Government in Salem County
As we learned in the forming of East and West Jersey, King Charles II of England in 1664 gave a large slice of American Seacoast to his brother James, the Duke of York who then divided what we know as New Jersey to two of his friends. Charles had become King in 1660 and ruled for 25 years. His brother James followed him in 1685 but only ruled 3 years. He was followed by William and Mary, Queen Anne, George I and George II. It was under the reign of George II who became the King in 1760 that the Revolution was fought and won and the new country became independent.
From the time of Fenwick’s landing in June of June of 1675 government in Fenwick’s colony as in other parts of the land claimed by England followed English custom. For example, Laws from the time of Queen Anne Sabbath breaking and drunkenness were punishable by fine and commitment to the stocks for four hours. “Illicit connections” brought a fine of five pounds or if unable to pay both the man and women were sentenced to 10 to 30 lashes on the bare back at the public whipping post. In his Salem County history written in 1839 Robert Gibbon Johnson could only find four cases of capital punishment for murder in the lower counties.
The town of Salem was incorporated in 1695 and the office of burgess was created, by which that officer was given the authority to hear and determine causes under forty shillings. He was empowered to grant tavern licenses, and revoke them as he might see fit and to punish all persons who might be convicted before him of rudeness, profaneness, and vicious practices. In addition to Burgess other officers chosen were recorder, bailiff, and a surveyor of the streets, bridges and banks. They were chosen by the local freeholders who were required to attend all meetings. Absentees were fined from ten pence up to five shillings. A freeholder was an estate owner. New Jersey kept the name freeholder for its elected county council officials. (In some states they are called county commissioners) The Freeholders described in the 1776 New Jersey Constitution is as follows:
“That all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for representatives in council and assembly, and also for all public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large. “
As the demand for horses and other cattle increased with the rapid increase of the population, the farmers soon found that the rearing of the domestic animals would be more lucrative than almost any other business they could engage in; they therefore procured a law to be passed, which was to empower a person with the title of Chief Ranger of the county, who was also authorized to appoint deputies as needed. It was the ranger’s duty to look through the woods and waste lands, and take up all horses and other cattle over two years of age, not having a brand or ear-mark. It was also the law that no person should mark any of his animals unless in the presence of a justice of the peace, constable or chief ranger under penalty of 20 pounds.
The first formal court sessions began in Salem on the 17th day of September 1706. The staff of the court included two judges, five justices that served much like present day grand juries, sheriff and Undersheriff, deputy clerk
The long history of court procedure began in a log building which was standing as early as 1692. When it was built is not known. A brick and frame court house was erected in 1735, the court house of solid brick in 1818.
Administration of justice began with the whipping post. Records of early days show that the colony had its share of wrong-doers and disturbers of the peace.
The surrogate’s office and the office of the county clerk with the carefully preserved records of the county were at one time housed in the building that sits behind the old court house on Market Street. It was built in 1851 and now houses the health Department and Senior services. The first county clerk of record, Samuel Hedge, Sr., appointed in 1679, was followed by Benjamin Acton in the year 1693.