Three Days of Westchester County Sessions Court Run by John Pell of Pelham Manor in June of 1687
John Pell of the Manor of Pelham served as the presiding Justice of a regular session in the North Riding of the Court of Sessions of the County of Westchester from June 7 until June 9, 1687. John Pell, so-called "Second Lord" of the Manor of Pelham, was the nephew and principal legatee of Thomas Pell who founded the Manor of Pelham. John Pell inherited the Manor of Pelham after Thomas Pell's death in late September, 1669 and arrived in New England to accept his inheritance in the fall of 1670.
Soon after his arrival in New England, John Pell was accepted as a member of the landed gentry of the southern parts of the Province of New York and soon became a Justice of the Court of Sessions of Westchester County. The county's court of session was divided into three "Ridings" with Justices "riding" about the area to hold court in various places within each "Riding." The three Ridings at the time were the North, East, and West Ridings. John Pell was a Justice in the North Riding.
The court of sessions was held by all the justices of the peace within their respective riding three times a year, June, December and March in the earlier years. (In later years some were held in November rather than December.) During a court session, in the absence of a member of the Provincial Council, the oldest justice presided. The jury was composed of overseers elected from the various towns within the Riding. The court of sessions possessed both civil and criminal jurisdiction. It had cognizanze of all actions of debt, account, slander, trespass and actions on the case, where the sum involved was more than five pounds and not over twenty pounds. Court days likely were lively affairs that attracted visitors from throughout the Riding to participate in markets and for the "entertainment" offered by lively court sessions.
The Court of Sessions of the County of Westchester was somewhat different than what we may think of a court in our separate judicial branch of government today. Some of its pronouncements seem nearly legislative today. Indeed, an analysis of the court session held from June 7 through June 9, 1687 sheds interesting light on the nature of the court, the types of matters it addressed, and the nature of the responsibilities that John Pell of the Manor of Pelham had as a Justice who heard matters on behalf of the court.
The three-day court session in June, 1687 was held in the village of Westchester (once located near today's Westchester Square in the Bronx, not far from where Pell lived near today's Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum). The minutes reflecting the Court session were recorded by the Clerk of the Court, Joseph Lee. It appears from the records that John Pell served as the presiding Justice on a four-judge panel consisting of him, Justice John Palmer, Justice Joseph Theale, and Justice Joseph Horton. There was empaneled a thirteen-member Grand Jury (associated with criminal matters) as well as a twelve-member Petit Jury (to serve as fact finders in jury trials). Judicial dockets in those days were somewhat less crowded. The minutes suggest that the court heard and decided sixteen matters over three days. Those matters and their dispositions are summarized below, followed by research and transcriptions related to the summaries.
The first case was an unspecified matter between Gabrell Legatt and Samuell Palmer. The matter was not heard apparently due to a petition for habeas corpus.
The second matter involved two related petitions, one filed on behalf of a minor nammed Daniel Turner and another filed by Martha Hobard (likely Hubbard). The stated facts are scant, but it appears that Daniel Turner recently had lost his father and had inherited some form of interest in the land on which he and his mother were living. It appears that the husband of Martha Hobard claimed an interest in the same land through her and had seized some property located on the land. Martha Hobard's petition sought clarification of the title to the land. The court ruled that certain "cloth stock" and corn seized from the land belonged to Daniel Turner. Regarding title to the land, however, it held that the issue should be decided by a higher court, the Court of Oyer & Terminer, and that Daniel Turner and his mother could remain on the land but would have to pay back rent if it ultimately were determined that the land belonged to Hobard.
The third case involved a dispute over the credentials of a man nammed John Thomas to serve as Constable in Mamaroneck. After hearing the matter, the Court concluded that there had been a failure to present adequate credentials and that an election should be held by the citizens of Mamaroneck to elect a Constable by majority vote and thereafter present the Constable to be sworn into office by a Justice of the Peace of the County.
The fourth matter involved a complaint by the High Sheriff of Westchester County who claimed the roadways in the County of Westchester were in such bad condition that the Justices needed to implement a solution. The Court ordered every municipality in the County to appoint at least one surveyor of roads to review road conditions and further ordered every resident of every such municipality to two work at least two days each year to oversee workers in the repair of the roads between mid-August and mid-September. Those with "teams" (presumably of horses or oxen) were to work with their teams while those without teams were to appear simply to work. The court further ordered that in the event anyone failed to work as required, the road surveyors were authorized to hire workers in their place, pay those workers double wages, and then present the Court of Sessions with a petition to fine those who failed to work.
The fifth case was a suit brought by John Gee alleging a claim of trespass against Thomas Masters. The court dismissed the lawsuit based on a technicality noting that although the complaint specified an action of trespass, the declaration submitted in support of the action was for an action seeking repayment of a debt -- not a claim of trespass.
The sixth case involved the confirmation of an indenture of a minor named John Turner whose father had abandoned his family to permit young John Turner to serve as an apprentice in an unspecified profession to a man named James Miller.
The seventh case involved a proceeding by the Westchester County tax collector sought an excise tax payment of seven pounds, ten shillings from the "Estate of John Turner" of the settlement of Westchester that once stood near today's Westchester Square in the Bronx. It may have been a probate matter. The excise tax apparently was tied John Turner's rental of farmlands and was due for the year 1686. The Court ordered that the money be taken from monies due to John Turner from a man named Nathan Bayly. The order further specified that Justice Palmer and Justice Richardson should inventory the debts of and credits due to the Estate of John Turner and specified a series of known debts that were to be paid from the estate.
The next matter involved the High Sheriff of Westchester County presenting an order from the higher Court of Oyer & Terminer directing the Court of Sessions to pay certain funds owed by the Court either to the High Sheriff of Westchester County or to Westchester County itself. The Court of Sessions directed that the amounts due to the High Sheriff should be paid from the next set of Westchester County tax receipts and further directed that Justice Pell and Justice Horton oversee an audit to settle all accounts between the High Sheriff of Westchester County and the Clerk of Court of the Westchester County Court of Sessions.
The next matter was more in the nature of an administrative court matter or the enactment of a court rule. It involved entry of an order that no dispute would be permitted to proceed to trial until the plaintiff in the matter posted a bond to secure payment of the Court's fees and fees owed to jurors.
The tenth matter seems to have been somewhat unusual. The Court announced that it was taking steps to improve the tax assessment process of the County on its own initiative after noticing it "to be irregular." Thus, it ordered that every tax assessor in the county undertake an annual written assessment of all real and personal property owned by every resident of the county each August and to present the results of the resultant county taxes to be paid on "every mans perticular account of his estate" to the county court of sessions during its November Riding each year.
The Court ordered execution of a previous judgment entered by the court in a June, 1686 session of the Court against the Estate of Morganie Jones.
The court refused in the twelfth matter to grant the requested court costs of a previous litigant named "Thomas Mollenax" because, during the pertinent court session held in Eastchester during June, 1686, the court did not tax a bill of costs in favor of Mollenax.
The clerk's minutes of the next matter are so brief and summary that it is difficult to determine the nature of the dispute and its resolution. Plaintiff Humphrey Underhill sued Richard Headley for trespass, seeking damages of 10£ It appears that after the jury returned a verdict the defendant prevailed. The Clerk's minutes say "The returne he keeps his house and will not be taken".
In the court's fourteenth matter, a man named Matthew "Tylor" (Tyler) sued Captain Ponton seeking an attachment -- a request that specific property owned by a debtor be transferred to the creditor (or be sold for the benefit of the creditor). The Court seems to have determined that because an important witness, Mr. Tuder, did not appear in person or through the filing of a declaration, it would not entertain the request for an attachment.
The town council and constable of the settlement of Westchester complained to the Court of Sessions that several residents of the settlement had failed to pay required taxes to support the poor of the settlement not only for the previous year (1686), but also for 1687. The Court ordered the required payment of the taxes.
In what appears to be the last matter before Justice John Pell of the Manor of Pelham and the Court of Sessions over which he presided during the three-day session of June 7-9, 1687, the High Sheriff of Westchester County returned to complain about the Court's failure to remit funds and delivered another order from the Court of Oyer and Terminer that "Recommended it to the Justices of the said County to take care that the same be paid by the County." The Westchester County Court of Sessions ordered that Justices Pell, Richardson, and Horton determine the status of the account between the High Sheriff and the Westchester County Court of Sessions by the end of the following August and pay any required debts from the next set of tax receipts received by the County of Westchester.
* * *
Background Research Regarding the Nature of the County Court of Sessions
During the period from 1657 until 1696, the Court of Sessions of Westchester County followed English traditions and was administered by English personnel despite the face for many of the early years of that period the Dutch continued to claim dominion over the area. During this period, of course, the area we know today as Westchester County was in its infancy. By the end of the 1600s, some say, the population of the entire county number "less than two thousand." Fox, Dixon Ryan, ed., The Minutes of the Court of Sessions (1657-1696) Westchester County New York, Source Series Vol. I, p. xiii (White Plains, NY: Published for Westchester County by the Westchester County Historical Society, 1924) (Note: paid subscription required to access via this link).
The following description describes the Court of Sessions of the County of Westchester prior to an overhaul of the judicial system in the Province of New York in 1683:
"In Westchester, the court of sessions, as it was called, followed the terminology and general legal conceptions of the English common law courts, and not those of the Roman-Dutch system of jurisprudence. Certain Dutch practices, however, did find their into the law as administered during the time of these records from 1657 till 1664, notably the disposition to arbitrate a dispute instead of litigating it; the raising of money for public purposes by an excise tax; and the levying of special assessments for local improvements.
When, after the surrender of New Netherland in 1664, the government of the Duke of York was established under Col. Nicolls, the proceedings of the Westchester court of sessions appear to have gone on almost as if there had been no change at all. The same legal terminology and practice is used under the system established by the Duke's Laws as under the government of Peter Stuyvesant. Damages were given in terms of shillings and pence precisely as before, and also the fines, which had been levied in accordance with the Dutch system of guilders and stivers, were now levied after the English system of money units.
The judicial organization established by the code of laws known as the Duke's Laws ws somewhat elaborate. 1 [Footnote 1 reads as follows: "1 Colonial Laws of New York, vol. i, ,p. 6."] similar to those exercised by the English quarter-sessions. 1 [Footnote 1 reads as follows: "Documents Relating to Colonial History of New York, ed. E. B. O'Callaghan, vol. iii, p. 389 (Dongan's Report)."] A local court was established for actions of debt or trespass under five pounds. It was held every two, three, or four weeks, as was found most convenient, by the constable and overseers, who were elected yearly by the freeholders. Six freeholders with the constable constituted a quorum. Decisions were determined by a majority vote; in the case of tie, the constable had the deciding ballot. In all cases, an appeal lay to the court of sessions.
The Province, or more properly speaking, that part immediately brought under the English law, Long Island, Westchester and Staten Island, was divided into three 'ridings' -- the east, the north, and the west. The court of session was held by all the justices of the peace within the riding three times a year, June, December and March. In the absence of a member of the Council, the oldest justice presided. The jury was composed of overseers elected from the various towns within the riding. The court possessed both civil and criminal jurisdiction. It had cognizanze of all actions of debt, account, slander, trespass and actions on the case, where the sum involved was more than five pounds and not over twenty pounds. There was no appeal except in case the sum was over twenty pounds. If any persons claimed greater debts or damages than were actually due him, he paid treble damages by way of punishment. If any action were settled out of court, the clerk of the court was required to enter the agreement reached upon the records."
Source: Fox, Dixon Ryan, ed., The Minutes of the Court of Sessions (1657-1696) Westchester County New York, Source Series Vol. I, pp. xxiii-xxiv (White Plains, NY: Published for Westchester County by the Westchester County Historical Society, 1924) (Note: paid subscription required to access via this link).
In 1683, the assembly of the province of New York overhauled the entire judicial system of the Province. According to scholars, the reorganized system may be described as follows:
"At the top of the system was the Court of Chancery, consisting of the governor and council, which was the supreme court of the province, and to which appeals could be brought from any other court. Secondly, there was the court of Oyer and Terminer, held once a year within each county, to determine all cases, capital, civil or criminal, having general appellate review of any action or suit in which the damages were five pounds or over. Thirdly, there was the court of sessions held twice a year in each county by three justices of the peace, as in England. Finally, there was a town court held once a month to hear small causes of debt or trespass, not relating to land, slander or matters in which the crown was concerned, composed of three commissioners appointed by the governor. In addition to these courts, the governor, in 1685, established a court of exchequer, to try suits arising between the king and his subjects relating to the lands, rents, rights, profits and revenues. 1 [Footnote 1 reads: "Documents Relating to the Colonial History of New York, vol. iii, p. 389."]
The details of this organization were changed from time to time, either by act of assembly, or by ordinance of the royal governor. . . ."
Source: Fox, Dixon Ryan, ed., The Minutes of the Court of Sessions (1657-1696) Westchester County New York, Source Series Vol. I, pp. xxv-xxvi (White Plains, NY: Published for Westchester County by the Westchester County Historical Society, 1924) (Note: paid subscription required to access via this link).
Transcription of Minutes of June 7-9, 1687 Session of County Court of Sessions
"[PAGE I OF MINUTES IN POSSESSION OF WESTCHESTER COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY.]
[TORN] held at Westchester for the County of Westchester by his Maties Authority the seventh eighth and ninth dayes of June in the third year of the Reigne of King James the second, Annoqu Dom'i 1687
John Pell Esqr Justice }
John Palmer esqr
Joseph Theale }
Joseph Horton }
Mr. Thomas Hunt Sen 1
Capt Richard Ponton 2
Mr Edward Waters 3
Mr. Nicholas Bayly 4
Mr Wm Barnes 5
Mr Thomas Baxter 6
Mr Moses Hoyt 7
Mr Nathaniell White 8
Mr Thomas Warrenton 9
Mr Thomas C Kirke Senjor 10
Mr Humphrey Underhill 11
Mr Joseph Hunt 12
Mr Josiah Hunt 13
1 Jonathan Hartt
2 Timothy Knapp
3 George Knifton
4 Thomas Merritt
5 Ackelrah Browne
6 Caleb Hoyt
7 Joseph [?] Purdey
James Mott 8
Henry Fowler 9
Frances Purdey 10
Job Nelson 11
John Tomkins 12
Gabrell Legatt )
ad } Dammage 30d
Samuell Palmer )
Removed by habias corpus
Martha Hobards petition
Daniel Turners petition
The Petitions of Martha Hubbard & Daniell Turner being red with all the writeings Relating to the same with the writt & Inventory what was seazed Itt is the Opinion of the Court that the Cloth stock & corn mentioned in the Inventory is the orphans Daniell Turner The title of the land being Dubias as it is pretended to by Edward Hubbard by the Right of his wife, and by Daniell Turner as the Orphant of Laurence Turner Deceassed is sumewhat difecult to decide. This Court Recomends the Tryall of the Title to the next Court of Oyer & Terminer and that in the meane time Daniell Turner remaine in possession of the house orchyard & lands with his Mother untill the Title be decided by the next Court of Oyer & Terminer. And if that the title of the lands appears to be Edward Hobards and not the Orphans, that then the Orphant shall pay a valuable consideration for the use of the house and lands abovesaid.
Mr James [Mott] [pres]ent Constable of Mamorronock makes returne of John Thomas as chosen Constable by Mrs. Richbill, noe authoritie appeareing to justifie Mrs Richbill's Choyce nor anything under her hand to aver the same, the Court Judgeing the Returne to be made Insufficiant as Concerning the Constable for the yeare following doe hereby order that according to law a Constable be chosen for the yeare ensueing for Momorronock by the major vote of the Inhabitants of said place and that the person soe chosen be forthwith after such choyce is made presented to a Justice of the Peace of this Country to be Sworne to the performance of the ofice of a Constable according to the laws of this governmt for the yeare ensueing or till another shall be sworne in his place.
Upon Complaint of the badness of the highwayes in this County by the Highsherrife The Court Orders that Every Towne precinct and Pattent shall make choice of one or more Surveyours of the Highwayes for mending of the Highwayes and bridges of Every Towne precinct & pattent aforesaid shall worke two dayes Every yeare And be Called out by the Surveyors soe chosen to see the same performed at the time appoynted by the Court for doeing the same every yeare which shall be betweene the midle of Augut to the midle of Septembe And that one day shall be appoynted and attended for Cutting of Brush in Every Towne & place within the County the towne Comitioners to appoynt the place where the brush shall be cutt and alsoe appoynte the day when it shall be done he that has a Teame to attend with his Teame and a labourer that has noe Teame to attend with his owne person for the mending of the high wayes and bridges aforesaid. they that refuseth to be obedient [to] the Surveyors or Towne Cometiones when they shall be called to worke the Surveyors or Towne Cometiones shall hire men [in t]here place and give them dowble wages and present themm to the next Court of Sessions where they shall be lyable to a fine according to the discretion of the Court.
The present Surveyors to be [chosen from Inhabitants] & freeholders of every place within ten dayes after the Receipt of this Order and forthwith to be sworne by the next Justice of the Peace for their true performance of the trust aforesaid. The persons soe refuseing to performe their duty aforesaid the surveyors or Cometioners have hereby authority to goe to a Justice of the Peace for a warrant to disstraine for the pay & charges for the labour done by those that are Imployed in the Roome of the neglector.
John Gee )
Tho. Masters )
The writt being an Action of Trespass and the Declaration for an Action of Debt the Sherrife in the behalfe of the defendant Craves a nonsuit and the Court gives their Judgmt accordingly.
The business concerning John Turner the sonn of John Turner of Westchester who has absented himselfe from his family the Court Orders that Justice Pell and Justice Horton have full power from this Court to confirme the said younge John Turner in his apprenticeship with James Miller & draw a paire of Indentures betweene them & signe and seal them according to law.
Applycation being made by the subcollector of the Exize for the County of Westchester to this Court that he may have an order for seven pounds tenn shillings in monney upon the Estate of John Turner of the County towne of Westchester Due upon bill.
To his present Majesty for the said Exize let to farme.
The said John Turner of Westchester for ye yeare 1686.
The Court Orders that the said subcollector shall be payd the above said seven pounds tenn shillings out of the Estate of the said Turner for Sattisfaction of his Majesties Dutyes of Exize to the subcollect aforesaid: tis ordered by the Court that the Ressidue of the bond of twenty five pounds being the sume of thirteen pounds. Due from Nathan Bayly to John Turner shall be putt into the subcollectors hands to Receive the sume of seven pounds tenn shillings Due to him upon acctt of his Majties Exize for the Towne of Westchester and the said Collector to take bill of the said Bayly for the Ressedue in behalfe of the Court and deliver the same to the clark of the sessions to be ordered by the next Court of sessions as they shall see cause.
The Court Orders that Mr. Justice Palmer and Mr. Justice Richardson shall take an estemate of Debt & Creditt of the Estate of John Turner and sattisfie the Debts of th[is] order written the first: & the rest of the Debt soe far as the Estate shall beare in such order as they shell see meete
The Justices fees and the Clarke.
The midwife to be payd--
For her keeping till the Court & for makeing her close.
For keepeing the catle till the vendue
The charges of ye Court of sessions to be paid
[Next paragraph is crossed out but is legible and therefore is inserted]
Whereas the Sherrife brings before this Court an order from the last Court of Oyer & Terminer held at Westchester sixth day of December 1686 concerning the charges of the first Court of Sessions held within this County the Court of Oyer and Terminer Recomend to the Justices of the Said County to
to take care that the same be paid * * * and that Mr. Justice Pell, Mr. Justice Richardson & Mr. Justice Horton doe state the accompt aforesaid with the High Sherrife, and furthermore they find Due for charges of said Court to be paid out of the next Publick Rates of this County betweene this and the last of August next the Acctts are to be stated by the said Justices.
The Court Orders that Mr. Justice Pell and r. Justice Hortoni doe audict the accompts of Court charges by the 15th of July next and that the Clarke attend with the accompts. That is to say to cleare the accompts betweene the Sherrife and Clarke -- &c
The Cour[t] Orders that noe cause or cases shall proceed to tryall till the plaintive give in suffitiant surety for the paymt of the Court & Juries fees and that the Clarke give notice of the same by setting this order up in his office.
Concerning the County Rates
The Court takeing into their Consideration of the Assessors of the County to be Irregular doe order that the Assessors of every Towne precinct & pattent doe make an Estimation of all Reall & personall Estates of the Inhabitants and freeholders of every place within ye county being or reputed to be the Estates of all and all & every person ratable within the month of August, and to be brought in faire writeing with the accompts of every mans perticular account of his Estate to November sessions for defraying of the publick and necessary charges of the county
And for every towne, precinct and Pattent Annually do make choyce of assessors according to Law to performe the same, and that the mannor or forme of the Estemations shall be according to former Regulation. The aforesaid Order to be sent to Every Constable, and he to Comunecate the same to the Inhabitants thereof soe soone as this Order Comes to their hands.
The Court Orders that Joseph Lee shall have Execution against the Estate of Morganie Jones wheresoever it shall be found within the County for a Judgmet of a Court of Sessions the said lot obtained pay & ye sd Jones at June Sessions 1686 & Costs About the bill of Thomas Mollenax The Court takes noe notice of it because they did not tax their bill of Cost at that Court of Sessions held at Eastchester.
The Court orders that Execution be endorsed on the backside of the poores Rate for the payment of the Arreare.
Humphrey Underhill )
ad[versus] } Trespass Damage 10£ The returne he keeps his house
Richard Headley ) and will not be taken
Mathew Tylor )
ad } Attatchm't Mr Tuder not appearing neither by declaration
Capt Ponton ) nor in person the Court takes no notice of the attachmt
The Constable and Town Commissioners of Westchester commplaines of severall the Inhabitants of the Town and precincts for their neglect of paying the poors Rate Both the last yeare & this yeare, therefore desires the Court to take it into their Consideration and that their Worshipps will make an Order that the negleigte may pay the same Upon which the Court Orders that Execution shall be Indossd on the Backside of the poores Rate for the paymt of the Arreares.
Whereas the Sheriffe brings before this Court an Order from the last Court of Oyer & Terminer held at Westchester for the County of Westchester concerning the charges of the first Court of Sessions held within this County the said Court of Oyer and Terminer Recommended it to the Justices of the said County to take care that the same be paid by the County. And the Court Orders that Mr Justice Pell, Mr Justice Richardson and Mr Justice Horton doe state the Accompt aforesaid with the High Sherrife between this and the last of August next. And for what they find due for charges cf said Court to be paid out of the next Publick Rates of the County.
Joseph Lee C of Sessions
Fox, Dixon Ryan, ed., The Minutes of the Court of Sessions (1657-1696) Westchester County New York, Source Series Vol. I, pp. 39-46 (White Plains, NY: Published for Westchester County by the Westchester County Historical Society, 1924) (Note: paid subscription required to access via this link).