New historical marker in Westport
marks first Oldham Co. courthouse
Marker tells story of the county’s first court cases
WESTPORT, Ky. (September 2019) – A recently installed historical marker relates the history behind Oldham County’s first courthouse in Westport. It was the site of much community activity that led to the creation of documents that detail the indictment of criminals, sales, auctions, appointments of individuals as justice of the peace, and slave hire-outs.
Westport was the site of the first courthouse in the county from 1828-1838. What is now the Westport Methodist Church was the original courthouse. After much debate, a permanent site was eventually settled upon in La Grange.
Westport was a good choice for the first courthouse due to the steady stream of settlers pouring into the county. They planted roots nearby and established a thriving commercial business in the river town, which served as a main shipping port for nearby towns.
Photo by Helen E. McKinney
Oldham County Historical Society board members, local dignitaries and guests take part in the dedication ceremony of the new historical marker in Westport, Ky.
Oldham County became the 74th county in the state in 1824, and four years later, the first court sessions were held in a newly constructed building in Westport. The towns of Lynchburg, Brownsboro and La Grange were contenders for the site of the county courthouse. Court had been held in these different locations since there was especially stiff competition between Lynchburg and La Grange before Westport was chosen after many proposals, petitions and county-wide votes on the location.
• For more information, contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826.
An act of the General Assembly delivered to the county court on Feb. 19, 1827, authorized the legal voters of Oldham County to vote for their permanent seat of justice. At this time, the most popular choices were Westport and land proposed by William Berry Taylor, referred to as the Crossroads (La Grange). After the votes were tallied, there were 623 for the Crossroads and 545 for Westport.
The county court was held for what many thought would be the last time in Westport at the home of Joel Kemper in June 1827. Many times these early courts were held at a nearby home in the area of the proposed county seat.
To add to the confusion, a bill was then passed by the governor to move the county seat back to Westport, even though La Grange (the proposed site) was expanding. In March 1828, court was once again held at the home of Joel Kemper in Westport.
To settle the debate, a courthouse was built, and court was officially held for the first time in this building on Sept. 15, 1828. At that time it seemed as if river commerce would guarantee Westport would remain the county seat.
A decade later on Feb. 16, 1838, a bill was passed enabling the people of Oldham County to vote once again for the permanent location of the county seat. The election took place on the first Monday in May 1838. La Grange had finally won the competition, since the railway that would soon cut through the town would provide the transportation system that would draw commerce away from the Ohio River.
During the July 1838 term, Reubin Pemberton, jailer, and Patrick H. Blankenship, deputy, were ordered to move all county records to La Grange. Ellis Oglesby was the presiding judge for both the last court session in Westport and the first session in La Grange. The building then became the Union Church and today houses the Westport Methodist Church.
An historical marker was placed at the site of the original courthouse in Westport on Aug. 31 by the Oldham County Historical Society, Oldham Tourism & Convention Office, and the Kentucky Historical Society. “Charlotte Dupuy: Suing for Freedom,” a Kentucky Chautauqua Kentucky Humanities presentation, was given by Elizabeth Lawson. Dupuy sued Kentucky attorney and statesman Henry Clay for her freedom in February 1829.
As part of the program, History Center volunteer Genie Fortunato shared with the crowd several of the first court cases. Many of these hand-written cases dealt with issues related to slavery.
One of the county’s first justices of the peace, William Gatewood, was a slave owner. Many times he was charged for the illegal hire-out of one of his slaves, Mahala. She was the mother-in-law of Henry Bibb, also a slave on Gatewood’s plantation for a time. Bibb married Mahala’s daughter, Malinda, and their child was named Mary Frances.
After several escape attempts, Bibb was finally successful and settled in Ipswich, Canada, where he became the first black editor of a Canadian newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, and an ardent abolitionist.
Many of the documents that detail such cases are now housed at the Oldham County History Center in La Grange. Researchers can view these documents and learn about the early history of the county and its involvement in the Underground Railroad through individual such as Bibb and Delia Webster, a local conductor on the Underground Railroad.
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