In April of 1753 a petition bearing 348 names from the inhabitants of the western section of the Colony of North Carolina requested that a new county be formed. This county sectioned out from Anson included all land that lay in the Granville Tract north to the Virginia line and was essentially boundless to the west extending to the ‘South Sea’ (Pacific Ocean) or more practically to the Mississippi. Lord Granville’s land was north of the current Rowan County southern boundary and at its eastern end included two-thirds of what is now Guilford County. Not until 1840 did the county reach its present configuration, so for 87 years Rowan was one of the largest and most important counties in North Carolina.
These early residents of Rowan had come primarily from Pennsylvania and Virginia down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley, past Pilot Mountain into the fertile land near the Yadkin River. They were primarily of Scotch-Irish or German extraction. The Scotch-Irish settled primarily in the west and north western sections of the county beginning in the 1740s. The German settlers arrived a few years later establishing communities in the south eastern portion of the county. There were fewer African-Americans in the western portion of North Carolina than the east, but both slave and free blacks appear in the records from the 1750’s on. The primary benefit of the county was to provide a location for a court house nearer than that of Anson to those colonists in the Western part of the state. Our court records begin in June of 1753.
Rowan, the western frontier of the thriving American colony in the 1740’s and 50’s, continued to play an important roll as the nation developed. Rowan and its neighboring county Mecklenburg, with their strong Scotch-Irish Presbyterian bend towards independence and liberty, became the “hornets nest” of the rebellious southern colonies in the War for Independence. The Rowan Resolves declaring the citizens’ support of the town of Boston in its bid against the injustices of the British Crown was the beginning of the Revolution for North Carolina.
Renowned scholars, preachers, patriots and statesmen began careers here. Elizabeth Maxwell Steel restored hope to General Nathanael Greene by supplying money to the Patriot Cause. She was also the mother of John Steele, who was to become the first comptroller of the United States appointed by George Washington and retained by the next two presidents. Spruce Macay, attorney and judge, taught William R. Davie and Andrew Jackson both instrumental in the early years of our republic. Judge Richard Henderson, founder of the Transylvania Company and a colonial judge, along with, Daniel Boone, began their explorations of the western lands that would become Tennessee and Kentucky right here in Rowan around the year 1775. Samuel Eusebius McCorkle, Presbyterian minister and educator was president and teacher of the Salisbury Academy in the early 1790’s.
Judge Richard Henderson, founder of the Transylvania Company, along with Daniel Boone, began their explorations of the western lands that would become Tennessee and Kentucky right here in Rowan.
As advocates increased representation for the Western part of North Carolina in state government, Charles Fisher urged support for Calhoun and Jackson through the newspaper The Western Carolinian, founded in 1820. The Carolina Watchman, established in 1832, was created as an anti-Jackson Paper. Both papers were based in Salisbury and served the Western half of the state.
No history of Rowan would be complete without mentioning a few tidbits about industrial development. Gold was discovered in 1799 by John Reed and a booming mining town prospered in the mid 1800’s at Gold Hill. Transportation was an important consideration as well. In 1850 sixteen plank road companies included the Salisbury and Taylorsville Plank Road were chartered. Plank roads were later abandoned in lieu of railroads. Noted Salisburians, Charles F. Fisher, who became president of the Western North Carolina Railroad, John Ellis, Nathaniel Boyden and Burton Craige all took an interest in this growing industry. In August of 1860 Fisher had completed the railroad up to 13 miles east of Morganton.
In May of 1861, North Carolina seceded from the Union and the Confederacy sought a site in Rowan for a military prison. An old cotton mill near the railroad line proved to be a splendid location. In the early part of the war, prisoners were well cared for and even indulged in baseball as is recorded by Otto Boetticher. His drawing at Salisbury Confederate Prison is the first drawing ever of a baseball game in America. Later when the prison became overcrowded and the death rate rose from 2% to 28%, mass graves were used to accommodate the dead. The area of the prison is now a National Cemetery and continues to be a place of historical interest.
Rowan has produced supporters of education from the beginning of its existence. Davidson College owes much of its stature to the men of Rowan who founded and supported it, among them Maxwell Chambers. Many with ties to early Rowan were instrumental in the creation of the University of North Carolina as well. From the small but vital academies like Crowfield and the Female Academy to the Freedman’s School funded by the Friends Philadelphia Freedman’s Aid Society, the Crescent and later Livingstone and Catawba Colleges, education remained vital. Continuing into the 20th century Rowan was the home of renowned educator and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Duncan Koontz. Koontz was the first black elected president of the National Education Association and, under President Nixon, the first black director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Woman’s Bureau.
The years after the Civil War saw slow growth in industry. Farming as well as tobacco and cotton factories were predominant in the 1880’s. Along with the textile mills, Rowan saw lumber, saw and grist mills prosper. From the Civil War to 1908 the liquor distilling industry flourished as well. In the early 1900’s, the Southern Railroad roundhouse and Spencer shops created a great deal of prosperity for Spencer and other sections of Rowan County. Entrepreneurs founded successful companies such as Stanback, Cheerwine, Food Lion and Power Curbers.
Rowan was home to North Carolina’s great hero Colonel Charles F. Fisher, for whom Fort Fisher is named and who gallantly died on the field at Manassas. His daughter, Frances Fisher Tiernan, better known as writer Christian Reid, later penned the epitaph of North Carolina, the Land of Sky. Other intriguing characters in Rowan’s history include Peter Stewart Ney, Otto Wood, Theo Buerbaum, Elizabeth Dole, Sydney Blackmer, Skinnay Ennes, and Bobby Jackson. Rowan County continues to play an important role in the unfolding history of both North Carolina and the nation.
Please click on the links below to access the Rowan Public Library movie series about the history of Rowan County – Check for available copies of A Ramble Through Rowan’s History.