Ulster County Courthouse hosts 200th birthday festivities

The Ulster County Courthouse (photo by Dion Ogust)

How easy it is to become jaded about the importance of local history, blind to its traces all around us. How often do you find yourself with business to do in the Ulster County seat, striding about Kingston’s Stockade District without stopping to think that the first governor of New York State and fourth US vice president, George Clinton, is buried nearby, on the grounds of the Old Dutch Church? How many times have you passed by the Ulster County Courthouse at 285 Wall Street without considering all the epic events that happened there?

For many of us, the historical moment associated with the Courthouse that fires us with the fiercest regional pride was one that took place there in 1828, when the current building was ten years new. An escaped slave named Isabella Baumfree became the first black woman in the US to win a legal case against a white man, freeing her son Peter, who had been illegally sold to a plantation owner in Alabama. Fifteen years later, Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began to blaze an indelible path through history with her compelling oratory on behalf of abolition and women’s suffrage.

But amazing things were already happening on this site even when the County Courthouse was in an earlier incarnation, a less-impressive limestone structure built circa 1734.            

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“It was here that the Constitutional Convention met in March of 1777, and from their toil arose the great State of New York. The Constitution they approved on April 20, 1777, written by Founding Father John Jay, laid the groundwork for the United States Constitution to follow in Philadelphia. And following its passage, our founding document was read in public for the first time on the Courthouse steps,” reads an official proclamation recently issued by Ulster County.

The occasion of those words was the announcement of a Bicentennial Celebration of the Ulster County Courthouse, set to take place on Thursday, November 15 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with events and exhibits throughout the day, all open to the public. The highlight of the festivities will be a first-ever relocation of the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, from its home in Albany to the Ulster County Courthouse. Oral arguments on four criminal cases and one real property case will be heard before the Justices of the Court from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. in the Ceremonial Courtroom located on the second floor.

Considering the mostly English roots of American jurisprudence, we may recall that there was once a time, going back to the reign of King Henry II, when courts of law were mobile affairs, traveling around regional circuits to preside over the adjudication of local cases during seasonal sessions called assizes. But that charming medieval tradition doesn’t get revived much anymore, making the Appeals Court’s Kingston session a special event. According to the Ulster County Bar Association, which is hosting the visit, “New York’s highest appellate court was established to articulate statewide principles of law in the context of deciding particular lawsuits. Consequently, the Court generally focuses on broad issues of law as distinguished from individual factual disputes.” The Judges will be available after oral arguments to engage with the public, and the Bar Association will serve complimentary refreshments in the jury assembly room on the basement level of the courthouse at 11:30 a.m.

Other featured events of the day will include a presentation by Sojourner Truth historic reenactor Grace Angela Henry and the public display of some historical treasures by the New York State Archives and the Ulster County Clerk’s Office. Among these are the original New York State Constitution, written by John Jay and approved by the New York State Constitutional Convention in Kingston on April 20, 1777. Also on view will be the 1658 Stockade Agreement between Kingston’s original settlers and director-general Peter Stuyvesant; the Minutes of the Opening of the Dutch Court in Wiltwyck (now Kingston) from July 12, 1661; the 1664 Nicolls Treaty between governor Richard Nicolls and the Esopus natives ending the Second Esopus War, and the Wampum Belt given by the Esopus Sachems to the governor as a token of this peace; the 1734 Proportion List setting forth the Tax Liability for each Town and Manor for the Construction of a Courthouse and Jail; and the Sojourner Truth Bond issued by the Ulster County Court in 1828.

For more information about the Ulster County Courthouse Bicentennial celebration, contact Ulster County commissioner of jurors Paul O’Neill at (845) 481-9385 or poneill@nycourts.gov, or Ulster County clerk Nina Postupack at (845) 340-3040 or countyclerk@co.ulster.ny.us.

Ulster County Courthouse Bicentennial, Thursday, November 15, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., free, Ulster County Courthouse, 285 Wall Street, Kingston.

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