Quenching one’s thirst with a mug of ale or hard cider was a fitting end to a long day in court in the colonial period. Taverns and ordinaries, often located near courthouses, were the scenes of celebrations as well sadder occasions for individuals drowning their sorrows after an unwanted legal outcome. A fragment from a Nottingham-type English stoneware mug, recovered from the site of the first courthouse in Charles County, Maryland, was probably witness to many such revelries or disappointing endings.
A beautifully detailed plat map prepared in 1697 depicts the first Charles County courthouse. Standing in a cluster of buildings, including an ordinary, several outbuildings, a fenced orchard and a set of stocks, this timber-framed structure was graced with a porch tower and glass windows. It served as the courthouse from 1674 until its abandonment in 1727, when the location of the county court was moved to nearby Port Tobacco. The courthouse was demolished for salvage in 1731 (King et al. 2008b) and over time, as the other buildings disappeared and people’s memories of them faded, the location of this first courthouse was lost.
Colonial Maryland’s judicial system was modeled on English precedents adapted to the colony’s needs. Within a few years of Maryland’s settlement in 1634, a court had been established at St. Mary’s City. As the colony grew in size and settlement expanded, county courts were established and given the authority to deal with criminal and civil suits (Brugger 1988:32). County courts also assumed responsibility for orphans, public roads, licensing taverns, and supervising elections (Horn 1988:173). Originally called the County Court, the name of the court at St. Mary’s City was changed to the Provincial Court soon after the first Maryland counties were created. It “had concurrent jurisdiction with the county courts in most matters”, including land conveyances, and heard chancery, testamentary and guardianship cases until separate courts were established for these matters (MSA 2009).
Charles County, named in honor of Charles Calvert, second proprietor of the Maryland colony, was created in April, 1658 (King et al. 2008b). Between 1658 and 1674, the county’s court appears to have met in the dwellings of various planters, a common practice throughout the colony. After the Colonial Assembly ordered Maryland’s counties to construct courthouses and prisons, the Charles County commissioners negotiated a contract with John Allen to build the required structures (King et al. 2008a). Allen and, after 1687, Thomas Hussey served food and beverages at the public house adjacent to the courthouse. By 1727, the courthouse had fallen into such disrepair that the County Commissioners made the decision to build a new courthouse at Port Tobacco. This small town remained the county seat until 1895 (King et al. 2008b).
In the summer of 2008, St. Mary’s College of Maryland archaeologist Julie King, with the support of funding from local businessman Michael Sullivan, set out to discover the lost courthouse. The location of the courthouse had been pinpointed by deed research to within a 150 acre parcel of farmland and woods. Shovel testing of this parcel discovered evidence of both the courthouse and the tavern home of Thomas Hussey (King et al. 2008a). In 2010, the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland State Highways Administration erected a highway marker along US 301 at Springhill Newtown Road, south of La Plata, to commemorate the discovery of the first Charles County courthouse.
In the earliest periods of American history, court cases were often heard in taverns or private homes (McNamara 2004). Over time, courthouses were purpose built to deal with legal matters and the taverns simply became places of social and physical sustenance. Today, rather than watering holes, one is more likely to see bail bond businesses and lawyer’s offices located near county courthouses. I think I prefer the colonial way!
Brugger, Robert. 1988 Maryland; A Middle Temperament 1634-1980. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Horn, James. 1988 Adapting to a New World; A Comparative Study of Local Society in England and Maryland 1650-1700. In Colonial Chesapeake Society. Edited by Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan and Jean B. Russo. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, pp. 133-175.
King, Julie A., Scott M. Strickland and Kevin Norris. 2008a The Search for the Court House at Moore’s Lodge; Charles County’s First County Seat. St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Unpublished report on file at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.
King, Julia, Christine Arnold-Lourie and Susan Shaffer. 2008b Pathways to History; Charles County Maryland, 1658-2008. Smallwood Foundation, Inc., Mount Victoria, Maryland.
McNamara, Martha J. 2004 From Tavern to Courthouse; Architecture and Ritual in American Law, 1658-1860. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
MSA (Maryland State Archives). 2009 Provincial Court. Archives of Maryland Online. Website accessed November 23, 2015. http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc2900/sc2908/html/provincialcourt.html