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The County Row Offices

Milestones Vol 24. No.2

By Alan McLeod

The Prothonotary's Office and records, and other historic County records and offices (Row Offices) which exist today, are well-described in a great historic work from 1942, Inventory of the County Archives of Pennsylvania It is valuable both as a complete list of all records and documents then in existence, and as a definitive history of the County and all its offices.

David Johnson, the first Prothonotary, was appointed by the Governor in 1804, or "in the twenty-eighth year of Independence." Johnson acted as what would later become Clerk of Courts (Criminal Division), Register of Wills, (Orphans' Court Division), and Recorder of Deeds, besides the Civil Division function of Prothonotary, until 1809, when the office was separated from the others. Since the Constitution of 1838, all Row Officers have been elected by popular vote. A major industry, building one-way (out) keelboats, significantly declined at that time.

The first papers in the Prothonotary's Office predate the formation of the County. They were cases transferred from Allegheny and Washington Counties disputing title to property. The Inventory (p. 5) states these cases were "carried on for 40 years and settlement of Beaver County was delayed until the land titles were cleared in the courts." The Petitions in these cases are usually printed forms, on the finest rag paper. In language like the Declaration of Independence, they often recite that Timothy Peaceable (generally, a Philadelphia speculator) was forced from his lands by Thomas Troublesome (a settler). Abundant cheap land to the west, with clear titles, encouraging self-sufficient and self-governing citizen-farmers, was a clear alternative to the vestiges of colonialism represented by appointed public officials.

Our first major national depression, the Panic of 1836, also had a great local impact. Money dried up. Then, we not only had imprisonment for debt, but you could be arrested and forced to post a bond even before the debt was proven (capias ad respondem). We had a local version of the grim legal system that Charles Dickens described, of poor (alms) houses and debtors' prison and interminable litigation, all duly recorded in the dockets. Matters that we now consider confidential, like adoptions, mental health (then called lunatics), and juvenile matters were in the 1800s open public records. We even kept a special Index for Lunatics, Habitual Drunkards and Divorces.

Matthew S. Quay, perhaps the most prominent national political figure with local roots, began his public service as Prothonotary in the 1850s, shortly after his admission to the bar. The Civil War relieved his years of tedious clerkdom, when, indifferent to his own life, Congress recognized his grim determination with the Medal of Honor.

It is helpful to understanding County row office records that common record keeping functions, such as maintenance and keeping of dockets and indexes, has little changed. Their continuity, and the common forms in which they are maintained are such that we have a nearly complete record of County and individual history. Most searchers work backwards and have a specific name or interest; often they do not even know that significant other records exist. It was the purpose of the Inventory to identify the records and place them in their historic context.

Recognizing County records systems as a whole provides greater significance to individual records, and history in local human terms. Of the first names in the County, many no longer appear (presumably having gone west), and some have remained a recurring part of County history. Our records include histories of what may be bygone ages: of civic joining and belonging in the charters of churches and fraternal organizations; of great immigration in our Naturalization records; and of boom times, and bust in our debt and execution records. The littleknown Inventory is very obscure, perhaps due to its title or its publication at a time overshadowed by World War II.

Historians have sayings like "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" and "the more things change, the more they tend to remain the same," that may apply to judicial history. The judicial divisions and offices that exist today generally reflect a historic structure. Common Pleas, until after the Constitution of 1968, stood separate and apart from what are now its divisions and were formerly its sister Courts of "Oyer and Terminer" and "Quarter Sessions," and "Orphans." Our present Supreme Court is advocating a return to a single, appointive office for judicial record keeping and administrative functions, a future for David Johnson and Timothy Peaceable, and new opportunities for Thomas Troublesomes to vote "with their feet" once again.

Alan McLeod works in the Prothonotary 's Office in the Court House