The first permanent settlement by Europeans in North Carolina was made in the territory around the Albemarle Sound and the rivers which empty into it. Although not officially sanctioned until after the second charter was made to the eight Lords Proprietors in 1663, there is plenty of evidence that "illegals" from southern Virginia had settled this area in the 1650s.
In 1665, the Lords Proprietors realized that there was already a fairly-well established group of permanent settlers in this area and they requested that King Charles II modify their charter to include these already-settled lands. The charter of 1665 added another 30 minutes (1/2 of a degree) northward to Carolina increasing the northern boundary to 36º - 30' N.
Even though the Lords Proprietors had ample authority and power, the government set up under their direction was weak and confusion was the order of the day. Immediately after the first charter of 1663, they sent instructions to put the government in place, but with the charter of 1665 they also sent over the Concessions and Agreements, which significantly altered the original orders. Four years later, the Lords Proprietors issued their Fundamental Constitutions in 1669, which provided for a very elaborate and somewhat idealistic form of government, with landed gentry and a definite class system. The settlers that were already in the Albemarle region essentially ignored it.
The Fundamental Constitutions provided for separate and distinct counties or government. Each county was to have legislative, judicial, and administrative functions. However, the real reason for the desire to establish separate counties was that each Lord Proprietor would be given gigantic amounts of land for each county created, and the Lords Proprietors also planned to provide large tracts in each county to their desired landed gentry - the Landgraves, Caciques, and Baronets.
Prior to the issuance of the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669, in 1664, there were three counties erected in the entire colony of Carolana - Albemare, Clarendon, and Craven. Each was very loosely defined and none were ever surveyed or even semi-accurately laid out. Albemarle County encompassed all lands that were already settled by the early Virginians along the Albemarle Sound. Clarendon County was defined as the area around the Cape Fear River in which Sir John Yeamans established the colony known as Charles Town (in what is present-day Brunswick County). And, Craven County was to include all lands south of the undefined Clarendon County to what is present-day northern Florida.
Yeaman's Charles Town was wiped out by a major hurricane in August of 1667 and no efforts were made to reconstitute it. Besides, those who had settled in the area were not too keen on the location, so those who survived the hurricane and abandoned the town were all too glad to be back in "civilization" around the Virginia-Albemarle region afterwards. Therefore, Clarendon County was abolished and the settling along the Cape Fear River was set back by another fifty years due to the "bad press."
Craven County eventually ended up describing almost all of present-day South Carolina, but it too was later abolished in that state after the colony was officially split into two.
The Lords Proprietors were slow to realize that their new colony was not growing as quickly as they had hoped. The leaders appointed were, for the most part, ill-equipped to administer or govern the ardently-independent settlers under their purview. Most tried and most failed. A few were actually quite good at their jobs, but these were the ones who realized that the independent settlers were more correct in their views than were the Lords Proprietors.
Partially due to the terrain and the geography of the region, the Albemarle region was not suited for large-scale farming or plantations that were so prominent in the Ashley River area to the south. The few settlers simply wanted cheap land, as much as they could get, and to be left alone to do what they wanted to do. This did not include grouping into towns, much less cities. So, the Albemarle region did not grow very quickly nor very densely. From 1663 to 1696, there were only four "precincts" in the Albemarle region - Chowan, Currituck, Pasquotank, and Perquimans - all established in 1668, all renamed once around 1680, then given back their original names in the mid-1680s.
In 1696, settlement had commenced in earnest on the south side of the Albemarle Sound such that a "new" county was quickly needed to accommodate the pressing needs of all the new settlers - and - Bath County was created. This served the people for almost a decade, but by 1705, Bath County was divided into three new "precincts" - Archdale, Pamtecough, and Wickham, each given two representatives in the colonial General Assembly. In 1712, Archdale was renamed to Craven Precinct, Pametcough was renamed to Beaufort Precinct, and Wickham was renamed to Hyde Precinct.
By now, settlement began to increase considerably. The town of Bath was established in 1705, and New Bern quickly followed in 1710. The Lords Proprietors and the more-astute governors realized that they needed to provide some incentives to get more settlers to follow, but the Tuscarora War (1711-1715) slowed immigration down for a while.
In 1722, an Act was passed authorizing a majority of the justices of the peace of the seven precincts to levy taxes, raise money, purchase land, and have court houses constructed for each precinct. This Act stated that the court house for Chowan Precinct should be build in Edenton (named thusly in that year - previously known as the town at Queen Anne's), the court house for Perquimans Precinct should be built at Johathan Phelp's Point, at the mouth of the narrows, the court house for Currituck Precinct should be build on the land of William Peyner, next to the land of William Parker, or at Parker's as the justices should decide, the court house for Hyde and Beaufort Precincts should be built at the town of Bath, the court house of Craven Precinct should be built at New Bern, the court house for Carteret Precinct should be built at Beaufort Town, and the court house for the newly-created Bertie Precinct (established in 1722 by this Act) should be built at some convenient place at "Ahotskey" or where the justices should select.
In 1732, a controversy developed in the colony relative to the constitutional authority to erect new precincts. Royal Governor George Burrington and his Executive Council erected Onslow Precinct on November 23, 1731, Edgecombe Precinct on May 16, 1732, and Bladen Precinct on October 31, 1732 - but - John B. Ashe and Nathaniel Rice, two members of the Executive Council, did not concur in that decision. Neither did the lower house - the House of Burgesses - believe that the governor and his Executive Council had the power to erect these new precincts. The lower house, therefore, did not permit the representatives from these precincts to take their seats in the legislature until the law creating them was passed by the entire colonial General Assembly.
By 1739, the population of North Carolina had become so extensive that the Provost Marshal could not adequately serve the entire colony. Therefore, the legislature, in March of 1739, passed an Act changing the "precincts" to "counties" and established a sheriff for each county to perform the duties of the Provost Marshal. Thus, the term "county" has been used for the subdivisions of North Carolina ever since. Other sources assert that this was really accomplished four years earlier in 1735.
After the American Revolution, the newly-formed United States government requested that North Carolina give up its western lands for the possible creation of a new state. After much deliberation, the newly-formed North Carolina legislature passed an Act ceding these western lands to the United States - with the provision that if the new federal government did not begin administering the lands within two years, then these lands would revert back to North Carolina. This is exactly what happened - with an interesting twist.
Between 1776 and 1788, North Carolina created seven western counties - Washington, Sullivan, Davidson, Greene, Hawkins, Sumner, and Tennessee - four of which were "hijacked" by independent-minded individuals who attempted to create a new state, without the approval of either North Carolina nor the United States government, and the State of Franklin was created in 1784. In 1788, Franklin ceased to exist, after much arm-twisting and gnashing of teeth on all sides.
On December 22, 1789, the North Carolina legislature again ceded the western counties to the United States government, and on February 25, 1790, a deed was prepared transferring all seven counties, which the United States Congress finally accepted on April 2, 1790. After this date, these seven counties were the property of the new Territory South of the Ohio River (aka the Southwest Terriroty), and in 1796, they officially became part of the new state of Tennessee.
In 1851, Hooper County was authorized to be established from Robeson and Richmond counties, provided the people of the area voted in favor of this new county. The vote was overwhelmingly against, so this county never got off the drawing board.
In 1859, Lillington County was authorized to be established from a portion of New Hanover County, again provided the people voted in favor of the new county. Again, they did not, so this county also never got off the drawing board.
In 1977, the people of Smithville Township petitioned the legislature for the creation of a new county to be named Smithville County and formed from a large portion of Brunswick County, but the legislature denied their petition and the matter never went further.
From time to time, disputes arose over boundary lines and many times the legislature was called upon to enact laws remedying the conditions that caused these disputes. In order to remedy this situation, the state legislature, in 1837, passed a law empowering the justices of the peace of the various counties to settle disputes over boundary lines without recourse to additional laws. Yet, this Act did not prevent the General Assembly from passing laws, from time to time, in a effort to settle disputes, and to establishe and to mark, or remark, certain county lines which had never been adequately surveyed, or for various reasons.
Between 1663 and 1911, North Carolina created 123 counties (or precincts, which later were called counties), of which 100 remain to this date.
Eight were ceded to Tennessee in 1790:
Washington District, a year later named and redefined as Washington County, Sullivan, Davidson, Greene, Hawkins, Sumner, and Tennessee counties.
Three were simply abolished:
Albemarle County (1664-1739), Clarendon County (1664-1667), and, Bath County (1696-1739).
Eleven were abolished and the existing areas renamed:
Albemarle Precinct (1680-1685) was renamed to Pasquotank Precinct;
Berkeley Precinct (1680-1685) was renamed to Perquimans Precinct;
Carteret Precinct (1680-1685) was renamed to Currituck Precinct;
Shaftesbury Precinct (1680-1685), Archdale Precinct (1705-1712) was renamed to Craven Precinct;
Pamtecough Precinct (1705-1712) was renamed to Beaufort Precinct;
Wickham Precinct (1705-1712) was renamed to Hyde Precinct;
Dobbs County (1758-1791) - the name was abolished and the area was split into Glasgow County and Lenoir County;
Bute County (1764-1779) - the name was abolished and the area was split into Franklin County and Warren County;
Tryon County (1768-1779) - the name was abolished and the area was split into Lincoln County and Rutherford County;
Glasgow County - the name was abolished and the area was renamed to Greene County.
Click Here to get an understanding of how County Government evolved from colonial times to the present.