Fredericksburg, Virginia 1608-1908/9

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The Courts of Fredericksburg — The Freedman's Bureau — Court Orders and Incidents — First Night Watch — Ministers Qualify to Perform Marriage Ceremony — First Notary Public— Fixing the Value of Bank Notes — Prison Bounds for Debtors — Public Buildings, &c.

If every one in this Christian land was a Christian, and was governed by the rule laid down and inculcated by the Christ, "whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," there would have been but little, if any, use for courts in this country. But all people are not Christians, and all Christians are not governed by that golden rule, therefore courts were necessary to punish crime, settle disputes, protect the weak against the strong, secure the widow and orphan in their rights, enforce provision for the indigent poor, and perform other functions for the benefit of society and the well-being of the country.

What courts Fredericksburg had before the Revolutionary war is unknown, as no record seems to have been left of them. In all probability the successors of Major Lawrence Smith were also authorized to execute martial law and hear and determine all questions, as a county court might do, until the town was chartered in 1727 and placed in the hands of trustees. These trustees had certain powers conferred upon them by act of the House of Burgesses, and they were to keep records of their proceedings, but these records cannot now be found and quite likely have long ago been destroyed.

It may have been possible that the Colonial Governors appointed magistrates to hear and determine causes within certain limits and to punish petty offences, while causes beyond those limits and felonies were heard and determined by the court sitting at Williamsburg. Of this, however, we are left to conjecture, as no records are at our command. But if this had been the manner of dispensing justice prior to 1781, it furnished a pattern for the Virginia Legislature for many years thereafter with respect to the town, as is referred to elsewhere.

The first court established in Fredericksburg, that we now have any records of, was by an act of the General Assembly of Virginia, passed during the session of 1781. At that session Fredericksburg was regularly incorporated and given a Common Council and a hustings court, but the court did not organize until April 15,1782. At its organization the following justices were present:— Charles Mortimer, Wm. McWilliams, James Somerville, Charles Dick, Samuel Roddy and John Julien, "the same being Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen of the town," elected to their respective offices on the 18th day of March, 1782, in the order above named.

This continued as the only court of the town until 1788, when nineteen district courts were established in the State by the General Assembly, one of which was located at Fredericksburg. These courts were presided over by two judges of the General Court, located at Richmond, the number of judges of that court having been, by the same act, increased from five to ten judges.

This district court was regarded as a very important court, and was attended by some of the ablest lawyers in Virginia and adjoining States. Edmund Randolph, after he was Governor and twice a Cabinet Minister, (Attorney-General and Secretary of the Treasury in Washington's Cabinet.) and also James Monroe, a citizen of this place, after he was Minister to England, France and Spain, were attorneys before and practised in this court. While attending a session of this court, on the 3rd day of May, 1798, Governor Randolph published the following card in the Virginia Herald:—

"My business in the Court of Appeals and High Court of Chancery render it impossible for me to attend constantly the district court holden at this place. I have, therefore, come hither, during the present term, with a hope of finishing almost every cause in which I was employed; and have refused all fees, which have been offered to me in any suits, which I may not try before I leave the town. I am apprehensive, however, that I shall not succeed in concluding everything; and I have accordingly, made the following arrangement:— To some of my clients I have personally returned the fees; to all others, where the business has not been absolutely finished, or any step remains to be taken, except to move for the opinion of the court, the fee will be returned on application to John Chew, Esq., clerk of the court, who has been so obliging as to accept from me a list of all my suits, still depending, of the money received, and of their situation. Although the fees are to be returned yet I have obtained the favor of Colonel Monroe, (President James Monroe.) Colonel John Minor and Francis Brooke, Esq., (Afterwards one of the Judges of the Supreme Court) to attend to these suits, agreeably to the memorandum which I have given each of them, with every paper and information in my power. In two of the cases, which are of peculiar importance, I shall attend myself at a future day; and in all instances, will cheerfully assist with my advice. If required, I will be ready to attend the trial of any particular suits, now or hereafter depending in this court whensoever the business of the Court of Appeals and High Court of Chancery will permit"

This court continued in existence for about twenty years, when, by an act of the General Assembly of 1808-9, it was abolished, and a "Circuit Court or a Superior Court of Law," was established in its stead. This new court was presided over by one of the judges of the General Court, the number of judges of that court, it appears, having been increased from ten to fifteen, to correspond with the number of circuits established in the State. These courts have continued to the present time, with slight changes at different periods as to their powers and territory, and are presided over by circuit judges.

In the year 1852 the State was divided into ten districts and a court was established for each district, known as the District Court of Appeals. The court for the Fourth district was located at Fredericksburg, and was held up-stairs in the north wing of the present courthouse. This court consisted of the judges of the circuit courts constituting the district and the judge of the Court of Appeals, elected from this section of the State, as president. It was provided that no judge should sit in any appeal case sent up from his circuit. This court continued until the adoption of what was known as the Underwood Constitution, which failed to make provision for district courts.

Prior to 1870 the corporation or hustings court was held by three or more justices of the peace, but when the State constitution of that year was adopted it raised that court to a higher dignity, its powers and jurisdiction were enlarged, and a judge prescribed "who shall be learned in the law." Since the establishment of this court it has had five judges to preside over it—John M. Herndon, John T. Goolrick, Montgomery Slaughter, A. Wellington Wallace, and Alvin T. Embrey. The new State constitution abolished all county courts and provided four annual terms of the circuit court, which were regarded ample for all purposes. In this change in the present constitution Fredericksburg lost her session of the circuit court and also her hustings court, but authority was conferred upon the City Council to continue the hustings court if it judged it necessary, the Legislature to elect the judge, whose term of office was to be ten years, and the Council was to pay his salary. In accordance with this authority the Council decided to continue the court, and Judge John T. Goolrick was elected by the General Assembly to preside over it.

The police court, established by the State constitution of 1870, is held by the Mayor of the town, and in his absence by the Recorder, or in his absence by any justice of the peace who may be designated by the Mayor for that purpose. This court has jurisdiction of misdemeanors and of civil cases, where the amount involved is less than one hundred dollars, with the right of appeal to the corporation court when the amount in controversy is ten dollars or more. After the first of January, 1909, by provision of State law, this court will be conducted by a police justice.


The new State constitution increased the number of circuits, when the county courts were abolished, to twenty-nine, and also increased the terms of the court to four annually, in order to enable the judges to do what the circuit courts previously did and most of the work formerly allotted to the old county courts. In order to do this the duties of the circuit clerks were greatly enlarged, that they might do much of the business heretofore transacted by the county courts. Fredericksburg is in the fifteenth circuit, but no session of the court is held within her borders. The circuit consists of five counties—King George, Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and Hanover. Our circuit judge is the Hon. John E. Mason, who resides most of the time in Fredericksburg.


The same constitution that changed the circuit courts and abolished the county courts made many changes also with government of cities and towns. In Fredericksburg, divided into two wards as it had been for some years, the six Councilmen from each ward were elected at the same time to serve two years, the Mayor being the presiding officer of the body. In these changes each ward is to elect three Councilmen every two years, who are to serve a term of four years, and the presiding officer is to be elected from the body of the Council. The present president is William E. Bradley, Esq., the first one having been Col. E. D. Cole.


The Freedman's Bureau was established in Fredericksburg in 1865. It was an unique judicial tribunal, and found its way in our midst by reason of the disjointed condition of the country at that time. It was brought into being by congressional enactment, to be operated alone in the Southern States that had formed the Southern Confederacy, which government had then ceased to exist. The geographical divisions in the South were no longer States, as heretofore stated, but military districts, designated by numbers, and it was the opinion of the Federal authorities, it seems, that in the chaotic condition of society and the impotency of our courts, or from some other cause, the colored people, who had just been emancipated from slavery, would not be justly dealt with by their former owners, hence the necessity of this civil-military tribunal.

These Freedman's bureaus were composed of three judges—one an army officer and two citizens. In the organization of the bureau in Fredericksburg two of the judges were appointed by the commander of the military district and the third one was elected by the Common Council. Being thus formed it was supposed that all parties brought before the court would receive justice. It had original jurisdiction over misdemeanors, controversies involving labor and the observance of contracts, and appellate jurisdiction from the decisions of magistrates and police justices, where the rights of colored people and United States soldiers were involved. The first court of this kind organized in Fredericksburg was composed of Major James Johnson, a United States army officer, Major Charles Williams, an ardent Union man, and James B. Sener, who was unanimously elected by the Common Council "a commissioner on the part of the citizens of the town in the Freedman's bureau, about to be organized."

Many absurd and amusing stories were put in circulation about this court, and the colored people were variously impressed with its functions and purposes, as well as of its powers and jurisdiction. Persons who followed the Union army to town, and who professed great friendship for the colored people and secured their confidence, told them that one purpose of the Freedman's Bureau was to adjust financial matters between ex-slaves and their former owners and to remunerate them for labor performed while they were in slavery. The money for this purpose was to be made from the property of those who owned the slaves and who received the benefit of their services.

The most of the colored people believed these, as they did the other absurd stores, and it was agreed that a test case should be made in Fredericksburg, and if it was decided in favor of the ex slave that all the other ex-slaves should bring similar suits for their ante-bellum services. The papers were prepared in such a case by one of the so-called lawyers, who made their appearance in our midst in those troublous times, one of our colored men being the plaintiff, but it was soon ascertained that such a suit would be "laughed out of court," and therefore the matter was dropped and nothing more was heard from it. It is said that after this the bureau was not popular even with the colored people.


There are many orders made and incidents that happened in the old courts that will be of interest to-day, if for no other reason than for their age and the fact that they are not practised in our present courts. Among the first things that claimed the attention of the hustings court, after its organization and appointment of the officers of the court, was to fix the rates of charges for the tavern keepers. This it did on the 20th day of May, 1782, entering the following schedule:—

"Good West India Rum, one pound per gallon; bread, ten shillings; whiskey, six; strong beer, four; good West India Rum toddy, ten shillings; Brandy toddy, seven shillings and six pence; Rum punch, fifteen shillings; Brandy punch, twelve; Rum Grog, six; Brandy Grog, five. Diet:— one meal, one shilling and six pence; lodging, one shilling and three pence; "stablidge" and hay, two shillings; oats and corn, nine pence per gallon."

Nearly half a century passed before another order in reference to tavern rates was made, or recorded if made. It is presumed that the schedule of rates made in 1782 was in force until the 10th day of May, 1838, or was renewed from time to time, with slight changes. On the 10th of May, 1838, another list of prices was adopted by the court, and entered as follows, dollars and cents being substituted for pounds and shillings:— Breakfast, 50 cents; dinner 50; supper, 50; lodging, 25; grain per gallon, 12 1/2 "stablage" and hay per night, 25; Madeira wine, per quart, 1.00; champagne, per quart, 1.50; other wine per quart, 50; French brandy, 12 1/2 per gill; rum, 12 1/2; gin, 12 1/2; whiskey, 12 1/2; corn per gallon, 25.

Another order was made by the court on the first day of March, 1784, when it "proceeded to settle the allowances to the officers of the corporation." That order gave to the officers their salaries as follows:— Mr. John Minor, Jr., attorney for the Commonwealth, 2000 pounds of tobacco; Henry Armistead, clerk, 1200 pounds; John Legg, sergeant, 1200 pounds; Henry Armistead, for attending all courts of inquiry, 400 pounds; sergeant for same, 570 pounds, and Wm. Jenkins, "gaoler," 364 pounds. For several years the salaries of the corporation officers were paid in the same manner and in the same currency.

On the 2nd of August, 1784, it was "ordered that the clerk certify that this court do recommend Robert Brooke[1] as a person of probity, honesty and good demeanor. This recommendation, it is understood, was necessary in order for Mr. Brooke to obtain a license from the General Court to practise law; and on the 7th of February, 1785, Robert Brooke and Bushrod Washington [2] were admitted as practising lawyers before the court.

Henry Armistead, the first clerk of the court, died about the first of August, 1787, and on the 6th of August John Chew, Jr., was appointed clerk to fill the vacancy. By that appointment we have this remarkable record, that from the appointment of John Chew, Jr., on the 6th of August, 1787, to the death of Colonel Robert S. Chew, on the 17th of August, 1886, the clerkship of the hustings court was in the Chew family, except the short time it was held by W. C. Strait under military appointment. It went from father to son for the fourth generation, covering a period of ninety-nine years and eleven days. These generations served as follows:— John Chew, Jr., from 1787 to 1S06; Robert S. Chew, from 1806 to 1826; John James Chew, from 1826 to 1867, and Robert S. Chew, from 1870 to 18S6. On the 27th of February, 1889, we are told that "James Mercer, Esq., Chief Justiee of the General Court this day in open court took the oath of a Judge to the District Court, pursuant to an act of the General Assembly entitled an act establishing district courts, and for regulating the General Court, which is ordered to be certified accordingly." From this entry we learn that James Mercer,[3] a Fredericksburg lawyer, was not only the chief justice of the General Court, which was held in Richmond, but the judge of the first district court held in Fredericksburg. This district court was the first court held in the town having jurisdiction over higher crimes than misdemeanors. Before the institution of this court all white persons charged with felonies were sent to Richmond for trial by the General Court.

[1] Governor of Virginia In 1794-96, and afterwards Attorney-General of the State.

[2] Appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States by President Washington.

[3] Wrote Mary Washington's will and was one of the witnesses to her signature.

From the records of the hustings court it appears that the "Gentlemen Justices" for many years after the introduction of United States money entered up fines and judgments in pounds, shillings and pence. The clerk used dollars and cents in entering up costs as early as 1795, but the court did not adopt the American count until about July, 1797. It is also noticeable that the clerk in nearly all entries placed the dollar mark after the figures, instead of in front of them, according to the present custom.

The first intimation that the town needed a watch or police, in addition to the town sergeant, is given in an order of the court, entered April 25, 1801, when it was "ordered that the sergeant of this corporation do (within the time limited for the collection of the other taxes in this corporation) collect of the housekeepers, within the jurisdiction of this court, two per cent, on the amount of their rents, agreeable to the assessed value thereof, and that he pay the same to the chamberlain to be appropriated to paying a watch to be kept in said corporation, the same being this day levied for that purpose."

On March 27, 1802, the grand jury of the corporation presented "as a nuisance the numerous obstructions in the streets, particularly in St. George street lot, burying the dead in George and Princess Ann streets; also the irregular burying in the ground west of and adjoining Prince Edward street." The most of the obstructions complained of were on Hanover street, west of Princess Ann, and on George street, from Main to the river. The burying ground adjoining Prince Edward street about twenty-five years ago was converted into Hurkamp park.

The court had been in existence more than twenty-two years before any record is found where a minister of the gospel, of any denomination, qualified to perform the rites of matrimony. It may have been that the law did not require such qualification prior to 1804, and was enacted that year. At any rate, the first one to appear before the court was on the 24th day of December, 1804. On that day "Benj. Essex, having produced to the court credentials of his ordination and of his being in regular communion with the Methodist Society, and having taken the oath of fidelity to the Commonwealth and entered into bond with security according to law, a testimonial is granted him to celebrate the rites of matrimony according to the forms and customs of the said Methodist church." Similar orders were entered by the court for ministers of other denominations as they applied to the court. From the record we find they applied as follows:— Samuel Wilson, of the Presbyterian church, September 22, 1806; Samuel Low, of the Episcopal church, September 8, 1808, and Wm. James, of the Baptist church, June 13, 1811. So it is found that as early as 1811 any one could be married in Fredericksburg, according to the customs of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Baptist churches.

On the 24th of December, 1805, John T. Lomax and Carter L. Stevenson qualified to practise law in the hustings court. They were two leading citizens of the town and served the public long and faithfully. John T. Lomax afterwards was made judge of the circuit court and one of the judges of the district court He was also the author of several law books. Mr. Stevenson was thirty five years Commonwealth's attorney in the town, holding the office a longer period than any other attorney, before or since his day. The first notary public to qualify in the hustings court was John Metcalfe. He was appointed by Governor James Barbour, and on the 12th day of November, 1812, came into court and produced his commission as a notary public, "whereupon the said John Metcalfe took the oath of fidelity to the Commonwealth, and that he will without favor or partiality, honestly, intelligently and faithfully discharge the duties of a notary public."


In the early part of the nineteenth century "paper money" superseded tobacco and tobacco warehouse receipts as currency, and therefore much of it was issued. The notes of the denomination of one dollar, and more, were generally designated as bills, while those below one dollar were called "shin plasters." At first these notes were issued by States, cities and banks, but in a few years incorporated companies, and sometimes individuals, issued them.

These notes were not always taken at their face value, especially when they were found any distance from their place of issue. This being the case, it was difficult for the people to distinguish between the good and the doubtful, or to fix the proper rate of discount. Therefore the courts took the matter in hand. The question was considered and passed upon, for the first time in our courts, on the 14th of March, 1816, the subject being the difference between the paper currency of Virginia and the bank notes of other places, which were found in circulation in Fredericksburg. Having properly investigated and reached a conclusion, the court declared and entered on record, as follows:—

"It appears to the satisfaction of the court that the chartered bank notes of the District of Columbia, State of North Carolina, and cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore, are current in this town, and it is the opinion of the court that the chartered bank notes of the District of Columbia, when compared with the chartered bank notes of Virginia, are at a depreciation of six per cent.; that the said notes of the cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore are at a depreciation of five per cent, and that the said notes of the State of North Carolina are of equal value with the said notes of Virginia."

A similar declaration was made by the court each year for several years thereafter.

On the 10th day of November, 1831, the will of Thomas Seddon [4]

[4] Thomas Seddon was the father of Hon. James A. Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, and lived in the residence now owned and occupied by George W. Shepherd.

was admitted to probate. Philip Alexander, John Moncure and Arthur A. Morson were appointed and qualified as executors and entered into bond, without security, the deceased requesting that none be required, in the sum of $240,000, it being the largest bond ever before required by the court. Appraisers were appointed by the court to appraise his property in the town of Fredericksburg and the counties of Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince William, Culpeper, Fauquier, Shenandoah and Page, and they were ordered to make returns to this court.

The court entered the following certificate on its records on the 12th day of January, 1832:— "The court orders it to be certified that it was proved to their satisfaction by the evidence of Francis S. Scott, a witness sworn in court, that Major Robert Forsythe, of the Revolutionary army, had two children, one of whom, Robert, died under age and unmarried, and the other son, John, is now alive, being the Senator in Congress from Georgia."


In the olden times, when some claim that the people were more honest and just and the laws more righteous than they are now, a person who failed or refused to pay his debts could, by proper process, be placed in "prison bounds," and kept there until he exhibited to the court a schedule of his property, made under oath.

If he had nothing more in the opinion of the court, than a reasonable allowance under the law, the court could discharge him as a poor debtor from custody. For more than fifty years the prison bounds was the square on which the jail is located. The poor debtor was allowed the full width of the streets around the square, but was not allowed to enter a building on the opposite side. Many distinguished men, it is said, have been confined to this central point in the town because they were unable at the time to meet their obligations.

In 1840 the court extended the liberty of the poor debtor by enlarging the prison bounds to four squares, probably because the law had relaxed its hold upon him. He could roam anywhere on those four squares and in the streets bounding them, but he could not go beyond the limits without being in contempt and becoming liable to additional punishment by the court. This order of extension was made on the 11th of June, 1840, and recorded as follows:—

"The court doth fix the prison bounds as follows, to-wit:— Beginning at the intersection of Caroline and William streets, thence up William to Charles street, thence down Charles street to Hanover street thence down Hanover street to Caroline street, thence up Caroline street to William street, including the footways on each side."