Frontier counties held quarterly sessions similar to town hall meetings in the coastal towns. Most of the property owners attended. Sometimes the proceedings were more entertaining than the Saturday matinee at the theater in a rural county seat. Business in early sessions often took just hours. When lawsuits, trials, estate settlements, road committees, widow and orphan care, wounded veterans, building permits and other business could not be completed in a day, some of the citizens stayed over for additional days. Only the sheriff, the surveyor, and the county clerk remained on duty until the next session.
It was a hardship upon the residents of distant corners of the counties to participate. Instead of going home, they had to buy meals and lodging in the county seat. For that reason, and for out of state visitors, counties passed rate schedules for food, drink, stable, and lodging. As soon as population grew to warrant a new county, the large parent county would be split. County boundaries were chosen with the objective of travel time for the remote settlers short enough to go to town, do business, and return home without needing to spend the night.
Quarterly court journals (and paper in general) were expensive. In 1777 Washington County Virginia paid five pounds for one empty book. It was a bound volume of good quality paper for 100 shillings. For an idea of the price of paper on the frontier, compare to the list price of 100 acres for 111 shillings. One blank court journal cost the price of a farm. A soldier’s pay was a shilling per day. The journal cost more than three month’s pay for a private soldier. This explains part of the recording fee for a deed, a will, or a marriage license. Elizabeth Newell paid two shillings for a bell at her husband’s estate auction. One court journal equals fifty dinner bells. Her son Samuel paid three pounds for two steers and four pounds for 32 bushels of rye. One court journal cost more than three beefs on the hoof, the same as forty bushels of rye. A frugal court clerk wrote small and avoided writing at all for trivia.
Literacy rates were low in frontier communities. Folks who could read and write were almost all called to public service. One who could read, write, and cipher almost certainly had a pro bona job with the county. Literacy of veterans can be partially determined by signatures on the documents. Some learned to form pictures of their names without understanding the letters or the spelling.
Militia captains knew the heads of households in their neighborhoods. They often served as the tax collectors in their districts. Thus county tax records point to the precinct within a county where the taxpayer resided. After the War of 1812, Kentucky devoted a large portion of their taxes to improve the supplies and equipment of their militia. Half a dozen strapping boys in a household were ineffective soldiers when the household had only one rifle.
Beginning in 1816, counties began taking depositions for hardship pensions for war veterans. You might find personal information about your patriot ancestor in the journals near or in his county of residence. In the 1830s, quarterly sessions courts began taking depositions for old age veteran’s benefits and widow and orphan support. County journals are a potential source for military experience, personal information, and family relationships. The witnesses and court officers for these depositions are also a source for family history.
When the Union began, the states and counties retained most of the governmental functions. Representatives went to Congress for their bi-annual sessions. They tended to business and returned home. Most congressmen functioned as postmen. They carried mail from the counties to DC and federal papers back to the counties. Veterans from those counties closer to the War Department (Richmond) and the District of Columbia could have a congressman to more readily supply administrative paperwork than those far away districts. Further, the militia records were not housed in DC, but were held in the counties and/or the states. Militia veterans thus tended to be less compensated for their service than were the soldiers of the Continental Army and Navy.