Priceless Colonial Documents Return Home, After Lengthy Stay in New York

The Historical Society of Cecil County has added two rare and valuable manuscripts from an anonymous donor to its collection.  Beginning in 1701 and running into the 1730s, these folio ledgers contain some of the earliest extant court records for the County.  The long-lost documents, which surfaced recently when a distant donor from New York contacted the Society, promise to be treasures to historians and genealogists as they harvest data about life during Cecil’s colonial period.

 The hand-written entries in a flowing script are sometimes challenging to read, but the browning pages of centuries old manuscripts provide researchers with valuable insight into everyday actions of the local Justice’s Court.  Records pertain to criminal justice, deeds, wills, estates, and the administrative matters of the local governing body.  In addition to its judicial function, the court had extensive administrative powers.  It decided where roads would be built and it authorized and licensed ferries.  There is a discussion about John Hack operating the Bohemia Ferry for 5000 pounds of tobacco in 1724, for example.  The body also issued business licenses, approved apprenticeships and guardian bonds, and kept records of orphans.  Cattle and hog marks were registered and Stephen Hollingworth had his recorded in 1715.  The justices also determined whether the poor were eligible for public assistance and it excused paupers and cripples from paying county taxes.

 When the manuscript begins in 1701 the justices are meeting at the courthouse on the Sassafras River.  Later they meet at Courthouse Point on the Elk River.  The court session typically lasted a few days and in the next few paragraphs we look at a few entries.

 In the November 1730 session, which was adjourned to December, the “worshipful Justice of County, judicially sitting,” received a petition from the vestry of St. Mary Anns.  The “parish church being much decayed” and in need of repair, the petitioners asked the court to grant an assessment on taxable persons in the parish for “eight pound of tobacco per pole” in order for the vestry to make the needed repairs.  The levy was granted.

Aaron Latham worried about improving his land adjacent to courthouse for fear of “trespassing” on the public property since the boundaries had “become blind & unknown,” in March 1724.  His petition requested that a survey be done and that appropriate survey stones be used to mark the boundaries.  The justices issued a warrant directing a surveyor lay out the courthouse land, provided the petitioner pay half the cost.

In the November 1725, John Pain, “being very ancient past his labor and it pleased God of late to take his eyesight from him so that he cannot walk” prayed upon the court for assistance.  The body ordered 200 pounds of tobacco for this poor person.

In June 1724, Sheriff John Hack had custody of Robert Dutch, who was condemned to be hanged on the 19th of the month.  Due to the insufficiency of the jail, he requested a sufficient place to secure the prisoner until the execution and he asked for the assistance of constables from several of the nearby hundreds.  After considering the petition, the justices ordered that the sheriff summons a ‘two man watch and ward” until 19th and that the men be reimbursed for their trouble during the next levy.  In addition nearby constables were summonsed to attend the execution.

The donor, a longtime collector of antiquarian books was retiring so he wanted these relics from the past return to their home.  He’d purchased the items in a rare book store in the 1950s.

These records of the county court provide excellent insight into the county’s past during part of the colonial years.  Additionally, since the two 18th century books are fragile the documents have been conserved by putting them on microfilm in memory of one of our volunteers, Helen McKinney, who passed away in 2006.  Mrs. McKinney was one of our most dedicated researchers, always working tirelessly to help anyone unearth information about Cecil’s past.  The Society expresses its gratitude to the anonymous donors for the donation of these priceless manuscripts.


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