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Names of many North Carolina residents may be found in civil court records of actions such as disputes over property or settlement of estates. Criminal court records have information of people involved in confrontations, thefts, or destruction of property. These records may give a person’s age, residence, occupation, and family relationships. Friends and neighbors may have given depositions as witnesses.
Most court records from the 1800s are at the State Archives, and microfilm copies are available at the Family History Library. Court records from the twentieth century minutes are still in the county. Many of the loose papers associated with the court cases were not transcribed into the minute books, but were either copied into other volumes or filed in the courthouse.
Colonial and State Courts
Until 1868 the North Carolina legal procedures were a combination of English common-law principles and more rigid forms of litigation. Some of the early courts include:
1670–1755: General Court. This court was known by several names. It decided civil, probate, and headright (land grant) matters. Surviving records of the General Court are in the Colonial Court Records Series at the North Carolina State Archives.
1670: Court of Chancerywas an equity court and most cases dealt with disputes over land contracts and appeals from other courts of law. The few surviving records are in the North Carolina State Archives.
1755–1759: Supreme Courts of Justice, Oyer and Terminer, and General Gaol Delivery. When the population had grown to the point that a central court with circuit courts was no longer feasible, the colony was divided into five districts with equal and independent courts. They continued to hear cases heard by the General Court as well as property disputes, appeals from county courts, breaches of the peace, and other matters. The few records that have survived from the courts of this period are in the North Carolina State Archives.
District Superior Courts. When the King and his Privy Council disapproved of the supreme court justice system, the District Superior Court system was created. The colony used the same forms, similar responsibilities, and the same district arrangement. In 1777 when the state adopted its first constitution, the General Assembly was reinstated and six districts created. Three of the districts fell within the current boundaries of the state of Tennessee. Records from those three districts remain in the Tennessee county court houses. Remaining records are in the North Carolina State Archives.
1800–1939: Court of Conference, later called the Supreme Court was created to reinterpret colonial legal practices and handle unsettled cases. They also handled new cases. Records between 1937 and 1939 are not indexed. Some of the others are indexed and on microfilm.
Colonial court records in the Family History Library include:
Cain, Robert J. Records of the Executive Council 1664–1775. Raleigh, North Carolina: Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1984–. (Family History Library book 975.6 N2c vols.7–9 second series 6.) Records for 1664–1775 are transcribed in these three volumes. There is an index in each volume, and the collection includes petitions, land records, complaints, probates, criminal court proceedings, claims, shipping, and other records.
North Carolina Higher-Court Records. Raleigh, North Carolina: State Department of Archives and History, 1968–1981. (Family History Library book 975.6 N2c, vols. 2–6 second series.) These volumes contain transcriptions for 1670–1730. Each volume is indexed and includes transcriptions of suits, debts, probates, trials of crimes, bills, depositions, land records, and other records.
Various colonial court records (1693–1727) such as the General Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery and Precinct Courts have been published in volumes 1 and 2 of the set below. Volume 22 has records of Rowan County Court of Oyer for 1777. These various records are in William L. Saunders’ Colonial Records of North Carolina cited fully in the "Public Records" section.
Pre-1868 County courts, sometimes called the County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, handled both civil and criminal cases. Minutes contain such matters as estate, land, illegitimacy, apprenticeships, bonds, certificates granting freedom to slaves, and more. Many of the original volumes have been lost or severely damaged. Most surviving volumes are in the state archives. In addition to having microfilms of many county court records, the library also has published abstracts many of the pre-1868 minute books. These publications are indexed.
1806–present: Superior Courts of Law were established in each county in 1806. Though the superior courts acted concurrently with the Court of Common Pleas, they handled more serious or complex civil and criminal cases. In 1868 the Superior Courts of Law merged with the Superior Court of Equity.
1806–1868: Superior Courts of Equity were also created in 1806. Their purpose was to deal with fairness issues. Most cases related to probate and land matters, and records generally listed heirs. In 1868 they merged with the Superior Court of Law.
Confederate States Court
1861–1865: Confederate District Court. The court was held in two districts: the Cape Fear District and the Pamlico District. Its records pertain to estates, property, and the effects of alien enemies. The records have been microfilmed by the National Archives, and the films are at the Family History Library:
Confederate States of America. District Court (Cape Fear District, North Carolina). Confederate Papers of the United StatesDistrict Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, 1861–1865. National Archives Microfilm Publications, M436. Washington, DC: National Archives, 1963. (Family History Library film 1025188.) These records concern the seizing of the estates, property, and personal effects of families that supported the Union. The case files are in chronological order, and the county of residence is usually given. There is no index on the film.
Confederate States of America. District Court. Court Records, 1861–1864. National Archives Microfilm Publications, M1430. Washington, DC: National Archives, 1986. (Family History Library film 1617562 items 1– 6.) These court records include minute books and admiralty final records from the Cape Fear Division, held at Wilmington until February 1862, when the court then moved to Salisbury. There is no index on this film.
The National Archives Regional Center at East Point, Georgia, has U.S. Circuit and District Court records, 1789–1958. For an in-depth discussion and description of records at that center, see:
Bennett, William Doub. Catalogue, North Carolina Federal Court Records [at the] National Archives, Atlanta Branch. Raleigh, North Carolina: W.D. Bennett, 1987. (Family History Library book 975.6 A3b.)
Records from North Carolina federal courts for the Eastern District are at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. Some of these records have been microfilmed and can be found in the Family History Library Catalog by using a Place Search of the under:
NORTH CAROLINA- COURT RECORDS
For a comprehensive explanation of all North Carolina courts, including a summary chart showing the names of the courts and the time periods they existed, see Leary and Stirewalt’s North Carolina Research in the "For Further Reading" section in this outline.
For a discussion of North Carolina court records and procedures, see also:
Stevenson, George, and Ruby D. Arnold. North Carolina Courts of Law and Equity Prior to 1868 in North Carolina. Archives Information Circular, no. 9 (March 1997). Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Division of Archives and History, 1997. (Family History Library book 975.6 B4a no.9.)
Court records can be found in the Family History Library Catalog by using a Place Search under:
NORTH CAROLINA- COURT RECORDS
NORTH CAROLINA, [COUNTY]- COURT RECORDS
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