A Brief History of
The Jefferson County
Written by Judge David Sanders
LORD FAIRFAX AND THE WASHINGTONS
In the early 1700's, the area that is now Jefferson County was Indian Territory. It was not until 1748 that Lord Fairfax, who held the land known as the Northern Neck of Virginia by royal grant, sent surveyors to map his holdings in the area. One surveyor, a 16 year old named George Washington, fell in love with the area. He saved his earnings and purchased land along Bullskin Run, a few miles from what is now Charles Town, West Virginia. He told his brothers of this place and they also bought land. Brothers Lawrence, Samuel and Charles all owned substantial acreage here.
Samuel’s house, “Harewood”, still stands not far from town, and is still in the Washington family. Brother Charles built a house, “Happy Retreat” that still stands in Charles Town. Charles had a one-room law office, also still standing, from which he sold the lots of his new town. It was his wish, in the event a new county should be formed, that the four corners of the town center be dedicated for public purposes. Shortly after his death in 1799, the new county was formed. In 1801, Charles’ son deeded the corners to the people.
In 1803, the first courthouse was built upon this site. While we have not discovered a detailed description of this courthouse, a 1830 plat of Charles Town shows it as a two-story structure, without columns, but with a tower. It was probably in the Federal style, and must have been rather modest, as it was paid for from contributions and not from taxes.
NEW COURTHOUSE, A GREEK TEMPLE
The county grew so quickly that, in 1836, the first courthouse was pulled down to make way for a larger one. The plan had been to sell the courthouse and build in another location. However, it was discovered that, if not used for a courthouse, the property would revert to the Washington family.
The new courthouse was constructed as a Doric temple in the Greek revival style. Although there have been some changes, this is the courthouse that still stands. In 1836, the ground floor was one big courtroom. This courtroom had windows in all four walls and was heated by large iron stoves. The judge and court officials sat on an elevated platform, behind a railing with turned balusters. This courtroom would be the site of one of the most famous trials in history.
JOHN BROWN'S RAID
On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a band of 21 men against the Federal Arsenal and Armory at Harpers Ferry. They killed five and wounded nine in the raid. Ten of the conspirators were killed, five escaped, and six were arrested by troops under Col Robert E Lee. They were taken to Charles Town for trial. The charges were: murder, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The trial began Wednesday October 26, and concluded Monday October 31, 1859. It took only one day to hear all the witnesses. The jury was out only half an hour before a verdict of guilty on all counts was returned. Part of the John Browncourtroom survives as the hearing room of the County Commission.
After Brown’s trial and conviction, he was taken to the jail, located diagonally across George Street, where the present post office now stands. Brown remained in jail through November while his conviction was appealed. John Wilkes Booth, in Charles Town for these events, gave dramatic readings from Shakespeare at the Episcopal Reading Room.
On the 2nd of December 1859, Brown was taken from the jail. He rode in a wagon, seated atop his coffin, to a field a short distance away. The site is along present day Samuel Street, between Hunter and Mason Streets. There, surrounded by troops and VMI cadets, he was hanged. It was 35 minutes before his pulse ceased. Brown was 59.
After the execution, Brown’s body was taken to Harpers Ferry and turned over to his wife. The scaffold was disassembled and made into a porch on a residence at the corner of Liberty and Lawrence Streets. The remaining five co-conspirators were tried, convicted and hanged; John Copeland and Shields Green, who were black, and John Edwin Cook, Edwin Coppoc and Aaron D. Stevens, who were white.
WAR DAMAGES COURTHOUSE
Immediately before the Civil War, the court records were moved to Lexington, Virginia for safekeeping. They survived the war intact. The courthouse itself would not be so lucky. The war raged in Jefferson County. Charles Town was frequently occupied, changing hands regularly. On October 18 1863, troops and artillery under Confederate General John D Imboden surrounded Union troops in the courthouse. The brief battle that ensued damaged the courthouse. After that, the courthouse was used as a stable. By war’s end the metal roof had been removed and made into bullets.
THE FORTUNE OF THE WAR
When West Virginia was formed in 1863, Jefferson County had remained a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Shortly after, a highly questionable “election” abducted Jefferson County into the new state. By war’s end, the county seat was moved to Shepherdstown. A new courthouse (now McMurran Hall) was built there. In Charles Town, tombstones were sold in the courthouse yard.
THE RESTORATION OF THE COURTHOUSE
In 1872, the county seat was returned to Charles Town, and the damaged courthouse was restored. The walls and columns were made higher and a broad cornice, or entablature, was added below the roofline. Above the portico, the belltower was enlarged to include a town clock. Walls were added to the first floor interior, creating offices and supporting the floor above. A grand, new courtroom with a 25 ft. ceiling was created on the second floor. It features a balcony, referred to as the “ladies listening gallery”.
The new courtroom was heated by stoves, and after a few years, was lit by a large “soil kerosene” chandelier. Like the courtroom of 1836, it had windows with wooden shutters all around. Also, like the 1836 courtroom, railings and balusters defined the bench and the well of the court. A single painting hangs in the courtroom - a portrait of Andrew Hunter, a lawyer of Charles Town, who served as special prosecutor in John Brown's Trial.
SUPREME COURT 1873 - 1912
This new courtroom was home to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals from 1873 until 1912. During these forty years, the Supreme Court would ride circuit. It sat one term a year in Charles Town, one term in Charleston, and one term in Wheeling.In 1910, an annex was constructed onto the rear of the courthouse for judge’s chambers, jury and witness rooms, and a clerk’s office. In 1919, the old jail was sold to the post office and a new one was built behind the courthouse.
WARFARE IN THE COAL FIELDS
In 1922, 250 miles from Charles Town in the southwestern coalfields of West Virginia, enraged miners inflamed by Mother Jones and union leaders, attempted to invade and unionize Logan County. The “Battle of Blair Mountain” resulted. Actual warfare, with machine guns and aerial bombardment followed. Two thousand Federal troops were needed to stop the fighting.
SECOND TREASON TRIAL
A special Logan County grand jury was convened. Returned were 738 indictments charging treason and murder. The venue was transferred to Jefferson County.Again, Charles Town was the site for a set of high profile treason trials. The national and world media descended on the town. The newly formed State Police were present in such number that it seemed like martial law. John L Lewis, Governor Ephraim F Morgan and other notables were in attendance.
In the first trial, union leader Bill Blizzard was acquitted of treason. After that, a Reverend Wilburn and his son were convicted of 2nd degree murder. The governor later commuted their sentences. Next, Walter Allen was convicted of treason against the State. He was released on bond pending appeal and remainded at large. After those trials, venue was moved to Morgan, then Greenbrier, then Fayette County. However, no other trials were ever held, and the remaining indictments were dismissed.
THE LIVING COURTHOUSE
Today, the Jefferson County Courthouse remains a working courthouse, not a museum. It stands at the vital center of government in this busy county. Combining architectural and historical significance, it is an eloquent monument to democracy.
Former County Clerk’s of Jefferson County, West Virginia
- 1834-1888 Thomas A. Moore
- 1889-1901 Gerald D. Moore
- 1901-1909 W. F. Alexander
- 1909-1934 Charles A. Johnson
- 1934-1968 Emily A. M. Stanley
- 1969-2003 John E. Ott
- 2004-2016 Jennifer S. Maghan
- 2017-Present Jacqueline C. Shadle