History of the Northampton County Bar Association


Founded in 1874, the Northampton County Bar Association has since become one of the staples of the area through its thorough organization and useful services.

The Association of today draws few parallels with its earliest iterations, yet the influences are certainly evident. What started in a brief January meeting with 24 lawyers eventually transformed into the more than 500-member association that it is now. On its home page, the Association briefly declares its history and mission statement:

“Since 1874, the Bar Association has been committed to maintaining the honor and dignity of the profession of the law, cultivating social relations among its members, and promoting the administration of justice. We accomplish these goals through our members who volunteer their time and talents for the benefit of the community and our profession. The Bar Association has a long history of service to the community.”

And its values hold true today. Presented by the NCBA, here is its comprehensive history.

The Founding of the County

Where else is there to start from than the very beginning? Merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson led Vikings from Norway to America (Nova Scotia, Cape Cod, perhaps as far as Boston) first in 1000 A.D. and then described what he saw to Leif Erikson, who first settled on a following voyage in 1001. Less than ten trips were made from Norway to America in the following fifteen years, then no more were documented until the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Columbus’ discovery led to the migration of the Pilgrims, who then established their own colonies and began spreading the European presence in North America. In particular, an expedition led by the Englishman John Cabot settled in Delaware before spreading west.

One group of colonists, arriving in the New World later, followed the Delaware River. King Charles II of England gifted the land to the west of New Jersey to the leader of that expedition, William Penn, to repay a debt owed to Penn’s father. Penn wanted to name the land “New Wales,” but against his wishes, King Charles II of England named the land “Penn’s forest land,” or “Pennsylvania.”

The new province of Pennsylvania was first divided by William Penn into three portions in 1682 – Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks. The Bucks division covered approximately now what is the easternmost quarter of the state, and in March of 1752, Bucks was split into two sections, with the southern part being renamed Northampton County.

Pre-Bar Law

Law in Northampton County is nearly as old as law in America itself. Based off of England’s judicial system, a process was already in place when the Colonies were founded. Barely three months after the founding of Northampton County and the county seat, Easton, the area’s first Court was held. The records of Northampton County reference the Court as such:

“At a Court of Record of our Lord, the King, held at Easton, for the County of Northampton, the sixteenth day of June, in the twenty-sixth year of our Sovereign Lord, George the Second, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, etc. Anno Domini 1752, before Thomas Craig, Timothy Horsfield, Hugh Wilson, James Martin and William Craig, Justices of the Lord, the King, the peace in the said County to keep, as also divers trespassers and felons, and other offences in said County committed, to hear and determine, assigned (By Commission dated the Seventh of June, instant).”

No records show the location of the Court, but historians’ speculation points to two possibilities – under the shade of a large tree or in a local tavern. At the first session of the Court, two men named Craig and Anderson applied for a tavern license of their own.

When the county’s government began taking shape in the summer of 1752, the Quarter Sessions Court was organized to handle criminal affairs and to dispose of other non-criminal matters.

The second session of Court in Northampton County was a criminal procedure. Stephen Brown was indicted for having stolen a fur hat, valued at ten shillings, from John Gress. The next year, the Court dealt with several assault and battery cases and one case of counterfeiting currency.

Nine men were named as the County’s first justices, a mere seven days before Court was held for the first time. They all had a previous recognition in the community, and were as follows:

Thomas Craig – The leader of the group that settled in the present East Allen Township. He was originally a farmer but learned about the law during two stints as a justice of the peace.

Daniel Brodhead – Brodhead was born in America and lived near Stroudsburg in his adult life. He was a merchant before serving alongside Craig as a justice of the peace before his appointment to a justice of the Northampton County Courts.

Timothy Horsfield – Bethlehem’s justice of the peace as well as a town merchant and business adviser of the Moravian Church was the third man appointed to be a justice of the Northampton County Courts.

Hugh Wilson – Traveled to America with the Craig family and was one of five emigrants permitted to purchase land.

John Vanetta – Vanetta was a captain of Militia who maintained a detail of 30 men under the direction of Benjamin Franklin.

Aaron Depuy – A shopkeeper in Shawnee who was a justice for more than 17 years. He was one of three men who were appointed by the Governor to negotiate with the Native Americans in 1755.

William Craig – Unrelated to Thomas Craig, though they settled in the same place at the same time. William Craig played a key role in the establishment of the County, as he created a petition and passed it around local religious circles asking for prayers for the creation of Northampton County. He passed the petition along to Philadelphia, where its requests were granted.

James Martin – Little is known about James Martin other than he was one of five men granted permission to buy land in Easton.

William Parsons – Parsons was a shoemaker by trade who moved from England to Pennsylvania just trying to make a living, but then gained an understanding of politics, law, and surveying, and ultimately became the surveyor general of the Province of Pennsylvania and one of the original nine justices of the Northampton County Court.

The Philadelphia Bar

Around 1735, the term “Philadelphia lawyer” made its first circulations when Philly’s Andrew Hamilton traveled to New York to defend a client. Hamilton acted pro bono and defended a printing press, marking one of the first instances of the defense of the freedom of the press, 50 years before the establishment of the First Amendment.

In 1752, all of the lawyers who worked in the Northampton County Courts were “Philadelphia lawyers” from the Philadelphia Bar, comprised of at least 51 members. One member, Lewis Gordon, made a home for himself in Easton and was a key player in the growth of the County and the Court.

Gordon was close to Horsfield, Parsons, and William Craig, and it is speculated that he acted behind-the-scenes in organizing the first sessions of the Court. Gordon filed approximately two-thirds of the civil actions instituted in the last half on 1752. Later in his career, Gordon became one of the most influential members of Northampton County in the American Revolution. He became the chair of Northampton County’s General and Standing Committees, and he wrote a letter in July of 1776 to the Continental Congress’ President, John Hancock, declaring his county’s support for independence.

New Country, New Courts

The last time that the Northampton County Courts of King George III were held was on June 18, 1776. 57 civil actions were filed while six representatives from the Court were appointed to attend a provincial conference of the County Committees and voted in favor of the Continental Congress’ movement for a revolution.

The next task on the docket was to create a Constitution for the new government. First came the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which established the precedent that all men are created free and equal, then went on to guarantee trial by jury in both civil and criminal actions. Courts were mandated to have a presence in every county, with two or more justices of the peace each, elected by county citizens.

A momentary halt in legal proceedings was put to an end with the passing of the Declaration of Rights, and it also provided that all officers appointed to any office under the King’s rule or under late governors of Pennsylvania were no longer officers in said offices. In late 1777, 21 new justices were appointed to serve in Northampton County, and a new era of law in the area began.

In the late 1700s, the structure of the federal and state governments were reformed. Created in the new judicial branch were a Supreme Court, Courts of Common Pleas, Courts of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery, Courts of Quarter Sessions, Orphans Courts, Registers Courts, and the office of the justice of the peace.

The late 1700s through the early 1800s saw the inauguration of the bar in the original Third Judicial District of Pennsylvania, presided over by ten president judges and ten associate judges in that timeframe.

The First District Attorneys

In 1851, Henry M. Mutchler became the first elected District Attorney of Northampton County. The ever-expanding legal system of Northampton County took another step forward in electing Mutchler, who hailed from New Jersey and was a three-year member of the Bar at the time of his appointment. His four-year term first saw him prosecute Charles J. Cole for arson, though Cole would be acquitted of the charges. After 1854, Mutchler served two separate times as a justice of the peace and served in the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War.

After Mutchler’s four-year term, Pater Baldy was elected to become Northampton County’s second District Attorney. He first studied law when he moved to the County 12 years prior to his election, then, like Mutchler, ceased practicing law when the Union requested more soldiers for the Civil War.

Five other District Attorneys served before the establishment of the Northampton County Bar Association – Oliver H. Meyers, William W. Schuyler, Calvin G. Beitel, James M. Porter, and William Beidelman. They served in order from 1857-1875, and Beidelman’s last year in office overlapped with the NCBA’s first year. Unlike the first two D.A.s, these five all were born and raised in or around Northampton County, and at least four remained in Easton until their deaths.

During the five men’s 18-year reign, legal proceedings’ professionalism flourished simultaneously, but unrelatedly, with the tragedy of the Civil War. As the country was rapidly maturing, the microcosm of Northampton County refined its juristic infrastructure as well.

The Formation of the NCBA

Organized law in America was on the upswing in the late 1800s. Cities like Philadelphia and New York City had established Bar Associations early in the century, and with Northampton County’s mirrored development, the next step was to create an Association of its own.

Members of the Northampton County Bar organized a meeting of 24 lawyers on Jan. 22, 1874 to discuss the logistics of creating the organization to connect the area’s lawyers. Edward J. Fox ran the meeting and a week and a half later, at the group’s second meeting on Feb. 2, the Bar Association of Northampton County became official. Also at that meeting, Judge Henry D. Maxwell was elected the first president.

The startup culture surrounding the Bar Association in its early years amounted to mostly dealing with keeping up a professional public image. Lots of the early records just show members being cited for disbarment for disorderly conduct, brawls in saloons, and other various debauchery.

Minor citations and organizational affairs made up the majority of the Association’s work for most of the 19th century, then in 1886, a new wave of administrators formed a board of examiners to admit applicants to the Bar, and the Bar Association became even more directly involved with the organization of local lawyers.

50 years later, the Bar Association incorporated judge gowns into standard custom. Since the early 1930’s, judges in Northampton County have worn the gowns that have become synonymous with their title, thanks to the Association.

On June 13, 1937, the Association took a much more serious undertaking – taking in-depth looks and condemning the 18th Amendment. Prohibition was in effect and alcohol was outlawed, and the Association’s official stance on the Amendment was far from positive:

“[The 18th Amendment] has greatly impaired respect and reverence for our National Constitution; that it has deteriorated and considerably damaged the administration of Federal Government and laws; that by reason of it all courts are over-burdened and congested and a huge amount of public time and money have been wastefully consumed to no adequate useful results in efforts to enforce a law that has never had the supports of a considerable body, perhaps a majority, of the public […] That fundamental rights of liberty and prosperity are invaded, often by tyrannical warrants of search and seizure by proceedings without the safeguards of jury trials…”

In summary, the Bar Association didn’t like alcohol being taken away. A lot has changed between the Association of the 30’s and today, but this isn’t an example of that.

Incorporation and the Reporter

Before Feb. 26, 1941, the Bar Association of Northampton County was an independent, unincorporated organization. From that day forward however, it became a non-profit corporation under its current name – the Northampton County Bar Association of Pennsylvania.

60 years before the NCBA became incorporated, one of its continuing staples came into existence. The Northampton County Reporter was first published in 1887 and was updated weekly by Henry D. Maxwell until 1930. That year, he incorporated the Reporter as its own corporation, and it was officially turned over to the NCBA in 1945, where its rights have remained ever since. The weekly issues from 2003 to present are available on the NCBA’s website. With the full incorporation of both the Association and the Reporter, the NCBA’s leadership decided on something that was overdue – getting itself an office.

The Northampton County Bar Association set up shop on the corner of Lehigh and Seventh streets in Easton. A secretary was hired full-time to produce the Reporter and those facets have remained ever since.

The expansion of the Association didn’t stop there, though. The effects of the Great Depression were felt everywhere, and the Social Service League was the go-to organization to help with legal aid. The Association spoke out in favor of the organization in 1931 before officially establishing its own Legal Aid Committee seven years later, based off of the services the former provided.

The Modern-Day NCBA

Today’s Northampton County Bar Association is a steady and reliable group that organizes the workers of the County’s legal system while acting as an attorney referral service.

The NCBA has become well-known for its Continuing Legal Education programs. The CLEs are presentations made by experts in differing fields that offer information to any and all local lawyers. They’ve become more and more commonplace in recent years, and you can find more information on the Bar Association’s website.

[Link to officers page]

There are two main facets within the Bar Association – the Board and the Directors. The Board acts as the face of the organization, making public appearances, statements, and speeches. The Directors manage day-to-day operations, including CLEs and social events. The Board votes on policies and the Directors put them in place.

The Bar Association currently has more than 500 members – lawyers and judges – actively engaged in various programs of public service, professional development, and personal interaction. There are bountiful membership benefits in the NCBA, including networking, discounts on social events and CLEs, attendance at the Bench-Bar Conference, a free subscription to the Reporter, membership to the Young Lawyers Division if applicable, and membership and even more benefits from the Pennsylvania Bar Association. But the real kicker that members cite as their favorite membership benefit: a free copy of the ever-useful Directory of Attorneys.

In addition to the Association’s tangible benefits is the camaraderie that comes with working with one’s peers. The resources available by attending meetings and classes with members in the same field of law are invaluable but ubiquitous for those involved in the Bar Association.

Among the day-to-day operations that the modern Bar Association partakes in include continuous long-range planning and arranging Continuing Legal Education events. The long-range planning is designed to create a three-year plan that will consider ideas like the Association’s location, what membership events it wants to regularly hold, and more. On a smaller scale, the Association is always planning more CLEs.

One of the most popular, successful, and charitable fundraisers that has started in recent years has been the Holiday Hope Chest project – a yearly effort to gift supplies and presents for underprivileged local children. The NCBA and its Young Lawyers Division are two of many organizations that helped serve more than 4,400 children in 2014 with decorated shoeboxes filled with clothes, toys, gift cards, and more.

Conclusion: Moving Forward

141 years of service to Northampton County has had its exciting moments and its historic impacts, and moving forward, the Bar Association looks only to make more positive impacts on the local and legal communities.

A humble meeting of 24 lawyers in January, 1874 evolved into a 500-member community staple. From meeting in taverns to owning its own building, from citing members for disbarment to teaching members advanced aspects of the law, from fighting Prohibition to enjoying its repeal – the Northampton County Bar Association has incorporated itself into the county and has continued to do good work for more than a century.