Orange County, annexed from Bladen, Granville, and Johnston in 1752, was named in honor of William the Fifth of Orange; King George III was William’s grandfather. The county seat, Hillsborough, was originally known as Childsburgh, after Attorney General Thomas Childs, and it was incorporated in 1759. However, the seat’s name was later changed in honor of the Earl of Hillsborough, Wills Hill. Other communities within Orange County include Caldwell, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Carr, Cedar Grove, and Efland. In addition to these towns, a portion of the town of Mebane stretches into Orange.
The Occaneechi, Haw, and Eno were the first Native Americans to live within present-day Orange County. As European surveyors and explorers traversed the new colony of North Carolina in the early 1700s, John Lawson encountered the Occaneechi tribe in 1701 while traveling along the Great Trading Path. The Occannechi’s location offered economic and political power, notably in the area of deerskin exchange among the tribes connected by the Trading Path. Archeologists estimate that the Occaneechi inhabited the village between 1680 and 1710. After several concentrated digs, the site was declared as “some of the best preserved and scientifically most significant archeological sites in southeastern North America.”
By the early eighteenth century, the Occaneechi had vanished from present-day Orange County because of disease, rum, and warfare had been detrimental to the Piedmont tribes. Yet, as the Native Americans died out, English, Scotch-Irish, German, and Welsh settlers began immigrating to the land, and most were farmers and yeomen. The largest Scotch-Irish community developed around Eno, east of the Haw River. The Germans moved to the west side of the Haw. North of Hillsborough, a concentration of Quakers developed and settled in the region, but most had moved to the Alamance, Guilford, Randolph, and Chatham counties. Orange County was organized in 1752 due to the great population influx from 1740 until 1752. The General Assembly decided to establish a new county because of the residents wanted a more convenient rode system, an easier way to access their county seat and court.
After the War of the Regulation (1764-1771) and a series of confrontations in Orange County, Hillsborough was the site of a hanging on June 19, 1771. (Click here for an article on the influence of religion and politics on the N.C. Regulation). Governor Tryon’s oppressive rule of the North Carolina colony had unsettled many residents in the colony. The Currency Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, along with higher taxes, caused farmers to petition the government. North Carolina farmers urged the British governor to approve tobacco, wheat, and other crops as tax payment, but Governor Tryon refused, sparking protests across the colony. Nearly 900 protestors, known as Regulators, had gathered in Orange County, and other counties joined the fray as well, including Anson, Dobbs, Halifax, and Rowan. By the 1768, protestors had become rebels, rioting throughout the backcountry, and Governor Tryon soon mobilized troops to quell the surging revolt. Even though the Regulators attempted to avoid an insurgence with Tryon by offering him another petition, the Royal Governor refused, and the Battle of Alamance ensued on May 14, 1771. The Regulators eventually resigned from the battlefield, and twelve Regulators were arrested and taken to Hillsborough for trial. Tryon decided to pardon half the group, but the other six were hanged on June 19. A memorial is located at the present lot where the men were executed, although the burial site of the six Regulators remains unknown. Some historians believe that the graves lie the present Cameron Park School near the Eno River.
The town of Chapel Hill lies within Orange County and is home to the state’s flagship university: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC-Chapel Hill is the oldest public institution in the United States. Formerly chartered by the North Carolina legislature in 1789, the University has long remained an important institution of historical, cultural, and educational importance. Several historical anthologies and collections rest in the libraries across the campus, and the Carolina Playmakers and Paul Green Theater, the Ackland Art Museum, and the Morehead Plantation are other vital aspects of the campus. Other historic sites outside of the campus include the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross and the Horace Williams House, while some cultural institutions are the Jewish Heritage Foundation and the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
Orange County has deep historic roots in academia, not only with the University of North Carolina but also with Hillsborough Academy, Bingham School, and Hughes Academy. Opened in 1801, Hillsborough Academy was actually a host of schools that shared the name throughout the county. Although some of the schools in the region failed, the first Hillsborough Academy to survive in the 1800s became the formal preparatory academy for the University of North Carolina in 1819. The school was incorporated into the Caldwell Institute in 1845 due to a typhoid fever outbreak in Greensboro, but the Hillsborough Academy closed indefinitely in 1858. The Bingham School was a classical school started by William Bingham in 1844, and the school promptly earned the distinction as the most expensive prep school in the nation. (The annual tuition in the 1840s and 1850s was $80). At the close of the Civil War, the Bingham School relocated to Mebane where it became a “military and classical academy.” A student at the Bingham School, Samuel W. Hughes, established his own academy for boys in 1845. Designed after the Bingham School, the Hughes Academy hosted students from the most affluent families in North Carolina including George T. Winston, Patrick Winston, William T. Dortch, and D.I. Craig. Although the academy ceased operations after Hughes’s death, historians note that his students would flock to Hughes’s bedside after his first stroke.
Numerous politicians and famous persons were born or resided in Orange County. Thomas H. Benton (1782-1858), a U.S. Senator, was born near Hillsborough, and once Missouri was admitted to the Union, Benton represented the newly formed state for thirty years from 1821 to 1851. William A. Graham (1804-1875), a prominent North Carolina politician, was born in Lincoln County, and attended the University of North Carolina in the 1820s, later to open his own law practice in Hillsborough in 1828. Graham, drawn to the political fever of the area, served in the House of Representatives in the 1830s, the U.S. Senate from 1840 until 1843, as Governor of North Carolina from 1845 to 1849, and as Secretary of the Navy in the early 1850s. Due to his great successes as N.C. governor and Secretary of the Navy, Graham ran as the Vice Presidential candidate on the 1852 Whig Party ticket led by Presidential nominee General Winfield Scott.
Born in 1820 as a slave in Virginia, Elizabeth Keckly (1820-1907) lived in the Hillsborough region in the 1830s. Keckly, who eventually bought her freedom became a prominent dressmaker in Washington, D.C., wrote a memoir which detailed her experiences in Hillsborough, specifically the birth of her illegitimate son. As she made dresses for the wives of politicians she eventually befriended Mary Todd Lincoln, and a deep friendship developed. Keckly, referred to as Mary Lincoln’s “best and kindest friend” in letters between the two, penned Behind the Scenes which has been cited and researched by numerous Lincoln scholars.
Although he was born in Boston, William Hooper (1742-1790) resided in Hillsborough and he was one of North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hooper, after studying law at Harvard University, moved to North Carolina and established a law practice in Wilmington in 1764. He was a founder of the colony’s first Committee of Correspondence, and in a letter to James Iredell, Hooper predicted that the colonies “will build an empire on the ruins of Great Britain” in 1774. Along with Richard Caswell and Joseph Hughes, Hooper was selected to attend the Continental Congress. Hooper was actually absent when the Declaration of Independence was voted on by the Congress, but he signed his name on August 2, 1776. During the war, Hooper moved to Hillsborough because the British took the town of Wilmington, and he would live out the rest of his days in present-day Orange County. Hooper suffered from poor health and he was disheartened that he had not been appointed to the Constitutional Convention in Hillsborough in 1788; he died in Hillsborough at the age of 48.
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), a collaborator with Duke Ellington and an affluent member of the American Jazz movement, was raised in Orange County. It was Strayhorn’s numerous visits with his grandparents in Hillsborough that allowed him to develop into a influential Jazz musician. David Hajdu, a biographer of Billy Strayhorn, argued that “North Carolina became the young man’s spiritual home, the place he was introduced to music.”
Physical traits include Couch Mountain, Turkey Hill Creek, Blackwood Mountain, Eno River, Lake Michael, and Chestnut Ridge. In addition to the county’s natural characteristics, some popular, annual festivals hosted by Orange County include the Hillsborough Hog Day, the Occaneechi-Saponi Spring Festival and Pow Wow, and the Festifall Street Fair in Chapel Hill. The Research Triangle Park (RTP) permeates urban region of Orange County. Home to both leading private companies and federal research institutes, the RTP includes the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, GlaxoSmithKlein, RTI International, IBM, Cisco, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Formation of The North Carolina Counties (1663-1943). David Leroy Corbitt. Department of Archives and History. (Raleigh, N.C. 1950).
Orange County — 1752-1952. Hugh Lefler and Paul Wager, eds. (The Orange County Printshop: Chapel Hill, NC 1953).
“Orange County and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Thomas Ruffin, William Hooper, Elizabeth Keckly, Billy Strayhorn Regulators Hanged, Occaneechi, Bingham School, Hillsborough Academy, and Hughes Academy.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Results.aspx?k=Search&ct=btn, (accessed on September 9, 2011).
“History of Orange County.” Orange County government website. http://www.co.orange.nc.us/occlerks/about.asp, (accessed on September 15, 2011).