County Records and Genealogical Research

The State Archives of North Carolina is one of the largest and busiest state archives in the country. On average, about 9,000 patrons visit in a year. Researchers request over 20,000 boxes of original documents, use around 30,000 reels of microfilm, and receives over 6,000 phone calls each year. The Archives maintains custody of over 100 million original documents, over 500,000 reels of microfilm and over a million photographic negatives.

In over 10 miles of stacks, the State Archives of North Carolina maintains the official, original records of the state and its various entities. Housed at the Archives, then, are, among others, state agency and county records. The most used records of those in Archives custody are the county records.

County Records

County records fall into nine categories:

  1. Bonds – Include several different types and are generally arranged by date
  2. Census – Few county copies survive but there are some lists that perform much the same function as the federal census for periods prior to 1790 when the first federal census was taken. The so-called “corn lists” of the period 1714-1716 list colonists who were taxed for provisions during the Tuscarora War. These lists are in the tax lists of the Colonial Court Records (CCR 190) and are for the northeastern coastal counties, which was the settled part of NC at that time. Additionally, a census of sorts was taken in the colony during the years 1741-1752. It has been printed in the Winter, 1966 volume of the Journal of North Carolina Genealogy on pages 1759-1769. This list is actually one of headrights, and indicates the number of white persons in a household (with the exception of part of 1741 when whites and blacks in one household were added together) but serves much the same purpose as a census.
  3. Court records – Pleas and Quarter sessions, Superior – These records are usually arranged chronologically. Though tedious to read, one of the best sources of information on our ancestors is court records, especially county court minutes. They contain a wealth of information. An ancestor should never be isolated from the time period in which he lived. Containing extraordinary details about the community, there is no better way to understand the period than by reading the court minutes. With regard to court cases, which are often very detailed in information about individuals, several things should be realized. The actual transcripts of trials were almost never saved. Only occasionally does a case include such valuable documents and this is more likely to have happened if the case was appealed to a higher court. In addition to the court dockets and minutes, loose civil or criminal action papers should be checked for accompanying documents. Careful attention should be paid to any actions of the court in a particular case. A change of venue indicates that the researcher must begin looking in another county for information. An appeal means the researcher must look in the records of higher court, perhaps even the North Carolina Supreme Court.
  4. Land records – The deed books themselves, for the most part, remain in the county although the Archives has microfilm copies of them and the indices–these records are generally arranged chronologically.
  5. Estate records – Loose estate records, the 508 series are arranged alphabetically, as is the 510 series of guardian records, everything else, such as inventory or account volumes, is arranged chronologically.
  6. Marriage records and Vital Statistics – From 1741-1868 these would be in the form of bonds. A couple was not required to take out a bond and most did not. The alternative was to go to church and get married after the banns had been called three successive weeks. A Bible record, newspaper account, or privately-held certificate might be the only proof document that remains. After 1868 NC began requiring certification of marriages at the county level and, for the most part, those licenses are on microfilm. Vital records include birth and death records and NC did not keep them before 1913. Copies of each certificate were filed with the county and the state. The Archives has many county indices to vital records on microfilm but not the certificates themselves. The indices are part of the county microfilm and provide a book and page number so that the document can be requested from the county register of deeds. The Archives has state copies of death certificates for Oct., 1913-1975. They are available for researchers in the microfilm room of the search room. The indices can be searched using the Soundex code and are available on film. For death certificates after 1975 and all birth certificates check with Vital Records Office or the office of the register of deeds of the county in which the event took place.
  7. Tax records – Often a wide variety of tax records, primarily in the form of lists. Tax laws were quite complex and really need to be studied if a thorough understanding of taxation is to be gained. For the researcher’s benefit all tax records have been listed on cards in the card catalog in the search room, therefore, the researcher will find Treasurer’s and Comptroller’s, Governor’s Office, Secretary of State and General Assembly (formerly called Legislative Papers) tax lists for certain counties in the county records section of the card catalog, along with any county tax lists. Microfilm should be checked for tax records that may not be in the original county records.
  8. Wills – The Archives has loose, original wills, although clerks were supposed to copy the text into a will book as well. The will books, for the most part, remain in the county and the Archives has microfilm copies. All of the pre-1900 wills in the Archives are indexed in a volume by Dr. Thornton Mitchell called North Carolina Wills: A Testator Index, 1663-1900. This book is only an index and does not provide the researcher with a call number for requesting a particular will.
  9. Miscellaneous records – This category refers to a large group of records that do not fall into any of the other categories or only appear in a few counties’ records. They may include records related to elections, ferries, schools, mills, slaves and many others.

For information about what to expect when working with county records in the Search Room, go to the topic “Doing Your Homework Before You Arrive.” Many county records are described and indexed in our online catalog, MARS; for information on MARS, or for other information about our online finding aids, go to the topic “MARS and Online Finding Aids.” Container lists of selected county records are also available on the Archives website; watch the blog for announcements of new container lists and additions to the county records available in the Search Room.

Return to the Introduction
Go on to the next topic: State, Federal and Military Records

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