Early Government of Orange County, NY
From: The History of Orange County, New York
Edited by: Russel Headley
Published by: Van Deusen and Elms
Middletown, New York, 1908


UNTIL after the conquest of New York by the English in 1664 Holland methods of government, with a local government for each town, prevailed. The next year the English introduced courts and sheriffs. In 1682 Thomas Dongan was appointed governor, with directions to organize a council of not more than ten "eminent inhabitants," and issue writs for the election by freeholders of a general assembly, the members of which should consult with the governor and his council as to what laws were necessary for the good government of the province. The first meeting of the first general assembly was in New York in 1683, and it passed fourteen acts, which were asented to by the governor and his council. One of them established twelve counties, as follows: New York, Kings, Queens, Suffolk, Richmond, Westchester, Albany, Ulster, Duchess, Orange, Duke's and Cornwall.

Except Orange, to be in the care of New York, and Ulster, to be in the care of Duchess, the counties were to be entitled to representation in future general assemblies. Another act established town courts to be held for the trial of minor cases each month; county courts and courts of sessions, to be held quarterly or half yearly; a general court of oyer and terminal, with original and appellate power, to he held twice a year in each county; and a court of chancery, or supreme court, composed of the governor and his council, for which the governor was empowered to deputize a chancellor to act in his place.

This was the system of administering justice eight years. Then, in 1691, Courts of Justices of Peace were organized in each town, and Courts of Common Pleas for each county. In 1701 an act was passed requiring justices of the peace in each county to meet once a year at a Court of Sessions, to examine and allow necessary charges against the county and its towns.

There were supervisors, assessors and collectors in each town from the first, and in 1691 the freeholder of each town were empowered to choose three surveyors to lay out and look after highways and fences, and also to ordain laws and rules for the improvement of village, pasturage and other lands.

Such were the laws which directed the early administration of government in Orange County.

For many years previous to 1701 Orange County shared in serious corruptions and frauds which were prevalent in the province. The Assembly which convened in 1698 was so turbulent and brought so much confusion into its councils that Governor Bellomont, who succeeded Governor Fletcher that year, dissolved it and ordered a new election, taking care that the untrustworthy sheriffs of his predecessor were retired from the management. Protests were made to the King, but without avail. The Governor had been clothed with power to correct abuses, to veto any law, and "to adjourn, prorogue and dissolve the Assembly." The new Assembly, which consisted of seven Englishmen and fourteen Dutchmen, instituted some important reforms. It nullified grants to large tracts of lands, regulated election methods, and provided punishments for frauds. Unfortunately Governor Bellomont died in 1701, before some of his plans could be carried into effect, and Lord Cornbury was appointed as his successor, and acquired the distinction of being "the worst of all the Governors under the English crown." He was notoriously ill mannered, dishonest, rapacious, and openly vicious. The Assembly refused grants of money which he asked for, and asserted the rights of the people, declaring that they could not "be justly divested of their property without their consent." Thus began in New York the preliminary struggle which brought on the Revolution, ending in the establishment of the Republic, in which the representatives of Orange earnestly assisted.

The first sessions of the Court of Common Pleas and of justices of the peace as a Board of Supervisors were held in Orangetown in April, 1703. The court justices were William Merritt and John Merritt. The supervisors were William and John Merritt, Cornelius Cypher, Tunis Van Houton, Thomas Burrbughs and Michael Hawdon. The sheriff was John Perry, the clerk was William Haddleston, and the constable was Conradt Hanson. Orange and Ulster County people were then required to do their surrogate business in New York. This was continued until 1751, when the Court of Common Pleas of the county was empowered to take proof of wills and grant letters of administration. The Court of Common Pleas was an institution of the county until 1847, when the County Court was substituted. The Supreme Court began holding sessions in Orange in 1704, and was succeeded by Circuit Courts established under the Constitution of 1821, as these were by the judicial system of 1846, consisting of a Supreme Court, Circuit Court, and Court of Oyer and Terminer. Surrogate's Courts were not established until 1854. In 1727 the original county was divided into two court districts, and the sessions were held alternately in Orangetown and Goshen, the former being the shire town. Not until 1798 was Goshen made the shire town, when the sessions alternated between Goshen and Newburgh, an arrangement which still continues.

The first public buildings for the original county were constructed at Orangetown in 1703. In 1740 a building of wood and stone for court house and jail was erected in Goshen, at a cost of £100, and was torn down about 1776, a new stone court house having been erected in 1773 to take its place, at a cost of £1,400. The old Orange court house had been replaced by a new structure in 1704, and some years afterward was destroyed by fire. The Goshen building came into the present county when it was reorganized under the Act of 1775. It was two stories high, with a court room on the second floor, and on the first a sheriff's office and dwelling, and a dungeon for prisoners. During the Revolution Tories and war prisoners were confined in it, one of them being John Hett Smith, arrested for complicity in Arnold's treason, and who managed to escape. A third story was added to this building about 1830, and on the new floor were a main jail room, a dungeon with one grated window which could be completely darkened, and three other rooms for the county clerk, surrogate and jailer respectively. Above were a cupola and bell. Court houses were erected in Goshen and Newburgh in 1842, by authority of an act of the Legislature, the Newburgh building at a cost of $17,000 and the Goshen building at a cost of $13,000. The latter structure has been completely remodeled lately, and is now a fine, up to date building. The county clerk's office in Goshen - a one story brick building - was constructed in 1851, and the building there for the surrogate and supervisors in 1874, at a cost of $7,400.

The county house for the poor, four miles south of Goshen, was built in 1830 at a cost of $11,000 for the building and $17,000 for 128 acres of land. The building has since been improved and is now 50 by 100 feet and 3 1/2 stories high. In 1848 a building for the insane was added, which is 30 by 50 feet, and in 1865 a separate building for colored people was erected. In 1875 another building for the chronic insane was erected, the cost of which was $20,000, and its dimensions 80 by 40 feet and 4 1/2 stories high. The farm has been increased to 263 acres, 200 of which are tillable, and has been provided with the requisite outbuildings.

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