Picturing a courthouse brings to mind the age-old practice of law. This place is where justice is served, and the community is represented. Courthouses in the US are divided among levels of government and can range from the federal to the county level. European settlers introduced the tradition of utilizing judges and lawyers for dispute settlement and based on these traditions, the system of US courthouse was born. This article identifies the oldest courthouses in the US today.
Queen Anne’s County
The oldest courthouse in the US is the Queen Anne’s County Courthouse. Today, it is located in Maryland and is currently a museum. When settlers built this courthouse in 1708, however, Maryland still belonged to Virginia. The original Queen Anne’s courthouse had a dirt floor and oak wall sheathing. This courthouse was complete with whipping post and stocks. The new Queen Anne’s County Courthouse was constructed in 1796 after Maryland became a state.
Built in 1724, this was the county courthouse for Chester County of Pennsylvania until 1786. This courthouse was the place for the first reading of the Declaration of Independence after it was publicly announced in Philadelphia. iN 1786, the district was divided to include Delaware County. The building served as the courthouse for Delaware County until 1851. After that, it was used as the town hall for Chester City. What makes Chester County courthouse unique is that it is the oldest public building in continuous use in the US. Today, it is used for miscellaneous civic functions.
King William County
The King William County Courthouse is located in Virginia and was built in 1725. It is the oldest courthouse of continuous use in the nation. The builders completed the courthouse in brick and 115 years later the courtyard was enclosed by a brick wall to keep livestock away from the building. Although the county built a new courthouse in 2005, the original King William County courthouse is still used for some court activities.
The Essex County Courthouse was built in 1729 and is located in Virginia. This brick construction largely followed the Greek Revival style used during colonial times. In 1774, the famous sentencing of 4 Baptist ministers took place here. They were accused and found guilty of preaching against the law. The Baptist church purchased the building in 1878 for $750, since then, the Essex County government has bought it back for $775,000.
New Castle County
This courthouse, built in 1730, took the place of the first courthouse in Delaware which was burnt to the ground by an arsonist. With the remaining foundation, the New Castle community rebuilt the New Castle courthouse where it served for that purpose until 1881. This courthouse is an important site for the history of Delaware because it was here that the Assembly voted to secede from England and write its first Constitution. Today, the courthouse makes up part of the First State National Historic Park.
Located in Virginia and built in 1731, the Northampton County Courthouse became too small for the community in 1795. At that point, it was leased as a store under the condition that the store owner would have it re-roofed. When the local government wanted to destroy the building in 1913, residents protested, and the courthouse was preserved. It was moved 30 feet and today holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Old Salem County
The Old Salem County Courthouse was built in 1735 in New Jersey. It is the oldest courthouse in use in New Jersey and the second oldest in the country. In 1820, Colonel Robert Johnson proved to American residents that tomatoes were not poisonous by standing on the courthouse steps and consuming several at a time. No longer the county courthouse, today it is used as the Salem City Municipal Court.
The state register lists this courthouse as having been built in 1737 though some argue the date is 1735. Hanover County Courthouse, in Virginia, is the third oldest still in use in the nation. This courthouse is a single level, brick construction with arches at the front. Today, it is used for some judicial procedures and civic functions.
There is some debate over the actual construction date of the Charles City Courthouse though consensus holds that it was sometime around 1740. This discrepancy is because the courthouse saw a lot of fighting during the Civil War when original documents were destroyed. This courthouse is a “T”-shaped, brick structure with a tin-covered roof. This courthouse is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Middlesex County Courthouse is also located in Virginia and was built in 1745. This building, like many others at the time, housed troops during the Civil War. It was used as a church building after the war, and in 1948 became the official site of the Middlesex County Woman’s Club. It remains the club’s headquarters to this day.