Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery

The full title of this court was the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery. The North Carolina General Assembly established the court in 1782. It was the oldest court above the level of county court established in what became Tennessee. Prior to this time, cases heard above the level of the County Court had to go before the Superior Court of Law and Equity at Morganton, North Carolina, a considerable distance from the Tennessee frontier. As the act creating the court noted, “…whereas the extensive mountains that lie desolate between the inhabited parts of Washington, and the inhabited parts of Burke counties, make the transportation of criminals from the former to the latter difficult and on the way may frequently find means to break custody and escape; wherefore that offenders in the said counties of Washington and Sullivan may be more easily and certainly brought to justice,” a new court was needed in the west. (State Records of North Carolina, volume XXIV, Laws, 1777-1788, page 451.)

Oyer means to “to hear” and terminer means “to determine,” so the court was to hear and determine cases that originated in Washington and Sullivan counties. The word “gaol” is the old English word for “jail.” The following year, when Greene County was created, it also fell under the court’s jurisdiction. The terms originated in the medieval legal system of England taken from the Anglo-French “oyer et terminer.” Court was held twice per year beginning on February 15th and August 15th at the Washington County Courthouse in Jonesborough. Spruce McCay was the judge, Waightstill Avery the attorney general, and John Sevier, in addition to his duties as clerk of the county’s Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, was appointed clerk of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. McCay (c. 1755-1808) tutored a young Andrew Jackson in the law. Avery County, North Carolina is named for Waightstill Avery (1741-1821).

At the November 1784 session, the North Carolina General Assembly adopted a bill creating the Washington judicial district out of the District of Morgan and creating a Superior Court of Law and Equity. This court was to be held beginning on February 15th and August 15th of each year. (Sources: State Records of North Carolina, volume XIX, page 765 and volume XXIV, pages 689-690.) So, the first court session would have been on February 15, 1785. This court replaced the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

1782: State vs. Jacob Brown, Samuel Hand, Martin Many and others

1782: State vs. James Campbell

1782: State of North Carolina vs. Michael Drake and wife, Jane Drake

1782: State of North Carolina vs. Thomas Fain

1782: State of North Carolina vs. Matthew Leeper

1782: State of North Carolina vs. James Wyatt

1782: State of North Carolina vs. Samuel Wyatt

1782 – 1783: State of North Carolina vs. John Vann

1783: State of North Carolina vs. John Chambers

1783: State of NC vs. William Murphy

1783: State of North Carolina vs. William Greer

1784: English, James vs. William Craig

1783: Looney, Elizabeth vs. Agnes Gray

1783: Clark, Nathaniel vs. George Birdwell

1784: State of NC vs. John Ward

1784: Cox, William vs. Benjamin Cobb

1784: State of NC vs. John Shellom

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