Davidson County lies in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina. The Yadkin River separates Davidson from Rowan and Davie Counties to the west. The county is bordered by Forsyth to the north, Guilford and Randolph to the east, and Montgomery to the south. Rolling hills, as is the case in most counties in the Piedmont, make up the landscape. In the western and southwestern sections of Davidson, lies the Uwharrie Mountain range. Many believe these to be among the oldest mountains in the world. The soil of Davidson County is comprised mostly of red clay, which is common in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Small, geologically young creeks, like Abbott’s, Rich Fork, Tom’s, Leonard’s, and Swearing wind through the county. The region was never believed to be a permanent home to Native Americans; however but tribes like the Sapona, Sinnerger, Totero, Tuscarora, and Saura were found in the county when European explorers and settlers came through.
By the 1640s the English Colony in Virginia was attempting to establish trade with Native American tribes to the southwest. In order to do this, they often used a long established Indian trail known as the Great Trading Path. This ancient highway ran “from Forth Henry, now Petersburg, Virginia, through parts of present Warren, Granville, Durham, Orange, Alamance, Randolph, Davidson, and Rowan Counties.” Through the Great Trading Path the Europeans would set up a fairly successful trading partnership with Natives in North Carolina.
The first written record of what is present-day Davidson County comes from a doctor of German decent named John Lederer in 1670. While traveling down the Great Trading Path, Lederer described his encounter with a small tribe of “Sauras” who would soon leave the area to escape the war-like Tuscarora tribe. The adventurer claimed that one could easily trade “for skins of beaver, deer, otter, wild-cat, fox [and] raccoon.” Lederer would also express displeasure with the way the Saura raised their children claiming that they were “so fond of their children that they will not chastise them for any mischief or insolence.” Lederer’s journal would also document the first case of violence between Europeans and the Natives in Davidson County. According to his account, a man named John Needham hired a guide called “Indian John” to carry his pack for him on a trading expedition. When Indian John dropped his pack in the Uwharrie River, Needham pulled out his sword “to make him understand who was master.” Indian John allegedly shot Needham in the head and then cut out his heart during the argument.
Slowly, Europeans would move into the area which would become Rowan and later Davidson County. According to the Moravians that moved into the area just north of present day Davidson in 1752 there were already “loners” living around the Yadkin River. The loners they were referring to were most likely the people of the Jersey Settlement which was founded approximately 1746. The citizens of the Jersey Settlement were of Scotch-Irish descent and were moving out of the New Jersey Colony. They began to establish a small town “located along Grant’s Creek… and along the left bank of the Yadkin [River].”
The Jersey Settlement, which is the modern-day town of Linwood, would slowly grow over time and was very successful. Leaders in the town established a Baptist Church in 1755 with the aid of John Gano and Benjamin Miller from the Philadelphia Association of Baptist Churches and would join the Charleston Association in 1759. Jersey Settlement would give rise to a few significant figures in North Carolina history: John Willis Ellis who served as North Carolina Governor in the 1860s: Spruce Macay who would mentor men like William R. Davie and Andrew Jackson in the law: and Benjamin Merrill who went on to be a leader in the state’s regulator movement. Along with the Jersey Settlement, Abbotts Creek and Lexington were slowly being settled and growing in prominence during this time.
One of Davidson County’s greatest citizens may have been a myth. The debate over whether or not Daniel Boone lived in the county is still undecided. What is known is that Boone’s father moved his family from Pennsylvania in 1750 and settled near the area of present day Davie and Davidson Counties. Evidence that the famed explorer did in fact live in Davidson includes accounts from citizens who claimed to have known him, a stone with “D. Boone” carved in it, and his signature on a deed as a witness. A park was established in 1909 on the site where many believe Boone lived. Today, Boone’s Cave Park covers roughly one hundred acres along the Yadkin River and is open to the public thanks to large donations of land by the Sowers family.
Many of the settlers who came to Davidson County brought their religion with them. The list of different religious beliefs is long but the largest groups included: German Reformed, Lutherans, Moravians, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. Most of these religions would set up churches during the 18th century that would last through to the present. Leaders from each denomination would spend the next century attempting to grow their congregations and establish churches in neighboring settlements.
North Carolina would play a big part in the coming revolution which won the colonies their independence. Pre-dating the Revolutionary War though, was a small rebellion in the western counties of North Carolina known as the Regulator Movement. The height of the Regulator movement came during the term of Royal Governor William Tryon on the eve of the Revolution. At this time the heavily populated eastern section of the state ran the government and gave little thought to the needs of the west. The hotly debated issues at the time were “the governor’s salary, the control of taxation, and the appointment of judges.” When Herman Husbands of Rowan County began gathering men to protest and form the “Regulators” he found many supporters in Davidson County, especially in Jersey Settlement. One such man was Benjamin Merrill, who was able to gather a following of roughly three hundred men. While Merrill and his men did not take part in the Battle of Alamance, in which Governor Tryon’s militia defeated the Regulators in a decisive battle, he was still captured and tried for treason. Merrill was one of six Regulator leaders who was found guilty of treason and executed. The rebellious leader was “hanged by the neck, [his] bowels cut out and burned” before him, then he was beheaded and his body cut into four pieces. Benjamin Merrill is widely recognized as one of North Carolina’s first martyrs in the cause of freedom.
Not all men of Davidson County shared Merrill’s enthusiasm against tyranny. The county, like much of western North Carolina, was divided between Patriots and Loyalists. Men like William Spurgin of Abbott’s Creek Settlement were supporters of the crown during the Revolution. Spurgin would fight for the British from the Battle of Moore’s Creek to the end of the war. He obtained the rank of Colonel in the British Army but was forced to leave for Canada after the war, leaving behind his wife and children who were staunch supporters of the American cause.
The war did not have much effect on Davidson County until the fall of Charleston on May 12th 1780, marking the beginning of the British southern campaign. Men from the county soon began moving off to fight for the American, cause most likely because they felt their way of life and their homes were now under threat. The patriots from Davidson would fight in many of the battles of the southern campaign including: Charleston, Camden, Ramseur’s Mill, Hanging Rock and Guilford Courthouse. During General Nathaniel Greene’s maneuvers, designed to wear down the forces of General Cornwallis by making him chase the Americans through the wilderness, he came through the county and even camped for a while at the home of William Spurgin in Abbotts Creek Settlement. General Greene placed a 34 year old William Lee Davidson in charge of harassing Cornwallis as he crossed the Catawba River at Cowan’s Ford. During this skirmish Davidson was fatally wounded. In 1822 when Davidson County was being formed out of Rowan, William Lee Davidson would be remembered for his heroic actions and the new county was named in his honor.
During the war, migration into the area had come to a halt. The loss of crops and a politically divided population hurt many of the growing towns in Davidson County. Once the war ended a small population boom soon began, consisting of a large number of soldiers who had passed through the area and found it pleasant enough to return. Rowan County as a whole was rapidly growing: the census of 1790 showed a population of 15,828 people, of which 1,742 were slaves. This boom would continue well into the 19th century when the census of 1820 showed a population of 26,009 of which 5,514 were slaves.
As the county rapidly expanded people began to complain of the long distances required for them to travel to court and do business in the county seat. These complaints would lead to the introduction of the Formation Act by Senator Joseph Spurgeon, the son of loyalist William Spurgin, on November 22nd, 1822. The act was passed in the North Carolina House of Commons on November 29th, 1822 with a 73 to 54 vote. The county seat was to be set in Marion, modern day Holly Grove, which was the geographical center of the newly formed County. Quickly, a group formed and pushed for the county seat to be moved a few miles to the more-well established town of Lexington. The debate was taken to the Committee on Propositions and Grievances which sided with the pro-Lexington contingent. For its reasoning, the committee stated that “Lexington is situated in a healthy neighborhood, surrounded by a wealthy population… [and is] accessible on every side by roads long laid out in every direction.”
The decision to make Lexington the county seat, as expected, helped bolster the town and allowed it to quickly grow into the county’s largest city. The town was a prosperous area long before Davidson County was formed. Its central location and many roads made it a hub for business and travelers in the area. The discovery of gold early in the 19th century near Lexington led to the development of a great number of businesses and mines in the town. The most notable mine in the area was the Conrad Hill Mine which was founded by Roswell Allen King. Mining would also bring prominent men such as John W. Thomas, who later founded the town of Thomasville, to the area.
In January of 1823 plans were underway for the construction of the Davidson County Courthouse in Lexington which would become the most well-known symbol of the new county. It took nearly thirty years before building began, but in 1856 William Ashley and George Dudley began overseeing its construction. The courthouse was completed in 1858 to rave reviews. The Greensborough Patriot wrote in 1858 that the new center of government was a “beautiful and magnificent temple of justice” and that “in point of magnificence there is nothing in the state to compare, except the capitol in Raleigh.”
The next event that would bolster Davidson County came in the form of the 1849 Railroad Act. Men like James M. Leach, Henry Walser and John W. Thomas took prominent roles in getting the act passed by agreeing to fund and oversee the construction of sections of the railroad which passed over their land. Thomas, upon learning that the railroad would not be passing through his property, quickly bought land on the intended route with the dream of founding a town. Soon the town of Thomasville would rise up around the railroad to quickly become the second largest town in the county. John W. Thomas bought mills and built a large store in his young town. In 1857, Thomas was able to purchase the nearby Glen Anna Female Seminary from Dr. Charles F. Deems and relocated it to Thomasville. This gave the growing town the advantage of having two colleges, the other being Trinity College. According to a letter written to The Chairtown News in 1921 by Mrs. John T. Cramer, the daughter of John W. Thomas, the “town was progressing [in] every way and many desirable citizens were moving their families here.”
The prosperous times of Davidson County were soon to be put on hold, however. The tensions were growing between north and south over the issues of slavery and state’s rights. Davidson County had slaves, “exactly 2,745”, according to the census of 1860; but it did not have nearly the amount owned in areas like South Carolina, Virginia, and eastern North Carolina. Despite the fact that few in the county owned slaves, many still fought for the Confederacy and only forty-seven fought for the Union. Men from Davidson County would fight “as far north as Gettysburg, as far south as Savannah, and as far west as Centralia Missouri” during the war. In Thomasville and Lexington the schools and factories would produce clothing and goods to send to the troops.
The war brought rough times and slowed the financial growth of the young county and these rough times would continue after the war during the period known as Reconstruction. Davidson County was placed under the occupation of the 12th Michigan Cavalry during this time and not much is known about the interaction between the soldiers and the citizens during their stay. One legend which persists is that of the 1865 fire at the courthouse in Lexington. General Kilpatrick’s men were occupying the building when a fire broke out and did considerable damage to the interior. Although never proven, many believed that the fire was started on purpose by the Union soldiers. The courthouse would be repaired gradually over the next decade.
It would take well into the 1890s before Davidson County would begin to recover from the devastation of the Civil War. When the county did recover it again became a booming region in North Carolina. The early part of the 20th century would see manufacturing, mostly of furniture, becoming the main force behind growth. Many of the manufacturing companies which would be founded in the next few years would go on to become recognized around the world for their quality of work.
Davidson County has a fascinating history from its early settlement to the eve of the 20th century. The county and its people have played an important role in many of the country’s major events from the American Revolution to reconstruction. It has been home to entrepreneurs, politicians, martyrs, patriots and traitors. The story of Davidson County is unique and at the same time exemplifies the type of spirit and personality which can be found throughout the state of North Carolina and defines its people.
Bashir, Catherine W., and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Cramer, John T. “Recollections of the Founding and Growth During the Early Years of Thomasville.” The Chairtown News, 1921: 1-4.
Ready, Milton. The Tar Heel State A History of North Carolina. Columbia : University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
Sink, M. Jewell, and Marry Green Matthews. Pathfinders Past and Present A History of Davidson County North Carolina. High Point: Hall Printing Company , 1972.
Unknown. William Lee Davidson . 2003. http://www.fletcher-online.com/William_lee_davidson.htm (accessed February 20, 2012).
Watford, Christopher M. The Civil War Roster of Davidson County, North Carolina. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., Publishers , 2001.
 M. Jewell and Mary G. Matthews, Pathfinders Past and Present (High Point: Hall Printing, 1972), 6.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 8.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 13.
 Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State, (Columbia: University of South Carolina press, 2005), 91.
 M. Jewell and Mary G. Matthews, Pathfinders Past and Present (High Point: Hall Printing, 1972), 27.
  Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State, (Columbia: University of South Carolina press, 2005), 120.
 “William Lee Davidson” http://www.fletcher-online.com/william_lee_davidson.htm (February 20, 2012).
 M. Jewell and Mary G. Matthews, Pathfinders Past and Present (High Point: Hall Printing, 1972), 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid 77.
 Catherine Bishir and Michael Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina, (Chapel Hill: university of North Carolina Press, 2003), 406.
 M. Jewell and Mary G. Matthews, Pathfinders Past and Present (High Point: Hall Printing, 1972), 82.
 Ibid, 269.
 John T. Cramer, Recollections of the Founding and Growth During the Early Years of Thomasville, (Thomasville: The Chairtown News, 1921), 2.
 Christopher M. Watford, The Civil War Roster of Davidson County, North Carolina, (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2001), 4.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1.
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