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THE FIRST LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL OF THE NORTHWEST TERRITORY.
THE Ordinance was adopted by the Congress, July 13, 1787, and the first officers for the territory northwest of the River Ohio were elected by the same body, in October. They were: Governor, Major General Arthur St. Clair, elected October 5 (Pennsylvania) ; Secretary, Major Winthrop Sargent, elected October 5; Judges, General Samuel Holden Parsons, elected October 17 (Connecticut) ; General James Mitchell Varnum, elected October 17 (Rhode Island) ; Colonel John Armstrong, elected October 17 (Pennsylvania) ; Lieutenant Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr., elected February 19, 1788.
Colonel Armstrong declined the post tendered to him by the Congress and did not come to Ohio. Judge Meigs was elected to fill the vacancy.
Although these officers were appointed in the fall and winter of 1787-8, there was no settlement of the new country until the arrival of the Mayflower with a party of forty-six New England emigrants, at the mouth of the Muskingum river, on the seventh day of April, 1788. In the absence of the constituted authority, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, father of the judge of that name, drew up a code of rules on a sheet of ordinary foolscap, which he published by tacking them to the trunk of a large oak tree on the site of the infant settlement. This was the first legislation in the territory, and it is said that the code was rigidly adhered to by the pioneers of that country. The late General Manning F. Force, in an historical sketch in "Bench and Bar of Ohio" (1897), is authority for the statement that "history bas recorded no infraction of these regulations which were read and approved by all."
Governor St. Clair, who had been occupied since his appointment in continuous efforts to conciliate the Indians of the territory, and in preparing for the needs of the infant settlement, arrived at Marietta with his official family on Wednesday, July 9, and on Tuesday, July 15, in public ceremonies held in the three-months-old town of Marietta, entered upon the discharge of his official duties. The Ordinance of 1787 was read to the settlers by Secretary Winthrop Sargent, after which the commissions of the Governor, Secretary and the Judges were publicly read, and the Governor addressed the people briefly.
The territorial government thus set up consisted of the following officers who were present and participated in the ceremony : Governor, Arthur St. Clair; Secretary, Winthrop Sargent; Judges, Parsons and Varnum.
This group of officers comprised the First Legislative Council of the Northwest Territory, and during the summer and fall of the year published at Marietta laws on the following subjects:
(1788), July 25 Regulating and establishing the Militia.
(1788), August 23 Establishing General Courts of Quarter Sessions, Common Pleas, and for the appointment of Sheriffs.
(1788), August 30 Establishing a Court of Probate.
(1788), August 30 Fixing the terms of the General Court.
(1788), September 2 Prescribing the forms of oaths of office.
(1788), September 6 Respecting crimes and punishments.
(1788), November 23Regulating marriages (Age for male 17, female 14, with consent of fathers of parties).
(1788), November 23 Fixing monthly fines for failure of recruit in militia to provide himself with the proper equipment.
(1788), December 21 Creating the office of Coroner.
(1788), December 28 Limiting the times of civil actions and for instituting criminal prosecutions.
Each of the above laws was undersigned by Messrs. St. Clair, Parsons and Varnum, on the dates given, the signature of Judge John Cleves Symmes appearing on the law of August 30, Establishing a Court of Probate but on no other. His arrival in the colony is thus fixed at a much earlier day than that given in most authorities. (Territorial Laws.)
Governor St. Clair withheld his approval to a proposed law relating to estates held in common ; he also, on July 30, called the attention of the judges to the provision of the ordinance which empowered them to "adopt" the laws of the older states, and expressed it as his opinion that they were overstepping their authority in forming new laws in any case ; "And when we do," he adds, "the necessity of the case only can be our justification." This opinion of the Governor was fully borne out, when, at a later period, the council found it wise to repeal by wholesale laws of their own making which had no foundation in the code of the older states, and adopt others which conformed to this requirement in their -stead. (St. Clair Papers).
Judge Varnum died in 1789.
Barbara's Bordered Backgrounds