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History of Chatham County

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This organization manages a very useful website with great information on the county's history. They also manage the Historical Museum located on the Historic County Courthouse in Pittsboro. The museum is usually open three days a week. WEBSITE


 The Historic Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro. Photo by Don Smith.



Source of information and quotations below: Chatham County: 1771-1971, edited by Doris Goerch Horton, Nell Craig Strowd, and Wade Hadley.

Records show that settlers from Europe arrived in the area as early as the mid 1700s, including a Quaker settlement formed in 1751. Early settlers entered from the north through a trading route of the Catawba Indians and from the south through the Cape Fear River Valley.

The Colonial Assembly established Chatham County through legislation introduced on December 5, 1770, which was effective on April 1, 1771. The county was formed from a portion of what was once Orange County. The county was named for the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt, who was a "defender of American rights in the British Parliament."

The legislation forming Chatham County noted that the new county was needed to provide greater access to inhabitants living in the southern part of the county. It was too difficult and expensive for those residents to travel to the Orange County government seat (Hillsborough) to conduct business.

In the early years, the county was governed by justices of the peace, which served the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. The justices were appointed by the state’s General Assembly. For a period of time, the justices also appointed other county officials, which included the sheriff, coroner, constables, clerk, register, county attorney, standard-keeper, entry-taker and surveyor, rangers (which dealt with stray animals), and overseers of roads.

Reconstruction and the new State Constitution of 1868 established a five-member board of county commissioners, divided the county into townships, and radically changed the court system. Justices of the peace were eliminated from county government in 1894.

In 1977, the county adopted the council-manager form of government and appointed the first county manager. We now have five county commissioners elected to four-year staggered terms. They must reside in specific districts but are elected by voters at large.


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