Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Old Newbern Courthouse

One of the biggest frustrations for me as a researcher/writer is coming to a screeching halt at the appearance of a giant pothole in the middle of the road. It's not quite the same as coming to a dead end. There's more information to fill in the path...somewhere...but where...and when? 

Just as I was really getting somewhere with character development, I received an email which opened up a whole new avenue of exploration in regards to the old Newbern Courthouse.

New Bern, Newbern or New Berne?
Allow me to begin with just a brief note on historic spellings for our city. Victor T. Jones Jr., the Special Collections Librarian in the Kellenberger Room at New Bern-Craven County Public Library, says in a recent Facebook communication:
Officially they started writing New Bern as two words in the 1890s. Before the Civil War, it was mostly written as one word (Newbern), though there are some examples of it as two. During the Civil War occupation is when the "e" was added to Bern (New Berne). In the late 1890s and early 1900s there was a big debate in town about whether it was one word or two, with the e or without. It was finally settled with the the way it is currently spelled, two words without the e.
Since the time period I am focusing on is the 1850s, I will be using the antebellum spelling, Newbern.

Back to the Courthouse...
In our story, the old Newbern Couthouse is the focal point of our first scene, where the four youngest Carter children appear to be bound out as apprentices to the household of William Temple.

I have studied historical accounts and maps of the city, but not till I received copies of the following photos...all that remains of the memory of the old Newbern Courthouse...did I begin to recreate the scene from the children's point of view (POV). I had actually received the photos back in mid-May; but, a more recent email provided the stimulus to try to identify the style of the court house beyond the ruins below:

Ruins of the Craven County Court House,
destroyed by fire January 15, 1861.
The Court House stood in the intersection
of Broad and Middle streets. This view
was taken from Broad Street looking west.
The old Market House is visible
beyond the ruins.
The photos answered a question I had earlier based on a the map I had previously view which placed the court house in the intersection of Broad and Middle Streets.

In the intersection, as opposed to at the intersection, was the correct phrasing; although, it was highly unimaginable for me. How could a court house be placed in an intersection, especially one lined with trees which would have made the roadway about it quite narrow?

From these photos we can see all that remained was the corner of the building.
Ruins of the Craven County Court House.
View taken on Middle Street looking north.
A New Bern Album, by John B. Green, III
(1985), p. 26.

It appears to have been a three story structure, with perhaps three sets of windows on each floor.

This was the second court house in Newbern. The original one was to be built in 1761 by orders of Richard Spaight, Esq., Joseph Leech and John Fonville, Commissioners. It was ordered "that a Court House for the said county [Craven], not exceeding sixty feet long and forty feet wide in the clear be build on the public lots in the town of Newbern ...on the intersection of Broad street where a Court house is already begun" (Rambles about Town: Pollock Street from Queen to Middle, October 8, 1882).

John D. Whitford also noted that "This old court house gave place to the brick one build on the same site about forty years afterwards, which was destroyed by fire just before the war. We have a photograph (above) of the walls with the houses then around them, taken immediately after the fire."

Of the second court house, Mr. Whitford states:
The clock on the cupola of the court house belonged to the town, was purchased in 1826, and no better was ever made and set up. The bell was the property of the county, and not only gave us the hours through the day and night, but it was also rung for all fire company meetings, political meetings, or any kind of town or county meetings, as well as give the alarm of fires.

While Victor had encouraged me to check the colonial architecture of the existing Chowan and Beaufort County court houses, I am now convinced that while the original courthouse may have had some of these colonial influences, this second courthouse did not. And this is how I came upon this conclusion:

Below you will find a collage I constructed of all the photos available on a Google Image search for the Old Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton, NC:

I was so excited about the detail I had discovered, especially the interior design.

The old Beaufort County Courthouse in Washington, North Carolina can be seen below:

While they both have a copula with a clock and bell, I decided to look for images of three-story southern courthouses built around the turn of the 19th century.

Jones County Courthouse, Trenton, NC
I am now somewhat convinced that the second Newbern Courthouse may have looked more like this courthouse built in nearby Jones County, North Carolina.

Whitford states that the original...
Court house is raised on brick arches so as to render the lower part a convenient market place, but the principal (sic) marketing is done with the people in their canoes and boats at the river side.
If the arches were carried over into the design of the second courthouse, perhaps it might look somewhat like the front of the U. S. Post Office and Courthouse in New Bern, seen below:
by eopederson45
Old Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax City, Virginia was built in 1799, close to the time the second Newbern Courthouse was erected. Notice the similarity in the use of brick arches in its design.

Courtroom Design
There are some similarities in courtroom design between Fairfax County Courthouse and those of Chowan County, North Carolina,  and James City (colonial Williamsburg) and Isle of Wight Counties in Virginia, which share the same layout.
Ultimately, what I will have to do is to use my imagination to combine elements of all of these settings to re-create the exterior and interior of the second Old Newbern Courthouse for this scene.

And now you can see how the giant pothole in the middle of the road got filled in with a little help from my friends.


  1. Hello! I am researching the slave market which surrounded the courthouse in New Bern as part of my Master's Thesis on slavery in Craven and Jones County, NC. I'm not sure if you are still working on your project, but I was able to find a description of the Court House Site (w/ adjacent "slave pens") here:

    You can also look at the map included on pg. 154 of Bishir's Crafting Lives, which seems to show the slave market directly in the middle of the intersection at Middle and Broad, which confused me greatly until I read your post. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I am researching free Blacks in Craven and Carteret Counties, so I have not delved into the topic of the slave market in New Bern. I have contemplated the interaction of slave and free; however, slavery in Township #5 was different than most anywhere else in the county, or the state.

      My interest in the old courthouse was directed toward appearances at apprenticeship hearings of "free Negro children," due to either the death of their parents, or consent of their fathers due to their inability to care for them properly. The first book by Stevens is quite thought provoking. Thank you for sharing!

      I was unable to view p. 154 of Bashir's Crafting Lives via's "Look Inside" feature. It previews the pages before and after only. The map I used quite extensively is "A plan of the town of New Bern and Dryborough: with the lands adjoining contained within the bounds of the original grant to Dan'l Richardson in 1713." You can find it at the link below:

      There you will see the rectangle at the intersection of Middle and Broad Streets, where the old courthouse was erected. If you aren't able to visit New Bern, you can check out the location on Google Earth to see what it is like in contemporary times.

      I am currently writing a narrative lineage for my certification portfolio for Board for Certification of Genealogists:

      Thanks once again for commenting, and if you have any other questions, please feel free to email me: