This article was written by Rhonda Gunter, who teaches history, political science, and Appalachian culture courses at Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine.
Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions were the governing authorities in North Carolina counties as early as 1670. ”Pleas” referred to common law, while “Sessions” had jurisdiction over criminal cases such as misdemeanors and lesser felonies. The County Court, as it was usually called, consisted of Justices of the Peace recommended by the county’s Assemblymen and appointed by the governor. Appointments were for life on good behavior, and at least three had to be present to hold court four times during the year (each quarter). Call sessions were held on certain occasions. The Court could try most civil cases and certain criminal cases, and it had jurisdiction over orphans and slaves.
For many years, the Court appointed nearly all the county officers, including sheriff, constables, rangers, inspectors, coroners, registers, surveyors, wardens of the poor, and various commissioners. It also levied taxes, saw to the probate of wills and the administration of estates, provided for widows, appointed overseers to maintain established roads and commissions to lay out new ones, regulated mills, bridges, and ferries, and granted licenses to distill or sell alcoholic beverages. Obviously, the County Court performed not only judicial function, but legislative and executive as well.
Records reveal that Mitchell’s first County Court was held on Monday, 3 June 1861. The Minutes begin, “Be it remembered that a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions is this day opened and held for the County of Mitchell, at Eben Childs, under an Act of the General Assembly passed at the Session of 1860-1861.” Justices of the Peace prior to Mitchell’s formation, Tilmon Blalock, David Davenport, J.C. Green, W.W. Buchanan, T.M. Sparks, Levi Chandler, S.J. Buchanan, J.C. Howell, and J.B. Palmer, were present, as were newly sworn J.P.’s M.D. Wiseman, Leonard Gurley, Moses Young, and S.M. Collis.
The first order of business was to put in place county officers:
- J.H. Green – Clerk of Court, who was directed to purchase books for his office
- A.A. Wiseman – Sheriff
- Alfred M. Erwin of McDowell County – Solicitor
- John Ellis – Register
- W.G. Wiseman – Coroner
- Levi Chandler and J.B. Marler – Surveyors
- John C. Keener – Trustee
Sheriffs and other county officials were required to provide bonds; for Sheriff Wiseman, there were three $10,000 bonds, with J.W. Wiseman, A. Wiseman, Thomas J. Wiseman, Leonard M. Gurley, J.C. Blalock, James G. Wiseman, and David Davenport as securities, while Clerk Green’s $5000 bond was secured by Jesse Blalock, J.C. Green, T.M. Sparks, and Tilmon Blalock.
Minutes for the first governing body of Mitchell County adjourn with plans to meet “the 10th Monday after the 4th Monday in June 1861” at the Baptist Meeting House on Bear Creek.
Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions continued all powerful until 1868, when they were abolished by the new State Constitution. The void created at the county level was filled by the system of boards of Commissioners, much the system still used in North Carolina counties today. Usually popularly elected, Commissioners were assigned the power to levy county taxes and direct county finances as the County Court had done before.