County Courts Had Jurisdiction Of All Causes


By Charles W. Hall - 2000

After the American Revolution was over in 1783, pioneers began abandoning their strong wooden forts to build their own homes in the wilderness of what we know as Kentucky today. For eight long years, through nine conventions, many inhabitants of the wilderness struggled to separate the territory from the state of Virginia; winning, at last, on June 1, 1792, when Kentucky became the 15th state admitted to the Union.

Unique in every phase of her history, Kentucky was the first state to draft her own constitution, from beginning to end. The Act of December 17, 1796, by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, regulated the establishment of the county courts of the state and their general and definite jurisdiction. It stated that "in every county in the Commonwealth, a monthly court shall be held by the justices thereof, which shall be called 'county courts;' that three justices shall be sufficient to hear and determine, in the said county courts, all causes depending."

County courts were to have jurisdiction of all causes; respecting wills, letters of administration, mills, roads, the appointment of guardians and settling of their accounts and admitting deeds and other writings to record. These are just a few of the items over which the county court had jurisdiction.

Some further interesting court jurisdictions where:

1. "If the court of any county shall, at any time, think fit, it is hereby authorized and empowered, at the charge of its county, to cause a ducking stool to be built in such a convenient place as it shall direct."

2. "The said courts shall be courts of record, and shall have power to administer all necessary oaths or affirmations, and to punish, by fine or imprisonment, all contempt of their authority."

3. "It shall be the duty of the county courts, as often as it shall be necessary, to appoint inspectors, constables, and county jailers."

4. "...to hear and determine, according to law, the complaints of apprentices and hired servants, being citizens of any one of the United States, against their masters and mistresses; or of the masters and mistresses against their apprentices or hired servants."

5. "...to provide for the poor in their counties."

The General Assembly also gave instructions regarding the erection of a county courthouse at the charge of such county, one good and convenient courthouse of stone, brick, or timber; and one common jail and county prison, well-secured with iron bars, bolts and locks; also one pillory (a device in which a prisoner's head and hands were locked into place, usually made of wood, and also known as "stocks") and whipping post. Failure to comply would result in a fine of 500 pounds of tobacco.

The courts were very specific regarding the rights and privileges of orphans and the duties of their guardians. Orphans were bound out as an apprentice, until the age of 21 (if a boy) and 18 (if a girl). Their master was obligated to teach them a trade or business, including reading and writing; and if a boy, common arithmetic, including the "rule of three."

Upon termination of the guardianship, the master was to pay the apprentice three pounds and ten shillings (more money was to be paid in future years, due to inflation), along with a decent new suit of clothes. Usually, these indentures were recorded in deed books.

The legislature set the amount of fees the various county officials could charge for the duties to be performed. Following is a brief list of some of the more interesting duties established in 1796:

1. Probate any will: 18 cents

2. Marriage license and taking bond: 1 dollar

3. Pillorying any person: 41.5 cents

4. Putting into the stocks any person: 21 cents

5. Ducking any person: 41.5 cents

6. Whipping a servant, free person, or slave: 41.5 cents

7. Executing any condemned person: 3 dollars and 12.5 cents

The October 1801 Barren County Court ordered payments for services performed on items such as:

1. County clerk and sheriff services for the year: 40 dollars

2. State's attorney services for the year: 90 dollars

3. Andrew Walker, judge, for three days' service: 3 dollars

4. George White, for keeping the stray pen (a stray pen might be described as an area in which domesticated farm animals, found wandering in the wilderness, were rounded up and kept until the owner could claim them): 5 dollars

5. Jacob Peck, for one grown wolf scalp (wolves were a menace to farm animals, and a bounty was paid to exterminate them): 1 dollar and 33 cents.

How much was the 18th and 19th century dollar worth in today's value? The increase in inflation from 1796-1998 has been great. The 1796 dollar would equal about $50.00 in today's value. The 1801 dollar would be worth about $33.00, and the 1804 dollar would equal about $45.00 today.

Until the new monetary item, called the American dollar, was to be had in sufficient amount and denominations, which was well established by 1856, and accepted by the general public, the British pound and American dollar were used, interchangeably.

In 1804, one dollar (American) was equal to 4.42 British pounds. The British pound was divided into pence and shillings. Twelve pence equaled one shilling. Twenty shillings equaled one pound. Approximately four pounds and nine shillings equaled 4.42 pounds. These are close estimates, and will give the reader a good idea of how much items in the above lists, and the list below, would cost in today's market.

The rate for the following items, regarding the setting of tavern rates by the August Court of 1804, Barren County, Kentucky, are shown in British pounds, shillings, and pence:

1. Wine, per gallon: 2 pounds, 8 shillings

2. Rum or French brandy, per gallon: l pound, 16 shillings

3. Whisky or peach brandy, per gallon: 12 shillings

4. Breakfast, with tea or coffee: 1 shilling, 6 pence

5. Warm dinner: 1 pound, 1 shilling, 6 pence

6. Common dinner: 1 shilling

7. Supper, with tea or coffee: 1 shilling, 6 pence

8. Cold supper: 1 shilling

9. Lodging, per night: 6 pence

10. Hay or fodder, per night: 1 shilling

11. Pasturage, per night: 6 shillings

12. Cider or beer, per quart: 9 shillings

Taverns not only served as a place to drink and eat, but also as an inn, with accommodations for horses used in transportation. Fifteen miles per day were considered a good travel distance of that time period, thereby the necessity for such establishments.

The above tells us a little more regarding the life and times of our ancestors. An average income in 1800 was probably about $100-200 per year ($10,000-20,000 today). Many survived on less, since they grew and produced their own food, built their own homes, made their own clothing and shoes, and no doubt, some farm implements.

One did not go down to the local grocery or hardware store, because there were very few of them around, for the most part, if any at all. Of course, there were blacksmiths, carpenters, and other tradesmen, who were invaluable to the growth and well-being of all our ancestor pioneers.


Author's Note: Although the above information regarding the formation of county courts pertains to the state of Kentucky, all states admitted to the Union established very similar court systems. Therefore, one can apply this information to other states of our pioneer heritage.

Charles W. Hall, P. O. Box 425, Clinton, IL 61727-0425, shares this interesting story with Kentucky Explorer readers.