Lancaster’s old Courthouse: Witness to Great Moments in American History

Penn Square’s Soldiers & Sailors Monument not only marks the center of downtown but also serves as a constant reminder of freedom’s high price.

The 43 foot tall Gothic Revival memorial was dedicated on July 4, 1874, and was initially designed to pay tribute to Lancastrian Union soldiers killed during the Civil War. Today it represents the men and women who served in all American military conflicts.

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Five hand-carved stone figures define the monument. Four men, representing the infantry, navy, artillery, and cavalry, surround the base. The larger-than-life, robed “Genius of Liberty,” replete with body armor, drawn sword and shield, stands atop the pillar facing north.

According to legend, this is a deliberate depiction of turning her back to the Southern states.

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Lancaster County Courthouse

Before the construction of the monument, this site was home to Lancaster County’s second and third courthouse.

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An unfinished painting of the original courthouse in modern-day Penn Square.

You are probably wondering where Lancaster County’s first courthouse was. Would you believe that it was in a tavern outside of Millersville?

Recognizing the financial opportunities of having the county seat on or near your property, several men hatched plans to locate it near them. Rock Hill innkeeper John Postlethwaite exerted pressure on his guests and was successful in having the first county court held at his inn on August 5, 1729. Postlethwaite’s tavern was along the Old Conestoga Road, which at the time was a busy thoroughfare. Click here to learn more.

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Postlethwaite’s tavern along Long Lane near Rock Hill was Lancaster County’s first “courthouse” in 1729. The structure still stands today.

Courthouse Description

Lancaster’s official courthouse was built in 1739. It served the needs of the community for 45 years before being destroyed by fire. The structure was a two-story brick building with a clock-tower and cupola on top, a sizeable brick-paved courtroom on the first floor, and several meeting rooms above. The coat-of-arms of the King of Great Britain was painted above the judge’s chair until the Revolution.

The pillory, stocks, and whipping post stood outside in the square, which was often a muddy duck pond in wet weather. In those days, no one ever accused Lancaster’s constables of being soft on crime as the pillory, stocks, and whipping-post were in constant use. Click here to learn more.

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A drawing of the original Lancaster County Courthouse in modern-day Penn Square, drawn by William Tefft Schwartz.

The best description of the building was recorded by William Marshe in 1744:

“It is a pretty large brick building two stories high. The ground room… is very spacious…

Fronting the justices’ bench, and on each side of it, are several long steps or stairs…. This Court House is capable to contain above 800 persons without incommoding each other.

When we had surveyed this room we went up stairs into one overhead. This is a good room and has a large chimney… Adjoining to this room is a smaller one…

On top of the Court House is a kind of cupola. We ascended a ladder and got into it. From hence we had a complete view of the whole town, and the country several miles around, and likewise of part of the Susquehanna river at twelve miles distance.”

Lancaster Indian Treaty of 1744

The original courthouse was the scene of the crucial Indian Treaty of 1744. For two weeks, from June 22 through July 4, colonial leaders from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia met with the brightly painted Indian chieftains of the Six Nations.

Benjamin Franklin even attended the treaty negotiations as he was intrigued by the governmental structure of the Six Nations.

This critical conference had two primary purposes: secure Native American land for English settlement and receive a guarantee that the Indians that they would not join with the French in the border war. Click here to learn more about the Indian Treaty of 1744.

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During the French and Indian Wars, the courthouse was used as a storage house for gun powder.

Ceremonies and banquets were often held at the courthouse. It even served as a dancing school for a time, but this offended some of Lancaster’s more serious inhabitants.

Nation’s Capital for a Day

It was in that original courthouse that the Continental Congress, fleeing westward from Philadelphia to escape Lord Howe and the redcoats, held a one-day session on September 27, 1777, giving Lancaster its claim to being the nation’s capital for one day.

After the legislative equivalent of a cup of coffee, the Continental Congress adjourned and continued their move west settling in York, where they stayed for the next nine months. Click here to learn more.

Courthouse Fire

In 1784, the courthouse was destroyed by fire on June 9, according to the 1883 History of Lancaster County. Although that text states the original source material has been lost.

The Lancaster courthouse in flames in early June of 1784.
The Lancaster courthouse in flames in early June of 1784.

John Hubley, in a letter to President (i.e., Pennsylvania Governor) John Dickinson on June 11, 1784, detailed the destruction of the courthouse. Hubley suggested that the fire was caused by slaked lime for plaster repair or careless clock repairman. Regardless, the destruction was complete.

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The court met at the home of Frederick Hubley until a new courthouse was erected on the same site. It was completed in 1787.

Rebuilt Courthouse

It was here in this new courthouse at Penn Square that lawyers such as Thaddeus Stevens, James Buchanan, and Jasper Yeates first made history. It was also the scene for the inauguration of Franklin College (later becoming Franklin & Marshall College), hosted visits of George Washington, and many receptions to other notables as well as an early nomination of James Buchanan for Vice President under Franklin Pierce in 1852.

However, Buchanan declined the vice-presidential nomination, and the convention instead selected Buchanan’s close friend, William King. Pierce went on to won the 1852 election.

The Lancaster County Courthouse in Centre Square
The Lancaster County Courthouse in Centre Square

This courthouse also became known by residents as the State House when Lancaster served as the state capital from 1799-1812.

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A New Home

By the mid-nineteenth century, it was clear that the old Penn Square courthouse could no longer accommodate the expanding population and court demands. After much deliberation, a new courthouse was constructed in 1852 at its current location at North Duke and East King Street.

The Roman Revival style courthouse building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Today the archives preserve over 275 years of local history produced in each of these courthouses

Lancaster County Court House, 1875
Lancaster County Courthouse in 1875 on the corner of King & Duke Street.

Minature Courthouse in Buchanan Park

Believe it or not, there’s a miniature replica of the 1787-1853 Penn Square courthouse in Buchanan Park. Click here to learn more about it and where exactly to find it.

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