Construction of the Olde Colonial Courthouse began in the year 1763. It was the second courthouse to be built in Barnstable County, replacing an earlier, smaller one at the corner of what is now Pine Lane and Rt. 6A.
But its real story begins eleven years later.
On the morning of Monday, Sept. 26, 1774, several hundred Massachusetts colonists assembled in the town of Sandwich, near a liberty pole (at what is now 138 Main Street). They had an objective: To protest new British rules of government by shutting down Barnstable County court. And they had a plan. They elected Nathaniel Freeman their leader and approved a code of conduct: No drinking, no profanity, no violence. They would maintain good order throughout their protest.
At about 6 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, they stepped off to the rattle of drums on a 12-mile march along King’s Highway, now Rt. 6A, to Barnstable, the county seat for Cape Cod. The men on horseback led; those on foot came behind, in double file. These were not soldiers; they were ordinary men.
At about 9 a.m., at Great Marshes in West Barnstable, the marchers drew up in front of the gambrel-roofed house of Col. James Otis, now commemorated by a plaque set in a boulder on the roadside (opposite a Cape Cod Cooperative Bank branch and the West Barnstable Post Office).
Otis was the chief judge of the county’s Court of Common Pleas. The marchers were about to descend on his courthouse, an hour or so further east, to issue their demands.
But first, as Otis stepped out his front door, they doffed their hats to him in respect. He was, after all, not the target of their protest. He was sympathetic with their cause: The restoration of their long-held rights of self-government that Britain had just summarily ripped away.
It was in fact Otis’s first son, James Otis Jr., whose fiery oratory had alerted the Province of Massachusetts Bay to earlier abuses the British had imposed on the colony.
And it is likely that his second son, Joseph Otis, though a lesser court official himself, slipped into the crowd as it resumed its march. As events played out, he would be among the protest’s leaders.
The Body of the People
As the assemblage arrived at the courthouse, about 10 a.m., it joined other Barnstable County residents already assembled, from towns as far flung as Chatham and Truro. By the time they had massed in front of the building, they numbered as many as 1,500, by some estimates.
Today, 1,500 would not seem an extraordinary number. But then, the entire population of Cape Cod was about 15,000, including every man, woman and child. So the gathering represented something like 10 percent of the entire population — and about half the total number of households.
There could be no doubt that this was not a special pleading, not a mere faction gathered at the courthouse door. It was, in the terminology of the day, “the Body of the People.”
The assemblage agreed to keep Nathanial Freeman as their leader and appointed a committee to draft a statement of their demands.
When Col. Otis and other county officials arrived for the scheduled start of the court’s fall session, the protesters barred their way. Asked the purpose of the assemblage, Freeman announced, in part: “Oppressed by the a view of the dangers with which we are surrounded, [we] have directed this movement to present the court from being opened or doing any business.”
To which Otis replied “This is a legal and constitutional court. As is my duty, I now, in his majesty’s name, order you immediately to disperse.” To which Freeman in turn replied, equally politely, “We thank your honor for having done your duty; we shall continue to perform ours.”
They did not budge. And Freeman asked the court for time to prepare an address to the judges.
The judges agreed and repaired to the nearby Crocker Tavern (now the Crocker Tavern House at 3095 Main Street) for lunch.
The dangers the Body of the People reacted to were what Parliament termed the “Coercive Acts,” measures to punish Boston for dumping 46 tons of tea into the harbor to protest British efforts to wrest more revenue from the colonists — with the hated tax on tea.
In the words of Lord North, the British prime minister, the acts were designed” to take the executive power from the hands of the democratic part of government.”
To the colonists, those acts were intolerable, and their particular concern was the Massachusetts Government Act.
For the previous 84 years, the province had been governed under a 1691 royal charter, which permitted its population nearly complete local autonomy. Towns conducted business at open meetings of the people.
Towns chose local officials and elected representatives to the provincial Assembly. The Assembly in turn selected members of the governor’s council.
And jurors were chosen by the county’s various towns for each year’s court sessions.
No more. Henceforth, the governor would strictly control the number and topics of town meetings. He would appoint county officials and he, not the Assembly, would select members of the Council.
And the governor’s sheriffs would appoint all jurors, stacking the deck in favor of the Crown.
That was the pretext of the protest. But that issue was largely symbolic at the moment: Jurors for the court session about to begin had been selected by town selectmen months before.
Rather, the real goal of the Body of the People was to confront the various county officials who would assemble at the courthouse that day, in order to demand, as Freeman put it, that they “not in any manner carry out the Government Act’s onerous new provisions.”
By what means?
But how would the assemblage gain that assurance?
A committee was appointed to draw up the address to the judges. It said:
“May it please your Honors, the inhabitants of this province being greatly alarmed by the last unconstitutional acts of the British Parliament…“
A great number of the inhabitants of the County of Barnstable, being now convened…do hereby request your Honors to desist from all business in said courts…until the mind of the continental, or of a provincial, congress shall be obtained.
“And that your Honors will not in any manner ever assist in carrying said unconstitutional acts into execution.”
In response, the judges declared they were, indeed, “not inclined,” to adhere to the act’s new requirements. The protesters rejected that formulation: “Not inclined” was not firm enough a pledge.
So, the committee went back to the people, to draw up a declaration for the judges to sign:
They must agree, in writing, to decline any commission in conformity with the unjust acts of Parliament, and to refuse to take any actions contrary to the 1691 charter — or resign if required to do so.
They all signed the proffered statement. And Otis cancelled the court’s fall session.
All the officials present signed the proffered statement. And Otis cancelled the court’s fall session.
The protesters had won.
But their task was not yet over. They still must confront county officials who were not present and require them to sign the same document.
For the rest of that day, groups tracked down militia leaders, deputy sheriffs, magistrates, and won their agreement. Protesters from more distant Cape towns were dispatched to do the same when they reached home. And Barnstable town replaced its representative to the legislature with a person “more disposed to serve the country than the last one,” Daniel Davis (who was also a court official).
Otis stayed overnight at Davis’s nearby home (now a private home at 3074 Main Street), as the protesters’ efforts played out.
They reassembled at 6 the next morning, to the sound of fife and drum. And when they shortly drew up in front of Davis’s house to greet Otis, they gave him three cheers, “in token of their esteem and veneration.”
And, by the end of that September week, Cape Cod was in every meaningful respect entirely rid of British control.
Without a shot being fired.
Setting the Stage
The Cape was not alone in its desire to retain its long-standing ways.
The same scenario played out in counties across the province during the autumn of 1774, from the hills of Berkshire County to the shores of Nantucket Island. By the start of winter, all Massachusetts counties except Suffolk — primarily Boston, where the British troops were headquartered — had won the freedom to maintain their democratic ways.
And that, in turn, set the stage for the next act in the drama of American independence.
Because the British had lost control of the countryside, Gen. Thomas Gage decided that, after the snows had melted the next spring, it was necessary to secure munitions that had been stored nearly 20 miles from Boston, in the town of Concord.
That expedition, on April 19, 1775, turned into the Battle of Lexington and Concord —and loosed the American tide toward independence. The Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, responded to news of the battle by creating the Continental Army and naming George Washington its general.
And the united colonies went to war.
A New Calling
Back in Barnstable, that little courthouse continued to play its part.
It was home to a Barnstable County Congress, called to catalog the region’s new concerns and coordinate actions with other counties. It served occasionally as the site of Barnstable town meetings — that ultimate expression of direct democracy, where every freeholder had a voice and a vote.
It also resumed its courthouse duties, after a provincial congress was organized to take over the legislative and executive duties formerly exercised by the royal governor.
But the courthouse eventually outgrew its usefulness. And it became clear, when the nearby court-records building burned down, that a new, larger — and fireproof — courthouse was
needed. In 1832 a fine new building, about a quarter mile to the east — made of granite — replaced the old wooden courthouse.
Even then, the old courthouse’s service to the spirit of democracy was not yet over.
The town turned down a proposal to formally adopt the building as the Town House, where town meetings would be held. The structure was in too great disrepair.
But the newly formed Third Barnstable Baptist Church came to its rescue.
A religious fervor, the Second Great Awakening, was energizing Americans across the country, the Baptist church in the forefront.
And the Baptist faith was at that time perhaps the most democratic of Christian denominations. It had no governing body, no ecclesiastical hierarchy to obey; it had no creed and sacraments. All church members were free to reach their own understanding of the Bible, and so to make their own way to God.
The Third Baptist Church bought the old courthouse in 1846 and renovated it. It raised its floor, lifted its ceiling, and installed pews and stained-glass windows. And it replaced the courthouse’s single door facing the highway with twin doors on the end of the building, in classical New England church-house fashion.
For the next 125 years, the building faithfully served its congregation, until the membership dwindled and, in the early 1970s, the church was disbanded.
It was then that the current owner, Tales of Cape Cod, a volunteer-staffed non-profit, stepped in to rescue it anew. And so the building survives to this day, host to a summer lecture series focusing on the region’s history and to interpretative reenactments for school children of that fateful September day in 1774 — still bearing silent witness to the spirit of American democracy.
The courthouse narrative: