Following the recent very impressive dedication of the outstanding exterior renovation of the present Court House, it seemed natural to think about all the Court Houses which have been on that block of land in the center of Marianna, Florida since 1829, 183 years of history on that piece of downtown Marianna real estate.
To tell about Jackson County Court Houses, one must go back to 1821 as the territorial government was established when Pensacola and St. Augustine were the only towns. The land was wrestled away from Spain and Florida became a United States Territory, with Andrew Jackson serving as provisional governor. Florida was soon divided into Spanish east and west Florida. West Florida, also known as Escambia County, was the land west of the Apalachicola River to the Alabama and Georgia lines, while the land east of the river to St. Augustine was the other county, St. Johns. Serving his last few months as provisional governor, Jackson proposed that another county be established which would be the land between the Choctawhatchee River and the Suwannee River. On August 12, 1822, the third county in Florida was established and it was appropriately called Jackson County, for an obvious reason. Soon other counties were being formed from this block of land, which eventually encompassed seventeen Florida counties.
Soon settlers were rushing into this area known as Jackson County, which was considered the most attractive section, specifically that area also known as Chipola Country. The area boasted of caves, springs, and one of the South’s most beautiful rivers, the Chipola, believed to mean “Beautiful Waters” from the Indian’s “Chapully”.
In 1823 a committee of two was formed to find a site approximately half way between Pensacola and St. Augustine, specifically one which would not likely have yellow fever and malaria epidemics. The hilly area where Tallahassee is now located was chosen, and a road between Pensacola and Tallahassee was commissioned, cutting through Jackson County to the Apalachicola River. Rapid population growth was experienced in this area, which demanded a system of local government. County courts were established which performed all administrative functions and had jurisdiction in such civil matters as our courts now handle. This general method of government served Jackson County and the territory until Statehood was established in 1845, even though the site for court moved from one place to another. In 1825 an effort was made to establish “The Town of Chipola” as the county seat where it was proposed that a town be established on a bluff overlooking the west side of the Chipola River. The move died for apparent personal reasons of the leadership involved.
In 1827, Jackson County’s first town, Webbville, was settled about nine miles north of The Town of Chipola (later Marianna), with Colonel James Webb as the leading settler. However, some major mistakes were made when the leadership failed to follow the proper procedures and the people accidently settled on the sixteenth section of land which was always set aside for the establishment of public schools for families in the new territory. The exception to this rule could only be made by an act of Congress, but the leadership of Webbville continued to ignore procedure and proceeded to settle the area and seemed determined to establish Webbville as the county seat. Congress was not in session, which gave Robert Beveridge and his associates extra time to move forward to have Marianna named the county seat.
Beveridge had moved to the area in 1827 from Maryland, having emigrated from Scotland. In Tallahassee in 1827, he purchased 240 acres on which the Town of Chipola had been platted. He laid out his plan for the city of Marianna. (There is historical speculation that he named the city for his wife, the former Anna Maria Forney, OR that they had two daughters. Anna and Maria, OR that his partner had a wife named Maria or Anna and they combined the names of the two wives.) Beveridge seemed to turn all his energy into getting Marianna designated as the permanent county seat. After much infighting and maneuvering all the way to Washington, Marianna finally became the county seat, even though history says that neither Congress, nor any other legal entity, ever decreed it so.
THE 1829 COURT HOUSE
In 1828, while Webbville was attempting to get legal designation, Beveridge moved full-steam- ahead, offering the county a public square in the center of Marianna, on which he and his associates agreed to build “the largest and finest Court House in the territory.” He pledged $500 and his associates pledged another $1000 toward the cost of the building.
While the battle for the county seat continued, Beveridge and associates built the Court House, and in 1829, Congress directed the county and Superior courts to meet in the new Marianna Court House, and established fines against any officials who refused to do so. The fight with Webbville continued well into the 1830’s, but finally, most of the Webbville leadership moved away from the area, some to Washington to serve in various leadership positions, others to Tallahassee as attorneys or in state leadership. Some moved to Apalachicola and other cities to search for their place in the new territory while others established themselves in leadership positions in other states. Webbville just slowly faded away. There is no sign of it on the land today. Its location would be very near where Highway 73 and US 231 intersect south of Cambellton. Chipola Historical Trust has placed signage there several times, but the sign continued to be removed or damaged. The historical markers have now become too expensive to risk to theft or vandalism.
While there was never a legal solution to the county seat designation, Marianna just remained the county seat. While the $1,500 contributed by Beveridge and his associates did not complete the Court House, public funds were used to complete it in 1833. It all seemed to be settled when a federal judge complained in 1833 that there were “six places where U.S. courts are held twice a year in West Florida, and save in the County of Jackson, there is not a single Court House in the district.” Historical records state that in 1838, Jackson County’s population was about 4,500 people.
Of course, we have no photographs of the first Court House built in 1829, but county records state that it was a large two-story building, resplendent in white paint, green blinds and octagonal shaped cupola with a bell, surrounded by a balustrade. There was a door opening out on the walk around the cupola from which visitors could get a fine panorama view of the town, grouped immediately around the Court House square. It is stated that the business buildings were mostly on the northwest and southeast corners of the surrounding blocks where the Court House was located, which is the same area on which the Court House sits today.
Sadly, the building and most of the public records burned in November of 1848, destroying some of the valuable records of those first very important twenty-five years of our recorded history.
However, many of the records were saved. It is reported by the present Court House staff that the estate books from the 1830’s forward were saved, along with the 1831 County Court Book, which detailed the daily workings of the County. Among the files burned were the marriage records and the actual original estate files (which were faithfully recorded in the estate books, which means we still have access to the estate records.) We also still have the originals of the census records, the tax rolls, the children’s census, including the names of household census. Some of the more valuable records were saved by some wonderful quirk of fate.
The Saga of the Court Houses will continue over the next few weeks, telling about the 1849 Court House, the 1871 Court House, the 1906 Court House and the Court House which was built in 1962 which stands today with its beautiful new “facelift”. There are wonderful old stories in those County Commission records. Good stories! Note: Information for this article was taken from Jerrell Shofner’s Jackson County, Florida – A History, and much of the 1822 information from the Chipola River Recipes by the Marianna Junior Woman’s Club which seems to be a fairly accurate synopsis of the historical information.