The Tuscarora Indians were among the earliest inhabitants of what is today Wilson County. Otherwise the area remained sparsely settled well into the 1800s, although one local landmark, the James Scarborough house, dates from the early 1820s. Contentnea Creek cuts across the county, but the lack of a major waterway probably retarded the region’s development. The extension of the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad in 1839, however, attracted new settlers, and in the 1840s, state senator Wyatt Moye from Edgecombe County proposed the legislature incorporate anew town near the Toisnot railroad depot and the Hickory Grove community. On January 29, 1849, the city was incorporated as Wilson, after Louis Dicken Wilson, a former legislator and soldier who had died during the Mexican War.
Wilson’s first mayor, Joshua Barnes, reportedly supported the creation of a new county, and area residents complained they were far removed a courthouse or county seat. In February 1855, Wilson County was created out of small cessions from Edgecombe, Nash, Wayne, and Johnston counties.
A number of significant institutions began in Wilson County. The short-lived Wilson Female Academy was founded in 1859. It served briefly as a Confederate military hospital during the Civil War. In 1871, local Primitive Baptists purchased the facility and converted it into the Wilson Collegiate Institute, which flourished as a private school until it failed in the 1890s. In the late 1800s, Wilson became the birthplace of BB& T, one of the largest banks in the South. In 1902, leaders of the Disciples of Christ founded Atlantic Christian College, now Barton College, in Wilson.
In the 1870s, cotton was Wilson County’s primary cash crop, but the more profitable flue-cured tobacco supplanted it in the 1880s. Although the county was neverimmune to the economic hardships common to the rural South, for much of the twenthieth century, the city of Wilson promoted itself as “the world’s greatest tobaccomarket.” Agriculture became more diversified after World War II, and the county attracted new businesses, including major tire and pharmaceutical plants, and it was the home of several popular pork barbeque restaurants. In 2010, the North Carolina Museum of the Coastal Plains, a regional history museum, opened in downtown Wilson.
Prominent North Carolinians with connections to Wilson County include Josephus Daniels, who served as editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, and Progressive Era governor Charles B. Aycock, both of whom attended the Wilson Collegiate Institute. North Carolina historian Robert D. W. Connor, son of federal judge Henry Groves Connor, was born in Wilson in 1878; President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Connor the first archivist of the United States in 1934. Film star Ava Gardner attended ACC in the 1940s. James B. Hunt, Jr., who served sixteen years as governorof North Carolina, grew up in the small Wilson County community of Rock Ridge. Wilson was home to Oliver Nestus Freeman, a noted African American stone mason, and in recent years, local folk artist Vollis Simpson has attracted national attention for his “whirligigs,” colorful, moving metal sculptures.