Courthouse Controversy

When Mercer County was formed in 1837 and the county seat was located, factors were created that contributed to the courthouse controversy that followed in later years.  One should remember that when the county was formed, it was a vast underdeveloped wilderness with few,Certification of the Vote Results if any, roads but with just mountain trails connecting small settlements scattered throughout the area.  Travel was by means of walking or by means of horseback.  Old timers suggest that a reasonable pace by either means was about four miles per hour.

Mercer County originally extended from what is now Bluefield to what is now Hinton.  Court days seemed to be more important to people living in those days than they do to people living today.  With the county seat located at Princeton, it is only a matter of arithmetic to see that it required two to three hours of travel time for people living near the western limits of the county and seven to eight hours of travel time for people living in the northern and eastern limits of Mercer County to reach the courthouse in Princeton.  It would have been more desirable for the county seat to have been located so as to be more convenient for all people living in the county to attend court sessions.

With the end of the Civil War and the courthouse having been destroyed when the town of Princeton was burned in 1862, it was at the end of 1865 before there was anything resembling Civil Government in Mercer County.  Judge Nathaniel Harrison was appointed Circuit Judge soon after the war ended, and in the fall of 1865, he rode into what was left of the town of Princeton to hold court.

Upon receiving a cool reception by the people of Princeton, he rode about seven miles to what was then known as Concord Church where he opened and held his court.  This began an agitation for the removal of the courthouse from Princeton to Concord Church, and it had very strong support from the people living in the Jumping Branch and Pipestem districts of Mercer County.

On July 6, 1866, Mercer County’s Board of Supervisors voted to move the site of the courthouse from Princeton to Concord Church.  The results of this election, forty-four votes in favor of removal and fifteen votes against, were certified by Board President William M. French on July 30, 1866.

On the occasions that Judge Harrison would travel to Concord Church to hold open court presumably in the local church meeting house, he boarded at the home of Dr. James R. Vermillion which was conveniently located only a short distance east of the church on Red Sulphur road.  A small building, which had since been used over the years for many purposes by the Vermillion family until its demolition in recent years, was initially built next to the Vermillion house as an office for Judge Harrison’s use when attending to other judicial matters during his visits.  The county records and the office of the County Clerk and Recorder occupied two front rooms in the Vermillion home until more suitable arrangements could be made.

These developments created a controversy or courthouse battle that lasted four years.  The elections and litigation that ensued during this period did not settle the question and were overshadowed by the “Test Oath” imposed by the State Government on voters and suitors who were ex-Confederates or were once sympathetic to the Southern cause.  Colonel Thomas Little, a Delegate from Mercer County to the Legislature’s session in 1867, succeeded in procuring passage of an Act permanently locating the county seat at Princeton;  however, in 1868, George Evans, the representative from Mercer County and who had initially been appointed County Clerk and Recorder by Judge Harrison, procured the repeal of the Act of 1867.

In spite of the ongoing uncertainty and political turmoil, plans proceeded for the construction of the needed public buildings at Concord Church.  On December 30, 1868, George Evans, on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, entered into an agreement (page 1, page 2) with Sanford H. Oxley for the construction of a jail at Concord Church.  One week later, on January 6, 1869, Evans signed an agreement (page 1, page 2) with James M. Manning for the manufacture of the brick and the erection of the brick walls of the court house and the offices of the clerk and recorder at Concord Church.  Later in 1869, construction was halted before the walls of the courthouse were completed.  Also, in the fall of 1869, Sheriff Benjamin White, who also had initially been appointed to his office by Judge Harrison, seized the county records that had been kept at Concord Church and returned them by wagon to Princeton.

The courthouse controversy in Mercer County was finally settled in favor of Princeton in 1870.  It was done by Judge David E. Johnston and his Committee of Safety.  Other members of the committee were Captain John A. Douglas, Mr. H. W. Straley, Major C. D. Straley, Mr. Joseph H. Alvis and Mr. William Oliver.  Judge Johnston and his Committee of Safety met in secrecy.  Its members took a solemn pledge that nothing which was said or done in its meetings should be divulged to anyone.  Judge Johnston, in his book A History of Middle New River Settlements, would later write, “The fact, though not apparent to the public, was that the people in the interest of Princeton had made a bargain with Mr. George Evans, who, for a certain consideration, would aid in removing the records and abandon his fight for Concord Church as the County site, and espouse the cause of the people in the interest of Princeton.”

The situation involving the location of the courthouse in Mercer County was not unique.  A similar agitation occurred in Monroe County where people living in Talcott and Forest Hill areas had hopes of moving the county seat from Union to what is now Greenville.  This writer will use a few other sources in order to explain more fully the settlement of these courthouse problems.  Besides Judge David E. Johnston’s book previously mentioned, other sources will include Mr. Kyle McCormick’s book The Story of Mercer County and Judge James H. Miller’s book History of Summers County, West Virginia.

At the time of the courthouse battles in Mercer and Monroe counties, West Virginia legislators who represented other counties were pretty much fed up with the petty quarreling that was taking place in some of the southern counties over the location of the county seats.  In this they had very little interest and wanted to bring it to an end.

A motion was offered to the West Virginia Legislature to cut off Pipestem and Jumping Branch Districts from Mercer County.  The motion passed.  According to Kyle McCormick, the purpose of this was to kill the sentiment for the location of the county seat at Concord Church on the ground that it was the center of the county.  Also, a motion was offered to cut off Talcott and Forest Hill sections of Monroe County.  This motion passed.  According to Judge Miller, this motion settled the matter for Union to be the county seat of Monroe County for all time.

It followed that on February 27, 1871 Summers County was formed by taking about half of the Jumping Branch of Mercer County, the Pipestem District of Mercer County, two sections, Talcott and Forest Hill, of Monroe County, and a sliver of land from Fayette and Greenbrier counties.

Judge James H. Miller in his History of Summers County, West Virginia, described the settlement of the courthouse agitations pretty well when he wrote, “Thus, the influence of all the adjacent counties being secured and those losing territory, the necessary votes were easily secured from those counties not interested;  it was thus our municipal, political division was created, not by the wishes of her people, or from the requirements of government, but to settle selfish disputes rending the partisans and disturbing the equilibrium of other old-established communities;  and from the date of its creation, although opposed by a large majority of its citizens, the weakling has grown and prospered and flourished, until no son or daughter within her territory is ashamed that he is a native of Summers County.  It is truly a child of necessity.”

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