Albemarle County


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Early History of Formation of North Carolina Counties

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 North Carolina.
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 Bath County.
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 Carolina.
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 prerogatives.
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



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