History of
Steuben County Government

Supreme Court Cases   

Editor Alden Chester; pub. by National Americana Society, New York, 1911; pgs. 193-196.


     In January, 1789, the legislature passed an act dividing Montgomery county, erecting that portion of the county west of Seneca Lake into Ontario county. Within seven years the rapid settlement and growth of towns in that territory compelled another division of the new county, and Steuben was set off from it in 1796. At that time Steuben had a population of about one thousand, but within four years the population had increased to a total of two thousand. After the erection of the county the complete civil organization was promptly affected. The first 
officers were William Kersey, first judge; Abraham Bradley and Eleazer Lindley, associate judges; George D. Cooper, county clerk; William Dunn, sheriff; and Stephen Ross, surrogate. 
     The village of Bath was designated as the county seat, and provision was made for the county buildings and for other public purposes. In Bath the court house was completed and occupied for court purposes on the first of June, 1796. The building was of frame, one and one-half stories high, with two wings, and served the necessities of the county until 1828, then being superseded by a more substantial brick structure, the latter, however, being destroyed by fire in October, 1859. Following that disaster the present attractive court house 
was erected in 1860. In 1796, also, the first county jail, a log building, was erected and stood in the rear of the subsequent stone jail, at the northwest corner of the square. The next jail was built in 1845, and, in turn, was replaced with the present brick building, erected in 1882, at a total cost of nearly thirty thousand dollars. The new clerk's office was built in 1872, at a cost of about $11,000, and the surrogate's office in 1886, at an expense of $8,707.75. In July, 1859, an act of the legislature divided Steuben county into two jury districts, the northern and
divided Steuben county into two jury districts, the northern and the southern, and a court house for the southern district was erected in Corning during the years 1853 and 1854. 
     Immediately after the organization of the county, the county bar came into existence. McMaster, the historian of the early period of the county, said "a few straggling birds of legal feathers had alighted on the Pine Plains in the preceding year (1795) but were not recognized as constituting a distinct and independent confederacy." The first arrival is said to have been George D. Cooper, of Rhinebeck-on-the-Hudson, who was appointed first clerk of the county. Following him came David Jones, Peter Masterton, James Morris, Stephen Ross, David Powell, William Ver Planck and William Howe Cuyler. 
In the early days the assembling of court in Bath was often attended with perplexing difficulties, for the people of the village did not find it easy to provide food for the large number of persons attending the court. Flour was brought from Northumberland, or on pack horses from Tioga Point and other distant places. Pork came from Philadelphia.

     "The Canisteo boy brought over his bag of wheat, threw it down at the door of the agency house, and was paid five dollars the bushel. He drove his bullock across the hills, slaughtered it at the edge of the village and sold everything from hoof to horn for a shilling a pound. He led over a pack horse laden with grain, paid all expenses, treated, and took home eighteen dollars. One old farmer remembers paying two dollars and a half for a hog's head 'and it was half hair at that.' 'Bath was just like San Francisco,' says an old settler on the comfortable farms of Pleasant Valley. 'Straw was a shilling a bunch and everything else in proportion. Money was plenty, but they almost starved out. They once adjourned court because there was nothing to eat. If it had not been for the Valley, the Pine Plains would have been depopulated. After court had been in session two or three days, you would see a black boy come down here on a horse, with a big basket foraging. He would go around to all the farms to get bread, meat and eggs, or anything that would stay life. Bath was the hungriest place in creation.' 
"The citizens of the county made court week a kind
of gathering time, and the larders of Bath were sometimes speedily exhausted. The 
prudent Juryman, before setting out from home, slung over his shoulder a bag containing a piece of cold pork, and a huge loaf of bread; for no one knew to what extremities the ministers of justice might be reduced." 1

     Of the leading legal minds of New York State, Steuben has furnished a generous proportion, and many of them have attained more than ordinary distinction. Particular note should be made of Judge Thomas A. Johnson, of the Supreme Court, and of the court of appeals, who, although a native of Massachusetts, early located near Corning and afterwards in Knoxville, where he died in 1872. Then there was Judge David Rumsey, of the Supreme Court, who was born in Washington county, New York, and lived in Bath, Steuben county, during the greater part of his lifetime. William Rumsey, of Bath, and George B. Bradley, of Corning, were other incumbents of the bench of the 
Supreme Court who were residents of Steuben. Other prominent members of the early judiciary and bar of Steuben were: 
George D. Cooper, Vincent Matthews, Samuel S. Haight, Daniel Cruger, William B. Rochester, Edward Howell, Schuyler Strong, David McMaster, Samuel H. Hammond, Guy H. McMaster, George T. Spencer, and William B. Ruggles. 
     First judges of the county court from 1796 to 1846, with the years of their appointment, were: Charles Williamson, 1796; William Kersey, 1803; James Faulkner, 1804; Samuel Baker, 1813; Thomas McBurney, 1816; James Norton, 1823; George E. Edwards, 1826; Ziba A. Leland, 1838; Jacob Larrowe, 1843 and William M. Hawley, 1846. 
     County judges after 1847, with the years of their election, have been: David McMaster, 1847; Jacob Larrowe, 1851; David McMaster, 1855; Washington Barnes, 1859; Guy H. Mc- Master,
vid McMaster, 1855; Washington Barnes, 1859; Guy H. McMaster, 1867; George T. Spencer, 1871; Guy H. McMaster, 1877; Harlo Hakes, 1893, and Frank H. Robinson, 1894; William W. Clark, 1902, and Almon W. Burrell, 1906. 
     Surrogates of the county have been: Stephen Ross, 1796; Henry A. Townsend, 1800; George McClure, 1805; John Metcalf, 1813; James Read, 1815; Samuel Baker, 1817; William Read, 1821; James Brundage, 1823; William Woods, 1827; Robert Campbell, Jr., 1835; David Rumsey, Jr., 1840; Ansel J. McCall, 1844; Guy H. McMaster, 1883; John F. Little, 1887; M. Rumsey Miller, 1888, and Monroe Wheeler, 1901. 
     District attorneys have been: William Stewart, 1802; Daniel W. Lewis, 1810; William Stewart, 1811; Vincent Matthews, 1813; Daniel Cruger, 1815; Daniel Cruger, 1818; John Cook, 1821; Henry Welles, 1824; Edward Howell, 1829; B. W. Franklin, 1834; Edward Howell, 1836; Lazarus H. Read, 1840; Andrew G. Chatfield, 1845; Morris Brown, 1846; Alfred P. Ferris, 1847; Robert L. Brundage, 1850; Joseph Herron, 1853; John Maynard, 1856; Christopher John McDowell, 1859; Harlo Hakes, 1862; John H. Butler, 1865 and 1868; Alphonso H. 
Burrell, 1871; Ellsworth D. Mills, 1874 and 1877; Daniel L. Benton, 1880 ; Irving W. Near, 1883 ; Frank H. Robinson, 1886 and 1889; William W. Clark, 1892; Almon W. Burrell, 1902, and Edwin C. Smith, 1906.

     1. "History of the Settlement of Steuben County, N. Y.," by Guy H. McMaster, p. 102.