(Author's Note: Much of the content of the following essay is based on the
historical notes of the late Isaac S. London, and on material in the 1976 book
"A History of Richmond County," by J.E. and Ida C. Huneycutt.)
BY J.E. HUNEYCUTT
Early Life Along The Pee Dee
Even a brief history of Rockingham should start at the beginning.
Geologists tell us that the Sandhills of North Carolina, on which the City of Rockingham
is located, once formed the western shore of a large, shallow inland sea which
extended from the foothills of the mighty Uwharrie Mountains to the west, an unknown
distance to the east. The Uwharries, which are thought to be among the oldest
mountains in America, had peaks extending to awesome heights of 15,000 feet or more,
long before the Appalachians were formed.
The Eastern slopes of the Uwharrie Mountains extended right down to the sea; and as
the mountains eroded away, mighty rivers rolled and tumbled and rounded the stones
and bits of gravel and piled them up in sorted piles where the flow of the river
subsided upon reaching level land and the shore of the sea. These piles of stones and
gravel have been excavated and shipped from the gravel pits of Anson County for more
than a hundred years. Lighter materials which were carried by the rivers were washed
on out into the sea to help form the Coastal Plain Area which now extends to the
Atlantic Ocean. This ancient geological development gave rise to the variety of soils now
found in the area - clay to the north and west and at low elevations along streams, sand
in the middle, and loam to the south and east.
Of the great rivers that formerly flowed from the Uwharries to the sea, only the
Yadkin-Pee Dee remains. This river starts as the Yadkin near Blowing Rock and
becomes the Pee Dee when it joins the Uwharrie River before it reaches Richmond
County. According to legend, Indians would come to the bank of the river and shout
"Yeatkin" across to the settlers on the other side as a challenge to fight, and from this
word the Yadkin derives its name. The river below its confluence with the Uwharrie
was named Pee Dee for the Pee Dee Indian Tribe which lived in the area when the
earliest white settlers came. The length of the river is given as 435 miles - the Yadkin,
204 miles; the Pee Dee, 231 miles. The river empties into Winyah Bay just east of
Georgetown, South Carolina. In the early days of river transportation the Pee Dee was
navigable up to Buchanan Shoals, a few miles north of Cheraw where the old resort
town of Sneedsborough was located.
It is a matter of record that the Pee Dee River almost gained immortal fame in song
when Stephen Foster in 1851 wrote a new song titled "Way Down Upon the Pee Dee
Ribber." Later, Foster was looking at a map of Florida and saw a river by the name of
Suwannee River. He changed the spelling of "Suwannee" and changed the name of the
song to "Way Down Upon the Swanee River" because the word fitted the lyrics. The
song sold for $15 and became one of Foster's best-loved compositions.
There is every reason to believe that long before the first Indian came to its shores,
the Pee Dee River flowed along much as it does today except that it was bigger and it
was clear and pure and free from contamination and chemical pollution. Each spring the
shad came up the river in great numbers to spawn and there were sturgeons and other
large fish in the river in great abundance. The land along the river banks supported
grazing deer and buffalo and the carnivorous animals which preyed upon them; and
there were wild birds in profusion - pigeons, turkeys, and quail. Berrries, grapes, and
wild fruits grew along the banks. We now know that this was true because the early
white settlers found these conditions to exist even though the Indians had already
burned the woods, set fish traps, and killed many of the grazing animals.
When the White Man was living in caves in Western Europe some 10,000 years ago, the
Red Man was roaming the banks of the Pee Dee living off the land - eating berries,
nuts, fruits, fish, and small game and wearing the skins of animals which he had killed.
Their homes were temporary lean-to-shelters, but they had already developed the art
of cooking by fire - roasting their food or boiling it in skin containers or scooped-out
rocks by putting in heated stones. At that early time the art of pottery making had not
been developed by these primitive peoples.
As time passed, the Indian became less and less nomadic and began to build homes of
wattle and daub and planted a greater variety of farm crops - corn, squash, beans,
pumpkins, tobacco, gourds, and sunflower. At different times there were different
tribes in the Pee Dee Valley. These included the Saura, Sapona, Uwharrie, Pee Dee,
Creek, and Cheraw tribes. Great quantities of Indian artifacts have been found along
the banks of the river and the streams leading into the river. The level creek and river
bottoms were fertile farming areas and the larger streams provided a means of
transportation by canoe or raft. Animal trails and Indian trails ran along the banks of
the streams and were later used by the early settlers and white hunters who came into
Indian Trails And Early Roads
In a wilderness area where wild animals exist, they usually make trails or paths along
the major waterways where they come to drink, to graze, or to cross over to the other
side. It may, therefore, be assumed that even before the earliest Indian reached the
Pee Dee valley there were well-marked trails which had been made by deer, buffalo
and maybe by the mammoth in even earlier days. Since the Indians lived mainly along
the streams, these paths were in existence when the earliest white explorer reached
the area. However, these were not the only paths through the wilderness. There was
far more travel among the Indians than is usually supposed. They were apparently
restless by nature and traveled great distances to hunt, to trade with other tribes, to
visit their friends, and to make war on their enemies. Sometimes these trips were
purely for adventure. Early white explorers found that the Indians were familiar with
areas a thousand or more miles away, and they often employed these Indians as guides
for exploring parties. The trails that they followed were reasonably well marked and
worn by hundreds of years of travel. They followed the natural terrain of the land,
avoiding steep inclines and thick underbrush, and crossed streams at places where they
could be easily forded. Many of these trails eventually became roads and highways and
were later followed by railroads.
The European Invasion
Most of the early invaders from Europe did not come to the Pee Dee River Valley
directly from Europe. Usually, they had stopped off for a generation or two in the
Tidewater region of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, or South Carolina. Gradually they
infiltrated the area from the north and from the south along trails and warpaths that
the Indians themselves had used, and they came up the Pee Dee River by boat,
sometimes stopping for a while around Cheraw or further down the river at Welch
Neck before going on up the river valley.
They brought with them new weapons and a new kind of war, gunpowder and bacterial
warfare - new diseases. Surely these invaders had not intended to resort to bacterial
attacks on their enemies, but they had inadvertently brought with them diseases which
were new to the Indian and to which he had not built up an immunity or resistance.
These newcomers had suffered from smallpox and chickenpox for many generations
and although many of them still died from these diseases, the Indians seemed to have
less resistance to them, and the methods they used to treat these new diseases made
them even more fatal. For example, a favorite method of treating smallpox was to
expose the patient to a hot steam bath and then plunge him into the cold river. If the
smallpox did not kill him,the shock usually did. In the great smallpox epidemic of 1738,
many Indian tribes and family groups were virtually decimated by the disease.
No serious attempt was made by the European invader to settle the area until the
1730s, and by this time there were relatively few Indians left.
No specific dates can be produced as to when the first settlements were established,
but there were enough white settlers by 1749 to warrant the formation of Anson
County. However, Anson County at that time included all of the area that was to become
Richmond County and extended west to the "Setting of the Sun."
Before 1700 little attempt had been made by the English government to settle the
Carolinas and there were few if any colonists living in or around the area where
Rockingham would develop. A few white traders had passed through the area, but they
were now to be followed by permanent settlers.
In 1729 there were but three counties in North Carolina - Albemarle, Bath, and
Clarendon. In that year New Hanover was created, and in 1734 Bladen was sliced from
New Hanover. In 1749 Anson was taken from Bladen County. At this time the Court
House of Anson County was on the west side of the Pee Dee River at the Grassy
Islands, which are about ten miles up the river from the present Hardison and
Goodman Bridges on Highway No. 74. There was a ford in the river at Grassy Island
where people could cross in normal times. Frequently, however, they came by slow
journey which lasted for several days to attend court, only to find that the river was
flooded and they they had to return home without reaching their destination.
Finally, Richmond County was created from Anson County on November 10, 1779, by
the North Carolina Assembly meeting in session in Halifax. The new Richmond County
comprised all of the area of Anson east of the Pee Dee River.
While on the subject of the formation of counties, it should be recorded that Scotland
County was formed from Richmond and a part of Robeson County in 1899.
A Temporary County Seat
There was no town in the new County of Richmond,and the first court was held in the
Presbyterian Meeting House which stood in the Zion Community about three and
one-half miles west of the present City of Rockingham. This court was held December
27, 1779, and some of the papers from this court have been preserved, among which
are the bonds of the first Register of Deeds and the first Clerk of the Court.
The bond of the first sheriff has not been located, but the bond of the second sheriff
is on file in the Richmond County Court House at the present time. Officials of the new
court at its first meeting were William Love, Clerk; John Donaldson, Sheriff; Charles
Medlock, Register of Deeds; James Hicks and George Walters, Coroners; John
Crawford, Surveyor; Robert Webb, Entry Taker; and William Legate, Ranger.
The position of Entry Taker was a very important office in the early days of Richmond
County, for much of the land was unappropriated and all one had to do was to file notice
of entry and if no one claimed the land, the entry taker ordered a survey to be made
and the land granted to the person entering it. The records of the entry taker were
very valuable because they became the proof of property ownership. The early court
records reveal that Robert Webb had his house plundered and the entry book
destroyed by the Timothy Guard and a band of Tories in the year 1781. The court
ordered a new book to be made up from "the locations," and this book is still preserved
in the Richmond County Court House.
New County Seat Is Born
On June 2, 1784, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed an Act (Chapter
XLV) for "establishing and laying out a town in Richmond County by the name of
Rockingham." A committee of seven men was appointed and "empowered to agree with
workmen for building a court house, prison,and stocks at such place as they, or a
majority of them shall agree upon, as near the center of the county as possible, and
purchase of the owners of the land selected 50 acres for erecting and building those
public buildings upon." The following seven men were named to the committee - Henry
William Harrington, John Donalson, William Legate, John Cole, Robert Webb, Robert
Thomas and Richard Pemberton. Authority was given to levy a tax of two shillings on the
100 pounds of valuation for two years and two shillings per person who did not own that
much property. Funds from this tax plus funds to be derived from the sale of lots in
the county seat were to be used to construct the needed public buildings. Actually, the
site had already been settled upon by a committee previously appointed by the
Richmond County Court meeting in session in the Zion Community. The area selected had
been known as the Richmond Courthouse until this Act was passed by the General
The new town of Rockingham was named in the Act authorized by the Legislature at
Hillsboro on June 2, 1784, after the Marquess of Rockingham - Charles
Watson-Wentworth. Charles was born May 13, 1730, the fifth and only surviving son of
Thomas Watson-Wentworth who was the first Marquess of Rockingham.
What is the meaning of the name "Rockingham"? We are told that the word "ham" in
Anglo-Saxon times meant a pasture enclosed or hemmed in by a fence. "Rocking,"
or "Hroccing," was a family name in the Watson family. "Rockingham," therefore,
means an enclosed meadow belonging to the Rocking family, lord of the manor.
New County Seat Develops
The original commissioners appointed by the County court for the purpose of selecting
the site for the County Seat were Henry W. Harrington, John Cole Sr., and Robert
Even though they were appointed in 1779, the new site was not chosen until 1781
and the property was not bought until April 1, 1785. In the meantime, the General
Assembly of North Carolina passed the act referred to in the preceding section and
enlarged the site selection committee to the seven men listed. However, the Act did
include the same three men appointed by the County Court in 1779.
It is thought that many sites were considered but that the present site of Rockingham
was chosen because it was located at the junction of Falling Creek and Hitchcock
Creek with the availability of abundant water power to run grist mills and
possibly sawmills. Also, this was at a time when water navigation was an important
means of transportation and the baby town might sometime be at the head of
navigation, leading down Hitchcock Creek to the Pee Dee River. A few years later, the
creek was cleared and an attempt was made to use it for transportation purposes. In
addition, this site was on a high knoll which was sandy and dry and relatively free from
mosquitoes, which were more abundant in swampy areas. Then, too, spring water was
available and it is thought that local politics may have played some part in the site
It was not until April 1, 1785, that actual land was bought for the county seat.
Eighteen acres were bought from John James Sr., for 6 pounds and 4 shillings (about
$30); and 32 acres from John Cole for 9 pounds and 12 shillings (about $50). This land
was on the road leading from the mountains to Cross Creek (Fayetteville), and passage
across the river was by Webb's and Haley's ferries. The commissioners in 1785
proceeded to lay off a public square, streets, and lots - funds from the sale of the lots
going to the county.
The streets were named for Revolutionary war heroes - Washington, Franklin,
Hancock, Lawrence, Greene (after General Nathaniel Greene who was to General
Washington what Stonewall Jackson was to General Robert E. Lee), and Randolph.
Lawrence was named for James Lawrence, a naval officer who captured the British
ship Peacock, and Randolph was for Peyton Randolph, presiding officer of the first
Continental Congress. Washington Street was made 65 feet wide to serve as the main
street and the other streets were laid off 49.5 feet wide.
The Commissioners laid off the town in lots from No. 1 through No. 76, and the first
sale was in 1786. The following sale was recorded: Buckner Lance, Lot No. 1; William H.
Harris, Lots No. 2 and No. 64; Charles Medlock, Lot No. 3; William Husband, Lots No. 4,
13, and 15; William Love, Lots No. 9, 19, and 52; and John Wall, Lot No. 8. All the other
lots were sold to John and William Cole, James Terry, John Speed, James Hines,
Thomas Crawford, F.A. Leak, John McAister, William Wall, Willian Hunter, Robert
Webb, Thomas Williams, J. and A. Freeman, and J. Dickerson. Lot No. 3 is where the
County Jail is now located, and Lot No. 75 is where the old McRae (now Pickett) house is
located, across the street from the First Methodist Church property. The Methodist
Church occupies Lots No. 13, 14, 34, and 35.
One acre was reserved for a court house lot, which acre is now Harrington Square. The
first court house was located on the Square near where the Southern National Bank is
now located. The court house was a frame building built on stilts with Washington
Street running underneath it. This construction allowed people to drive under and
leave their horses and wagons in the shade or out of the rain. This also provided a good
loafing place for those who attended court and for such visitors that might pass
through the town. The exact date of the construction of the court house is not
known, but it was probably around 1785 when the first lots were sold. There was
also a jail built on the Court Square in the southwest corner, and there was a whipping
post which was used until the War Between the States. The jail was built by Micajah
Gainey, who had been on officer in the British Army in South Carolina during the
Revolutionary War. Walter Leak drew up the plans and then refused to accept the
building because it was not built to specifications; however, a compromise was finally
worked out and the building accepted.
The first court house was later sold and a new brick building built about 1840
where the Confederate Monument now stands. This building was used until 1889
when a new court house was built, this being the third court house constructed.
Then, in 1924 the present courthouse was erected on Franklin Street at a cost of
The first academy, chartered as the Richmond Academy, was first located on Lots 11
and 12, and much later moved to Lots 17, 18, 30 and 31 where the old Rockingham
Grammar School stood. The academy was created by an act passed by the General
Assembly November 3, 1788.
The original town as laid out by the Commission extended from the western terminus of
the Public Square to the street on the east side of the Methodist Church and from
Greene to Franklin Streets - three streets running east-west and four streets running
north-south. No official record has been found to indicate when the limits were first
extended but some contend that this was in 1867. The road from the mountains to
Cross Creek (Fayetteville) ran along Washington Street and continued out into the
country as Fayetteville Road which is now Highway No. 1. There were two roads leading
to the Pee Dee River - one leading to Webb's Ferry and one leading to Haley's Ferry.
One of the Commissioners lived on the Webb Road, one on the Haley Road and a third
lived at the junction of the two roads. it was perhaps a sort of compromise that led the
three finally to select the site of the county seat where it is located today.
In 1869 the Town Board ordered a street opened from the Square northward to
Hitchcock Creek (to the Leak grist mill). This is now North Lee Street. In January
1900, the Board ordered Washington Street extended to the east from the
Methodist Church corner, and a jury of six men assessed the damages to be paid to
property owners - to H.M. Russell $50, S.W. Steele $100, Alexander Stewart $29.50,
Tillman Dunn $5, heirs of R.L. Steele $200.
In 1908 Henry C. Wall Jr. opened three new streets in the Wall Development and
held an auction on these lots. The lots were 50 x 200 feet and sold from $50 to $780
per lot. Penny Brothers, twin auctioneers, cried the sale. The three new streets were
named Ann, Wall, and Foushee (after his family). Up until 1923 the present Lee
Street was known as Long Street, New Street, or Hinson's Alley. The present
Robinson Street was named by Captain W.I. Everett in honor of Mrs. Mourning
Robinson, who about 175 years ago had a house on the site of the home occupied by him
at the time.
In the June 20, 1908 issue of The Anglo-Saxon was this item: "There is some talk of
extending Hancock, or Spring Street as some call it, southward to the Leak woods, and
thence across the railroad on a bridge and thus eliminate a dangerous railroad
intersection at the depot." This was done later and in 1957 the bridge was widened to
accomodate dual-lane traffic.
The town board met June 13, 1910, and ordered that North Street (now Covington
Street) be opened southward across the H.C. Wall pasture to intersect with
Washington Street (now Fayetteville Road). Mrs. H.C. Wall was offered $100 for the
right-of-way but she refused it. The board then ordered condemnation proceedings,
but this was never carried out and the street was not built. Also, in 1910 the town
board ordered an extension of the street between the homes of Mrs. E.D. Whitlock
and George Warburton to be built eastward to connect with Pee Dee Street (now
Steele Street). This was never done.
When the L.J. Bell School was built in 1952, the school board had Flowers Street
extended to cross Steele Street and connect with Covington. It was hoped that this
street could be extended on in a westerly direction to connect with North Randolph,
but this was never done.
In 1952 the school board donated to the town a ten-foot-wide strip along Lawrence
Street so that the street could be widened, and a five-foot strip along Hawthorn
Avenue was donated so that the street to the Bell School could be widened.
In July of 1945, South Lee was re-paved and widened by three feet, and it was again
widened in the recent urban renewal program. Fox Drug Store tore down iron stairs on
the west side of the building in 1944 and the sidewalk was widened to 10 feet. In July
1935, Washington Street was re-paved and widened east of the Square, and during the
urban renewal program it was widened west of the square.
On April 17, 1923, the town board officially changed the names of these streets -
New Street changed to Lee, Pee Dee Street to Steele Street, Kenny to Leak,
Methodist Church corner to Falling Creek changed from Hamlet Road to Rockingham
Road, South Washington or New Washington to Washington Street or East Washington
The town board on May 2, 1955 adopted one-way traffic on Washington, Franklin, Lee,
Hancock, and Pearl Streets. This action was taken to facilitate traffic flow and to
stave off the re-routing of Highway No. 1 around the town. In 1984 one-way traffic
remains in effect on parts of Washington, Franklin, and Hancock Streets.
Parking meters were installed in the business section of Rockingham August 13,
1947 - 216 meters. The meters were removed by action of the Rockingham City
Council meeting in session April 13, 1971. At this meeting Glenn Baxley moved that
the parking meters be discontinued on a three-month trial basis, and the motion was
seconded by G.R. Kindley. The motion passed and the meters were discontinued on a
temporary basis. Then, on July 1, 1971, the Board voted to discontinue the parking
meters permanently except for those located in off-street parking areas.