North Carolina Courthouse records change extensively from county to county in both level of quality and volume. You will find different kinds of court records that are most likely to possess information related for your genealogical research below.
North Carolina Court Records
COURT OF PLEAS AND QUARTER SESSIONS (CA. 1670–1868) – This was the basic county court of North Carolina. Therefore, it was sometimes called the precinct court or county court or before 1739, or the inferior court after 1806 .
The county court heard minor civil matters, usually debt-related, by the justices of the peace. It also handled misdemeanors, probate, levying and expending of local taxes, matters dealing with public works (buildings, roads, bridges, ferries, and mills), summoning and selection of jurors, and many other local matters. In 1868, the county superior court assumed these responsibilities and the court of pleas and quarter sessions was abolished.
Although minutes from the county court provide valuable genealogical information, they are usually unindexed. You can fill in gaps in the local records by using files from the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
GENERAL COURT (1670–1754) – This court was known by different names: the court of grand council, the grand court, and the Court of Albemarle. The General Court heard appeals from the county court. It also heard original cases for all criminal cases punishable by loss of life or limb. Sometimes the General Court would hear large estate probate, especially if it consisted of land in several counties. In 1739, three district courts were added, and the district courts replaced the General Court in 1754.
DISTRICT COURTS (1754–1806) – District courts, which replaced the General Court in 1754, presided over all equity cases. The ourts did not function during the period of 1771 to 1778, but after they resumed, the county courts assumed probate matters. In 1806 Superior Courts in each county replaced the district courts.
SUPERIOR COURT (1806–PRESENT) – Beginning in 1806, there was a Superior Court in each county that shared responsibilities with the county courts. These courts usually presided over serious criminal cases or civil cases involving large amounts of money. When the county courts were abolished in 1868, they assumed all county matters.
COURT OF CHANCERY (1663–1776) – The court of chancery consisted of the governor and council. While it operated, equity cases could only be heard in the Court of Chancery. This included division of land between partners, enforcement of contracts, and other non-criminal cases. The district courts took over equity cases in 1782, and the equity system was completely abolished in 1868 by the new state constitution.
COURT OF CONFERENCE (1799–1805) AND SUPREME COURT OF NORTH CAROLINA (1805–PRESENT) – This is the highest court in the state. The court used to be served by the district superior court judges; however, in 1818, Supreme Court justices began being chosen by election. In cases that were appealed to the State Supreme Court before the twentieth century, the entire case file was usually transferred to the higher court.
Most original court records from before 1900 are at The North Carolina State Archives, and the Family History Library has copies on microfilm. See Also Research In Court Records.
- North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909 (familysearch.org) Images of original case files from the North Carolina State Supreme Court. This collection is being published as images become available.
- North Carolina, County Records, 1833-1970 (familysearch.org) Collection of various county records including, wills, guardianships, estates, voter registration books, coroner’s inquests, etc. It was filmed at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh. This collection is being published as images become available.
- North Carolina Court Record Books (amazon.com)
North Carolina Land Records
In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, North Carolina still had a large amount of unsettled land. This drew immigrants from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Some of the land that Virginia granted to its citizens was actually over the North Carolina border, which was not clear until the border was surveyed by Colonel William Byrd of Westover.
It was not difficult to patent land in North Carolina. A person desiring land would submit an application, or land entry, to the land office. A warrant was then issued by the land officer, who could have been the secretary of state (1669–1776), the agents of Earl Granville (1748–76), or the county entry taker (1778–present). The land was then surveyed according to the warrant and a plat was sketched. This plat was filed in the land office until 1777. After that time, the plat would be recorded by the register of deeds. Finally, the land patent was issued and recorded. The North Carolina State Archives has indexes for land grants and related matters. If you write to the archives, include in your request the full name of the grantee and the county in which the grant was made. The archive’s website gives specific instructions for requesting information by mail, fax or online, at .
MARS is a database of the North Carolina State Archives. It can be searched online to access the index for the Granville grants and other miscellaneous papers: www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us. There is a card catalog of grants of deeds in the Search Room. This collection is also on microfilm at the FHL on 522 reels.
During the proprietary period (1663–1729) the headright system was used by the Lords Proprietors grant land.
Virginia first established the standard headright at fifty acres per person, and the Carolinas adopted this standard around 1697. Before this, land was granted on a sliding scale of one hundred acres to heads of families and six acres to women servants whose terms had expired. Those who did not have headrights could purchase land from the governor in tracts of 640 acres or less. Those with headrights had to be in North Carolina for two years before they could sell their right. This was done to keep people in the colony. The North Carolina State Archives and the FHL have the proprietary land patents on microfilm.
North Carolina became a royal colony when seven of the proprietary shares were sold to King George II in 1729. The only Lord Proprietor who did not sell his share was John Carteret, second Earl of Granville. The headright system continued, but in 1741 it was modified to again allow one hundred acres for the head-of- household. The first land office was opened by the Crown in 1735, six years after the Crown purchased the province.
The upper half of present-day North Carolina was called The Granville District. It was partially surveyed at the time of its creation in 1744 for John Carteret, second Earl Granville. Although the Earl owned all unsettled lands, he could not govern them. He never visited the colony, but appointed agents to represent him in North Carolina, to grant land, collect rents, and conduct other business. In 1748, the Granville land office opened.
Libraries with genealogical collections throughout the country carry publications of these grants. The land that was formerly owned by the Crown and Earl Granville was granted to the state of North Carolina after the revolutionary war.
Up to 640 acres of land that was unsettled could be claimed by a settler. For a fee of two pounds ten shillings per hundred acres, he could claim another hundred acres for his wife and each minor child. If he claimed more than the stipulated allotment, he would have to pay an additional land cost of five pounds per hundred acres. The North Carolina State Archives and the FHL have most of the state grants on microfilm, along with Tennessee grants to Revolutionary War veterans.
If a land sale was between two individuals, the county would usually record the transaction in a county deed boos. Most of these books are partially indexed. However, most counties in North Carolina also have general indexes to grantees and grantors to make research easier. Land descriptions follow the “metes and bounds” survey system. The county register of deeds can issue copies of deeds, but the North Carolina State Archives and the FHL have most county records for North Carolina on microfilm. Many early North Carolina deed books have also been abstracted and published. Libraries with genealogical collections will usually carry copies of these publications. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
- BLM Land Records (glorecords.blm.gov)
- North Carolina Land Grants in South Carolina (search.ancestry.com)
- North Carolina Land Record Books (amazon.com)
North Carolina Probate Records
Probate records include both wills and estate records. Estate records can often be found in “loose papers” recorded by the court, which can include documents such as inventories, divisions of estates, sales of real or personal property, and other documents. Sometimes these records are found in bound books that are recorded under various titles. The county will normally have these books, but the North Carolina State Archives and the FHL also have many of the records on microfilm. North Carolina State Archives may have surviving original wills and loose estate papers for each county as well. These are organized by county, then alphabetically by the decedents surname and may be examined in the Search Room of the archives .
Before 1760, the secretary of state filed North Carolina Wills. After 1760, they were filed by counties. Jurisdiction over probate matters was assumed by the county court from 1760 to 1868. After 1868, the clerk of the superior court in each county has handled probate. The superior court in each county may have some early probate records, records from before 1868 are at North Carolina State Archives. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research
- North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970 (familysearch.org) Includes probate matters recorded at county courthouses in North Carolina. Includes wills, guardianships and estate records in bound volumes. Although the coverage dates include a larger span of years, most of the records in this collection are from 1800-1930.
- North Carolina, Estate Files, 1663-1917 (familysearch.org) Index and images of estate files from North Carolina counties. The originals were filmed at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History. The estate records contain loose papers relating to the settlement of estates including such matters as provision for heirs including minor children as well as distribution of funds, land and property, including slaves. This project was indexed in partnership with the North Carolina Genealogical Society and Library.
- North Carolina Will Abstracts, 1760-1800 (search.ancestry.com) First settled by Virginian emigrants, North Carolina was the destination of immigrants from many locations throughout the colonial period. This database is a collection of will abstracts in the state between 1760 and 1800. Each entry contains the year of filing and name of the person filing the will. Also provided are family members mentioned in the will including, but not limited to, spouse and children. With over 10,000 entries, it contains nearly 50,000 names. For researchers of colonial North Carolina ancestors this can be a valuable collection of records.
- North Carolina Wills and Inventories (search.ancestry.com) This collection of wills and inventories was compiled by J. Bryan Grime in the office of the Secretary of State of North Carolina and was published in 1912. This database is not meant to be a comprehensive listing of all wills housed at the office of the Secretary of State, but as the compiler states, “In selecting the wills for printing it was intended to choose those that reflected most clearly the varied phases of domestic life of the colony.”
- North Carolina Will Abstracts, 1660-1790 (search.ancestry.com) Throughout the colonial period North Carolina was the destination of immigrants from many locations. This database is a collection of will abstracts in the state between 1660 and 1790. Each entry contains the person filing the will, county of filing, date of will and date of probate. Also provided is the entire text of the will abstract, often containing many family members including, but not limited to, spouse and children. It contains over 2800 entries and about 15,000 names.
- Abstract of North Carolina Wills
North Carolina Tax Records
North Carolina used the existing tax systems to collect revenue from its citizens. In the years before 1777, taxes were paid by taxables, tithables, and polls in the equivalent of a head tax. Taxables were defined in 1715 as free males that were sixteen years old and over and slaves of either sex who were twelve years or older. A revision in 1749 maintained white males sixteen and over, and included “negroes,” “mulattoes,” “mustees,” or “octoroons” (offspring of a white and a “quadroon”), and all persons of mixed blood to the fourth generation, both male and female, who were twelve years of age and older.
In 1777, the state began changing the criteria of different taxes. For example, the poll tax was limited to freeman who did not have a minimum property amount. Soldiers were given an exemption, the minimum age was changed to twenty-one, and the tax was limited to men who weren’t married. The frequent changes were settled by 1784, and taxes were levied on freemen and male servants age twenty-one and over and all slaves of both sexes between twelve and fifty. Free males over the age of fifty were given a poll tax exemption in 1801, and this age was lowered to forty-five in 1817. The state adopted a constitutional amendment in 1835 that set the age range for free males at twenty-one to forty-five, and the range for slaves from twelve to fifty. Still a new state constitution in 1868 changed the criteria to all males from twenty-one to fifty years old. In 1970, North Carolina abolished poll taxes completely. North Carolina did not always have property taxes. From 1715 through 1722 a property tax was levied then abolished. It was reinstated in 1777 and is still in effect today.
Compared to other stated, North Carolina has one of the most complete tax lists, dating from the beginning of the 1700’s to the present. The North Carolina State Archives and the Family History Library have microfilmed copies of some of these lists. Additionally, North Carolina’s periodicals contain many transcriptions. See Also Guide to U.S. Tax Records Research
- North Carolina Taxpayers, 1701-1786 (search.ancestry.com) This work lists the names of the taxpayers resident in about half of the North Carolina counties formed before 1786. Most of the data came from tax lists microfilmed at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, and they are supplemented with names from the periodical North Carolina Genealogy, which includes persons owning headrights and landrights. The names of the taxpayers are listed alphabetically with the county of residence and date, and in some cases additional data is supplied. In all there are about 28,000 names. The following are the counties covered: Anson, Beaufort, Bertie, Bladen, Brunswick, Bute, Caswell, Chowan, Craven, Cumberland, Currituck, Dobbs, Edgecombe, Franklin-Warren-Vance, Gates, Granville, New Hanover, Northampton, Onslow, Orange, Pasquatank, Perquimans, Pitt, Randolph, Rowan, Tryon, and Tyrrell.
- North Carolina Taxpayers, 1679-1790. Vol. 2 (search.ancestry.com) This book continues the work begun in North Carolina Taxpayers, 1701-1786. With the exception of a few lists which were identified as redundant, it includes all the remaining North Carolina tax lists prior to the first federal census of 1790. The two volumes can therefore be used in place of an earlier census to identify individuals in relation to a specific time and place.
The taxpayers’ names are listed in a single alphabetical sequence. In all cases they are listed by county of residence and date, and in some cases additional data is supplied. Counting repeat entries for those whose names appear in more than one list, this volume has the names of about 29,000 taxpayers. The following are the counties covered: Albemarle, Beaufort, Bertie, Bladen, Brunswick, Bute, Camden, Carteret, Caswell, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dobbs, Duplin, Gates, Granville, Halifax, Hertford, Johnston, Jones, Martin, Montgomery, Nash, New Bern District, Northampton, Onslow, Orange, Pasquatank, Perquimans, Pitt, Richmond, Rowan, Rutherford, Sampson, Surry, Tyrrell, Warren, Wayne, and Wilkes.
- North Carolina Tax Record Books (amazon.com)
North Carolina County & City Government Links
North Carolina contains 100 counties. Each county is the local level of government within its borders. The links in the table below link to county and city government offices and is limited to government-maintained websites. If you know of a North Carolina county that has an official government web site but is not linked, or if the link is in error, please contact us so we may edit our database. North Carolina State Government is located in Raleigh.