As the seat of Franklin County, Columbus is and has been the home of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas for most of the time since the city was created to be Ohio's capital city in 1812.
For a few years between 1812-24, the county seat and the courts that went with it were located across the Scioto River in the frontier village of Franklinton.
Franklinton had been established by a man named Lucas Sullivant in 1797. Sullivant was one of the original surveyors of the land grant in early Ohio between the Scioto and Great Miami rivers that was known as the Virginia Military District. Sullivant took his pay in land, and since he did a lot of surveying, he ended up owning a lot of land.
In order to induce people to come to central Ohio and buy land, he laid out a number of towns. Except for one of these places, none of the other towns ever amounted to much. The exception was the town where Sullivant decided to live.
A great admirer of Benjamin Franklin, Sullivant called his new town Franklinton.
Franklinton came to be the county seat when Franklin County was created in 1803. Under the Ohio Constitution of 1802, the state had a Supreme Court of three members, a common pleas court and a system of justices of the peace. Within the common pleas system, the state was divided into three circuits with a president judge for each. Within each county, there were associate judges -- not more than three nor less than two -- who were appointed, as was the president judge, by the General Assembly. Franklin County had three associate judges.
Only the president judge was required to have legal training. The associate judges were local residents of property and standing who presumably would bring local wisdom and knowledge to the court.
The president judge rode the circuit of the counties within his district. It must have been a hard life, since most of the early judges lasted only a year or two -- until a man named Levin Bolt was appointed in 1807.
He held the job for three years.
The first associate judges in Franklin County -- John Dill, David Jamison and Joseph Foos -- were elected to seven-year terms in 1803 and served five years together until 1808, when Foos left the court and a man named William Thompson took his place. Apparently it was a bit easier being a judge if one didn't have to ride the circuit.
The early courts of common pleas were different in some ways than the courts of today. In an age before specialized courts dealing with probate, juvenile justice or other matters existed, these concerns were handled by the court of common pleas.
If a group of residents wanted to have a road opened to their town, they came to the court seeking permission to have a road "viewed" by a competent person. Should the court agree, the viewing and later construction of the road -- dirt path that it was -- usually went forward.
The court also approved tavern licenses. A typical approval stated, "On application of Ezra Griswold of Liberty Township for license to keep a tavern, he being recommended to the satisfaction of this court, and he also paying into the hands of the clerk the tax required by law, it is ordered that license be granted him accordingly."
The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas met in local taverns and homes in the town of Franklinton until 1808 when a courthouse was completed. The courthouse stood on the northwest corner of the main square in Franklinton. The two-story, steepled structured was constructed under the direction of Sullivant with clay from a local Native American burial mound. According to a later account, originally several mounds sat on the site of Franklinton. None of them were preserved and their exact locations are lost.
Sullivant was a bit ahead of his time. It was not until 1809 that the Ohio General Assembly passed a law concerning local courthouses: "That there shall be erected and established in each county, whenever the commissioners may deem it necessary a good and convenient courthouse, and a strong and sufficient jail or prison."
Sullivant had earlier built a strong loghouse to serve as a jail. It had burned to the ground earlier, somewhat suspiciously. This time, Sullivant built a brick jail "a few rods" away from the courthouse.
The Franklin County courthouse served as something of a fort in the War of 1812 and as a courthouse until 1824, when the county seat moved to Columbus. It then served as a school house until 1873, when it was torn down and a new school was built on its foundation. That school lasted until 1956, when it was razed to make way for state Route 315.
There is no known photograph of the original Franklin County courthouse. An early rough sketch of the local Presbyterian church shows the courthouse in the background.
It was a symbol of law in a new land.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.