James Patterson Sterrett

James Patterson Sterrett was born near Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, on November 7, 1822, to Robert Sterrett and Margaret Patterson. His father was a farmer who owned at least $16,000 in real estate and $2000 in personal property. Growing up, he worked on his father’s farm and attended Tuscarora Academy. He graduated from Jefferson College in 1845 and taught school for about a year. Then, in 1847, he enrolled at the University of Virginia along with his younger brother John. James spent the next year studying law and moral philosophy, and in 1848, he was admitted to the bar in both Richmond, Virginia, and Juniata County, Pennsylvania.

Sterrett settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1849. He married Jane Isabel Patterson on May 20, 1850, and they had four children together: Laura M., born around 1852; William Patterson, born on July 14, 1853; Annie B., born on November 25, 1855; and Emma, born on August 4, 1858. Jane died on September 27, 1860.

Sterrett established a thriving legal practice in Pittsburgh. In 1860, he owned $5,000 in real estate and $3,000. Ten years later, the value of his real estate had soared to $40,000, and he held $11,000 in personal property. He became a trustee of Jefferson College in 1855—a position he held for the next thirty years. In 1861, he was appointed to a commission charged with revising Pennsylvania’s revenue laws. A year later, running as a Republican, he became “president judge” of Allegheny County’s court of common pleas.

As a local writer observed, Sterrett “was of a quiet disposition, and never took an active part in politics.” Nonetheless, he remained fiercely loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Speaking from the bench in October 1862, he celebrated the “patriotism of the loyal masses of the North and West.” When the “first insult was offered to our flag,” he observed, “men of all parties and all creeds rallied around it with a degree of unanimity and ardent enthusiasm never before witnessed.” This patriotic devotion, he insisted, “prove the capacity of our people for self-government.” Sterrett denounced the northern Copperheads who sought to “subvert the Government” and “give aid and comfort to the enemy.” He urged jurors to punish these “traitors,” observing that the “present is no time for neutrality—much less for active opposition and hostility.”

In 1864, Sterrett helped organize a “grand military and civic procession” to mark the opening of the Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair. In April 1865, he attended a meeting to mourn the death of President Abraham Lincoln. A few days later, Pittsburgh Mayor James Lowry appointed Sterrett to the committee charged with “meet[ing] the remains of our deceased President” as Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Pennsylvania.

After the war, Sterrett apparently devoted little attention to politics. Instead, he served as a trustee for Jefferson College and the Pennsylvania Female College, and in 1871, local Republicans nominated him for a seat on the school district’s board of directors. In 1872, the party nominated him for a second term as “president judge,” and he easily won reelection. One writer declared him “eminently fitted for the Bench…self-contained, courteous, patient and intelligent.” Another writer called him an “able jurist and a clear, close, logical reasoner” whose “opinions are landmarks in the law.”

Sterrett secured a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on February 26, 1877, and he became the state’s Chief Justice in 1893. He retired from the bench in December 1899 and returned to private life. Soon afterward, he developed a carbuncle on his neck that severely “weakened him.” His health rapidly deteriorated, and he died in Philadelphia on January 22, 1901.

Image: James P. Sterrett, from Notable Men of Pittsburgh and Vicinity (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Printing Company, 1901).


James P. Sterrett Declares Copperheads Traitors

Name:Sterrett, James Patterson
Alternative names:
  • Civilian
  • UVA (Union)
Branch of service:
Residence at UVA:Pennsylvania
UVA Begin Year:1847
UVA End Year:1848
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1822-11-07
Birth date certainty:Certain
Birth place:Mifflintown, PA
Death date:1901-01-22
Death place:Philadelphia, PA
Causes of death:
Occupations:Attorney, Judge
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Sterrett, James Pattersonparent ofSterrett, Laura M.
Sterrett, James Pattersonparent ofSterrett, William Patterson
Sterrett, James Pattersonparent ofSterrett, Annie B.
Sterrett, James Pattersonparent ofSterrett, Emma
Sterrett, Jane Isabelwife ofSterrett, James Patterson

1860, 1870, 1880, and 1900 United States Federal Censuses, available from Ancestry.com; Catalogue of the University of Virginia, Session of 1847-48 (Richmond: H. K. Ellyson, 1848); History of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Chicago, IL: A. Warner & Co., 1889); The Centennial Celebration of the Chartering of Jefferson College in 1802 (Philadelphia, PA: George H. Buchanan and Company, 1903); F. Carroll Brewster, “The Honorable James P. Sterrett: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” The Medico-Legal Journal (New York, NY: Medico-Legal Journal, 1894); The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, 1 June 1864, 21 April 1865, 25 November 1871, and 1 June 1872; The Pittsburgh Gazette, 17 April 1865; The Somerset Herald, 13 August 1873; Harrisburg Telegraph, 23 January 1901.