Granville History... The Early History

The land known today as Granville County was once the home of many Indian tribes, dominated mainly by the Tuscarora. After the Tuscarora War of 1711, settlers mostly from Virginia began to populate this area, attracted by the abundant game, well-watered woods, and rich land.

By 1746, the area had a population sufficiently large enough to merit becoming an independent county, separating itself from Edgecombe County's western frontier. Since most of the land in the northern half of North Carolina was part of the proprietary domain of Lord John Carteret (by title known as the Earl of Granville) the county was named Granville in his honor.

Samuel Benton was one of Granville County's representatives to the State Assembly in 1761, when he purchased 1000 acres of land and built a plantation home known as "Oxford." In 1764, the Assembly ordered that this area be known as the county seat and Benton gave one acre of land where the courthouse was to be built. In 1811 the county bought 50 acres around the courthouse and began to layout the town, selling lots at public auction in 1812, and incorporating the town in 1816.

Through the colonial and revolutionary periods, the county was the home of a number of citizens of considerable social and political influence in North Carolina. Most notable was John Penn, a landowner in present day Stovall, who was elected in 1775 to be a member of the Continental Congress. He was one of North Carolina's three signers of the Declaration of Independence.

By 1860, Granville County plantations and farms had some of the state's best agriculturists, consistently growing large crops of tobacco with the help of an extensive slave population. Oxford had become a sophisticated town and was famous as a seat of learning by the creation of several academies and colleges.

Although Granville was one of five counties with as many as 10,000 slaves, there was also a sizeable community of free blacks claiming dozens of craftsmen, especially masons who helped build the grand homes of the more affluent families.

With the outbreak of the civil War, several military companies were formed, among them the "Granville Grays." Over 2,000 Granville County men participated in many battles until the war's end.

The fall of the plantation economy based on slavery did not end Granville County's dependence on tobacco. The discovery of Bright Leaf Tobacco, which is cultivated in a sandy soil rather than a rich clay soil and is "flue-dried" provided a greater incentive to cultivate the golden leaf.

Hillsboro Street
Hillsboro Street in the early 1900s

Bright Tobacco brought businesses in Oxford. Businessmen positioned themselves to take advantage of this new industry and many merchants, lawyers, and doctors set up shop in town. New schools, churches, literary societies, and two orphanages were formed. By the late 19th century, this thriving local economy resulted in a beautiful brick commercial district which included banks, general stores, an opera house, professional offices and new types of businesses.

With the recruiting of several manufacturing industries in the county during the 1950's and 1960's Granville County was no longer a primary agricultural economy after more than two centuries.

Written by Pam Thornton - Museum Director