The Jefferson County Courthouse was originally built between 1803-1808 in Charles Town on a plot of land donated by Charles Washington. It was replaced by a larger structure in 1836. Due to damage incurred during the Civil War, the Jefferson County seat was temporarily moved to Shepherdstown, and then moved back to Charles Town in 1872. The Jefferson County Courthouse is famous for housing two treason trials: John Brown's trial after his raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, and the trial against unionizing coal miners from Logan County in 1922. Today the courthouse remains in operation and is open to the public. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Jefferson County was
created from portions of Berkeley County by the Virginia legislature in 1801.
Charles Town, named after George Washington’s brother Charles, was designated
as the county seat. Charles, who had died in 1799, stipulated in his will that
a portion of his property would be donated for use as the town square. A modest
two-story courthouse was soon constructed on the site in either 1803 or 1808.
The demands of the new county soon outgrew the small building, and in 1836 a
new courthouse was constructed on the same site. The brick structure was
designed in the Georgian Colonial style and was modeled off a Greek Doric
temple. This same building remains in use as the seat of county government
today, although it has been renovated and expanded over the years.
The Jefferson County
Courthouse became permanently embedded in American history when it hosted the
trial of John Brown in 1859. On October 16, Brown and a group of followers
attempted to seize the federal arsenal in nearby Harpers Ferry and instigate a
slave insurrection. The raid, which received nationwide attention, ultimately
failed and Brown was brought to Charles Town for trial. Local district attorney
Andrew Hunter served as the prosecutor. The trial only lasted five days from
October 26 to October 31; Brown was swiftly pronounced guilty and sentenced to
execution. After his conviction Brown gave a speech declaring that the
teachings of the Bible legitimated his actions. He was hanged a few blocks away
on December 2, 1859. Today a marker stands in front of the courthouse
acknowledging it as the site of John Brown’s trial.
Charles Town changed
hands multiple times during the Civil War, and the courthouse suffered as a result.
On October 13, 1863 a battle between surrounding Confederate troops and Union
troops barricaded inside left the building badly damaged. For the rest of the
war it was used as a stable. Meanwhile the county seat was transferred from
Charles Town to Shepherdstown under the new West Virginia government. The seat
was finally returned to Charles Town in 1872, and the courthouse building was
restored and renovated. From 1873 to 1912 it also served as the home of the
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
In 1922 the Jefferson
County Courthouse became the scene of another sensational trial, this time
involving coal miners. Attempts among miners to form a labor union in Logan
County were met with fierce resistance from mine operators. Thousands of armed
miners from around the region marched towards Logan County to force
unionization. Local police forces and mercenaries hired by the coal companies
confronted the miners, resulting in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The
miners were forced to back down, and hundreds were eventually detained and
tried. In order to ensure a fair trial and prevent more violence, many were
moved to the courthouse in Charles Town. Among those tried were union leader
Bill Blizzard. The trials were later moved again to Morgan, Greenbrier, and
In 2017 controversy
arose over the presence of a Confederate plaque near the front entrance of the
courthouse. Installed in 1986 by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the
Confederacy, it honors Confederate soldiers from Jefferson County in the Civil
War. Several locals submitted a letter urging the plaque to be removed in the
summer of 2017, arguing that it is offensive to African Americans. Other locals
defended the plaque, arguing that it memorializes history. After much publicity
and debate in local meetings, the Jefferson County Commission voted not to remove