The Beginning of the Indiana County Judicial System

During the early years of Indiana County, access to the Court system was very difficult.  On January 30, 1804, James McComb, a resident of Indiana County in the General Assembly, presented to the House of Representatives four petitions signed by citizens of the provisional county of Indiana which stated the inconvenience to have to attend court in Greensburg.  This difficulty was on account of the distance and the difficulty in crossing the Conemaugh River.  The purpose of the petition was for Indiana County to be organized for judicial purposes.  On March 5, 1804, Mr. Allshouse of Westmoreland County offered a resolution that Indiana be organized for judicial purposes.  The resolution was tabled and Mr. McComb again presented another petition on March 9, 1804, but it was to no avail.

It was not until February 6, 1805, that Mr. McComb presented another petition for judicial organization of Indiana County.  House Bill 73 “An Act to organize the provisional counties of Indiana and Cambria” was introduced on February 8, 1805.  The bill passed the House and went to the Senate on February 21, but the Senate voted to postpone the matter until the following session.

It was in December 1805 that the first sale of lots in Indiana had occurred and again the time came to finally complete the organization of the county and fully admit it to the membership of the Pennsylvania counties. This time, Senator Joseph Hart, Senator from Bucks County, introduced Senate Bill 127 “An Act to Organize the Provisional County of Indiana,” on January 24, 1806. The bill was considered and amended on February 20, and it was passed the next day and sent to the House which also passed the bill on March 3. The Governor signed the bill on March 10, making the measure law.

Just prior to the time upon the passage of the law, the General Assembly had created the new Tenth Judicial District by Act of February 24, 1806, with John Young being commissioned Judge on March 1, 1806. This new district included Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset, and Westmoreland Counties.

The Act of March 10, 1806, provided for the first election of county officials to be held on the second Tuesday of October to choose “two fit persons” for Sheriff, two for Coroner, and three commissioners.  Further, the first Monday of November, Indiana County was to enjoy the same rights and privileges as other counties, and all Court actions that were still pending in the Westmoreland County Courts were to be transferred to Indiana County.  This meant that the Prothonotary of Westmoreland County was directed to prepare a Docket of all pending Court actions and transfer them to Indiana County.  The newly elected Commissioners of Indiana County were authorized to erect a Court House, prison, and other public buildings and they had the power to obtain a house in or near the town of Indiana, where the courts could be held until a court house could be erected, and if they were not able to obtain a building they could erect temporary buildings for that purpose.  The Courts, Commissioners, and other officials of Indiana County were also given authority over Jefferson County’s 1,203 square mile area, which included parts of Forest and Elk Counties, extending to present places of Ridgway, Johnsonburg, St. Mary’s, Marienville, Cook’s Forest, Clear Creek State Park, and a large part of Allegheny National Forest.

Thomas McCartney was elected as the first “High Sheriff” with Samuel Young as the first Coroner. The first Commissioners were: William Clark, James Johnston, and Alexander McLain. James McLain was appointed by Governor McKean to serve as Prothonotary, Clerk of Courts, and Register & Recorder on October 2, 1806.

The first Court convened on December 8, 1806 on the second floor of Peter Sutton’s hotel and tavern near the corner of Carpenter Avenue and Philadelphia Street. Judge John Young presided and being assisted by Associate Judge Charles Campbell. The jurors chosen were each paid $2 for their services.  The first ten cases heard in Quarter Sessions (criminal) Court, nine of them were for assault and battery. Number 7, Commonwealth v. Margaret Walker, was for an indictment for fornication and bastardy, this case has heard along with Commonwealth v. John Campbell for bigamy. There were only three civil case to come before the court during that first term. Also during this first term came petitions for roads, one from Newport to Indiana and another from David Fulton’s to Brady’s Mill, but there was no action taken. The attorneys at bar were: George Armstrong, John B. Alexander, Samuel S. Harrison, James M. Riddle, Samuel Massey, and Samuel Gutherie; but none of them resided in Indiana County.

The second term, in March 1807, Judge Young was not present, and the reason was unknown, but Associate Judges Charles Campbell and James Smith president; this being the first time Smith appeared on the Bench. The case load was growing: 37 civil and 11 criminal cases. This was the first time that Attorney Daniel Stanard appeared; Stanard being the first resident attorney.  All the criminal cases except one were assault and battery or surety of the peace charges. William Evans, the defendant in Commonwealth v. William Evans, was required to post $200 bond on a fornication and bastardy charge pending the appearance of Sarah Evans at the next term. There were recommendations to the Governor for tavern licenses from Henry Shryock, William Bond, and James Moorhead. Other types of business included applications for naturalization and petitions for roads. There was also a report and draft to divide Armstrong and Conemaugh Townships, which was approved by the court.

The following terms were held on the second Mondays of June, September and December, with similar cases being heard. On October 19, 1807, on the motion of James M. Riddle, Daniel Stanard was admitted to the Bar before Associate Judges Campbell and Smith.

The first public building to be erected was a crude jail measuring twenty feet square which was built by the first Sheriff, Thomas McCartney and was assisted by Conrad Rice. It was constructed from shell-bark hickory logs with a clapboard roof. The first prisoner incarcerated was Patrick Short, an Irishman, but he escaped by digging underneath the jail never to be found.

In 1806, construction was begun on a stone jail and completed in 1807. The contractor was Rev. John Jamieson. The building was 36×30 feet, with the lower story being nine feet high and the upper floor eight feet high; it stood at the corner of Sixth Street and “Clymer Alley” (now Nixon Avenue). James Mahan was the stone mason, Thomas Sutton was the carpenter and the first Jailer was Samuel Douglass.

The first Courthouse was begun in 1807 and not completed until late 1809, with John Huey as the contractor. It is unknown what the total cost of the first Courthouse and jail, but it was reported that the proceeds from the auction of town lots from the 250-acre tract donated by George Clymer were more than sufficient to meet the cost.

Once construction of the Courthouse was begun, a row of one-story brick offices for the county officials was erected along Philadelphia Street and next to the Courthouse.  The early years of the Indiana County judicial system were primitive, but an important start to laying the foundation of law and order in Indiana County.