The first permanent settlement in North Carolina
was made in the territory around the Albemarle Sound and the rivers
which empty into it. It is not certain when the first people came as
settlers to this section, but a brief discussion below will be
suggestive of the information on the subject.
As it is generally known, the Raleigh colonization projects were
failures so far as permanent settlements were concerned.
The efforts at colonization in Virginia were more successful and from
this settlement came the first people to North Carolina.
The Virginians soon developed an interest in the Albemarle Sound region.
Many adventurers, traders, explorers, and trappers ventured into this
territory and on returning to Virginia gave glowing accounts of what
they found there. These adventurers reported fertile bottom lands, which
all colonists wished, as it was a mark of prominence and wealth to have
large holdings of rich and productive lands. John Pory, secretary of
Virginia, who in 1622 explored lands along the Chowan River, made the
first report on a journey there. Edward Bland, a Virginian merchant, led
an exploring and trading expedition among the Indians who lived along
the Chowan, Meherrin, and Roanoke rivers. About this time, Roger Green,
a clergyman of Nansemond County, also took a leading part in exploring
the region south of Chowan River. These people on returning reported
that tobacco grew very large, timber of all sorts grew abundantly, there
were great stores of fish, pipes had been seen tipped with silver, the
Indians wore copper plates about their necks, and there was no winter
and very little cold in the region.
These reports naturally created interest and settlers moved down from
Virginia. These people came, not for religious freedom, but for economic
considerations. Settlers wanted rich lands. Selection of large areas of
rich lands on navigable streams in Virginia was growing more difficult
all the time, while in the south people could select almost any kind or
any amount of land they wanted. Settlers could acquire lands on easier
terms and have larger ranges for their stocks. These factors had their
influence among the settlers. Thomas Woodward, in 1665, declared that
people came to the colony for land only.
Robert Lawrence, in 1707, among other things, said that in 1661 he
seated a plantation on the southwest side of Chowan River where he lived
for seven years. Names of others who early settled there were Thomas
Relfe, Samuel Pricklove, Caleb Calloway, George Catchmaid, John Jenkins,
John Harvey, Thomas Jarvis, and George Durant. We, however, know little
about these settlers. It has been reported that they were substantial
planters. Many of these men became leaders in their respective
communities and in the governmental machinery set up for the colony.
They aided, in a material way, in establishing the real foundation of
By 1663,these settlements had attracted attention in England.
A group of English courtiers thought that they saw in this region an
opportunity to colonize the country and thereby acquire power and large
returns in wealth. They sought a grant from the king. Charles II, in
1663, complied with the request by issuing his charter to the eight
Lords Proprietors, by which he created Carolina. This colony, according
to the charter, embraced the territory lying between thirty-one and
thirty-six degrees, north latitude, and extending westward from the
Atlantic Ocean to the “South Seas.” When it was learned that these
boundaries did not include all the settlements already planted in the
Albemarle region, Charles issued a second charter dated June 30,
1665.This charter extended the boundaries thirty minutes northward and
two degrees southward.
Publication of the granting of the charter attracted attention, and
inquiries were made about terms to settle in the new colony. After many
inquiries, the Lords Proprietors set about to establish in 1663 the
first government, which was confined to Albemarle County and which
embraced a region forty miles square. This territory was northeast of
Chowan River. In 1664, the Lords Proprietors commissioned William
Drummond governor of this region. We, however, know little about
Drummond’s success as an administrator.
Immediately after the organization of the government had become
effective, the General Assembly turned its attention to land terms
offered by the Lords Proprietors. Thus, the Assembly petitioned the
Lords Proprietors to grant, for the colony, the same terms to the
settlers as the landholders in Virginia had been granted. After due
consideration the Proprietors issued a document which became known as
the Great Deed of Grant and which gave the Assembly what it asked for in
the petition. A liberal policy thus granted, the Assembly adopted a
program to encourage immigration.
Since Albemarle had been settled with a good many people, a better form
of government was necessary. The form of government had followed the
precedent Elizabeth set up in her charter to Sir Walter Raleigh and the
similar precedent set up by Charles I and his grant to Sir Robert Heath.
The model was that of the county Palatine of Durham, which idea dated to
William the Conqueror. This form placed in charge of the Palatine an
executive upon whom was conferred many powers and privileges. The
executive was supreme in both civil and military affairs. He appointed
all judges. He exercised admiralty jurisdiction over the coast line and
rivers. He granted pardons, raised and equipped military forces, and
incorporated towns and cities. He determined the taxes and how they
should be raised.
Charles II turned to this form of government for the colony. He gave the
Lords Proprietors the rights, jurisdiction, privileges, prerogatives,
royalties, and franchises which were the same as those of the Bishop of
Durham in England. The object of the Lords Proprietors was to plant
colonies in the territory within their grant. They declared, however,
that their motives were to propagate the Christian faith and to enlarge
the empire. To accomplish these objectives, full power and authority
Were given them to create and fill offices, erect counties and other
subdivisions for administrative purposes, to incorporate towns and
cities, to establish courts, to commute punishments, to pardon offenses,
to collect customs, fees, and taxes, to have the advowson of churches,
to grant titles of honor, to raise and maintain the militia, and to do
whatever was necessary for governing free peoples.
Even though the Lords Proprietors had ample authority and power, the
government set up under their direction was weak and confusion
developed. In 1663, they sent instructions to set up the government, but
two years later this form of government gave Way to the scheme
designated as the Concessions of 1665.
The Concessions, however, were supplanted on July 21, 1669, by the
Fundamental Constitutions which were written by John Locke and which
were signed on that date by the Lords Proprietors. These Fundamental
Constitutions provided for an elaborate system of government, but it was
soon apparent that the colony was too sparsely settled to establish all
the features provided for in the Constitutions. Therefore, the Lords
Proprietors instructed the governor to put in operation as much of the
Constitutions as possible.
The Fundamental Constitutions provided for separate and distinct
counties or governments. Each county or government was to have
legislative, judicial, and administrative functions. Only two counties
were ever permanently organized. They were Albemarle, which embraced the
territory lying north and northwest of Albemarle Sound, and Craven,
which embraced the territory south of Cape Romaine.
It is true, however, that Clarendon, which embraced the territory around
the mouth of the Cape Fear River, was organized in 1664, but was
abandoned in 1667. Therefore, since Albemarle was the only permanent
settlement in North Carolina, we shall omit any further discussion of
Clarendon and Craven counties at this time.
Samuel Stephens in October, 1667, was appointed governor of Albemarle
County. In the instructions which the Lords Proprietors sent him, he was
directed to select twelve men at the most or six at the least to be his
council, with four of the twelve or three of the six to constitute a
quorum for the transaction of business. He was also to have the freemen
to make choice of twelve representatives from among themselves who, on
being chosen, were to join the governor and his council in forming the
General Assembly which was authorized and impowered to enact laws for
the regulation of the province.
As stated above, this form of government was modified by the Fundamental
Constitutions.“ These Constitutions provided that the province be
divided into counties, each of which was to have four precincts. These
precincts were to elect five representatives each, who together with the
governor and five councilmen were to form the General Assembly. The
Lords Proprietors agreed to this form of government and in January,
1670, issued instructions to Samuel Stephens in which they directed him
to "...issue out Writts to the Fower Precincts of the County of
Albemarle requiring each of them to elect five freeholders to be their
representatives to whom the five persons chosen by us being added and
who, for the present represent the Nobility are to be your Assembly..."
The Lords Proprietors saw the necessity for modifications of the
Constitutions due to the small number of people in the province. They,
in 1670, directed Governor Stephens "to govern according to the
limitations and instructions...observing what can at present be put in
practice of our Fundamental Constitutions and forme of Government..."
From this date the government of the province grew according to the
circumstances and needs of the people. From 1670 to 1696 there were four
precincts, but by the latter year people had settled on the south side
of the Albemarle Sound extending the settlements until they reached
beyond the boundary of Albemarle, when the governor and council erected
They allowed Bath two representatives in the General Assembly of
Albemarle. In 1705, Bath was divided into three precincts:
Wickham, Archdale, and Pamptecough, each with two representatives in the
General Assembly. The names of these precincts were, about 1712, changed
to Hyde, Craven, and Beaufort, respectively. In 1722, Carteret and
Bertie were formed. The province was spreading southward and westward.
As stated above there were two separate and distinct permanent
settlements in Carolina. The Albemarle, which later became North
Carolina, is the one under discussion here, and the other, on the Ashley
and Cooper rivers, later became South Carolina. Generally, the governor
of North Carolina appointed deputy governors to serve in his place. On
December 7, 1710, North Carolina and South Carolina were made separate
provinces, each with a governor. On May 9, 1712, Edward Hyde became
governor of North Carolina.
North Carolina, at the time of separation, had seven precincts,
four of which had twenty representatives in the General Assembly, while
three precincts had only six representatives. From this date precincts
(changed to counties in 1739) were formed either by the governor and his
council or by the General Assembly. It is interesting to study the
growth and development of the counties and their county seats in North
In 1722, an act was passed authorizing a majority of the justices of the
peace of the several precincts to levy taxes, raise money, purchase
land, and have erected courthouses for the precincts. This act stated
that "...there had been no care taken by preceeding Assemblies to settle
the several Precinct Courts to any fixed or Certain Place, but have
always hitherto been kept and held at Private Houses, where they have
been, and are liable to be removed, at the Pleasure of the person or
persons owning such Houses, to the great Annoyance of the Majestrates
and people..." Therefore, it was enacted that the courthouse for Chowan
Precinct should be built at Edenton, the courthouse for Perquimans
should be built at Jonathan Felp’s Point, at the mouth of the narrows,
the courthouse for Currituck should be built on the land of William
Peyner, next to the land of William Parker, or at Parker’s as the
justices should decide, the courthouse for Hyde and Beaufort should be
built at Bath, the courthouse for Craven should be built at New Bern,
the courthouse for Carteret should be built at Beaufort Town, and the
courthouse for Bertie should be built at some convenient place at "Ahotskey"
or where the justices should select.
The act also provided that if the justices of peace of the several
precincts failed or refused to carry out the provisions of this act, the
governor or commander in chief was clothed with the power to appoint
persons to levy the tax, purchase the land and build the courthouses.
Many counties had difficulties over their county seats. Often the local
officers failed to comply with the law in locating a place for the
county seat, or the necessary money was never levied and collected for
the construction of the courthouse, or the citizens in the counties were
never satisfied with the location selected by the commissioners
appointed for that purpose. In many instances courts were held in
private homes for the use of which the owners were paid fees. When new
counties were erected, courthouses had to be erected for them. This
often made it necessary to build new courthouses for the old county as
well as the new county due to the fact that the old county seat was not
then in the center of the county. Of course many courthouses were
burned. One was destroyed by a Windstorm.
All of these factors made it difficult for the county to preserve
properly its official records, many of which were destroyed and are not
now available for consultation.
In 1732, a controversy developed in the colony relative to the
constitutional authority to erect new precincts. George Burrington and
his council erected Onslow Precinct, November 23, 1731, Edgecombe
Precinct, May 16, 1732, and Bladen Precinct, October 31, 1732, but John
B. Ashe and Nathaniel Rice, two members of the council, did not concur
in that action.
Neither did the lower house of the Assembly believe that the governor
and council had the power to erect these precincts.
The lower house, therefore, did not always allow the representatives
from these precincts to take their seats in the legislative body until
the law creating them was passed by the General Assembly. On April 20,
1733, Ashe and Rice, as the spokesmen for the opposition to this averred
constitutional power of erecting new precincts, took the issue to the
Board of Trade.
Burrington, in December, 1733, filed an answer to their protest. Both
sides wrote long and detailed arguments in support of their contentions.
Both sides gave the history of erecting new precincts and showed by
example that these precincts were erected by the duly constituted
authority and in the legal and acceptable manner which had always been
the practice of the colony. In 1734, the house of commons concurred in
the erection of Bladen and Onslow counties and also in 1741 in the
erection of Edgecombe County.
This controversy caused the Board of Trade, on March 14, 1754, to make a
report to the crown in which it was stated that the attorney and
solicitor general was of the opinion that to erect towns and counties by
provincial laws and to give them the power of sending representatives to
the General Assembly was improper and inconsistent with the crown’s
Thus the crown, following this opinion, sent instructions to Arthur
Dobbs on April 8, 1754, by which not only was the erection of these
precincts dissolved, but the following counties were also dissolved:
Bertie erected in 1722, Tyrrell erected in 1729, and Duplin and Anson
erected in 1750. The next January, 1755, the crown directed Dobbs to
allow the re-enactment of the laws establishing these precincts as the
repeal would cause many inconveniences and much detriment to the
inhabitants. Therefore, precincts or counties were established from time
to time as the population of the colony increased without further
controversy or interference by the crown.
By 1739, the population in the territory embraced within the confines of
Albemarle County had become so extensive that the provost marshal could
not adequately serve the colony. Therefore, the Legislature in March,
1739, passed an act changing the precincts to counties and established a
sheriff for each county to perform the duties of the provost marshal.
Thus the term county has been used for the subdivisions of North
Carolina since that date.
From "The Formation of the North Carolina
Counties, 1663-1943" by David L. Corbitt