The North Carolina General Assembly created Rockingham County from the northern portion of Guilford County on December 29, 1785. The new county was named for Charles Watson Wentworth, the Second Marquis of Rockingham, who served as Great Britain’s Prime Minister from 1765-1766 and in 1782.
In 1786 the first session of the Rockingham County Court of Pleas and Quarter Session convened at the home of Adam Tate at Eagle Falls on the south side of the Dan River. A site for a county seat was secured in 1787 on the land of Constantine Perkins and Charles Gallaway near the center of the county.
The site was located on a high ridge just east of Rockhouse Creek between Bear and Rocky branches. Public buildings were then constructed and the county court convened in the new courthouse in November 1787. Action by the General Assembly in 1798 established the town of “Wentworth” at the county seat.
In early North Carolina government was largely in the hands of the County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions composed of a “board” of Justices of the Peace appointed to the court by the Governor and, in later years, by the General Assembly. In addition to other duties, the responsibilities of the court included:
- hearing civil suits and minor criminal cases,
- providing for public buildings,
- probating decedent’s estates,
- ruling on individual cases of lunacy,
- caring for orphans and illegitimate children, and
- maintaining public roads and bridges
Those appointed to the county court served for life and, as appointments were made with ever-increasing volume during the nineteenth century, the court became quite large. Although up to forty to fifty justices were serving, there were seldom more than four to six justices present whenever quarterly court was in session. Elections for county officers usually brought out most of the justices at least once a year.
The county court appointed other county officers such as:
- the sheriff, the county’s chief enforcer of law and in later years the tax collector;
- clerk of court, who recorded all court proceedings;
- trustee, the equivalent of treasurer;
- register of deeds;
- entry taker, who represented the government concerning land grants;
- road overseers;
- standard keepers, who maintained the system and rate of weights and measurements throughout the county;
- wardens of the poor, who oversaw the county’s poor and needy with special attention to the county home;
- coroners, who held inquests into unnatural deaths;
- patrolers, who kept the slave population in control, and
- constables, who executed the directives of the justices.
With the passage of the North Carolina Public School of Act of 1839, each county was instructed to appoint a county board of superintendents of the common schools consisting of some five to ten prominent citizens. This board of superintendents was responsible for the numerous school districts in the county and also appointed local committees in each of those districts for the schools therein.
Following the overthrow of the Confederate Government, the North Carolina Constitution was rewritten in 1868, by draftsmen familiar with the forms of local government in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. This new constitution greatly changed county government.
The position of justice of the peace was retained but the county court was abolished. The court’s legal duties were largely assigned to the Superior Court and the administrative duties of the court were assigned to the newly created board of county commissioners. The board of commissioners was composed of five members elected by the county’s voters at large. Moreover, the voters would now elect the sheriff, register, clerk, coroner, surveyor, and treasurer (the office of trustee was abolished).
The county was divided into townships (now numbering eleven) in which the voters therein elected two justices of the peace and a clerk to serve as the governing body of the township. Each township also had one constable. The township system never developed to a great extent in the state and today exists only for administrative purposes.
With the return of the Conservatives (Democrats) to power in the state, the Constitution was again amended in 1875. The board of commissioners was retained, but its members were chosen by the county justices in called session. All other officers, since 1868 elected by the voters, were to be appointed by either the justices or the commissioners. In addition, the office of county treasurer was made optional, allowing the sheriff to serve as treasurer ex officio if the office was abolished, which was the case in Rockingham County after 1890.
Under an act in 1876, the county commissioners constituted the county board of education. Soon, however, the joint sessions of the justices and commissioners elected the board of education. Beginning in 1881, the two boards and the justices elected a county superintendent of public instruction (school superintendent). After 1901 the board of education was elected by the legislature and, beginning in 1918, board members were nominated by the county conventions. Today, school boards are elected by the voters by district.
The state constitution was again amended in 1895. Restoring the elections of the board of commissioners to the voters and the reduction in the powers of the justices were among the many changes made. Briefly the number of the board of commissioners was reduced to three, but was soon returned to the traditional five.
The present century has witnessed the creation of numerous offices such as county manager, auditor, finance officer, tax supervisor, superintendent of health (originally created to inspect and treat conditions at the county home and jail), and others. Today the county’s elected positions include sheriff, commissioners, register, clerk of court, and school board. The remaining positions are appointed. - Taken from "Historical Sketch on Rockingham County Government" by Michael Perdue