County Records and Genealogical Research

In over 10 miles of stacks, the State Archives of North Carolina maintains original public records of statewide historical value. These records transfer from state agencies and county governments to the State Archives for permanent preservation. The county records typically transfer from Register of Deeds, Superior Courts, Boards of Elections, and Tax Administrators. All county records are arranged into several series, but not all counties have records for every category.

County Records

County records fall into nine categories:

  1. Bonds – Include several different types (e.g. administrators, bastardy, and apprentice) and are generally arranged chronologically.
  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 – These records are usually arranged chronologically or by case file number. County court minutes contain a wealth of information about the community and individuals involved in court cases. Actual transcripts of trials are rare unless 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 – Most deed books and indices remain in the county, although the Archives has microfilm copies. 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, although this was not a requirement. Most North Carolina couples of this time chose the alternative path to marriage, which was to go to church to have the banns called for three successive weeks. A Bible record, newspaper account, or privately-held certificate might be the only proof document that remains. After 1868, North Carolina began requiring certification of marriages at the county level in the form of marriage licenses (typically found at the Archives on microfilm). Vital records include birth and death records, which were not mandated by the state until 1913. Copies of each certificate were then filed locally with the county Register of Deeds and centrally in the state’s Vital Records Office. The Archives has many county indices to vital records on microfilm but not the certificates themselves. The indices are part of 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. Ancestry has made the death certificate microfilm available online through their website. For information about other State Archives materials available online through other sources, visit the Links collection in the North Carolina Digital Collections.
  7. Tax records – Primarily, these records take the form of property tax lists available in the Microfilm reading room.
  8. Wills – The Archives has loose original wills (typically alphabetically arranged) and will books (typically chronological). Some will books remain in the county, but the Archives has microfilm copies available in the Search Room. Dr. Thornton Mitchell undertook a project to index the pre-1900 North Carolina wills in a publication called North Carolina Wills: A Testator Index, 1663-1900. This indexing information is also available in MARS. Please note that some records noted by Dr. Mitchell as being in the county courthouse have since transferred to the Archives. Check our catalog or with a reference archivist for updated information concerning these holdings.
  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, naturalization, coroners’ inquests, lunacy, ferries, schools, mills, and enslaved persons.

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; for information on MARS, or for other information about our online finding aids, go to the topic “Online Finding Aids, and Digital Collections.” 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.

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