History of Westmoreland County
Volume 1
Chapter 13

The Removal of County Seat to Greensburg.

line.gif (2154 bytes)

It will be remembered that the law which provided for the formation of the county specified also that the courts should be held at the house of Robert Hanna until a courthouse should be built. The same act authorized Robert Hanna, George Wilson, Samuel Sloan, Joseph Erwin and John Cavett, or any three of them, to select a county seat, purchase land, and erect a court house. A letter has already been quoted in which Arthur St. Clair lamented that the law had been worded so that the commissioners, by failing to build a courthouse, could indefinitely continue the courts at Hannastown. That was exactly what was done. Hanna was undoubtedly a strong-minded Irishman, of great shrewdness. Against the will of the people and against the power of St. Clair, who had more than any other secured the erection of the new county, he forced the unwilling committee to retain the county seat at his place for thirteen years. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it would ever have been removed had not the town been destroyed by the Indians.

Another misfortune for Hannastown was the location of the state road about three miles south. This road was a better and a more direct route between the east and the west than the Forbes road, on which Hannastown was built. On the new road sprang up a village called Newtown, about three miles southwest of Hannastown. This town, as well as Pittsburgh, became an aspirant for the location of the county seat. The courts were regularly held at Hannastown after it was destroyed (July 13, 1782), and it certainly must have been an inconvenient place, for but few houses were rebuilt, and the town was practically without accommodations. Still, Hanna was strong enough to prevent the commission from acting, and therefore the courts were from year to year held at his house.

In 1784 this question of a county seat was carried to the legislature, and on November 22 an act was passed which set forth that, whereas, the trustees appointed by the law erecting the county had not complied with the powers given them to erect county buildings, they were dismissed, and a new commission was named. The new commissioners were John Irwin, Benjamin Davis, Charles Campbell, James Pollock and Joseph Wilkins. They or any three of them were authorized and empowered to perform the duties required of the commissioners in the erecting act of February 26, I773. The second board of commissioners could not agree on the location, though they met and deliberated over the various claimants. They were confronted by representatives from three places, all demanding the county seat. First, Robert Hanna and his friends wanted it to remain in Hannastown. Second, there were those who were trying to have it located in Pittsburgh, which was then by far the most important town in Westmoreland county, and was rapidly increasing in population. Third, there was the village of Newtown, well located and full of promise, and its friends were urging it with all their power.

Upon the refusal or inability of the second commission to select between these three aspiring towns, the legislature, on September 13, 1785, removed them and appointed a third board. As this act is the one under which the county seat was actually located, we give that part of it in full:

"Whereas, the seat of justice of Westmoreland hath not heretofore been established by jaw, for want of which the inhabitants labor under great inconveniences, it shall and may be lawful for Benjamin Davis. Michael Rugh, John Shields, John Pomeroy and Hugh Nlartin, of the county of Westmoreland or any three of them, to purchase and take assurance in the name of the Commonwealth, of a piece of land in trust for the use of the inhabitants of Westmoreland county: Provided said piece of land be not situated further east than the Nine Mile Run, nor further west than Bushy Run, further north than Loyalhanna, nor further south than five miles south of the Old Pennsylvania road leading to Pittsburgh: On which piece of ground said commissioners shall erect a Court House and prison, sufficient to accommodate the public service of the said county."

By this act it will be seen that Pittsburgh had lost all power in the legislature, for the county seat could not go further west than Bushy Run, which is at least twenty miles east of Pittsburgh. The act further provided that the money expended in purchasing Land and erecting a court house and ail should not exceed one hundred pounds.

The contest now lay between Hannastown, on the old and somewhat abandoned Forbes road, and Newtown, now beginning to be called Greensburg, on the new state road. Of the new commissioners named in the above act, Benjamin Davis lived in Rostraver township, Michael Rugh in Hernpfield township, Hugh Martin in Mt. Pleasant township, John Shields in Salem township, and John Pomeroy in Derry township. Three of them lived South of the Forbes road and three north of it, while Pittsburgh had no representative on the commission at all, even if the act itself had not proscribed it as a county seat.

Shortly after their appointment the commission viewed the territory. and met at Hannastown to deliberate. On November 1st and 2nd they came to no agreement, and in December met again at Newtown (or Greensburg) and the three of them living south of the Forbes road decided on Newtown as the county seat. They were Benjamin Davis, Michael Rugh and Hugh Martin. John Shields and John Pomeroy, living north of the Forbes road favored Hannastown, and, dissenting from the decision, refused to act further with the trustees or commissioners. But by the terms of the act three of them had the necessary power, and on December 10, 1785, they entered into an agreement with Christopher Truby and William Jack, to which Ludwig Otterman afterwards subscribed, to sell to them, in trust for the county two acres of land on which to erect public buildings. This day, December 10, 1785, is the Day upon which Greensburg was legally selected as the county seat of Westmoreland county.

The three trustees proceeded at once to erect the public buildings. Anthony Altman was selected to erect the court house, and was to perform the work under the supervision of Michael Rugh. who was a trustee. The court house and jail were but one building, built of logs and heavy plank. The jail portion had a heavy stone wall which extended some distance above the ground, perhaps to keep prisoners from cutting their way out. The structure was pushed rapidly, and by July 1st. 1786, both jail and court house were ready for occupancy. The trustees reported its completion to the July sessions of the court at Hannastown. Upon this the justices of the peace, who were also judges of the courts, visited the new county seat and inspected its buildings, after which they made the following report:

We the subscribers, Justices of the Peace in and for the county of Westmoreland, upon receiving a written report from the Trustees of said county informing us that a new Court House and prison was erected in Newtown, and that a number of other convenient buildings were also erected and open for entertainment, found that we were warranted by law in adjourning our courts to the said town: now being desirous as soon as possible to take leave of the many inconveniences and difficulties which attend our situation at Hannastown, as well as to avoid the cost for rent for a very uncomfortable house. in which we held our courts, we did, therefore, accordingly adjourn to the said town. And we do certify that we found a very comfortable, convenient Court House and prison, included in one commodious building, together with a number of large commodious houses, open for public entertainment, in which we enjoyed great satisfaction during our residence at court. We do further give it as our opinion that the situation is good, and possessed of every natural advantage that can contribute to the comfort and convenience of an inland town: that it is as nearly centrical to the body of people as any spot that can be found possessed of the same advantages: that it lies in direct course between Ligonier and Pittsburgh, and will admit of the straightest and best road between these two places. that its situation is in the center of the finest and wealthiest settlement in this western country, and cannot fail of being supplied with the greatest abundance, upon the most reasonable terms; in short, we think the said Trustees have done themselves honor in their choice and proceeding through the whole of this business. Given under our hand the 10th of August, 1786.




There was still a great deal of hostility against Newtown (now Greensburg) as a county seat. This dissatisfaction came from north of the Forbes road and from the region around Pittsburgh. All these interests united to overthrow what had already been done in the way of permanently locating the seat of justice at Greensburg. As a result of this agitation the legislature on December 27, 1786, passed an act suspending the authority granted to the trustees to establish a county seat, etc., until further directed. The act further provided that the trustees were to exhibit their accounts, with proper vouchers for all expenditures made by them in their work so far as they had gone. These were to be inspected by William Moore, Charles Campbell and James Bryson, and to be laid before the justices of the court and the grand jury. Two of these inspecting committeemen were from unfriendly sections, Bryson being then a resident of Pittsburgh and Campbell of Wheatfield township, now in Indiana county. The subject was taken up by the people, who discussed it in the Pittsburgh Gazette, there being then no newspaper in Greensburg. Some one from Brush Creek, who signs himself "A Friend of His Country, has a letter in the Gazette of October 26, 1786, from which we quote extensively.

"It is well known that the establishment of our present seat of justice was not a hasty, rash or inconsiderate piece of business. Almost sixteen years elapsed since it first claimed the attention of the Government; it has been deliberately considered and cautiously conducted: the sense of the people have been generally and repeatedly known by petition, remonstrance, etc., and in consequence thereof no less than four different Acts of the Legislature have been passed to effect and complete its establishment. When we reflect upon the many evils which have resulted from the want of such establishment, I think we ought rather to congratulate ourselves on the event and rest perfectly satisfied that it is at last fixed anywhere nearly centrical to the body of the people."

Hugh Henry Brackenridge, who was then a member of the legislature from this county, and a resident of Pittsburgh, on December x6, 1786, wrote the following letter, which was published in the Gazette of January 6, 1787:

"A bill is published superceding the powers of the Trustees for building a Court House and jail in Greensburg. The object is to prevent any further expenditure of public money in public buildings at that place, inasmuch as the Court House and jail already erected are sufficient, at least for a number of years. This appeared to us, the Representatives from Westmoreland, to be sufficient for the present. It must remain with future time to determine whether the seat of justice shall be removed or a new county erected on the Kiskiminetas. The last, I believe, will be deemed most eligible."

In the same paper on February 10, 1787, the following letter appeared, written by one who signed himself "A Friend of Westmoreland":

"We find by Mr. Brackenridge's late publication that the seat of justice in this county yet remains an object of envy in our Legislature. as 'a bill is published superceding the powers of the Trustees for building a Court House and jail in Greensburg: I wonder, when we shall see an end of the cavilings on this subject and the succession of ridiculous laws occasioned thereby. By the first law we find a number of Trustees appointed for erecting a Court House and prison. etc. By the second law we find their proceedings rejected, though perfectly legal, and the former repealed, and another set of Trustees appointed, with more extensive and conclusive power. A third law approves and confirms their proceedings, and a fourth law supercedes their powers in the midst of the duty assigned them: and to carry the farce a little farther. I think the fifth law ought to amount to the total annihilation of the county."

The reader will discover that in the justices´┐Ż letter or certificate given above, and dated August 10, 1786, they say that they have adjourned the courts to the new court house in Newtown. They had probably done this, but even then troubles were brewing, engendered largely by Hanna and his friends, who were loathe to see the courthouse leave Hannastown. So, to in some degree appease the wrath of these adherents of Hanna. it was determined to hold the October term of court in Hannastown, and this was accordingly done. The first court held in Greensburg was the January term Of 1787, beginning on January 7th, with judge John Moore on the bench. The following is a list of the jurors who served at this first court in the new county seat: Grand jurors--David Duncan, James Carnahan. John Carnahan, John Sloan, Abrahm Fulton, Charles Baird, William Best, Nathaniel McBrier, Joseph Mann, James Fulton, William Mann, Charles Johnston, Jacob Huffman, Samuel Sinclair, and John Craig. Traverse Jurors: Alexander Craig, John McCreadv. Peter Cherry, John Giffen. John Buch, Philip Carns, Patrick Campbell, George Swan, Isaac McKendry, Robert McKee, John Anderson, James Watterson and Lawrence Irwin.

The term only lasted for about three days, and the minutes do not show any proceedings of momentous interest. The grand jury, however, reported that the new jail was insufficient, and not strong enough to hold the prisoners. The trustees submitted their account as required by the suspending act. The total expenditures so far had been less than a thousand dollars. The accounts were finally laid before the grand jury on July 17, 1787.

It may be added here by way of explanation, that much of Brackenridge's opposition to the court house and county seat proceedings arose from his desire to form a new county. This is intimated in his letter above quoted, though there he, for reasons of his own, located his proposed new county on the Kiskiminetas. His object was probably to unite the north with him in opposition to Westmoreland and in the end take them into the new county at the forks of the Ohio river. It is admitted on all hands that he was elected to the legislature for the purpose of erecting a new county. To this project our part of Westmoreland was naturally hostile. They were proud of their large dimensions, as the county was originally formed, but in 1781 Washington county, and in 1783 Fayette county, were entirely carved from our territory. Naturally they tried to prevent any further encroachments on their territory. Nevertheless, by the Act of September 24, 1788, Allegheny county was organized from Westmoreland.

After the formation of Allegheny county an act was passed on February 14, 1789, repealing the superceding act, and authorizing the Westmoreland trustees to proceed in the erection of a court house and jail. The act itself is all the defense they need as against the act suspending them. It recites that, whereas they found it expedient to erect at once a small wooden structure to accommodate the business as a temporary convenience, until a more substantial one could be built, and that whereas the temporary structure was too small and inconvenient, that Westmoreland county should have "a decent, sufficient and permanent building," constructed by the expenditure of the balance of the money levied and collected for that purpose agreeable to the intention of the law. Therefore it was enacted that the said trustees be required to apply the remaining part of the money as indicated above. This remaining part was about four thousand dollars, and in 1796 and 1797 they proceeded to build our second court house, though really the first permanent one in Greensburg. During the Whisky Insurrection the building of it was temporarily abandoned. It was not completed till 1801, although the courts were held in it a year or two before that, and the state supreme court met in it in 1799. It was a two story brick building, for by this time a law was passed compelling all counties which had not already done so, to build court houses of brick or stone. It fronted towards the east, that is, on Main street, with an arched door entrance in the center. In the rear was a smaller door which led to the jail yard. The main building stood on the old courthouse square, with its gable front on Main street. The whole of the first story was used as a court room. This room was divided by a balustrade running north and south. The part west of the division, that is, the rear of the room, was reserved for the judges, lawyers, jurymen, litigants, etc., while the front, or eastern division, was used as an audience room by those who attended court. The judges sat against the western wall, facing the east. There were large round columns in the center, along the line of the balustrade, which supported the ceiling. In the upper story was a large grand jury room, where theatrical performances and other public meetings were frequently held when not in use by the courts. Above the second story was the belfry, wherein the old courthouse bell was hung.

North of this structure, but built against it, was a two-story brick building in which were the offices of the sheriff, recorder, prothonotary, clerk of courts. etc., etc. South of it was a brick building one-story high, which was used as a county commissioners' office only.

The old log court house served its purpose until about 1794. After that time it was used for public offices until 1797, when it was removed. From June, 1794, until April, 1795, the courts were held in a tavern kept by Robert Taylor. After that, for about three years, they were held in a tavern kept by Bartel Laffer. The new brick courthouse when completed in 1801 was con- sidered a very handsome structure, and was so commented on by many travelers who chanced to pass through Greensburg.

The long continued contest with the trustees who built the log court house, and the opposition to their expenditure of the public money, has been urged in defense of a mistake which they committed from which the county can never recover. It will be remembered that they purchased two acres of ground in Newtown (or Greensburg) for county buildings. It can scarcely be said that it was purchased, for the purchase money was only five shillings, or about the nominal sum of one dollar---common even yet, in such transactions, for the purpose of making a legal transfer. Two acres was more ground than then needed in that day, and in order to reduce the grounds of complaint to their minimum, they concluded to sell over three-fourths of it. The two acres were divided into ten lots by Benjamin Davis, who was one of the trustees and a surveyor as well. In October, 1786, after publicly advertising them, nine of these lots were sold, the other being reserved for court house purposes. The original two acres were bounded by Main street, West Otterman street, Pennsylvania avenue and West Pittsburgh street, being one full square, and the lot reserved is the ground upon which the new courthouse, the fourth in Greensburg, is now being builded. For these nine lots the trustees received $258.88. In 1795 a law was passed by the legislature legalizing the sale.

The new county town was at first named Newtown, most likely by Christopher Truby, one of the original land owners. He had removed to our county from Bucks county in 1771. In the east he had lived in or near a small village named Newtown. which had become historic during the Revolution, for there Washington had his headquarters for a time in 1776, when he was battling with almost a forlorn hope, against the British army. It is supposed that he named the cluster of log houses springing up on his land after his historic home in Bucks county. In 1786 it was named Greensburg, in memory of the Rhode Island Quaker, Major General Nathaniel Greene, to whom most writers have given first place among the generals of the Revolution after Washington.

Source: Page(s) 186-193, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed March 1999 by Michael Pahel-Wayne for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Michael Pahel-Wayne for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)

Westmoreland County Genealogy Project Notice:

These electronic pages cannot be reproduced in any format, for any presentation, without prior written permission.

Return to Westmoreland County History Project


Return to Westmoreland County Home Page

(c) Westmoreland County Pennsylvania Genealogy Project