The civil division of the State into Counties, Towns, Cities and Villages were partly completed while New York remained a dependency of Great Britain.
The divisions of the State made subsequent to the revolution, is only the English plan carried out in extenso . The present system of our local divisions originated among, or rather was adopted by the Saxons, so long ago as the year six hundred.
In modern times the Island of Britain is separated into departments, called counties; the counties are again sub-divided into hundreds; the hundreds are cut up into tithings or towns. The seat of a county is more frequently denominated the shire-town. The term shire is Saxon and signifies a division. In the United States the word shire is seldom used, except in its compounds, as follows: "shire-town," "half-shire", &c.
In this State the shire-town is the place where courts are held and where county officers convene to transact public business. Some counties, like Oneida, have two or three county seats and the towns where courts are held alternately, are mostly known as half-shires.
In the year 1783 March 7, a law was enacted to establish new towns in the original county of Montgomery. That county at one time included all of this part of the State as well as much of the eastern section of New York.
The town of Whitestown was organized under this law. Whitestown included Chenango and many other counties. In 1791 the town was curtailed by the erection of Herkimer, Tioga and Otsego counties out of the ancient county of Montgomery. These three counties erected during this year comprised what was known many years ago as the "western district of the State." A part of the north boundary of Tioga, (after 1791,) was the present north bounds of Pitcher, New Berlin, Pharsalia, Plymouth and North Norwich. The south line of the towns of Columbus, Sherburne, Smyrna, Otselic and Lincklaen was the southern limits of the original Herkimer county. When these counties were created the towns of the twenty townships were designated by their numbers and the names of the towns, as now known, were not mentioned. Whitestown was the half-shire of Herkimer county for several years. Newton Point otherwise Elmira was the shire-town of Tioga county. It is believed that the records of Chenango, previous to 1798, are at present in Utica and at Owego the county seat of Tioga.
After the erection of the counties of Otsego, Herkimer and Tioga, the jail at Whitestown was used to confine prisoners as it had been before 1791.
In the year 1798 Chenango was erected from parts of Tioga and Herkimer counties. The county seat was located at the present village of Hamilton, now in Madison county and also at Oxford village. Each of these towns remained half-shires for some years. Up to 1808, the Whitestown jail at Whitesboro, was the jail of this county.
By the terms of the law of 1798 establishing the county, the court of common pleas and general sessions of the Peace was convened at the school house in the town of Hamilton near the dwelling of Mr. Elisha Payne. The second meeting took place at Oxford; and after this the terms were held alternately at each of these places. The court met three times in each year to dispose of the county business. The judges were authorized to open the Court upon Tuesday but not hold beyond Saturday of the same week. They could adjourn at any time before Saturday.
The legislature left in discretionary with the Supreme Court Judges when they would appoint a circuit for the county. The first circuit was held on the 10th of July 1798. Mr Justice Kent, afterwards Chancellor, presided. No business was transacted at this sitting of the court as will appear from the subjoined copy of the clerks minutes. They are brief and we copy verbatim. They read: "At a Cirtuit Court held at the Academy in the town of Oxford in and for the County of Chenango, on the 10th July 1798 before the Honorable James Kent Esquire, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of judicature of the State of New York.
"Hon. James Kent Esquire."
"The Court opened by proclamation."
"The Court adjourned for one hour."
"The Court met pursuant to adjournment."
"Hon. James Kent Esq."
"The Court adjourned sine die."
The second term of the Supreme Court was held at Hamilton in July of the next year (1799.) We will again copy the minutes as best explanatory of the same court. After a caption as in the preceding, the clerk minutes the proceedings thus:
"Hon. Jacob Radcliff Esq."
"Court opened by proclamation."
"Recess of the court one hour."
"The court met."
"The Court rose."
A third term of the Court was held in the school-house in Hamilton, on the 30th of June 1800. Morgan Lewis presided. At this term of the Court, two jury causes were disposed of. The first cause tried in the Circuit Court in Chenango was ejectment. Arthur Breese and Erastus Clark were the opposing counsel. Both were residents of Utica and died in the prime of life.
Benjamin Walker and Solomon Perkins were plaintiffs, against Elijah Bond defendant. The earliest attornies that appeared before this court were Thomas P. Gold, Platt Brush, Joseph Kirkland and Nathan Williams.
John Lansing Jr. was the presiding Judge at the fourth term of the Court held June 29th 1801.
Judge Kent presided at the fifth term of the Circuit Court appointed for this county in the last week of June 1802.
Peter B. Garnsey Esq. appeared for the first time at this term as counsel in the ejectment suit.
The sixth term of the Court was held at Oxford on the 29th of June 1803. Smith Thompson Esq. presided.
The seventh term of the court was appointed to be held at Oxford, May 29th 1804. Ambrose spencer Esq. presided. Stepen O. Runyan Esq. of Oxford first appeared as counsel at this sitting of the Court.
Daniel D. Thompkins Esq. held the eighth Circuit at Hamilton, early in May 1805.
Brockholst Livingston Esq. held the ninth term of the Court at Hamilton in May 1806.
Daniel D. Thompkins Esq. held the tenth term of the Court at Oxford, May 1807. At this term the name of Henry Vanderlyn first appeares as attorney. The action was for breach of contract.
In 1806 Madison county was set off from Chenango. After this time the Courts were held alternately at North-Norwich and at Oxford. Hill was tried in 1809 at North Norwich, charged with the murder of a child, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The eleventh term was the first Court held at North-Norwich. Judge Joseph C. Yates presided, May 30th 1808. James Birdsall Esq. made his first appearance as counsel for Peter B. Garnsey, Pl'ff, against Seth Garlick.
The twelfth term of the court was held in the same town, (8th June 1809,) at the Meeting House recently demolished. Smith Thompson presided. At this term of the Court Messrs. Wm. M. Price and James Clapp appeared as counsel in a suit wherin Stephen O. Runyan prosecuted James Birdsall. David Butolph Esq., also first appeared as counsel in a cause at this term of the Court.
We have traced the different terms of the Circuit Court held in Chenango from the time of its first session down to 1809.
We now come to speak of the removal of the County Seat at Norwich village and its permanent establishment there.
Contributed by Anne Townsend - Feb. 2002
© Tim Stowell 2005-2011
Last updated: 14 Jan 2011