single story in height and probably no larger than fifteen by twenty feet. A similar log structure stood to the south of the court house. Serving as the county gaol, the second log structure had no doors or windows. A hatch opening on the roof permitted entry and exit. A ladder would be put down through the hatchway and the prisoner would climb down into the single room of the building. The ladder would be drawn up and out of the hole and the hatch shut and bolted tight.

The artist rendering below shows what the first Court house and Gaol might have looked like.

A document was found by early historian Helen Greenburg which stated in part that: “Arthur St. Clair, Bernard Dougherty, George Woods and William Proctor, Esqs and Thomas Coulter of Co and sd province, Trustees appointed by an Act of Assembly to erect a Goal and Court house, are held and firmly bound unto John Pollock of Carlisle County Cumberland, Gentleman in Trust to and for the use of Samuel Purviance of Baltimore, Maryland, Merchant ~ in full and just sum of 200 pounds . . . to be paid to John Pollock or to his Attorney, his heirs, executors or administrators . . . Sealed with our seals this 13th day of November 1771 . . . The condition of the above obligation the above bound named men, Arthur St. Clair, Bernard Dougherty, George Woods, William Proctor and Thomas Coulter . . . will pay named John Pollock his heirs etc, full sum of 100 pounds with lawful interest before the 13th day November 1772, without fraud or further delay . . .” John Pollock, named as a ‘Gentleman’ in the text of the document, was a tavernkeeper in the town of Carlisle, the county seat of Cumberland County. Samuel Purviance, named as a ‘Merchant’ was an highly esteemed merchant at the port city of Baltimore, Maryland.

The document appears to be evidence of some sort of loan, or perhaps a mortgage, provided by John Pollock of Carlisle in the amount of £200 ~ one half of which, with interest, they promised to pay back to Mr. Pollock within one year. Bernard Dougherty had found himself in Bedford due to his job as an agent for Plumstead and Franks, provision contractors for the British army. He had, at one time, served as a Justice of the Peace for Cumberland County, where he probably was acquainted with John Pollock. It is possible that when the need arose, Dougherty remembered his wealthy friend at Carlisle and he might have suggested that the trustees contact Mr. Pollock for a short term loan. That would have been the first part of a two-part scheme to get the court functioning in the new county. The second part would not necessarily have been concerned with the actual construction of the court house, but rather with obtaining certain things to simply get the business of holding courts underway. According to other history books, the recollections of some residents confirmed that between 1771 and 1774 the courts were held in a log structure built on the public square in front of (i.e. to the west of) Lot #7.

The construction of a log building was something that just about anyone with even a minimal amount of carpentry skills was able to do. But the production of some things, such as a properly ‘judicial looking’ table (i.e. the judge’s ‘bench’) and multiple chairs on which the justice or judge, the defendant and the jurors would sit, needed a more skilled person ~ a cabinetmaker as compared to a carpenter. There might not have been a cabinetmaker with the tools and expertise to craft furniture in the frontier town of Bedford. And that is where the need to come up with specie ~ actual cash in hand that could be used between colonies ~ brought not only John Pollock into the picture, but also the merchant Samuel Purviance. It is possible that while the people at Bedford could build the edifice of a court house, the tables, chairs and other objects necessary to help the court function would have to be purchased. ~ Those items that needed to be purchased might have been imported from Great Britain or Europe by the merchant, Samuel Purviance.

Early Bedford County historians never mentioned this document. They apparently did not know about the document that Mrs. Greenburg found, or else they did not realize what it implied. Helen Greenburg, herself, never mentioned it in any of her historical articles; perhaps she didn’t even hazard a guess as to its meaning after she transcribed it. And although it might not have pertained directly to the construction of the Court House, it might be of some importance. 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 Justice of the Peace if he were sitting behind a formal, well-constructed table than if he were sitting on a split log bench. Imagine if you were to go before a judge today. Standing before a judge sitting behind a highly polished mahogany judge’s bench is more intimidating than standing before a judge sitting behind a white polyvinyl folding table. If that assumption is correct, and the transaction between the five trustees and John Pollock of Carlisle was for the purpose of obtaining impressive court room furniture from Samuel Purviance, the Baltimore merchant, then the document that Helen Greenburg purportedly found was, as noted, of some importance. Unlike the somewhat standard construction of the building, the purchase of actual ‘court’ furniture and other necessary items signaled the desire to legitimize the authority and function of the newly created county. In a way, the installation of formal and finely crafted furniture would have heralded the emergence of true civilization in the midst of the frontier.