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October 25, 2021

Gary Freeze column: Rowan County’s first courthouse

By Gary Freeze

Note: This is the third in a series of articles on county history, based upon the holdings of the Rowan Museum and other local historical organizations.

The fragment of Rowan County’s first official entrance is to be found just inside the front door of the Rowan Museum. The panels and hinges clearly indicate its Colonial era construction. According to tradition, this door was the one that the first county officials used to enter the first makeshift courthouse for the newly formed Rowan County. The house was located several miles to the west of today’s Salisbury, in what the pioneer settlers called “the Irish settlement.” The first meeting of the first officials was June 15, 1753, and they likely met in the same building for the next year.

Rowan had been established to serve as the center of jurisdiction and administration for the western section of the colony of North Carolina. It extended westward as far as the farthest settlement of the emigrant Europeans, which in 1753 was about where Hickory is today. It was named for the acting governor of the day, Matthew Rowan, a Cape Fear businessman. Rowan and other imperial officials soon appointed the first county officers, the justices of the peace — also called magistrates — to conduct the public business.

The first magistrates constituted what was called, back then, the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. This oddly named body referenced the idea that one could “plea” one’s cases. The second part of the phrase indicates how often the court met, once for each season.

The very first case, by the way, was a most interesting one. John Baker, who lived near where Lake Norman is today, “petitioned this court” to be given official recognition that “in a late affray with another person” part of his ear had been bitten off. Baker wanted the public to know that he had not lost part of the ear for any kind of crime he had committed. The court gave Baker a certificate asserting the fact.

The same session of court also appointed constables across the sprawling jurisdiction, approved more than a dozen cattle marks, set up a system of tax collection, approved the first grist mills for public consumption (meaning they would be regulated for quality), set up committees to cut roads through the recently settled back country.

So, the original court was both a judicial as well as an administrative body, approving apprenticeships, property transactions and wills, looking after the affairs of widows and orphans, deciding which “objects of charity” were entitled to welfare, licensing taverns and ferries (and regulating their prices — even the cost of a steak dinner), drawing names for both the petit and grand juries, and adjudicating misdemeanors.

The earliest magistrates included representatives from across the county. They included Squire Boone, the father of Daniel, the famous frontiersman (Daniel was a teenager when the first court met). The Boones lived near today’s Mocksville. Others were Alexander Cathey, whose family had set up one of the first churches; their meeting house would eventually take the name Thyatira Presbyterian Church. There was also Robert Simonton, who built the first house in the vicinity of today’s Statesville.

It should be noted that the original magistrates were appointed for life; this would stay the case for the next century. (Not until 1868 would the office of county commissioner be created.) In Colonial times, only the sheriff, the representatives to the Colonial assembly, and the members of the Anglican vestry — in this case St. Luke’s parish, the official church of the county — were elected.

The original court also decided where the permanent courthouse would be located: where a fork in the road “to John Brandon’s” was near “the place where the Old Waggon Road (crosses) over Grant’s Creek,” in other words, the place where Salisbury would eventually be laid out. They made sure to say that a convenient spring be located nearby. (It was located in the space between today’s courthouse and the Episcopal church.) The court also laid out the specs for the courthouse itself. The plans called for a door “in the end opposite to the bench,” to become the second official door in county history.

The original magistrates for the county likely went back and forth through our founding door for the next year, for it is not until the middle of 1754 that there is evidence for the choice of the “spot appointed for the court house.” The original warrant for public use was for 640 acres, what became the nucleus for Salisbury, and the public commissioners appointed by the court took into 1755 to fully establish the new county seat. (We shall return to this with a new object next month, the original plat for the town.)

Dr. Gary Freeze, a retired Catawba College professor of history, is a volunteer researcher for the Rowan Museum.

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