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Surry County’s founding

This month is the beginning of Surry County’s 250th birthday. Sort of.

There are few written records that remain from this area during Colonial Days so our understanding of what was actually happening here must be found or inferred from records in other regions of the state. Fortunately for us, some have been gathered by local historians Jesse Hollingsworth and Ruth Minnick and others over the years.

Here’s what we know about Surry’s beginnings:

In 1770 Surry County was the Wild West — an unsecured and unruly frontier populated by Scottish, German, and English fur trappers, traders, and farmers living uneasily with Native Americans. The so-called Cherokee War in 1758-’61, overlapped by the French and Indian War (1754-’63), had ground to a brutal end but the frontier was still dangerous.

Raids and kidnappings continued, though often carried out by white men disguised as Natives who kidnapped mostly women and children to take to other colonies illegally claiming they were indentured servants.

A growing number of settlers traveled down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania or on the Saura-Saponi Trail from the old Virginia and Maryland settlements. Colonial port cities were growing at unprecedented rates as Europeans fled famine, drought, and war in search of safer homes for their families. In the years leading up to the American Revolution Boston topped 16,000 people; New York City, 25,000; Philadelphia was the most populous city in the American Colonies with 38,000.

By comparison, Wilmington and New Bern in this state had fewer than 2,000 each and Charleston, South Carolina, 12,000.

Many groups such as the German Dunkards and Brethren, and English Quakers, followed the Moravians to the North Carolina backcountry seeking religious freedom, and good farms in community with the larger and better-organized group. They established mills and small manufacturing businesses across the migration routes and helped build and maintain fortified towns such as Bethabara.

Others came simply looking to be left alone. The Scots, sometimes called the Scots-Irish, were principal in that group, especially as the Highland Clearances began. The British forces shipped out individuals and whole families who’d supported the failed efforts to put Charles Stuart, often called “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” on the throne of England.

This region was part of the sprawling Rowan County, an area that would eventually be split to form more than 20 successive counties. Residents in the northern reaches of then-Rowan County began the process to create a separate county at least as early as 1769. The area, with its mild climate, protecting ridges, rich bottom land, sparkling mountain-fed rivers, and other natural resources also straddled some of the most traveled north-south trade routes.

Unfortunately, the request was far from a priority for the Colonial government as Carolinians reacted to taxes levied by Parliament. Regulators, North and South Carolinians who vehemently opposed the taxes, protested in increasingly violent actions to the point the General Assembly was dissolved in 1769 before the proposal could be considered.

A second attempt in 1770 was, at least, considered, but not acted upon before the body adjourned.

Finally, on January 26, 1771, Governor Tryon signed the bill creating Surry County. Law required the act to be published and announced in various public places for a period of three months before it was enacted on April 1 of that year.

There is some disagreement about the source of the name. Some say the county was named for Surrey, England, Tryon’s birthplace. Some say the county was named in honor of Lord Surry, a Parliamentarian who argued against the offending taxes. Still others say it is a bastardization of the name Europeans knew the early Native Americans by, Saura.

Regardless, the county was established as the nation hurtled toward the establishment of an even larger new governmental organization in 1776.

Through the coming months the county will celebrate 250 years of history and the people, families, businesses, and outside forces that have shaped the region we live in today. I hope you’ll come out and help commemorate all that has come before as we anticipate what comes next.

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Created in 1771, Surry County originally encompassed land that, today, is Stokes, Forsyth, and Yadkin counties. The act directed that court would be held in the home of Gideon Wright in Donnaha, more or less in the center of the county, until a permanent courthouse, prison, and stocks could be built. This was done in Richmond, now in Forsyth County. These maps show the state’s counties in 1760 and 1775. From the state Department of Archives and History
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_1760-1775.jpgCreated in 1771, Surry County originally encompassed land that, today, is Stokes, Forsyth, and Yadkin counties. The act directed that court would be held in the home of Gideon Wright in Donnaha, more or less in the center of the county, until a permanent courthouse, prison, and stocks could be built. This was done in Richmond, now in Forsyth County. These maps show the state’s counties in 1760 and 1775. From the state Department of Archives and History

A small portion of Surry was combined with portions of Washington County (now Tennessee) to form Wilkes in 1778. The county was divided in half in 1789 to form Stokes County which birthed Forsyth in 1849. Yadkin was created in 1850. From the state Department of Archives and History
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_1840-1850.jpgA small portion of Surry was combined with portions of Washington County (now Tennessee) to form Wilkes in 1778. The county was divided in half in 1789 to form Stokes County which birthed Forsyth in 1849. Yadkin was created in 1850. From the state Department of Archives and History

Courthouses were generally located in the center of each county. Rockford was established for this purpose in 1790. Col. Martin Armstrong, the man tasked with surveying the erection of Surry County, was given and later bought a great deal of land in the region. He gave the land for each of the county’s courthouses except Rockford which was given by Thomas and Moses Ayers. Armstrong profited handsomely by selling land to those who wanted to build near the government seats. This picture was taken after a devastating fire in 1925 after the county seat was moved to Dobson. It is the only image we have of the Rockford courthouse.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Rockford-Courthouse.jpgCourthouses were generally located in the center of each county. Rockford was established for this purpose in 1790. Col. Martin Armstrong, the man tasked with surveying the erection of Surry County, was given and later bought a great deal of land in the region. He gave the land for each of the county’s courthouses except Rockford which was given by Thomas and Moses Ayers. Armstrong profited handsomely by selling land to those who wanted to build near the government seats. This picture was taken after a devastating fire in 1925 after the county seat was moved to Dobson. It is the only image we have of the Rockford courthouse.

Yadkin County was formed of the southern half of Surry in 1850. Three years later the town of Dobson was established to serve as the new county seat. It was named for the Dobson family, early settlers and prominent business and political leaders in the area. William Polk Dobson, shown here about 1845, was a state senator and first cousin to President James Polk.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/web1_Wm-Polk-Dobson.jpgYadkin County was formed of the southern half of Surry in 1850. Three years later the town of Dobson was established to serve as the new county seat. It was named for the Dobson family, early settlers and prominent business and political leaders in the area. William Polk Dobson, shown here about 1845, was a state senator and first cousin to President James Polk.
Few records exist from the earliest days

By Kate Rauhauser-Smith

Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228

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