How Orange County Came To Be
My name is Richard Ellington, and I am a local history nut! I was born and raised in Orange County, and all my family lines have lived in this area for over 200 years. I am currently President of the Chapel Hill Historical Society, so you can see that I am serious about my passion.
For my first Chapelboro column on Orange County and local history, I want to talk about the county itself and how it came to be what it is now, geographically speaking. Just like any good political division, it was not left alone after it was first created. It was cut up and divided several times. I refer to the original area as “Olde Orange.” My ancestral families have come from all the counties created out of the original Orange County.
Orange County was created in 1752 from land that had previously been parts of Granville, Johnston and Bladen counties. This area was originally part of the Granville Grants. Of course, this was when North Carolina was a royal colony. When it was created, Orange County was almost ten times its current size. Orange County was located at the western edge of “civilized” North Carolina, at the time. The only county west of Orange was Rowan. At that time, Rowan really had no western border. Some maps from that period show it extending west, all the way to the Pacific.
By the 1760s, Orange County was the most populous in the colony. A number of the eastern counties and politicians were concerned that there was no permanent capital location for the colony. They worried that Hillsborough might become the capital because it had become the de facto capital of the then-western region of the colony. In 1766, the legislature passed an act that set the capital location at New Bern. The legislature and governor were to be located there permanently. The eastern portion of the state wanted to maintain its control over governmental affairs.
Since then, Orange County has been subdivided several times to create other counties. This was done when areas of “Olde Orange” became populous enough to demand their own local government center. In those times, citizens had to walk or ride all the way to Hillsborough to transact any business with the county government. If you lived in what is now Chatham County or Person County in the late 1700s, it was a very long walk or ride to the county seat of Hillsborough to record a deed or register a birth.
The biggest travel problem was the number of waterways that travelers had to cross. At that time, Orange County contained sections of the Rocky, Eno, Little, Neuse, Deep, Haw, Flat, Hyco, Dan and Cape Fear rivers. There were also a number of large streams that had to be crossed. Crossing these waterways typically meant finding a ford location that could vary depending upon weather conditions. Remember, there were almost no bridges anywhere in the county at that time.
In 1761, a small piece of Orange County was ceded back to Johnston County. What is now Chatham County was cut off Orange County in 1770. The portion of the original Chatham tract south of the Deep River was cut off in 1907 and joined with territory cut off from Moore County to create Lee County. Lee was one of the last counties created in North Carolina. Wake County was also created in 1770 from territory taken from Orange, Johnston and Bladen counties.
The western edge of Orange was taken in 1770 to create the eastern portion of Guilford County, along with some territory from Rowan County. Guilford County was later subdivided into Randolph County in 1779 and Rockingham County in 1785.
Caswell County was formed from Orange in 1771, and this portion was later subdivided into Caswell and Person counties in 1792.
Alamance County was created in 1849 with territory carved from the then-western portion of Orange County. Finally, Durham County was created in 1881 from the eastern half of Orange County and a small piece of territory from Wake County. This left the Orange County we know today, with an area of 398 square miles.
Orange County has changed quite a lot in its 250-plus year history. In upcoming columns, I hope to provide you some of the interesting stories about Orange County’s history. From the earliest colonial times to the latest trends, Orange County has been and still is a leading example of a great place to live. We need to keep this history alive and build on it.