The County Courts in North Carolina prior to 1868

THE COUNTY COURTS IN THE GOVERNANCE OF NORTH CAROLINIANS FROM THE FIRST SETTLERS TO 1868

Paul M. McCain, THE COUNTY COURT IN NORTH CAROLINA BEFORE 1750 [New York: AMS Press, 1970, first edition, Duke University Press. 1954]:

FROM THE FIRST SETTLERS TO 1868, THE COUNTY COURTS HELD AND EXERCISED THE MOST IMPORTANT AUTHORITY, OF ANY POLITICAL BODY IN THE COLONY OR STATE.  PRIOR TO 1868,  IT EXERCISED CONTROL OVER NEARLY EVERY FACET OF LIFE FOR NORTH CAROLINIANS.

NORTH CAROLINA COUNTY COURT TIMELINE,  AS SPECIFIED IN MCCAIN.

1669 -  Lord Proprietors incorporated in the Fundamental Constitutions the subdivision of each palatine county into four precincts; each had their own judicial body, the precinct courts; by March, 1738/39, as they acquired more and more administrative powers, changed their name from “precinct courts” to “county courts.”  [pp. 22 – 23]

1670 -  four precincts exist, located in the northeastern parts of the province [page 23]

1675 – population of the colony of North Carolina about 3,000 [page 23]

1696 – Bath County created.  from the Preface.

1697 – the local court in Perquimans Precinct, in other words, the precinct court that evolved into the county court, was: [1] appointing constables and road overseers; [2] regulating the  “laying out and maintenance of the road and bridges;” and [3] approving the location and erection of a gristmill in 1700.  It expanded its administrative power by acquiring the right to appoint “local officials and to supervise local roads and mills.” [pages 12 – 13]

1722 – Precinct courts continue to expand their authority by acquiring control over taverns, called ordinaries and levying taxes to construct courthouses [page 144]

1729 -  North Carolina becomes a royal colony

1738/39 to 1749 – legislation by the NC Colonial Assembly completes the establishment of the county court system in the several counties; they will retain this acquired organization and authority until the state constitutional convention of 1868; also, the legislative act “increased the authority of the county courts, enhanced their importance and (expanded) the influence of their justices.” Also, the legislative act, for the first time, provided the courts with a prosecuting attorney.  The county courts acquired the authority to:  [1] summon grand juries to indict or prosecute residents for “petty larceny, assault, battery, breaches of the peace, (plus) all misdemeanors and crimes of an inferior nature, except forgery, perjury and mayhem.” [pages 18, 22]; further, [2] they began to appoint some county officials, for example, the authority to appoint the inspector of commodities, the standard keeper and nominate the county sheriff; the county courts were required to build and maintain a jail, a public warehouse and a courthouse;  they [3]  began to levy taxes, [4] establish a system of weights and measure as well as [5]  supervise the operation of ordinaries or taverns and eventually [6] set the price for food and drink; [7]  throughout the eighteenth century the number of justices appointed in counties increased; by 1731, the number of justices on the county court had increased from an average of five to twelve to fourteen; [8] their criminal jurisdiction extended to all felonies and misdemeanors;  It became their business to [9]  repair bridges, [10]  build roads, [11]  maintain jails, [12] establish wages, [13]  license traders, [14]  initiate and supervise special levies for parish needs and [15]  confirm orders issued by justices between court terms; also, it was [16] a court of record for deeds, powers of attorney; [17]  served as a probate court and [18] orphan’s court and [19]  enjoyed administrative control over county finances; EXPLANATION: as the population of North Carolina grew more settlers were distant from the colony or provincial government, thus, the legislature gave the county court additional powers and decentralized political authority in the colony; being a justice of the peace became a common condition, roughly half of the men who served between 1734 and 1750, for men serving in the colony’s lower house of assembly, and all the members of the council and upper houses had been justices of the peace; further, the authority of the justices over taxes increased their capacity to bargain with the governor to increase the powers of the county court.  [pages 22 - 23]

1738/39 - Albemarle and Bath Counties abolished.  [page 22]

1740 – all county courts expanded their administrative power by acquiring the authority to levy annual taxes.  Also, they held the power to recommend to the colony’s governor three names from which he could select the county sheriff whose duties included: [1] executing all court orders; [2] collecting all taxes and [3] supervising all elections. [page 19].

1734 – 1750 - members of the county courts, in the several counties, contributed to enlarging the powers “they held on the courts because half the members of the North Carolina lower house of assembly and all the council, or upper house, except the chief justice, were justices of the peace in the several counties.” [page 146].  Further, the Assembly’s power to tax gave its members a substantial capacity to negotiate with the governors on the court’s powers.

1746 -  Court Act.  Preface

1749 – first printing press in the Colony of North Carolina [Guess, page 10]

1750 - the county court’s control of life in the several counties of North Carolina was extensive, very little escaped their purview, for example, the county court was a place where: [1] a man proved his land claims; [2] all land purchases were probated and bills of sales registered; [3] cattle marks and brands were registered in court minutes; [4] residents wishing to construct a road or bridge petition;  [5] the establishment of a tavern or the construction of a mill required a petition to and approval of the court; [6] businesses were required to use only the weights and measures established by the courts; [7] collection of small debts required suing the debtor in the county court; [8] petitioning the court was required to remedy the failure to perform on the part of an indentured servant; [9] the declaration of taxables and the payment of taxes, local and provincial, was supervised; and [10] men were called before to explain a failure to pay taxes, serve on juries, appear as witnesses or serve on road or bridge construction crews.  [pages 146 to 148]

1750 -  Nineteen North Carolina counties exist, cover the entire seaboard & reaches westward into the Piedmont; the nineteen were:  Currituck, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Chowan, Bertie and Tyrell of the Edenton District; Northampton, Edgecombe and Granville of the Edgecombe District; Hyde, Beaufort, Jonston, Craven and Carteret of the New Bern District; and Onslow, New Hanover, Bladen, Duplin and Anson of the Wilmington District.  [page 23]

1752 -  population of North Carolina about 90,000 [page 23]

1868 - North Carolina State Constitution adopted.

IN THE 200 YEARS PRIOR TO 1868, “THE COUNTY COURT WAS THE PRINCIPAL INSTITUTION OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN NORTH CAROLINA.”  IT WAS THE COUNTY’S CHIEF ADMINISTRATIVE BODY AND ITS COURT OF JUSTICE..  from the Preface of McCain.