Rockingham County, North Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)



Charles Watson-Wentworth,
2nd Marquess of Rockingham


Legislative Act Creating County

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Airports in Rockingham County

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A History of Rockingham County

Edna Cotton Mill - Reidsville, North Carolina - circa 1910

Rockingham County was formed in 1785 from Guilford County. It was named after Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquesss of Rockingham, who was a leader of a party in the British Parliament which advocated American Independence. The first court was held at the home of Adam Tate, at which time the justices were to decide on the location for holding future courts until the court house could be erected. In 1787, an Act was passed authorizing the purchase of land from Robert Galloway & Company, where public buildings were situated, and the community of Wentworth was established. In 1797, an Act was passed suspending construction on the Wentworth court house. In 1798, commissioners were named to establish Wentworth on land given by Robert Galloway for that purpose. The first court was held at Wentworth in May of 1799, and Wentworth has been the county seat ever since.
On December 29, 1785, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that created Rockingham County from the northern half of the Guilford County.

The General Assembly chose to name the new county for Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), who was a leading Whig and Prime Minister of Britain from 1765 to 1766 and again in 1782. His popularity in America was assured when he secured repeal of the hated Stamp Act in 1766 and led the ministry that initiated negotiations to terminate the Revolutionary War. From 1768 to 1781, he had been the leading Parliamentary opponent of both the British government's American policy and the war.

The first session of the new county's quarterly court was convened in February of 1786, at the plantation of Adam Tate, near Eagle Falls on the south side of the Dan River. The justices of the peace of this first court, most of whom were veterans of the Revolutionary War, were James Hunter, Samuel Henderson, George Peay, Hugh Challis, Thomas Henderson, Adam Tate, James Galloway, John Leak, Joshua Smith, Peter O'Neal, Abraham Philips, William Bethell, John May, and John Hunter. County justices were charged with the responsibility of hearing civil suits and minor criminal cases, providing for public buildings, probating decedent's estates, ruling on individual cases of lunacy, caring for orphans and illegitimate children, and maintaining public roads and bridges. Justices were appointed, generally from among the landed slave-owning gentry.

The court established a commission to select a permanent site for the county seat, oversee construction of the public building, and levy a tax for two years to finance construction of two public buildings. The court also appointed a coroner, a ranger, militia officers, patrollers (for the control of slaves), constables, and road overseers. Some of the first county officers were Thomas Henderson, clerk of court; John Hunter, register of deeds; Abraham Philips, surveyor; and Nathaniel Williams, state attorney.

The county justices apparently intended to erect a court house near Eagle Falls, but the proposed location was challenged because it was not close enough to the geographic center of the county. Consequently, the county surveyor was requested to ascertain a new commission and empowered it to locate the county seat "on land of Charles Mitchell on the east side of Big Rock House Creek..."

Ever alert to possible pecuniary gain, Constantine Perkins and Charles Galloway in April of 1787, purchased from Mitchell a 200-acre tract located on Bear Swamp and Rocky branches. The commissioners ultimately selected a portion of this tract, a high ridge just east of Rock House Creek, as the site for the new county seat. On August 28, 1787, Perkins and Galloway conveyed to the county one acre for public use, and during the August session the county authorized the new court house to be occupied during the ensuing court session. The November term of the county court convened in the court house, which was then nearly complete, but not until May of 1788 term was the builder, Richard Sharp, paid and the public buildings formally received by the justices. The present court house is located on or near the site of the original facility, and there is no evidence that the county seat was ever located at any place other than the Adam Tate house near Eagle Falls, where it existed from February of 1786 to August of 1787.

During this early period the county justices dealt with a wide range of social problems. Orphans and illegitimate children were bound to responsible citizens - girls to the age of eighteen and boys to the age of twenty-one. Boys were taught such crafts or trades as blacksmithing, shoemaking, coopering, or carpentry. In addition to learning to read, write, and do arithmetic. Overseers of the poor were first elected in February of 1790.

County justices dispensed punishment for offenses such as petty larceny, and both men and women were sentenced to time in the stocks and public whippings on the bare back. The harshest sentence dispensed in 1788 was thirty-nine lashes. One Sherwood Brock approached the court in February of 1787, with a request that it be recorded that his "left ear [was] bit of [off]... in a affray with Robert Sanders." The request apparently stemmed from the fact that prior to the Revolution criminals had their ears nailed to stocks and the cropped upon release; thus a person with a missing ear might be identified as a formal criminal, and Brock desired to be disassociated from the stigma.

The county court was responsible for the construction and maintenance of public roads, bridges, and ferries and for the licensing and regulation of gristmills and taverns.

The population of Rockingham County grew slowly but steadily from 6,219 (including 1,105 slaves) in 1790 to 10,316 (including 2,114 slaves) in 1810. Then in a backcountry outpost somewhat isolated from the rest of the state, Rockingham was populated mainly by small farmers who owned their own land, which according to Alexander Sneed, endowed them with "an air of Independence, rarely to be met with in Countries where the laboring part of the community are Vessels and depentants on the Rich." Although a plantation aristocracy was beginning to develop in the Dan River Valley, only about one-quarter of the families in the county owned slaves in 1790.

There were no public schools in the county in 1810, but some of the gentry had received classical education at David Caldwell's academy in adjacent Guilford County.

According to Alexander Sneed, in 1810, dancing and horse racing were common amusements during this period. Sneed also alluded to "that vile and abominable practice of card playing &c which is so prevalent at our County Court Houses, Taverns, &c and many other nefarious practices to delude the young and unwary..." Social activities tended to revolve about the taverns, especially at the county seat during court week. Wright Tavern in Wentworth, built in 1816 by William Wright, evolved into a rambling two-story frame dog-trot structure with numerous annexes and outbuildings. It was operated for many years by James Wright and then by his daughter Nannie Wright.

Growth of religious institutions in the late eighteenth century was led by the Baptists, although both the Presbyterians and the Methodists were active in the county. Baptist congregations were established at Matrimony in 1776, Wolf Island in 1777, Lick Fork by 1786, and Sardis in 1801. At this early date Presbyterians were still concentrated in Haw River Valley in two congregations, Speedwell (1759) and Haw River (1762). Methodist circuit riders, including the noted Bishop Francis Asbury, begun traveling into the county during this period. The early Methodist churches in the county were Lowe's, organized in 1796; Salem, established in 1799; and Mount Carmel, founded in 1808.

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