Randolph County (1779)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Annexed from Guilford, Randolph County was formed in 1779, and named for Peyton Randolph, a Virginian who once presided over the Continental Congress. Abraham Reese received a commission from the North Carolina legislature to hold court until the justices of the peace constructed a courthouse in the new county.  The construction was delayed, so in 1783 the state legislature terminated some of the commissioners for failing to establish a county seat.  By 1788 a new courthouse and town formed around the property of Thomas Douggan; Johnstonville, in respect of Samuel Johnston, was the name given to the town. Asheboro, named after Governor Samuel Ashe, became the county seat in 1796, and other townships within Randolph County include Ramseur, Seagrove, Archdale, Franklinville, Whynot, Worthville, Coleridge, and Trinity.


Randolph has had a deep history steeped in the religious fervor of the early Quakers and Baptists. During the 1740s, The Pennsylvania Quakers were the first religious group to inhabit the region. These Quakers, including the Coffin family, strongly opposed slavery, and some helped create the Underground Railroad.  At the onset of the Civil War, Quakers and other pacifists fled to the covered hills of Randolph. 


In 1755 Shubal Stearns, a Boston, Baptist minister, settled in present-day Randolph County, and the religious sentiment gradually altered to the new Baptist doctrines. Stearns formed the first Separate church, Sandy Creek Church, in the North Carolina colony, and it soon became the “Mother of all Separate Baptists” because of the great number of missionaries and evangelists it sent out across the state (Ready, p. 63). The Sandy Creek Church, just northeast of present-day Asheboro, took a more evangelistic approach to the Baptist tradition, and the view spread quickly. Baptists became the largest denomination in the new colony by the American Revolution.


Trinity College, the precursor to Duke University, was established in Randolph in 1838-39; Methodists wanted a school to cultivate young ministers to later sow Christian doctrine.  Originally in a small log cabin, Trinity was then called Union Institute.  In 1851, its name changed to Normal College and its scope shifted to equipping teachers with skills for common schools. After a period of financial difficulty, the Methodist Conference took control of the institution and changed its name to Trinity College. By the 1870s the college had almost two hundred students, but the school was later relocated in  Durham and became known as Duke University in 1892.


Beginning in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, an industrial surge fostered economic growth in Randolph County. According to historian Milton Ready, several cotton mills were constructed in Randolph and its adjacent counties, and many “are still operated by descendants of those who established them in the 1830s” (pg. 408). By 1860, Randolph County had five cotton mills, and most used the Deep River as a power source. Governor Jonathan Worth (1802-1869) owned and chartered the Cedar Falls Mill in 1836. The mill was a big part of the Confederate war effort, supplying clothes to Confederate soldiers.  A section of the mill still stands today.


Randolph County is home to several remarkable natural and cultural attractions and historic sites. The Uwharrie National Forest covers a southwestern section of the county while Purgatory Mountain, Squirrel Creek, and the Little River make up a part of the countryside as well. The Sunset Theatre in Asheboro (1929), Skeen’s Mill Covered Bridge (1890s), and the Asheboro City Cemetery (1827) are several historic landmarks within the region. Seagrove, the center for North Carolina property production, is the site of the Museum of North Carolina Traditional Pottery. The American Classic Motorcycle Museum and the Richard Petty Museum, which honors the all-time victory leader of NASCAR, are both situated within Randolph County.  Lastly, the North Carolina State Zoological Park, the largest natural habitat zoo in the United States, is a 500-acre exhibit that houses over 1,000 animals in Asheboro.