A list of names can be, well, simply a list of names. The list can also provide keys that unlock a rich history. Let’s explore the roots of a few N.C. counties.
Many of today’s N.C. counties were once part of another county. As more and more people moved to N.C., there were more and more complaints concerning traveling long distances to a county courthouse to do official business. As a result, many counties splintered off from another one.
Today, N.C. has 100 counties. They were all once a part of a few N.C. counties. For instance, Bladen County, the “Mother of Counties,” covered a vast area; more than half of North Carolina’s counties — 55 — were formed from the original Bladen County.
Most N.C. counties are named after very important and influential people. Here are some examples.
Harnett County was part of Cumberland County and was formed in 1855. It is named after one of the leading Patriot commanders from North Carolina during the Revolutionary War: Cornelius Harnett. It should be no surprise, then, that the county seat, Lillington, is named after another leading patriot: Alexander Lillington.
Wake County, as we know it, was established in 1771. Lord William Tryon was the royal governor, and the county was named after his wife, Margaret Wake. Tryon Road in Cary and Tryon Street in Charlotte undoubtedly are named after the royal governor, who in 1771 ordered state militia to fire on Piedmont farmers in an Alamance field. After subduing the Regulator Rebellion, Tryon went to New York. There, he played an important role opposing the patriots.
Formed out of Beaufort County, Pitt County was named after William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, in 1760. Pitt played a key and vigorous role in defeating the French during the Seven Years War (or what Americans call the French and Indian War.) Historians regard this conflict (1754-1763) as the globe’s first world war. The reader will not be surprised to learn that Chatham County (1771) is also named after William Pitt. He later opposed British actions against America during the Revolutionary War.
In 1828, Macon County was formed. Any Southeastern location named Macon is most likely named after Nathaniel Macon. The Warren countian was a national political figure and a U.S. Speaker of the House (1801-07). Many of his contemporaries argued that Macon’s politics were more Jeffersonian than Thomas Jefferson.
A pronounced regionalism existed. So efforts were made to unite diverse North Carolinians within an artificial political boundary. One effort was to name a western location after famous eastern North Carolinians. Examples would be Macon County and Murphy in Cherokee County after Archibald Murphey, a leading proponent of public education and infrastructure improvement during antebellum North Carolina.
Burke County (1777) is named for Thomas Burke. He is an interesting yet much forgotten founder of the United States. He was a member of the Continental Congress (1777-1781). There, Burke played a key role guaranteeing powers to states that were not granted to the national government under the Articles of Confederation. His handiwork was incorporated into what became the 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
In 1781, Burke became governor of North Carolina. The notorious Tory David Fanning and his men captured the governor. In Charleston, S.C., Burke was later paroled and found his way back to North Carolina.
Place names can prompt the uncovering of a rich history. William Powell revealed that in his invaluable The North Carolina Gazatteer.
Although his Gazatteer is full of statewide information, it is incomplete. Local historians need to compile a gazetteer for their respective counties. The endeavor is needed. And, it would be worthwhile.