Name that county!
Here are your clues:
• It was created in the early years of the United States.
• It continued to exist as a functioning county for 70 years.
• This county was never part of a state, but it always was part of the United States.
• Its residents and citizens never voted in an election
Got it yet? No?
Okay… a couple more clues.
• Its governing body was called a court but it didn’t have very much judicial power.
• It had courts, but they weren’t county courts.
• Its very existence depended entirely on the will of the United States Congress. It didn’t even have a policeman on duty at night until Congress passed a statute in 1842.1
• It left wonderful records that are readily accessible.
• But those records are not in any county archives and not in any state archives.
Still not yet?• Think Washington County.
• And think Washington, D.C.
Yep, at one time, Washington, D.C., had counties.
We all remember from our history classes that some early Congresses met in Philadelphia.2 But what I don’t remember ever hearing about was the fact that one early Congress had to flee Philadelphia and take refuge in New Jersey when a mob of Revolutionary War veterans converged on the Congress looking to get paid for their service, and the Governor of Pennsylvania refused to call out the militia to protect the Congress.3
When the Constitution was written and adopted in 1787, the members of the Constututional Convention decided they didn’t want to have to depend on any state for protection, so the new Constitution provided expressly for the creation of a federal district “not exceeding ten miles square” to “become the seat of the government of the United States…” The land for that district was to be obtained by “cession of particular states.”4
Maryland ceded — gave up — some land and Virginia did the same.5 The Acts of 6 July 1790 and 3 March 1791 fixed the boundaries of the new federal district.6 Local government didn’t get set up until the act of 27 February 1801, which divided the District of Columbia into the County of Washington — land ceded by Maryland — and the County of Alexandria — the land ceded by Virginia.7 By 1802, there were three cities as well — Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria.8
On the east (Maryland) side of the Potomac River, the local governing body for the new Washington County was the Levy Court, named after the similarly-functioning body in Maryland. Its members were justices of the peace and magistrates and its functions included “laying out and repairing roads, building bridges, and keeping them in good order, providing poor houses, and the general care of the poor, and … laying and collecting the taxes which are necessary to … discharge these and other duties, and to pay the other expenses of the county.”9
On the west (Virginia) side, the governing body was the County Court of Alexandria County, but the Virginians were never happy about being part of the District of Columbia. They kept agitating until they were returned (retroceded) to Virginia by an act of Congress in 184610 and the Virginia records of that era are held today in Virginia.11
Only Washington County remained as a separate county within the District, and the Levy Court continued to function until it was abolished by act of Congress in 1871.12 And because it was never anything but a part of the District of Columbia, its records are in Record Group 351, Records of the Government of the District of Columbia, in the National Archives.
The actual courts with jurisdiction over Washington County were federal courts — the statute creating the counties also created the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia and ordered that it hold four sessions a year in each county.13 It had both civil and criminal jurisdiction for the entire district, and appeals from that court went directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.14
There was also a U.S. District Court for the “District of Potomac”15 with jurisdiction over “the territory of Columbia.” In 1802, it was called the “district court for the district of Columbia” and was required to be held twice a year in April and October.16
A separate court for criminal cases was established in 1838.17
The Civil War brought big changes in the courts of the District of Columbia. All judicial authority was centralized starting in 1863 in a newly-created Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.18 That court was renamed the “district court of the United States for the District of Columbia” in 193619 and renamed again as the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in 1948.20
And because all of these differently-named courts have never been anything other than federal courts, their records are also in the National Archives, in Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States.
And the moral of this story is: if you’ve got family from east of the Potomac River in the Territory or District of Columbia, and you’re looking for records, go ahead. Make a federal case out of it.
- Act of 23 August 1842, 5 Stat. 511. ↩
- See generally “Congress Hall,” USHistory.org (http://www.ushistory.org : accessed 21 Mar 2012). ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783,” rev. 29 Oct 2011. ↩
- U.S. Constitution, Article 1, § 8. ↩
- See generally Rhodes v. Bell, 43 U.S. (2 How.) 397, 402 (1844). ↩
- Act of 6 July 1790, 1 Stat. 130. ↩
- Act of 27 February 1801, 2 Stat. 103. ↩
- See Act of 3 May 1802, 2 Stat. 195. ↩
- Levy Court v. Coroner, 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 501 (1864). ↩
- Act of 9 July 1846, 9 Stat. 35. ↩
- See “Records of District Courts of the United States, Guide to Federal Records,” National Archives (http://archives.gov : accessed 21 Mar 2012). ↩
- Act of 21 February 1871, 16 Stat. 419. ↩
- Act of 27 February 1801, 2 Stat. 103, §§ 3-4. ↩
- Ibid., § 8. ↩
- Act of 13 February 1801, 2 Stat. 89, § 21. ↩
- Act of 29 April 1802, 2 Stat. 156, § 24. ↩
- Act of 7 July 1838, 5 Stat. 306. ↩
- Act of 3 March 1863, 12 Stat. 762. ↩
- Act of 25 June 1936, 49 Stat. 1921. ↩
- Act of 25 June 1948, 62 Stat. 991. ↩