Burke County (1777)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Burke County and North Carolina’s establishment are closely connected. The last Provincial Congress of North Carolina adopted the state’s constitution in November 1776, and just a few months later the first General Assembly met to establish county boundary lines among other pressing issues. On June 1, 1777, Burke County was established from parts of Rowan County, receiving its name in respect of Thomas Burke, one of North Carolina’s Continental Congress representatives and governor of the state from 1781 to 1782. At its inception, the county encompassed a large portion of the western state, and subsequent state legislatures annexed Buncombe (1791), Yancey (1833), Caldwell (1841), Catawba (1842), McDowell (1842), Alexander (1847), Madison (1851), and Mitchell (1861) County from the mammoth Burke County.

Edward Smith was commissioned by the Assembly to construct the county’s first court, and in 1785 Burke County’s log cabin courthouse was built. However, the courthouse was relocated several times until a two-story court was formed in 1833. Some historians claim that Federal soldiers were ordered by General George Stoneman to vandalize the courthouse and burn all the documents. The courthouse was remodeled in 1901 and until 1976 the Old Burke County Courthouse was the oldest building still used for its established purpose in western North Carolina.

The first Native American tribes to inhabit the land were the Catawba and Cherokee. English, German, and Scotch-Irish settlers were the first Europeans to have permanent settlements in present-day Burke County. Most white colonists arrived in the area by traveling the Great Wagon Road during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The introduction of the Southern Railroad after the Civil War increased the population and stimulated the industrial economy of the region. Today, Burke County has a diverse agricultural and manufacturing economy. Once a substantial textile producer, Burke’s principal production goods include chemicals, machine parts, and furniture. In addition, the county is one of the state’s strongest forest good producers. Ornamental plants such as Christmas trees are a primary agricultural product of Burke County.

Not only do private industry and farms populate the region, but the public sector also has a large stake within the 514 square mile Burke County. The U.S. government, the State of North Carolina, and Crescent Resources (Duke Energy Corporation) are the largest landowners in Burke, and the county claims the third most substantial population of state employees in the state. The North Carolina School for the Deaf, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the Western Correctional Center, and the Broughton and Western Carolina Hospitals are the principal state institutions in Burke County. The large government concentration has earned Burke County the nickname: “The Western State Capital.”

Burke County’s location in the western mountains and the Catawba Valley River basin make the area a tourist attraction. Lake James, which some historians claim to be one of the last pure lakes in the Southeast, and the South Mountain State Park are both situated within the county. The Linville Gorge is the popular site for hikers, campers, and naturalists and the Blue Ridge Parkway passes through the northwestern part of the county as well. Due to the vast land area of the state parks, the federal and state government are some of the top of the landowners in Burke.

Morgansborough was the original county seat of Burke County, but in 1784 the name was shortened to Morganton. The seat is named in honor of General Daniel Morgan, a Revolutionary War hero that led troops at the Battles of Cowpens and King’s Mountain. Connelly Springs, Glen Alpine, Icard, Rhodhiss, Drexel, and Hildebran are other hamlets within Burke County. The large town of Hickory, although situated in much of Catawba County, extends into the region.