Marquis de Lafayette
Established in 1836, Lafayette County was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who had heroically befriended the new American Republic. It was one of ten counties into which the Chickasaw Cession was divided. People flooded into the area hoping to buy cheap land and make their fortunes. Private land was purchased from the Indians, one of whom was Hoka, an Indian princess by legend, and another Chief Toby Tubby. Oxford was selected as the name of the county seat in hopes that it would also become a seat of higher learning. This goal was realized when the University of Mississippi was chartered in 1844 and opened in 1848. The area became a cultural, educational, agricultural and business center with educated people and beautiful homes until the Civil War when the town was burned by Federal troops in 1864. Oxford rose from the ashes and survived the Great Depression and World War II to become the vibrant and growing area that we know today. The past has truly had a future in Oxford and Lafayette County, Mississippi.
By Maralyn Bullion, 10-23-07
Outline of The Lafayette County Courthouse History
February 9, 1836: The county was organized by the Mississippi Legislature out of the Chickasaw cession lands.
June 22, 1836: County seat chosen named Oxford. Board of Police marked off public square in center of Oxford to be site of courthouse.
October 22, 1836: Board of police awarded contract for building the 1st courthouse and jail to Grayson and Gordon for their bid of $23,600.00
June 12, 1840: Grayson and Gordon surrendered the completed courthouse to the Board. The Board accepted same.
August 22, 1864: Courthouse was burned by Union troops. Only the charred brick walls remained.
April 1871: The Board awarded the contract to build a new courthouse to F. L. Pledge for his bid of $22,500.00.
January 1873: The new courthouse was ready for occupation. This is the center section of the present courthouse.
June 3, 1952: Board awarded bids to remodeling the 1872 courthouse and for adding an annex on the west end and the east end of the building.
Late 1952: In late 1952 or early 1953 the additions and remodeling were completed. The courthouse is the same now except for minor repairs and painting.
2007: Board awarded bids to remodeling the courthouse in the amount of $2,984,600. Board also accepted a $168,000 grant from Mississippi Department of Archives and History with a $42,000 match of local funds for renovations.
Summary of Lafayette County Courthouse History
Lafayette County’s first governing body known as the Board of Police, were sworn on March 21, 1836. Its first members were George Pulliam, President; Andrew Herron, Samuel P. Rayburn, John N. Houston, and George McFarland. The building used as a courthouse was a log structure attached to Craig’s Tavern. This building cost approximately $140.00.
In June of 1836 the Board chose the site of the Lafayette County seat and named the location Oxford. The land was part of a 50 acre tract donated to the county by Chisholm, Martin and Craig, land speculators in the area. These three had purchased the land from an Indian woman named Hoka for $800.00. Shortly after locating the county seat, the Board marked off a public square near the center of Oxford. This square served as the permanent site for the county courthouses, as well a center for local activity.
On October 22, 1936, the Board accepted the bid of Grayson and Gordon to build a courthouse (Bd. Min.I/p.29). Briefly the courthouse was to be a two story structure 52’ X 40’ with a foundation 26” thick and a cupola 9’ square of sufficient height on the octagon plan. These original specifications were altered occasionally during construction. For instance 10’ were added to its size for an additional $1500.00. Brick also replaced the planned plank floor. Detailed Specifications are set in Bd. Min. I/p23+ as well as in the deed of records of the county chancery clerk.
On June 12, 1840, the builders surrendered the completed courthouse to the board. Board members at the time were: Andrew Peterson, President; George Humphreys, Samuel Paschal, Elisha Smith and John A. Polk. W.H. Smither was the board clerk and Charles G. Butler was sheriff. Smithers was given charge of the courthouse.
The 1840 courthouse served as the headquarters of the county government until 1864. During the war, Oxford was the site of the garrisoning of the Union troops on several occasions. For the most part the town was spared harassment. On August 22, 1864, the Union troops staged a revenge raid on the town, seeking to punish the Confederates for General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s reportedly vicious raid on Fort Pillow. The Square was burned so completely in this raid that only 1 building survived. The brick walls of the courthouse were all that remained of the building. A young (reportedly 14 year old) Oxonian managed to rescue most of the county records before there were consumed. These were carried in wagons to storage places about the county where they were to remain for nearly 10 years.
For the next 8 years courthouse activities were conducted in various rented buildings on the square. 2 such buildings located in the NW corner of the square were rented from Mrs. B. W. Butler and Mr. W. T. Avent. The rent for the former was $15.00 per month. Later the board rented 5 rooms in a building in the SW corner of the square for $1000.00 a year from Slate Cook and Company.
In January, 1871, the board of supervisors, as they were now known, borrowed $25,000.00 from the Chickasaw School fund with which to build a new courthouse. The board commissioned S. Boling to draw the plans. The original drawings still exist and are filed in the Chancery Clerk’s Office. F. L. Pledge was awarded the contract to build the courthouse for $22,500.00. Since the specifications for the 1840 courthouse still existed, it was decided to build the 2nd Courthouse exactly as the 1st.
The courthouse was completed early in 1872. A board order dated January 3, 1872 directed that the present sheriff take charge of the courthouse as janitor until another one could be produced. The board members at this time were, S.E. Ragland (President), T. W. Tomlinson, J.R. Barry, J.W. Barber, and Mack Avent. The board clerk was R.W. Black and H. M. Sullivan was the deputy sheriff.
The 1872 courthouse remains in use today. It was relatively unchanged except for minor repairs and painting until 1952.
As a footnote, the people of the county rejected by referendum a federal offer to build a new courthouse in 1938. The work would have been done as W.P.A. project and $45,000.00 in federal funds would have made the estimated cost $55,000.00 within the county’s budget. A newspaper article of the period reports that the people rejected the offer out of sentiment, not wishing to wreck the historic building.
By 1950 the condition of the building, public sentiment and the necessity for more space spurred the board to consider renovation and expansion of the almost 80 year old building. After receiving a favorable structural report on the building from Memphis architect/engineer E.L. Harrison, the board decided to take action. Plans were drawn for annexes on the east and west sides of the 1872 courthouse as well as for general repairs.
B.A. England Jr, A.I.A. Architect from Corinth, Mississippi, drew the final plans and specifications. Contracts for work were award in June, 1952 as follows: (1) Central Const. Co. (all work except electrical, plumbing and heating) $72,000.00 (2) Automatic Heating Service Co. (heating) $6884.00 (3) B.A. Smith & Son (plumbing) $4435.00 4) Oxford Electric Co. (wiring) $7461.31 (5) W.J. Ruswell (supervisor of all the work) $1250.00 (6) Tower Clock Service Co. $1085.00; totaling $93,595.81. The work was completed in early 1953. Mr. Robert X. Williams was Oxford’s mayor during the project. Members of the board of supervisors was: E.E. Murray, J.P. Jones, J.S. Roy, C.B. Shipp and W.W. Grimes.
Only general upkeep work has been done on the courthouse from 1953 until 1984 when another major renovation was done. Up until then it remained a center of Oxford activity. Seldom could you pass the square when Oxonians were not engaged in conversation under the trees which surround the building. During election years the courthouse grounds were scene of speeches, rallies and many heated debates. All year round it served as hub perfectly suited to a city so abundant with lovely antebellum homes and historical figures.