Walk in the Footsteps of Colonial Americans on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

This blog was provided by the Northampton Historic Preservation Society.

About the Northampton County Historic Preservation Society

The mission of the Northampton Historic Preservation Society is to preserve the historic heritage of properties primarily in Northampton County, Virginia through education, advocacy, and restoration activities.

NHPS logo

In addition to the preservation of the buildings on the Northampton County Court Green, the society also preserved Pear Valley, a rare surviving example of a yeoman planter’s cottage. The society also holds events to educate locals and visitors about historic buildings and properties on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Northampton County Court Green

The first permanent English settlement on the Eastern Shore started in 1620. At that time the Eastern Shore was called “Accawmacke” by the colonists at Jamestown, an Algonquin name meaning a place “on the other side of the water.” It was one of the eight original shires in the Virginia colony. Later it was to become Northampton, and finally the two counties of Northampton and Accomack.

In “the Towne” located on Cherrystone and Kings Creeks on the bayside, the first judges held court starting in 1632 by meeting in private homes, and even taverns. Quite fortuitous for the local barkeep! Amazingly these court records, kept by clerks in their homes, have survived and are preserved in the 2005 courthouse located just due west of the 1731 courthouse, giving Eastville the distinction of being the home of the oldest continuous court records in the United States.

One of the reasons that Northampton County’s court records have remained continuous is because they’ve remained in the county. During the civil war other counties sent their records to Richmond, but for unknown reasons Northampton County didn’t. At the end of the war Grant’s army destroyed Richmond, while Eastville was unharmed.

You can make arrangements to see these court records by calling (757) 678-0465.

In 1677 the Assembly voted to move the court to “The Hornes”, which later became Peachburg Town, and later Eastville. This site has served as the seat of Northampton County government for over 338 years.

The buildings listed below make up the historic courthouse green, where civic life was centered in Northampton County.

A small museum curated by the Northampton County Historic Preservation Society is located in the courthouse that dates to 1899 and visitors can learn more about the county’s history there. The museum is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Old Courthouse

From a courthouse to a store to a storage house to being threatened for demolition, this courthouse dating to 1731 is open today to provide visitors a glimpse into the rich history to be found on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  In 1913, local resident Mrs. William Bullitt Fitzhugh recognized the significance of preserving a tangible symbol of this unique accomplishment. Mrs. Fitzhugh was the Director of the Northampton Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Old courthouse2
The 1731 Courthouse. Photo Cred: Northampton Historic Preservation Society

In that year, under threat of demolition by the County to make way for the Confederate Monument, the farsighted Mrs. Fitzhugh organized a group of women to raise the funds needed to move the courthouse just a few feet away to its present location on the Eastville Court Green.

The Clerk’s Office and the Debtor’s Prison

In addition, to the 1731 courthouse, Mrs. William Bullitt Fitzhugh’s efforts paved the way for preserving the Clerk’s Office, (ca. 1725-1750) and the Debtors’ Prison (ca. 1814).

Clerk's Office
Clerk’s Office. Photo Cred: Northampton Historic Preservation Society

The Old Clerk’s Office is on its original site and has undergone minimal restoration.  The one-story, one-room building with flagstone floor is of brick construction laid in Flemish Bond, and dates prior to 1750.  Visitors will see a well-worn threshold as they enter and original cabinets used for record storage that extend from the floor to the vaulted ceiling.

Connected by a wall to the Clerk’s Office, the Debtor’s Prison is a formidable structure.

Debtors prison
Debtor’s Prison. Photo Cred: Northampton Historic Preservation Society

The brickwork of this one-story jail, with its high narrow steps and steeply pitched roof, dates to 1814.  Measuring approximately 17 feet square, the interior of the building has massive oak planking which is attached to the wall plates, joists and beams with closely spaced iron spikes.  The jail door, constructed in the same manner, is completely encased in iron on the inside and has an intricate bar and lock arrangement with a keyhole opening.  Only on the outside of course.

In combination, the features of this Debtors’ Prison would certainly deter both potential debtors and potential escapees.

Debtors’ Prisons in the United States fell out of use during the mid-nineteenth century.

Two more old jails stand on the Court Green.  One, a two-story structure (ca. 1914) was in use until 2007 and two, a small one-story building (ca. 1907) also no longer in use.  The circa 1907 jail will be renovated and used as a museum by the Northampton County Historic Preservation Society. A third jail (ca. 1899) was demolished in 2017, but artifacts from that structure will be displayed in the new museum.

The Courthouse 

A courthouse was erected in 1795, just a few feet away from the 1731 courthouse, but later was razed to make way for the 1899 courthouse.

1899 courthouse
1899 Courthouse. Photo Cred: Northampton Historic Preservation Society

This building, now fully restored, is currently used as part of Northampton County Administration Offices, housing meeting rooms and a small museum curated by the Northampton Historic Preservation Society.  The current Northampton County Board of Supervisors utilizes the old court room on the second floor.

The museum is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You May Also Like: Nine Charming Small Museums on VA’s Eastern Shore

Guest Blog: Tour A Secret Island on VA’s Eastern Shore

One of a Kind Places to Lay Your Head on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

 

 

 

 

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