Early records of many North Carolina counties were lost in fires, but most of the minutes of the Wilkes Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (Wilkes County Court) survived as a record of life here from the county’s formation in 1778 through the late 1860s.
These three-member governing bodies had broad administrative and judicial authority and met four times a year. The members were initially appointed by the governor and later by the legislature.
This system of local governance, adopted from England, ended with adoption of a new state constitution as part of Reconstruction in 1868. North Carolina’s current county commissioner form of local government began with the new constitution, modeled after Ohio’s constitution.
Minutes of the Wilkes County Court session of Aug. 5, 1812, illustrate how records have been lost. They say Wilkes Sheriff William Hampton made an oath in open court stating he lost his saddle bags in the Yadkin River and that they contained a number of county and Superior Court records.
The minutes reflect the Wilkes County Court’s many responsibilities. Especially in earlier years, it often appointed men to identify road routes between specified points, ordered certain men (or their “hands”) living nearby to build them and issued similar directives for maintenance.
For example, the county court appointed Joseph Elledge overseer of the road from Warrior Creek to Beaver Creek “and all hands convenient thereon” to work on the road when the court met on the second day of its first session on March 3, 1778.
At the Aug. 4, 1814, session, Nathaniel Vannoy and Isaiah Case reported to the court that they had reviewed the Turnpike Road from the South Fork of Lewis Fork Road to the Virginia line at Stone Mountain and found it in “good repairs as the nature of the country will admit.”
Meeting at John Brown’s home near where Browns Ford Road now crosses the Yadkin River west of Wilkesboro, the first county court named men to the positions of sheriff, clerk, (deed) entry taker, ranger, coroner, constable, surveyor and justices of the peace.
The court often acted on behalf of the welfare of children and the poor.
During the court’s second session, held at Mulberry Fields Meeting House (in today’s downtown Wilkesboro) on June 2, 1778, George Parke (Parks) entered court on charges “of begetting a female bastard child on a certain Jane Rainey.” Parks “produced Benjamin Cleveland and Samuel Bickard (Becknell) as securities for maintenance of the said child and to indemnify the county of Wilks (sic),” with 100 pounds as bond.
The minutes are full of similar instances of men being held responsible for supporting children of women who weren’t their wives.
The court often ordered that orphans be “bound” to named men, taught a trade or to read and write and be given clothes, a horse, amounts of money or other items when “freed.” In other cases, children were ordered taken away from whomever they lived with due to poor care.
The court also declared people insolvent and released them from having to pay taxes. It appointed wardens of the poor, who used revenue from a “poor tax” to assist the destitute. It also conducted inquisitions of lunacy.
There were several cases in which the court fined men and women after they were convicted of adultery in jury trials.
Among other matters unusual by today’s standards, it authorized “allowances” for widows, handled registration of livestock marks, paid “bounties” for wolf “scalps,” approved gates on public roads and issued licenses for mills, taverns and peddlers. The court made it official when slave owners emancipated slaves.
In addition to appointing local officials and men to build and maintain public roads, the court levied and collected taxes, acknowledged and probated deeds and wills, handled litigation involving small amounts of money, appointed jurors for minor civil and criminal actions, issued fines and other punishment (including ordering time in the stocks), appointed judges for elections and oversaw the construction and maintenance of public buildings. The jail’s condition was often controversial, which was often the case before the current jail was built.
John A. McGeachy, a historian and retired reference librarian at North Carolina State University, has transcribed these minutes for the period 1798-1844 in six volumes. Indexed by names of individuals, places and topics, these volumes were recently published by Lulu Press Inc. and are available from Lulu and McGeachy.
The late Mrs. W.O. Absher of North Wilkesboro, transcribed the Wilkes County Court minutes for the period March 1778 to May 1797 in the mid-1970s. Southern Historical Press reprinted these in two volumes with four indexes in 1988.
James Williams also transcribed the minutes for March 1778 to May 1797 in a single, indexed volume, with a second edition released in 2014. This is available as an e-book from Lulu.
Otherwise, the original Wilkes County Court minutes can be viewed on microfilm where they are stored by the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh.