Search For Your Ancestors in Historical Documents




State of North Carolina
Court Records Research

North Carolina Court records cover a wide range of genealogy topics that can help you in your research, including land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalizations. Since North Carolina court records cover such a wide variety of subjects, they can help you in many different ways. For example, they may help you locate ancestors' residences, determine occupations, find financial information, establish citizenship status, or clarify relationships between people. It all depends on the type of court records that your ancestors" names appear in. For Definitions of all court trems see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.

North Carolina Court Records

Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions - (ca. 1670 to 1868): This court was the basic court system in early North Carolina. It was sometimes known as either the precinct court or the county court prior to 1739. From 1806 onward it was sometimes known as the inferior court.

Justices of the peace presided over the county courts. They handled matters of debt, probate matters, misdemeanors, public works matters, juror selection, tax matters, and assorted other local issues. The constitution of 1868 git rid if the court of pleas and quarter sessions. At that time, the county superior court gained jurisdiction over all matters that had been handled by that court. Most of the minutes from the county courts have not been indexed, but they are worth searching, since they are full of genealogical information. Case files from the Supreme Court of North Carolina can be useful for filling in gaps in records kept on the local level.

General Court - (1670-1754) - The general court, sometimes called the court of grand council, the grand court, and the Court of Albemarle, was the court of appeals for the county court. Additionally, the general court was the court of origin in all criminal cases punishable by loss of life or limb. The court often handled probate of large estates or estates that included land in several counties. Three district courts were added to the general court in 1739, and the court was replaced in 1754 by district courts .

District Courts - (1754 to 1806): These courts were also known as district superior courts at various times. In 1754 they took the place of the general court system. However, they didn't gain jurisdiction over cases involving equity until 1782. District courts were non-functional between the years of 1771 and 1778. In 1806 they were completely replaced by county superior courts.

Superior Court - (1806 to Present): Each county got its own superior court in 1806. That court shared jurisdiction with the county court until county courts were dissolved in 1868. The superior courts in each county generally presided over criminal cases and those involving large amounts of money.

Court of Chancery - (1663 to 1776): The court of chancery was made up of a council and the governor. It presided over all cases of equity while it was in existence. Those cases included contract enforcements, as well as land division cases, and other cases that did not involve criminal matters. The legislature of North Carolina gave district courts equity case jurisdiction in 1782. The constitution of 1868 dissolved the equity case system completely.

Court of Conference - (1799-1805) and and Supreme Court of North Carolina - (1805 to Present): The highest level of the North Carolina judicial system is the supreme court. District superior court judges originally created it. However, as of 1818, elections were held to appoint justices to the state's supreme court. Prior to 1900 entire case files were often moved to the supreme court whenever a case was appealed.

Most of the original court records from before 1900 can be found at the North Carolina State Archives. Copies of many records on microfilm can also be found at the FHL.

North Carolina Land Records

In the 1700s thousands of Maryland and Virginia settlers came to North Carolina because of land availability. There were several instances of Virginia giving North Carolina land to its residents before North Carolina's northern border was fully surveyed by a resident of Westover named Colonel William Byrd.

The North Carolina land patent process was fairly simple. Applicants simply needed to file a land entry (application) with the land office in their area. At that point, the land office would create a warrant for the land. From 1669 to 1776 the Secretary of State was also a land officer, as were Earl Granville's agents from 1748 to 1776. From 1778 to the present the county entry taker has also been a land officer.

Once a warrant was drawn up, it was given to a surveyor. The surveyor then took a survey of the land, sketching a map (plat) of the land in question. The land office then kept the plat on file. Although, that duty was taken over by each county's register of deeds in 1777. After that the land patent was created. The North Carolina State Archives holds indexes to land grants and related documents. Inquiries should include the county where the grant was issued, as well as the grantee's full name. The North Carolina State Archives can also provide information on how to inquire about land grant information.

The North Carolina State Archives' MARS database lists Granville grants and papers that can be useful to researchers. The card catalog in its Search Room also lists information on deeds and grants. A collection of microfilm consisting of 522 reels of deed and grant information can be found at the FHL as well.

North Carolina's proprietary period lasted from 1663 to 1729. During that time land grants were distributed by the Lords Proprietor via headrights. Around 1697 North Carolina began giving a standard headright of 50 acres per person. Prior to that time 100 acres was given to each family's head of household. However, when terms expired women servants were only given 6 acres. Those who had obtained free land with their headrights or those who had no headrights could buy tracts of up to 640 acres from the governor. In order to keep North Carolina populated a rule was put in place that each person claiming headrights had to live in North Carolina for at least 2 years before selling their land. The FHL and the North Carolina State Archives hold land patent records from proprietary times.

North Carolina became a royal colony in 1729, when 7 out of 8 of the original proprietary shares were purchased by King George II. The only one who did not sell his share was the second Earl of Granville, John Carteret.

The headright system was kept in place by the Crown. However, in 1741 it was modified so that heads of each household again gained 100 acres of land. In 1735 the first Crown land office opened. Then, in 1741, Great Britain bought the province outright.

The upper portion of what is now North Carolina was once known as the Granville District. In 1744 a surveyor working for John Cataret did a partial survey of the area. John Cataret was the second Earl Granville. He owned all of the land that was not settled in the area. However, he had no governing powers. He never even visited the region. However, he did send agents to the area to distribute land, collect rent, and perform other tasks on his behalf. In 1748 the Granville land office was opened for that purpose.

When the Revolutionary War ended, land that was previously owned by Earl Granville or Great Britain was distributed by North Carolina itself. Records of those transactions can be found in many different genealogical societies and collections across the state.

As much as 640 acres could be bought by any male settlers. Each one could also buy 100 more acres if he was married and an additional 100 acres for every under-age child that he had. The cost was two pounds and ten shillings for every 100-acre allotment. Any extra land bought beyond those amounts had to be purchased at a price of 5 pounds for each 100-acre allotment. The FHL and the North Carolina State Archive have most of those land grant records available on microfilm. Records of grants made to Revolutionary War veterans in Tennessee are also included.

Whenever an individual sold their land to another individual, county deed books were usually used to record those events. Partial indexes to most of the deed books exist. However, it is easier for researchers to start by searching the general grantor and grantee indexes. The "metes and bounds" system was used to survey North Carolina lands. The county register of deeds can supply copies of deeds and related records. The FHL and the North Carolina State Archives also have copies of many of those deeds and records available on microfilm. Genealogical societies and libraries across the state may also have copies of deeds on file.

North Carolina Probate Records

There are usually two types of probate records kept in North Carolina. Those are estate records and wills. Estate records may also come with "loose papers" that have to do with the estate in question. Those could include: Inventories, Estate Divisions, Real and Person Property Sale Records

Some of those so-called "loose papers" can be found in bound books, many of which are still on file in the county where the papers were originally filed. However, both the FHL and the North Carolina State Archives have microfilmed copies of some of those records on file. Some original documents may also be found at the North Carolina State Archives. Existing papers are filed according to the decedent's surname. Researchers can access them in the Search Room at the archives.

Wills from before 1760 were filed at the secretary of state's office. After that point they were recorded by individual county offices. From 1760 to 1868 the county clerk had probate file jurisdiction. The office of the clerk of the superior court may be able to provide copies of some probate records from early times. However, the original records are all being preserved at the North Carolina State Archives, and copies can be obtained there as well.

North Carolina Tax Records

The civil administration of North Carolina understood that governments needed steady income in order to function. Therefore, they chose to levy the people. People who were subject to paying taxes before 1777 were known by many names, including: Taxables, Tithables, Polls

They were essentially responsible for making head tax payments. In 1715 taxables consisted of any males who were free and over the age of 16. as well as any slaves of either gender over the age of 12. In 1749 the law was changed to include "octoroons" (offspring of a white and a "quadroon"), as well as "mustees," "negroes," "mulattoes," and all persons over age 12 who were of fourth generation mixed blood.

From 1749 to 1777 the tax rules remained more or less the same. Then they began to change. For example, freemen who didn't own a certain amount of property were required to pay a poll tax. However, soldiers were exempt from doing so. Also, the minimum age was changed from 16 to 21. Also, at certain points only unmarried men were taxed.

In 1784 male servants and freemen over the age of 21 were taxed, as were all slaves from age 12 to 50 of either gender. An 1801 law led to free men not having to pay a poll tax if they were over the age of 50. That age of exemption was dropped to 45 in 1817. In 1835 the constitution was amended and the age limits changed again. At that time the tax applied to free males between 21 and 45, as well a slaves between 12 and 50. In 1868 that changed to all males between 21 and 50 having to pay a tax. In 1970 the entire system of paying poll taxes was dissolved. From 1715 to the end of 1722 North Carolina residents also had to pay property taxes. However, property taxes were not paid again until 1777. They have continuously been paid ever since., , Unlike many other states, the tax lists for North Carolina are largely still extant today. They go back as far as the beginning of the 1700s. Both the FHL and the North Carolina State Archives have copies of many of the tax lists on microfilm. Many of North Carolina's periodicals have also published transcribed tax lists.

None of North Carolina's colonial tax records have survived. Surviving North Carolina tax records begin on a county basis in the late 1780s.

North Carolina Immigration Records

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