History of Westmoreland County
Volume 1
Chapter 3

Formation of County. - First Courts. - Elections.

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The reader may wonder why, when the settlers lived so remote from their county seat, they were so slow about securing the erection of a new county. This will appear all the more remarkable when he glances at the length of time intervening between the formation of new counties coming westward. Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester counties were formed by William Penn when the Province was formed in 1682. They have always been known as the Quaker counties. Next, coming westward, was Lancaster county, erected in 1729. Twenty years afterward came York county, in 1749, and Cumberland in 1750. Bedford was erected out of the western part of Cumberland twenty-two years later, in 1772.

The explanation is a very simple one. A new county had to be erected by an Act of Assembly, and the old counties had a preponderating influence in that body. Each county wanted to retain its political power, and, but for the desire on the part of the Proprietaries to sell lands in the newly formed counties, we doubt whether they would have followed each other in their formation as rapidly as they did.

The project of forming a new county out of western Cumberland county had been agitated for several years by Arthur St. Clair and others. It resulted in the formation of Bedford county, with Bedford town as a county seat. But still the agitation was kept up. They now asked for a county in the New Purchase, the seat of which would be west of the Allegheny mountains. Bedford as a county seat really suited them but little better in this respect than Cumberland, for the Allegheny mountains still intervened between them and their county seat.

Arthur St. Clair, Thomas Gist and Dorsey Pentecoast had been appointed justices for Bedford county for that section lying west of Laurel Hill. There was some further show of a Bedford county dominion over this western section of the state, for roads were laid out west of Laurel Hill, and the territory comprising the present Westmoreland county was divided into townships, and Bedford county taxes were assessed.

But they were still too far from the seat of justice to go there on business, or send their criminals there for trial. Bedford was seventy miles from Greensburg, and the means of travel were not so good then as now. Combinations were formed by desperate classes to resist the power of these remote justices. One or two deputy sheriffs who came here from Bedford to arrest these evil doers were severely beaten and sent home. Indictments were preferred against them, but the authority was too feeble. The committing magistrates were too far from the courts to make their power even felt.

The community around Pittsburg and Ligonier had become pretty well settled, and there were settlements all along both Braddock's and Forbes' road. Those near Pittsburg were one hundred miles from their county seat, and were separated from it by three ranges of mountains, viz.: the Chestnut Ridge, Laurel Hill, and the Alleghenies. Virginia, moreover, had land for sale in these western parts, and, at lower rates per acre than the land was selling at in Pennsylvania. This induced many settlers to locate there instead of in western Pennsylvania, for rather than endure the hardships of being one hundred miles or more from a seat of justice, they would leave Pennsylvania and purchase lands in Virginia. St. Clair and his friends were all this time urging the formation of a new county. He stood high with the Penns. He had been their agent for many years. He was thoroughly educated, and had the military distinction of having served in the army with Wolfe at Quebec. Through his wife, a Boston woman of high standing and culture, he had a great deal of wealth, and was furthermore a large owner of land west of Laurel Hill. His efforts in this direction doubtless carried great weight with the Proprietaries. The Land Office, it will be remembered, had been opened in 1769, and new settlers had been coming here in caravans ever since. These were now headed by St. Clair, busily engaged in circulating petitions asking for the formation of a new county. These petitions are now preserved among the Penn papers in Harrisburg, and they set forth the wants and disadvantages of these western people very much as they are outlined above.

In the early part of the year 1773 the Assembly took up the matter, and on February 26 passed the act organizing the long prayed-for new county. The Governor, Richard Penn, signed the bill and named its officers to serve until an election could be held. So far, in the selection of names for new counties, the Assembly, or those introducing bills, had not gotten away from the good old English names, and so the new county was named Westmoreland, after the county of the same name in England. The name was in itself somewhat appropriate, for here in the west was, indeed more land than was then occupied.

The first section of the act erecting it sets forth the necessity of such a county as judged by the signers to the various petitions from west of Laurel Hill. It also bounded the new county, though in that it was necessarily somewhat indefinite owing to the lines of Virginia and Pennsylvania not being yet definitely determined. It began at a point where the most western line of the Youghiogheny river crossed the boundary of Pennsylvania, thence down the river till it broke through Laurel Hill, thence by Laurel Hill in a northwesterly direction till that chain of mountains is lost, or connected with the Allegheny mountains; thence it followed the crest of the watershed between the west branch of the Susquehanna and the Allegheny rivers to a point at the head waters of the west branch of the Susquehanna, and from there west to the line of the Province, and by that line to the place of beginning. This, it will be seen, does not include the territory on the Ohio, or between the Ohio and the Monongahela rivers. That district was then claimed by Virginia, and Pennsylvania both, and not without reason on either side. It finally brought about Dunmore's war, a most unfortunate affair. as will be seen later on. When the dispute over this territory was finally settled it fell to Pennsylvania, and became for some years a very important part of Westmoreland county. The new county therefore practically included all the territory of the present counties of Westmoreland, Washington, Fayette, Greene, Allegheny, Butler, Beaver, Crawford, Erie, Mercer and Lawrence, and part of the counties of Indiana, Armstrong, Venango and Warren. Nearly one-fourth of the entire state of Pennsylvania was embraced in Westmoreland county, and from its original territory the above counties were afterwards erected. While she has been the mother of counties in western Pennsylvania, she is still territorially one of the largest in the state, and is the first in population among the strictly rural counties of the United States. Our courts, of course, never exercised an extensive jurisdiction over the most remote parts of the original district, for they were not only but sparsely settled, but were too far away. They were like we were with Bedford county. Yet it is not uncommon that the first record titles of lands lying in many of the other counties, are found in the early records of Westmoreland county: particularly is this true of Allegheny county, which remained in Westmoreland nearly sixteen years.

The second section of the erecting act vouchsafed to the people of the county the same privileges enjoyed by the old counties; gave us one member in the Assembly; one voting place for the whole territory; and provided that the election should be held at the house of Robert Hanna until a court house should be built. Robert Hanna lived on the Forbes road, about four miles northwest of Greensburg, and some of the voters from our most northern "precincts" must have traveled several hundred miles if they came out to vote.

The next section gave the supreme court and its decisions the same authority in this as in other counties, and authorized them to hold courts of general jail delivery for those charged with capital offences, as in other counties. The next section authorized the Governor to appoint a sufficient number of justices to hold courts of quarter sessions, common pleas, etc., and fixed that the time for holding them should be the Tuesday before the Bedford county courts in January, July and October of each year. It also directed that these courts should be held at the house of Robert Hanna till a court house should be erected. It further made a provision for the collection and application of such taxes as were already assessed in Bedford county on property within the new county, and provided for the appointment of trustees to build a court house and jail. It also provided for the trial of suits from this section already brought in Bedford county, and directed that the sheriff of Bedford county should take charge of the first election in Westmoreland county.

The day after the passage of the act, Governor Richard Penn sent to the Assembly a list of names of those he had selected for justices of the county courts and justices of the peace. These names were: James Hamilton, Joseph Turner, William Logan, Richard Peters, Lynford Lardner, Benjamin Chew, Thomas Cadwalader, James Tilghman, Andrew Allen, Edward Shippen, Jr., William Crawford, Arthur St. Clair, Thomas Gist, Alexander McKee, Robert Hanna, William Lochry, George Wilson, William Thompson, Aeneas McKay, Joseph Speer, Alexander McLean, James Cavett, William Bracken, James Pollock, Samuel Sloan, and Michael Rugh, Esqrs.

A few words of explanation concerning the duties of these justices may not be out of place here. Any three of them had power to hold the ordinary common pleas and quarter sessions courts. The act of September 9, 1759, provided that "persons of the best discretion, capacity, judgment and integrity" should be commissioned for the common pleas and orphans' court, any three of whom were empowered to act. All were appointed for life on good behavior. By the constitution of 1776 the term was limited to seven years, but the constitution of 1790 restored the former tenure. The act of 1722 also provided for the appointment of a supreme court of three judges (afterwards increased to four) before whom the proceedings of the county court could be reviewed. This supreme court had further jurisdiction over all capital cases, and for this purpose they were compelled to sit in each county twice a year. Treason, murder, manslaughter, robbery, horse stealing, arson, burglary, witchcraft, etc., were all punishable by death. Any three of the above justices; therefore, could hold our ordinary courts, but they could not try a case the punishment of which was death. The were also justices of the peace, and could separately hear cases as our justices do now. Some of the above named justices were really great men, and are spoken of elsewhere in this work. They were not learned in the law, but were men of high standing in the community.

Westmoreland county was therefore erected during the proprietary government of the Penns, and placed under the reign of the English law. On April 6, 1773, in the reign of George III, the Westmoreland courts were first opened at Hanna's house. There were several houses near, and the place soon became known as Hannastown. When court was opened, William Crawford presided on the bench, and had two associate justices with him. The house in which the courts were held was a two-story log house which was also used as a dwelling house by Robert Hanna. This was the first court held west of the Allegheny Mountains, where justice, in its rude temple of unhewn logs, was administered according to the forms and rules of the English law.

The first business attended to by the court on the morning of April 6, 1773, was to divide the county into townships. They made eleven townships covering the territory from the Youghiogheny River to Kittanning, and from Laurel Hill to the Ohio river. These townships were named Fairfield, Donegal, Huntingdon, Mt. Pleasant, Hempfield, Pitt, Tyrone, Spring Hill, Manillin, Rostraver and Armstrong. The names are not all found now in our county. In the final division of the territory then embraced in Westmoreland, some of them fell into other counties, where they still exist by the same names. From the minutes of the court kept very completely, we learn that Mt. Pleasant township was bounded by the Loyalhanna on the north, then extended through the Chestnut Ridge to Crabb Tree Run, thence down Crabb Tree to the Forbes road, thence by a straight line to Braddock's road and along it to Jacob's Creek, thence up Jacob's Creek to Fairfield township, on Chestnut Ridge. Hempfield was bounded on the north and west by the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas rivers, and extended thence down past Brush Run and by Brush Creek to the mouth of the Youghiogheny River, and up the river to the mouth of Jacob's Creek to the Mt. Pleasant township line. Spring Hill embraced all beyond the Youghiogheny River, and is now in Fayette and Washington counties. Armstrong embraced all north of the Conemaugh and Loyalhanna.

The next business of the new court was to empannel a grand jury, with John Carnahan as foreman. They then appointed constables and road supervisors. The constables had immediate business, for several jurors who had been summoned to appear were not present, and these were sent for, and when brought in by the new constables they were promptly fined for their non-attendance. The next business was to license certain citizens to sell intoxicating liquor. There were: Erasmus Bock, John Barr, William Elliot, George Kelly, and Joseph Erwin. The latter was a tenant of Robert Hanna and kept the tavern at Hannastown, and Hanna being on the bench, of course took care of his tenant. But there is no evidence that any who applied were refused a license. The court furthermore fixed the rates to be charged by the tavern keepers licensed, and directed the clerk of courts to make a copy of these rates for each one licensed. who should pay to the clerk one shilling and six pence for making it out. The rates fixed were spread on the minutes of the court and were as follows:

Whiskey. per gill, 4 pence; West India Rum. per gill, 6 pence; Continent. per gill, 4 pence; Toddy, per gill, 1 shilling; One bowl of West India rum toddy in which there shall be � pint of loaf sugar, 1 shilling 6 pence; A bowl of Continent, 1 shilling.; Maderia Wine. per bottle, 7 shillings and 6 pence; Lisbon Wine. 6 shillings; Western Toland Wines, 5 shillings; Grain per quart, 2� pence; Hay and stabling per night, 1 shilling; Pasturage per night or 24 hours, 6 pence; Cider per quart, 1 shilling; Strong Beer per quart, 8 pence.

The incompatibility of office to which we are now accustomed was not known in that day. One man could hold as many offices as he could secure. Arthur St. Clair was our first prothonotary and clerk of courts, which offices he held in Bedford county. But he was also a justice, and sometimes sat on the common pleas bench. Occasionally too, he conducted a case, perhaps in the absence of a regular attorney. He kept the court records, and during the time of Indian incursions and during Dunmore's War, he took them to his house in Ligonier for safe keeping. James Brison was employed by St. Clair as his office clerk, and remained in the office some years after St. Clair resigned to enter the Revolution. Those who will take the time to examine our first court records kept by Brison will feel amply repaid, and will be delighted with their legibility and artistic beauty. After one hundred and thirty-two years they are almost as bright and legible as though they were written but yesterday.

John Proctor was appointed sheriff, a position he had held in Bedford county, though he lived west of Laurel Hill, in what is now Unity township. Part of the time he resided in Hannastown, otherwise on his farm near St. Vincent's monastery. His sureties were William Laughry and Robert Hanna, and they were approved in the presence of Michael Hufnaagle, by Arthur St. Clair, all of whom were justices. Proctor was a man of sterling qualities, and, though appointed by the Penns, he took sides against them when their Tory principles brought them into a conflict with the people. He was a colonel in the militia of his day, a regiment of Associators brought into being by the gathering war clouds. During the Revolution he held many offices of trust. With Thomas Galbraith he was appointed to seize the property of Tories. Later he was a member of the Assembly. His last days were somewhat clouded, for his property was sold by the sheriff in 1791, and his family were afterwards very poor. He was a Presbyterian, and his house was used as a preaching place before a church was erected. He is buried in Unity cemetery, in an unknown grave, near his old but more fortunate neighbor, William Findley. We shall often have occasion to refer to John Proctor in the ensuing pages.

The election which was provided for in the erecting act was held at Hanna's house on October 1, 1773. Proctor was elected sheriff, and was commissioned again October 18th. Joseph Beeler, James Smith and James Cavett were elected first county commissioners. James Kinkaid and William Harrison were chosen coroners. Benjamin Davis, Charles Hitchman, Christopher Hays, Philip Rodgers, James McClean and Alexander Barr were elected assessors for the various parts of the county. All were sworn into office by St. Clair. The commissioners proceeded at once to adjust debts and levy a county tax. William Thompson was elected as our first assemblyman.

For eight years the entire county voted at Hannastown, and at several elections there were less than one hundred votes cast. In 1783 there were two other districts provided for, but when Fayette county was erected in 1784, one of them, the Redstone district, fell almost entirely within the new county. So the legislature changed the district so that those electors who still remained in Westmoreland should vote at William Moore's house, in Rostraver township. The act of September 13, 1785, redivided the county into five districts; all living north of the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas rivers were to vote at Daniel Dixon's house; all in Ligonier valley between Fayette county and the Conemaugh river, were to vote at Samuel Jameson's house; all in Huntington and Rostraver townships were to vote at William Moore's house, in the latter township; those in the Fort Pitt district, now Allegheny county, were to vote at Devereux Smith's house; and all who were not included in these four districts were to vote at Hannastown. By act of September 19, 1786, all in the Hannastown district were to vote thereafter at Greensburg, then called Newtown. On September 29, 1789, Derry township was erected into an election district, and Moses Donald's house was named as the voting place. By act of January 11, 1803, Franklin township was annexed to the Greensburg district. By act of April 4, 1805, Fairfield township, including the present township of Ligonier, was made a separate district, with a voting place at William Ramsey's, now known as Fort Palmer, and by the same act Donegal was made a district, with the voting place at Major George Ambrose's.

Source: Page(s) 42 - 48, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed March 1999 by Marge Caldwell for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Marge Caldwell for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)

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