The Early County Seats and Courthouses of Baltimore County


Although we do not know the exact date, nor the Act, Order of Council, or proclamation under which it was done, there can be no doubt that Baltimore County was established about the year 1659.

It has been repeatedly stated that several patents were issued during that year to Col. Nathaniel Utye and others, in which the land granted was described as being in Baltimore County, but this statement, I think, is incorrect. I have had examined every patent granted to Col. Utye prior to 1661, and a large number granted to other persons during the years 1658 and 1659, embracing land which was situated within the original limits of Baltimore County, but in none of them is there any recognition of the then existence of the county.

The transcribed copy of the earliest Land Record of Baltimore County, Liber " R. M., No. H. S.", is now in the Record Office of Baltimore City, and the earliest deed recorded therein is for a tract of land lying " in Potapsco known by the name of Roade River in the Province of Maryland ", from Walter Dickeson to Thomas Powell, dated June 28th, 1659 ; and to be found on page four. There are two or three other deeds bearing date the same year recorded in this Liber, but, while found in a Baltimore

County record, there is no mention of the county in any of them, and they were not recorded until 1661.

The earliest evidence of the existence of Baltimore County which I have been able to find, is the writ issued in the name of Cecilius to the Sheriff of Baltimore County, dated January 12th, 1659/60, directing him to provide for the election of four discreet Burgesses to serve in the Assembly to be held in the following

February. This writ may be found on page 381 of the Proceed-ings of the Assembly for that period, as published in the Archives of Maryland, and the session referred to is the first at which delegates from Baltimore County appeared.

When first established, the limits of the county included what are now Harford and Carroll counties, at least a part of Cecil, the City of Baltimore and other territory.

But while we know with tolerable accuracy the year of the erection of the county, we do not know from any documentary evidence that I am aware of, the precise location of its first County Seat, nor just when, within a certain period of eight years, the first Court house was built. The Land Record to which I have referred, opens with the record of the fact that a court was held in Baltimore County on July 20th, 1661, at the house of Captain Thomas Howell (which was in what is now part of Cecil County), and that the Commissioners present were Captain Thomas Howell, Captain Thomas Stockett, Mr. Henry Stockett, Mr. Thomas Powell and Mr. John Taylor. I have frequently seen the statement that a County Court was then and there held; but

I have nowhere seen, in connection with it, any reference to the authority upon which the statement was made.

In the same volume (p. 13) is the formal entry of a session of the Court held on September 13th, 1665, at which were present Captain Thomas Stockett and eight other Commissioners, but there is no mention of the place where the Court met. Each of these sessions seems to have been confined to taking acknowledgments and the receipt of deeds for record. I have found no other entry in this Liber of a formal Session of the Court, but on p. 15, at the end of the record of the first deed recorded after the Session of 1665, is the entry that it was acknowledged "in open Court" on November 6th, 1682, and there are many similar entries in this book, though I found no such entry, nor any deed dated, between the years 1665 and 1682.

It is stated in Johnson's History of Cecil County (p. 62), that a Court was held in Baltimore County on June 7th, 1664, at the house of Mr. Francis Wright, for the purpose of examining into the case of a Seneca Indian arrested under suspicious circumstances, and the author says there is reason to believe that more County Court frequently met (in that part of the County which is now) on the Eastern Shore. It is probable that in the very early days of the County, the Court met at one place or another as convenience or occasion required.

The earliest volume of the Proceedings of the County Court to be found in our Clerk's office, so far as preserved (the first few leaves having been lost) begins with the session of 1682, but so far as I have been able to examine them, they make no mention of the place where the Court was being held. An Act was passed in June, 1674, ch. 16 (Archives, n, p. 413), requiring the Commissioners of every County, within a time limited, and under the penalty of a fine, and at the cost of the County, to provide and build a Court house and prison. From the Proceedings of the Assembly of 1674 (Archives, II, p. 430), It appears that the Commissioners of Baltimore County were divided touching the most convenient place for the Court house and prison, which they were required to build under the Act just mentioned, and on the petition of Captain Thomas Todd, who was then a member of the Lower House, it was ordered by the Upper House on February 30th, 1674/5, that the Commissioners should erect said buildings at the head of the Gunpowder River on the north side. The Lower House does not seem to have taken any action in the matter, and certainly no Act was passed. There being some question as to the validity of the Act of 1674, it was repealed in 1676 (ch. 2). It thus seems plain that no Court house had been built previous, at least, to 1675, although some have thought otherwise, and there is no evidence that any Court house was built on the Gunpowder until nearly twenty years later.

The earliest mention of jin existing Court House that I know of, is the following Order passed by the County Court on June 6th, 1683 (Proceedings, p. 49), viz. : " Ordered that Mr. Miles Gibson, High Sheriff of this County of Baltimore, have power and authority to employ carpenters for repairing the Court house and likewise to take care for the setting up of the pillory and stocks." The earliest mention of its location is to be found in the Act of 1683, ch. 5. This Act, passed November 6th, 1683, for the advancement of trade, provided for the establishment of numerous towns and ports, and among them directed that a town should be laid off " On Bush River on the Town Land near the Court House." There was at that time, as appears by the Map of Maryland and Virginia, prepared by Augustine Herman in 1670, and by other early maps, a town on the east side of Bush River called Baltimore, and there is no reason to question the accuracy of the tradition that this town was then the County Seat, and there is every reason to believe that it was the first established County Seat, and that this court house was the first one built in the county. The Act of 1674, requiring every county to build a court house, and the difference of opinion among the County Commissioners touching the most convenient place for its erection, seem to indicate plainly that at that time there was not only no Court house, but no fixed County Seat. The fact that the Court House on Bush River needed repair in 1683, shows that it had been standing for some years, and the probability is that it was built during or not long after the year 1675. No evidence has been found of any earlier County Seat or Court House.

I am able to submit some evidence confirming the belief that this court house was on the east side of Bush River, and thus fortify the tradition that it was at Old Baltimore. The Proceedings of the Council (Archives, v, p. 473), show that on May 5th, 1686, a petition was submitted asking for the removal of the Court house to a point on the South side of Winter's Run " neere the path that goes from Potomock to the Susquehannoh Rivers." Winter's Run emptied into Bush River from the northwest.

Among the reasons given for removal were, that the then court house was out of the way, was difficult of access, and that " in the winter people cannot come for the frost." These reasons would scarcely have been good unless the court house had been on the east side of the river. Consideration of this petition was postponed in order to consult the sheriff and other citizens of the County who then were at St. Mary's, and no further action seems to have been taken.

Again, in a deed from William Osborne to James Phillips, dated June 24th, 1686, Liber R. M., No. H. S., p. 185, the land is described as being on Bush River, and beginning at an oak "a little beyond the court house." One of the lines of this tract, a certain point having been reached, is, " thence went to the river."

In a paper on "Old Baltimore on Bush River," read before this Society in 1875 by Rev. Dr. Leakin, there is an interesting account of this old town, the site of which, he says, was then a clover field about two miles south of the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge.

We thus know that the County Seat with its Court House was on the Bush River in 1683 and as late as 1686, and we also know that the County Seat was settled at Joppa on the Gunpowder in 1712 (ch. 19). We now meet the question which has been much mooted for many years, viz., Was Joppa the second or third County Seat ? Was the County Seat moved from Bush River to some other place before it was established at Joppa? I have not been able to find any A ct of Assembly, or Order of Council, which authorized the removal; but, with the assistance received from my friend, Mr. Henry F. Thompson, I feel that the fact can now be established that, at some time between the years 1686 and 1695, the County Seat was moved from Bush River to a point at or near the head of the Gunpowder. Of course, we all understand that where we find a fixed court house, there we have the County Seat.

It has been stated in various historical writings and addresses that, after Bush River, there was a Court house at Forster's Neck on the Gunpowder, but the authority given for the statement has always been the Acts of 1706 and 1707, and the construction given to the Act of 1707 was, that it directed the desertion of a supposed Court House at Forster's Neck. This construction is erroneous, and whether there was then a court house at Forster's Neck, or not, these Acts throw no light on the inquiry.

The Act of 1706, ch. 14, in providing for further towns and ports, directed that a town should be laid off " on Forster Neck on Gunpowder River." The Act of 1707, ch. 16, provided that " The place appointed for a town on Gunpowder River on the land called Forster's Neck " should be deserted, and that in lieu thereof (that is, of that proposed town) a town should be erected on a tract on the same River belonging to Anne Felks and called Taylor's Choice, " and the Court house to be built there." But an examination of these Acts shows that it was the proposed site for a town, and not any supposed court house at Forster's Neck, which was to be deserted ; that no provision was made for the erection of a court house at that place, and that there is no recognition of the existence of a court house there at that time. Others, having examined these Acts, have also seen that they furnished no evidence of the existence of a Court house at Forster's Neck, and then, having no evidence of a previous removal, have concluded in their writings that the County Seat continued on Bush Eiver until moved to Joppa.

But, as I have stated, there was a removal to some place on the Gunpowder between 1686 and 1695. The first fact I have that throws light on the question as to a possible removal from Bush River, is the residence of a certain Mr. Moses Groome, the importance of which appears as follows.

In the proceedings of the County Court in February, 1695, p. 564, it is recorded that Moses Groome of Baltimore County filed a petition praying to be saved harmless " for vending and selling liquors by retail to his Majesty's Justices of this said County Court." It was "Ordered that the said petition be continued until next Court ensuing." He appears to have been "saved harmless," for the only action taken at the next Court (March, 1695, p. 568) was, not to punish him for having sold, nor to warn him not to sell again, but to grant him a license to keep an ordinary, so that he might freely and legally continue to sell his liquors to his Majesty's Justices and all others. But the order for a license shows the fact that Groome's residence was his " dwelling plantation at Gunpowder River," and while this record throws several side lights, the one it throws on our present inquiry is the inference that Groome must have lived conveniently near to the Court; that, living on the Gunpowder, it is not likely he would have been selling liquor, particularly at retail, to the Justices if they were still holding Court on Bush River.

The next fact discovered is of much more direct importance. In the proceedings of the County Court at the June Session, 1695 (p. 416), appears the following order, viz., " Ordered that the Justices of each hundred enquire into their respective hundreds who will be purchasers of the late Court house and land adjoining at Bush River, and accordingly make return at next court of what offers were made." It is afterwards recorded on the same page, " That Mr. John Ferry biddeth four thousand pounds of tobacco for the court house at Bush River." It is thus clear that in 1695 the old court house had been abandoned.

The question now is, where was the Court then being held ? The proceedings of this Session do not tell us this nor whether a new court house had then been built; but in Liber H. W., No. 2, p. 126, of the Land Records of Baltimore County, is recorded a deed from Michael Judd to John Hall and others, the inhabitants and freeholders of said County, dated April 1st, 1700, which, in consideration of 3000 pounds of tobacco, conveys to them a two acre parcel of ground " whereon the court house of the said county now standeth," the same being part of a tract called " Simm's Choice." Now, then, where was Simm's Choice ? In the same Liber, p. 109, is recorded a deed from Michael Judd to John Taylor, dated June 14th, 1701, which conveys a tract of fifty acres lying "at the head of Gunpowder River in the County aforesaid, excepting only the County Court house and two acres of land thereabout unto to the said Court house belonging, being part of the said fifty acres." These fifty acres are described as being the one-third part and the easternmost end of " Sim's His Choice," and it is further shown by this deed that this tract began " at the northernmost bound tree " of a tract called " Swanson."

On the Rent Rolls of Baltimore County (Cafoerf Papers, p. 224) is an entry of the survey of " Sin's Choice " for Richard Sins on November 28th, 1673, described as containing 150 acres and lying on the south side of the Gunpowder near its head, and at the northernmost bounds of the land called "Swanson." The patent for this tract dated September 28th, 1674 (Land Office Liber 18, p. 205), grants it to Richard Simms, and describes it (as in the survey) as containing 150 acres "lying in the said County on the south side of Gunpowder River near the head of said River," and called "Simms his Choice." The metes and bounds in the patent are, viz., " Beginning at the northernmost bounded tree of the land of the said Simms called Swanson [Swanson had been previously conveyed by the patentee to Richard Syms—see posfj, and running north and by east fifty perches to a bounded oak by a small branch, then northwest and by west 533^ perch, then south and by west fifty perches, then southeast and by east to the first bounded tree." These slightly differing names represent the same tract. Richard Sims by deed of September 2nd, 1679, recorded in Liber II, No. P. P., p. 43, conveys this tract to Nicholas Hempstead by name and description as in the patent. 

Some facts must now be noted about the Gunpowder River and its branches. The Gunpowder proper is formed by the junction of the Great and Little Gunpowder Rivers, the Great Gunpowder coming from the northwest, and the Little Gunpowder having a general course from the north by west. Just above the junction, on one side of the neck of land formed by the fork, are the Falls of the Great Gunpowder, and on the other are the Falls of the Little Gunpowder. But while the general course of the Little Gunpowder is as indicated, all the maps, and particularly the larger ones (Taylor's, 1857, and Hopkins', 1878), show that at the junction the shore line of this River, on the neck side, runs somewhat northeast and southwest. The Gunpowder and the Little Gunpowder now form a boundary line between Baltimore and Harford Counties.

The next deed brings us now still nearer to Sim's Choice. By deed dated November 2nd, 1692, recorded in Liber H. M., No. H. S., p. 356, "Sym's Choice" is conveyed by Charles Ramsey to Michael Judd. Though the name has been slightly changed, a comparison of the points of beginning, metes and bounds, shows that it is the same tract granted by the patent, and this is the same Judd who subsequently, by the deed already mentioned, conveyed the parcel of two acres on which the Courthouse stood, in which deed he calls it a part of " Sim's Choice." In the deed to Judd, the tract is said to begin " at a bounded oak the easternmost bound tree" of Swanson, while the patent calls for it to begin at the northernmost bounded tree of that tract; but it will appear from the courses of Swanson that it was rhomboidal in shape, so that the tree at its northeasterly corner would be at the same time, both its northernmost and easternmost bound oak. The fuller description contained in this deed from Ramsey enables us to much more nearly fix the location of this tract. It is therein described as " Being in the forks of Gunpowder River by the side of the said River," beginning at the Swanson oak and running thence " North and by East for the length of 50 perches up the said River," thence northwest and by west " into the woods," &c., as already given.

The description and metes given in the documents referred to, thus unquestionably locate Simm's Choice on what is now the Baltimore County side of the Little Gunpowder.

This location is confirmed by what the records disclose as to Swanson. The patent for this tract was granted to Edward Swanson, September 23rd, 1665, (Land Office Liber 8, p. 424—100 acres) and it is therein described as " lying at the head of Gunpowder River between two branches," beginning at a beech tree and running thence north and by east up the northernmost branch thirty perches to a red oak (this is the oak which was the beginning of Simm's Choice), thence northwest and by west into the woods 534 perches, then south and by west thirty perches, and then southeast and by east to the beginning.

By deed of July 22nd, 1672, recorded in Liber T. R., No. R. A., p. 31, Edward Swanson of Bush River, conveyed this tract to Richard Syms of Gunpowder River (who in 1674 got his patent for Simm's Choice), which is therein described as lying " in Gunpowder River" near its head " betwixt the Two Falls," and as running according to the lines of the patent. The tract afterwards comes into the possession of Michael Judd (the owner of Simm's Choice) who by deed dated June 12th, 1701, recorded in Liber H. W., No. 2, p. 126, conveys it to John Taylor (who two days later bought the fifty acres of " Sim's His Choice " from Judd) by the description in the patent, that is, as between two branches and running up the northernmost branch, &c.

It thus appears that Simm's Choice and Swanson were each at or near the head of the Gunpowder; that Simm's Choice adjoined Swanson on the north, and therefore, like Swanson, it too must have been " betwixt the two Falls," or, as described in Ramsey's deed to Judd, it was " in the forks of Gunpowder River by the side of the said River," and its first line ran north by east " up the said River." Simm's Choice, therefore, was on the neck formed by the junction of the Great and Little Gunpowder, which, on Herman's map is called " Sim's Point."

Having clearly located Simm's Choice on the neck called Sim's Point, the statement in the patent that this tract was on the south side of the river, when, according to present knowledge, it ought to have been described as being on the westerly, or southwesterly side, must be ascribed to the lack of precision in the early surveys, or of accurate information in respect to the course of the river. Taylor's Choice, which we know was nearly opposite, is described in the patent as on the north side, and the order of the Upper

House already mentioned also speaks of the " north " side of the Gunpowder at its head.

As the result of our joint investigation of this question, I, therefore, feel safe in saying, with the concurrence of Mr. Thompson in the statement, that there was another County Seat after Bush River and before Joppa, and that this second County Seat, with its courthouse, was not at Forster's Neck, but at the head of the Gunpowder, on the neck of land formed by the junction of the Great and Little Gunpowder, and called " Sim's Point." When I began this investigation, I thought it possible that I might find that there had once been a court house at Forster's Neck, but I had never seen or heard a suggestion that there had ever been one on Sim's Point.

One word as to Forster's Neck, about which much has been said as having once been the supposed site of a court house. As this name is spelled both Forster and Foster in a certain patent granted to the man, no attention need be given to the difference in spelling found in other papers. It has been with great difficulty that any accurate information could be obtained as to this tract, or neck; but it was not on Sim's Point. Not far below the Gunpowder Falls, there are two creeks running into the river from the northward, that is from what is now the Harford County side, and on Herrman's map the westerly one is called Taylor's Creek and the easterly one Foster's Creek; but no mention is made of the neck, nor could I find it on my map. In searching the Rent Rolls for something about Forster's Neck, an entry was found of the survey for Samuel Sickelmore, on June 20th, 1689, of a tract of 318 acres called " Wolves Harbour," lying on the north side of the Gunpowder and " on the west side of the mouth of Foster's Creek," and there is a memorandom that the rent on this tract was " taken away by a survey of Foster's Neck " ; but I am informed by Mr.

George H. Shafer, the Chief Clerk, that no record of a survey or patent for a tract called Foster's Neck can be found in the Land Office.

The patent for " Wolves Harbour " is granted under the name of "Woolf Harbor" to Samuel Sickelmore on November 10th, 1695, (Land Office Liber C, No. 3, p. 503) and it is described as beginning at a chestnut tree on the west side of the mouth of Forster's Creek and running up the river north north west" to an oak standing at the mouth of Taylor's Creek, then north up this creek, and by different courses (meanwhile making a call for an oak by the side of Forster's Neck road), until it comes back to Forster's Creek, and then down Forster's Creek to the beginning, containing 318 acres.

There being no patent for a tract called Forster's Neck, a search for patents to any one named Forster, led to the discovery of a patent for a tract called " Goldsmith's Neck," issued to Mathew Goldsmith and Edward Forster on February 24th, 1661, for a tract on the Gunpowder, which begins at the easterly side of Taylor's Creek and runs southeasterly down the river to Forster's Creek, and then up this creek, &c., containing two hundred acres.

It is thus seen that Goldsmith's Neck began at Taylor's Creek and ran down the river to Forster's Creek, while Woolf Harbor, under the later patent, began at Forster's Creek and ran up the river to Taylor's Creek; and that Goldsmith's Neck embraced the land on the west side of Forster's Creek, which was afterwards included in the patent for Woolf Harbor. To the extent of two hundred acres, therefore, there was a conflict and the prior title was under the patent for Goldsmith's Neck. This would explain why the rent on Woolf Harbor was " taken away" by another survey. The memorandum mentioned, however, says that it was taken away by a survey of Foster's Neck, but as there "was no survey or patent of any tract called Foster's Neck, the explanation seems to be that this rent was in fact taken away by the prior survey and patent of Goldsmith's Neck, and that this Neck afterward became known to the public as Foster's Neck.

This explanation is further supported by certain conveyances. By deed dated May 9th, 1666, Liber I. R., No. P. P., p. 56, Mathew Gouldsmith conveys to Richard Windley and James Phillips all his interest in a tract of two hundred acres (the same quantity as in Goldsmith's Neck) lying on the Gunpowder and " commonly known as Foster's Neck " ; and by deed of November 9th, 1666, same Liber, p. 62, Windley and Phillips conveyed the interest acquired from Goldsmith to Francis Trippas, also describing the tract as "commonly known as Foster's Neck," and as being near the plantation of John Taylor. Taylor's plantation was on Taylor's Choice, a tract which touched the westerly side of Taylor's Creek, while Goldsmith's Neck, as already stated, was on the easterly side of the same creek. From the records referred to, I think it can be safely said that the tract " commonly known as Foster's Neck" was the same tract that had been patented as

Goldsmith's Neck, lying on the northeasterly side of the river, between the two creeks mentioned, and nearly opposite Sim's Point. There is no evidence, nor any reason to believe, that a court house was ever built there.

(Since this paper was read before the Society, another deed has been found which confirms the theory just stated, and establishes the fact that Goldsmith's Neck and Foster's Neck were one and the same tract. It is a deed from John Boone, dated June 5th, 1707, recorded in Liber R. M., No. H. S., p. 553, conveying to John Ewings " all that Neck and tract of land now called, known or deemed heretofore to be Goldsmith's Neck, often called Foster's Neck, taken up by a certain Mathew Goldsmith and Edward Foster," as more fully appears by patent dated February 24th, 1661. The description follows the lines of this patent, and the deed also refers to the suit in which the prior title was established against Samuel Sickelmore, the patentee of Woolf Harbor).

While the ascertainment of the facts stated in respect to the first and second county seats has involved no small degree of research. I do not, for a moment, Intimate that the sources of information have at all been exhausted. I am sure that much more of interest could be found by a more thorough examination than I have been able to give to the subject.

So far we have the County Seats and Court houses on Bush River and Simm's Point. In 1712 the County Seat was moved to Joppa; in 1768 it was moved to Baltimore, under the Constitution of 1851 the City was separated from the County, and the County Seat of the County afterwards established at Towson.

Some notice of these changes and of a few incidents connected with the history of the first court house built in Baltimore, will be reserved for later consideration.