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Counties and County Boundaries

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NC map with counties outlined

While doing research in NC, it is not only important to know the county where your ancestor resided, but it’s also important to understand about county formation and changes in the county boundary.

Knowing the county is important because original records are either located in that county or at the State Archives of North Carolina. Everything is filed by county name rather than the name of towns. This is especially true if you want to search for land records, court records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage records, wills, estates, tax records – in other words, without the county name, you won’t be able to find much information.

It’s just as important to know the name of the county as it existed during your ancestors’ lives. The records from that time are kept in the county that existed then. Here are a couple of scenarios to illustrate why this is important:

  • John Doe was born 1805 in the part of Lincoln County that became Gaston County and died in 1872 in Gaston County, living his entire life in the same house. In this case, even though he never moved, the county around him did and as a result, there are records in both Lincoln and Gaston County. Records before 1846 would be located in Lincoln County while records beginning in 1846 would be in Gaston County.
  • James Doe migrated to Bladen County, North Carolina in 1743 and died in 1806. He also lived all these years in the same house. He died in Cabarrus County, but there are records in Bladen (created 1734), Anson (1750), Mecklenburg 1762), and Cabarrus Counties (1792).

The scenarios above can be the same in situations where borders between 2 existing counties changed.

Luckily, there are sources that can help patrons find the right county, learn about county formation, and county boundary changes.

If you have a town name for an ancestor, but don’t know the county, an excellent source is the North Carolina Gazetteer. The original book was published in 1968 and compiled by William S. Powell, but was revised and expanded in 2010. We are very fortunate to have online access to this publication! You can view the online edition at NCpedia.

If county formation is what you are looking for, Genealogical Services of GHL has provided a chart online, which gives the names of the counties, the years they were created and the parent counties. In some cases, the counties no longer exist and there is a note about that. There is another information source – Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943 by David Leroy Corbitt. This book goes into much more detail about how each county was formed and any events that led to the formation or who the county was named after. It also gives some general information about any losses to the county. For example, the entry for Glasgow County states that “Part of Glasgow was annexed to Wayne in 1798.” (page 107).

Now that you have found the county name, when the county was formed, and from which county/counties it was formed, you can take a look at boundaries and how they changed over the years. A good source is the book Atlas of Historical County Boundaries: North Carolina. Each county takes up multiple pages. Anson is 4 pages, for example. On each page is a heading giving information about any changes in the county while the rest of the page shows boundary maps.

Come visit us at GHL to look through these sources and learn about county names, formation, and boundary changes.

For those not able to come to the library, take a look at Genealogical Services guidelines for requesting assistance via email or postal mail.


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