Three counties share the distinction of having been formed by the earliest North Carolina state government. Burke and Caswell counties were authorized by the 1777 General Assembly (the first to convene under the new constitution of 1776) to be laid out effective 1 June 1777. The act concerning Caswell is Chapter XVII, ratified on May 9, while Chapters XVIII and XIX pertain to Camden and Burke counties, respectively, ratified on the same date, but the act creating Caswell appears first in the sessionlaws. Caswell County, therefore, was the first county created by the new State of North Carolina at the first session of its first legislature, and its court convened a month before either of the others.
Laws of North Carolina - 1777
At a General Assembly, begun and held at New Bern, on the Eighth Day of April, in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Seven, and in the First Year of the Independence of the said State: Being the first Session of this Assembly. Richard, Caswell, Esq., Governor.
CHAPTER XVII [Ratified 9 May 1777].
An Act for establishing a new County between Hillsborough and the Virginia Line, by erecting the Northern Part of Orange County into a distinct County, by the Name of Caswell.
I. Whereas the large Extent of the County of Orange renders the Attendance of the inhabitants of the Northern Part to do Public Duties extremely difficult and expensive: For Remedy whereof.
II. Be it Enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and by the Authority of the same. That from and after the First Day of June next, the inhabitants of the County of Orange lying to the North of a Point Twelve Miles due North of Hillsborough, and bounded as follows, to-wit, Beginning at the aforesaid Point, running thence due East to Granville County Line, thence North along Granville County Line to the Virginia Line, thence West along the Virginia Line to Guilford County Line, thence South along Guilford County Line to a Point due West of the Beginning, thence due East to the Beginning, be erected into a distinct County, by the Name of Caswell County.
III. And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That John Butler, John Lee, and James Sanders, Esquires, be, and they are hereby appointed Commissioners, and they are hereby impowered and required to run the said dividing Lines, agreeable to the Directions of this Act; which said Lines when run by the Commissioners, or a Majority of them, shall be by them entered on Record in the Court of each of the said Counties, and shall hereafter be deemed and taken to be the dividing lines between the said Counties of Orange and Caswell; which said Commissioners shall be paid for their Trouble and necessary Expences for running the said Lines, to be paid out of the County Tax.
IV. And for the due Administration of Justice, Be it Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That Justices of the Peace shall be nominated and commissioned and Courts held, in the said County of Caswell, in the same Manner, and with the same Powers and Jurisdiction, as Justices and Courts in the other Counties of this State; and the Courts of the said County of Caswell shall be held on the second Tuesday in June, September, December, and March, in every Year.
V. And be it Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That the said Justices to be appointed for the County of Caswell aforesaid, are hereby directed to meet on the second Tuesday in June next at the House of Thomas Douglass, and take the Oaths appointed for their Qualification; and the Justices for the said County of Caswell, or any Three of them, after being so qualified, shall hold a Court at the Place and Times before appointed; and every of them, at all Times during their Continuance in Office, as well within their Courts as without, shall have and exercise the same Power and Authority, and be subject to the same Forfeitures and Penalties, as other Justices of the Peace within the several Counties in this State are liable to.
VI. And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That a Poll Tax of Two Shillings be laid on each taxable Person in the said County of Caswell for Two Years, for building a Court-House, Prison and Stocks, therein; which Tax shall be collected by the Sheriff of the County aforesaid, at such Times, and in the same Manner as other Taxes are collected, and shall be paid to the Person or Persons who shall be impowered to receive the same; and if any Surplus should arise from the said Tax, that it shall be paid by the said Commissioners to the Court of the said County, to be by them applied towards defraying the contingent Charges of the said County.
VII. And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That nothing herein contained shall be construed to debar the Sheriff of Orange County, as the said County stands undivided, to make Distress for any Taxes, Levies, Fees, or other Dues, that shall be due from the Inhabitants of the said County on the First Day of June next, in the same Maner as by Law the said Sheriff might or could do if the said Counties had remained undivided, and the said Taxes shall be collected and accounted for in the same Manner as if this Act had never been made; any Thing herein contained to the contrary, notwithstanding.
VIII. And to the End that no Action commenced in Orange County be defeated by the Division aforesaid, Be it Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid. That where any Action is already commenced in Orange County, and the Parties or Evidences shall be Inhabitants of Caswell County, all subsequent Process against such Parties or Witnesses shall be directed to be executed by the Sheriff of Caswell County, to the End and final Determination of said Causes; any Law, Usage or Custom, to the contrary, notwithstanding.
IX. And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That James Sanders, William Moore, John Payne, Thomas Harrison, and John Atkinson, Esquires, or a Majority of them, be, and they are hereby appointed Commissioners, to lay off and appoint the Place where the Court House, Prison, and Stocks, for the Use of the said County of Caswell, shall be built, and there to erect, or cause the same to be erected.
X. And be it Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That the Sheriff of the said County of Caswell is hereby impowered and directed to account for and pay the Money by him collected for the Purpose of building the aforesaid Court House, Prison, and Stocks, to the Commissioners aforesaid, after deducting his Commissions for collecting the same.
XI. And be it Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That from and after the passing of this Act, the said County of Caswell shall continue to be considered as Part of the District of Hillsborough.
XII. And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, That the Commissioners, or a Majority of them, herein before appointed, are hereby impowered and directed to employ Workmen to build the Court House, Prison, and Stocks, in the said County, for the Use thereof; and the said Court, and all Causes, Matters, and Things, in the same depending, after such Court House shall be built, shall stand adjourned from the Place where the Court shall have been held to the said Court House.
Until 1868, the counties of North Carolina were governed by the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions composed of justices. In accordance with the act set forth above, three justices constituted a quorum for purposes of conducting the business of the county. The court made up of these justices was to meet four times annually, with sessions beginning "on the second Tuesday in June, September, December, and March, in every Year." Thus, for some ninety years Caswell County was administered in all respects by the Caswell County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. A new North Carolina constitution transferred these powers to a board of county commissioners in 1868.
Pursuant to the act creating Caswell County and the power vested in the governor, North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell appointed the initial Justices of the Caswell County of Pleas and Quarter Sessions: James Saunders; John Payne; Thomas Rice; George Moore; James Scarlet; William Moore; John Atkinson; Robert Parks; James Rice; William Hubbard; George Foote; Jeremiah Poston; John Douglas; Thomas Harrison; Robert Dickens; Stephen Moore; John Moore, Jr., Archibald Murphey; and Jesse Benton.
In accordance with the requirements of the act quoted above, these Justices did indeed meet at the house of Thomas Douglass on Tuesday 10 June 1777 to begin administering the affairs of the newly created county of Caswell. Among their first acts was to appoint one Johe Lea to open court. Once open, the Justices elected William Moore as Clerk of Court, and appointed David Shelton as the first Caswell County Sherrif. The Court instructed Sherrif Shelton "to take all possible care of Prisoners that may be put in his custody as he objects to the sufficiency of the gaol in this county."
Archibald Murphey was elected Register of Deeds. John Payne was appointed Ranger.
The first will probated in Caswell County was that of Edward Bumpass. Others "proved" during this first session were the wills of Robert Barnette, Alexander Gillespie, and John Moore.
Apparently, Caswell County was required to send jurors to the "Court of Oyer" at Hillsborough because Caswell County remained part of the Hillsborough District. This may have been the court of general jurisdiction for the district. Selected as jurors were William Rankin, Gabriel Davy, Major Lea, henry Cobb, Charles Caldwell, James Curry, Montgord McGee [probably McGehee], and Robert Payne.
The Court also appointed guardians for Jane, Elizabeth, Robert, and Andrew Barnette, orphan children of Robert Barnette.
The first commercial act by the Court was to grant "leave" to John Riley to build a mill on Country Line Creek. The first military action was to acknowledge the commission from the North Carolina Governor produced by John Graves, appointing him Captain. This was Captain John Herndon Graves. The Court also recognized that James Saunders had been appointed Colonel by the North Carolina Governor. And, Thomas Neely was recognized as Ensign; George Oldham was recognized as Lieutentna; Major Lea was recognized as Lieutenant [thus becoming Lieutenant Major Lea, which must have caused some confusion]; and Samuel Johnston was recognized as Lieutenant.
Roads also were on the agenda: Wyatt Stubblefield, Oliver Terry, and Abraham Miles were appoint overseer of certain roads. Also, Thomas Barnette was to oversee the road from Hico to Mill's Creek; and Benjamin Hubbard was to oversee the road from Widow Boren's to Country Line [Creek].
While not required by the act that formed Caswell County, it was divided into internal districts, which later evolved into townships. These were: Dunmore, Gloucester, Richmond, St. David's, St. James, St. Lawrence, St. Lukes, and St. Martins. At the first meeting of the Court, Dunmore was renamed Nash
Finally, the Court acknowledged and recorded a deed of gift from Hosea Tapley to John Pryor Tapley and Hosea Tapley.
With these actions, the business of Caswell County was launched in June 1777.
Two references are helpful in understanding the early years of Caswell County:
When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977)
Historical Abstracts of Minutes of Caswell County, North Carolina 1777-1877, Katharine Kerr Kendall (1976)