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A Sestercentennial Stumper: When Was Mecklenburg County Really Founded?
 James H. Williams
 James H. Williams
Consider a few watershed events in American history:

The signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Man first walks on the moon, July 20, 1969. Mecklenburg County’s first act of governance on February 26, 1763.

Here’s a quick test of your knowledge of these celebrated dates: Which one of the three is accurate? Are you certain?

There’s only one answer for sure. When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, it was broadcast around the world on live television on July 20, 1969. And although Americans are rightfully proud to imagine the Founding Fathers gathered for the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it’s likely that it didn’t exactly happen that way; Independence from Great Britain was actually declared on July 2, adopted by Congress on July 4, and not signed until August of that year.

So what about Feb. 26, 1763?

That day is fairly significant in the long history of Mecklenburg County as a governed community, as it’s held to be when the first Mecklenburg County Court met at the home of the first British American settler in Mecklenburg, Thomas Spratt, only about two miles south of today’s center city on Randolph Road. Five years later, Charlotte was incorporated and a permanent courthouse was constructed.

We have no written records from that particular Feb. 26, but there is a historical marker near where the house was said to be, and some books and online resources that point to the date as the right one. But is it?

Let’s fill in what we do know about Mecklenburg first. Migrants from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia gradually moved into the land between the Yadkin and Catawba rivers in the 1750s, displacing the indigenous Catawba people and establishing farms in what was then part of the western section of Anson County.

To make any sort of legal record or business, it was a day’s travel to the nearest courthouse. So, in 1762, the inhabitants sought and won permission from the Colonial Assembly to be recognized as their own county, Mecklenburg, named in honor of King George III's wife, German-born Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The original county was four times the size of modern Mecklenburg because it included the future Cabarrus, Union, Gaston and Lincoln counties.

As written in the Colonial Records that do still exist, Anson County was then divided, effective “from and after the First Day of February” and the new portion “shall be thence forth … called by the Name of Mecklenburg.”

That same law required “…that a Court for the said County of Mecklenburg, shall constantly be held by the Justices thereof … upon the Third Tuesdays in January, April, July, and October, in every Year … ”

So if Mecklenburg County was officially formed on Feb. 1, 1763, as local historian James H. Williams points out, the first court date for the Mecklenburg County Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions fell on the third Tuesday almost three months later -- on April 19, 1763, to be specific. Adding to the improbability of Feb. 26, 1763 being the actual day, Williams adds, it was a Saturday and not (even then) a day on which court business was typically conducted.

Williams’ case gets stronger when he takes a look at the source of Feb. 26, 1763 as the “actual” date in a detailed, compelling article he researched recently.

“Up until this investigation people tended to accept at face value a statement in the book History of Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte written by D. A. Tompkins in 1903,” Williams writes. “On page 30 [Tompkins] wrote:

‘And when, on the 26th of February, 1763, Moses Alexander, as High Sheriff, and Robert Harris, as Clerk of the Court and Register of Deeds, took charge of their respective offices, the history of the county may be said to have begun.’

“We have searched through other histories of Mecklenburg to see what their authors have had to say,” Williams adds. “None of the 19th century histories state a specific date and all 20th century histories that say anything about it do not cite any source except Tompkins.”

Are the modern historians correct? You can weigh the evidence and ponder whether your time for official celebration is Feb. 26 or April 19, or join the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners to honor all of 2013 by proclaiming it to be a full year of celebration in recognition of our 250th birthday, or “sestercentennial.”

All dates aside, there is little doubt that those founding fathers of our community wanted very much the same thing for all residents as countless leaders have since, and to this day -- that Mecklenburg County be a good place to live, work, and play.

Do you have a Mecklenburg County story to tell? Chances are you do. We want to hear about it at www.mecklenburg250.org.
 



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