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Mariposa County Courthouse: Historic Justice in the West

Updated on October 25, 2017
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

In continual use since 1854.

Mariposa County Courthouse takes its clasic style from the proportions of a classic Greek temple. Photo by Linda Gast.
Mariposa County Courthouse takes its clasic style from the proportions of a classic Greek temple. Photo by Linda Gast.

Mariposa County Courthouse, the white frame sentinel of a small foothill community, stands silently in its Greek Revival elegance, waiting for the next tumult to come and go.

Hearings, trials , and other legal proceedings have filled the old courtroom for more than 160 years with judicial officers, deputies, lawyers, media representatives and spectators as the wheels of justice continue to turn.

It is the oldest U.S. courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains which has been continuously used for its original purpose.

View from the jury box.
View from the jury box.

Simple Justice

Now and then the county debates the need for a new and modern facility, but to this day, it has not happened.

The building remains an icon that recalls the early years of the California Gold Rush.

Inside the starkly plain courtroom which fills most of the second story of this historical landmark, an orderly arrangement of sturdy antique chairs and straight-backed benches speaks of equality and the persistence of legal tradition.

There has been an effort to keep the original look, and not let modern improvements change the appearance.

Benchmarks

The benches are made of heavy pine planks, locally harvested wood that was finished with painted wood grain pattern to give it the look of more expensive oak.

The original structure was put together in 1854 without nails, using an interlocking mortise and tenon construction system.

The "Oak Grain" on the benches is painted on to make the simple pine benches look more expensive. Photo by Linda Gast
The "Oak Grain" on the benches is painted on to make the simple pine benches look more expensive. Photo by Linda Gast

Courtroom wood-burning stove.

The large upstairs room is as simple and straightforward as the ideal of absolute justice.

The large room was once heated by a wood-burning stove

-- too hot when you are close to it, too cold when you are far away.

Early morning sun glows through multi-paned windows and produces an aura reflected from polished wood surfaces, almost suggesting that former contesting spirits still linger here.


Coatroom with ladder to clocktower.
Coatroom with ladder to clocktower.


Hand planed boards, marked by the tools of the original builders, overlay all of the walls and ceilings.

In the cloakroom behind the main room there is a ladder to the clocktower so someone can reset the weights every three days to keep the tower clock running.

In the courtroom, the walls impassively witness gruesome evidence, emotional testimony, and the fervent contentions of lawyers, as the clock chimes each hour.

These walls have heard such things for many years.

Jury chairs-- comfort provided by a rather thin pad.
Jury chairs-- comfort provided by a rather thin pad.

For over a century and a half, the Mariposa courtroom here in gold country, has been filled with testimony relating to mining disputes, property rights, fraud, divorce, robbery, abuse, murder and every possible form of mortal strife.

Yet, despite the distressing human dramas argued there, it retains its simple, almost severe, dignity.

Back hallway leads to a small balcony that overlooks the courthouse back entrance.
Back hallway leads to a small balcony that overlooks the courthouse back entrance.


In California's earliest days of statehood, decisions made here on mining controversies set precedent for much federal mining law. Successive generations of jurors sitting in the sturdy armchairs, have deliberated concerns of property, and human rights as well as life and death matters.

Several rounds of litigation regarding the property and mineral rights of John C. Fremont, involved a back and forth battle which eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court.

Fremont, who had bought his grant under Mexican law, found that his ownership and rights were in dispute. He won his case.

Original oil lamps have been converted to electric.
Original oil lamps have been converted to electric.

Millionaire John Hite, whose Native American wife, Lucy, sued for divorce, found he was not above the law and was ordered to pay alimony though he tried to argue that they were not legally wed.

They had been married in accordance with tribal custom, which the court found to be valid.

Willie Ross, accused of murder in 1878 was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, from this room.

In his furious relocation to a larger jail in neighboring county, he and his escorting deputy barely escaped an armed mob of "rangers" who wanted nothing less than blood to avenge the crime.


View from the Jury Box

The large square pillar in the center of the room serves as a support, and encloses the weights and chains which drive the clock in the tower above.
The large square pillar in the center of the room serves as a support, and encloses the weights and chains which drive the clock in the tower above.
Even with a later addition of modern convienences, old style fixtures are blended in.
Even with a later addition of modern convienences, old style fixtures are blended in.

Many others who dared to disregard the law learned their fate here.

The judge's bench became a sounding board that sought to bring legal harmony out of discord.

The courthouse building virtually takes on the persona of a wise and elderly jurist who has seen much, yet patiently waits for the scales of justice to balance.

The judge's bench is wide, because in earlier days three judges sat behind it.

Minor changes have been made to accommodate modern technology including computers, electric lights and updated climate control systems, but these things are mostly hidden from view.

When the more convienient indoor restrooms were added early in the 20th century, they were still in keeping with the overall style of the building.

There has been a consious effort to make sure the original historic look of the building-- inside and out-- remains the same.


The wide judge's bench, with Lincoln and Jefferson looking over the judge's chair.
The wide judge's bench, with Lincoln and Jefferson looking over the judge's chair.

The courtroom's only adornments are understated and symbolic. Portraits of Jefferson and Lincoln gaze intently from the wall behind the judges chair, between the flags of the country and the state.

Here in the early morning hours, is the quiet before the next legal storm.

=======================

Many thanks to photographer Linda Gast, who took all of these photos and granted permission for use in this article.

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    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      It does tend to exert a peaceful feeling on people. Something about it says, "everything is going to be alright". There has been talk about building a new courthouse-- but this building will surely be preserved.

    • profile image

      Tom B. 

      7 years ago

      This courthouse is one of the most beautiful and representative buildings in the Mother Lode. Sitting on the grass in front of the building watching the Robins search for worms and listening to the bell chime is one of my best memories of the town and takes one back to a simpler time and slower in pace. You linger here for hours and yet come away relaxed and refreshed.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for comment.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 

      9 years ago from malang-indonesia

      great picture. thanks for share

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      The image of the courthouse is on the county seal, and it is also a registered historical monument, so I'm pretty sure it's preservation is not a problem.

      About four years ago it was the scene of a a preliminary hearing for a high profile crime case that made national news.

      Though all went well, it was apparent that the building might not be up to the standards of security and media mangement that is sometimes needed today.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I'm happy to hear that even if they build a modern courthouse they will keep this one for its historical value. Bigger is not always better!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      My friend, Linda Gast, is very generous with her photos... and she is good.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      9 years ago from New Zealand

      Lovely pics and an interesting hub -thanks

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      I think a new courthouse is inevitable-- BUT I don't think this one will be torn down, it has become too much of an icon.

    • lafenty profile image

      lafenty 

      9 years ago from California

      What a wonderful landmark. I hope they never replace it.

    • Shadesbreath profile image

      Shadesbreath 

      9 years ago from California

      Imma send you an email. And I think read that one when you published it, but, Imma go look at that too just incase I did miss it.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 

      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Great hub -- court rooms are fascinating, and the history here is engrossing -- thanks for the tour.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, Shadesbreath. I give tours at the museum-- what is your family's stuff there? Have you seen my "Silly-person's guide" to the museum hub?

      I appreciate your enthusiasm, as always.

      Hite was interesting-- almost as interesting as James Savage. It was incredibly interesting that Lucy Hite won her case. Indians and Chinese generally did not have much of a shot of justice in early California. Mexicans did slightly better, but the scales were not always level.

    • Shadesbreath profile image

      Shadesbreath 

      9 years ago from California

      Awesome work! I've been there. Been to Mariposa a lot too (my family actually has some stuff in the museum up there). I LOVE how you have captured the romantic/poetic feel of the place. It really is true too, you can feel the presence of the past in there if you take any time at all to try.

      You know, that rich guy, Hite, that's an awesome story. You should write that up as a hub article in itself. What a great little tidbit of history that is. Hell, might even make a good novel if it hasn't already been done. (I'm too lazy to research it, but if I fell into a really great history that fed all the needs, who knows... novel or short story at least. LOL). --this is not a legally binding contract, it's just "two guys talking" ... except you're not a guy, obviously. Well, and we're not really talking, technically. Etc.

      Nice job. Thumbs up!

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