Granville County History:
Oxford in Context
The land known
today as Granville County was once the home of many Indian tribes, dominated
mainly by the Tuscarora. After the Tuscarora War of 1711, settlers mostly from
Virginia began to populate this area, attracted by the abundant game,
well-watered wood, and rich land.
By 1746, the area had a population
sufficiently large enough to merit becoming an independent county, separating
itself from Edgecombe County's western frontier. Since most of the land in the
northern half of North Carolina was part of the proprietary domain of Lord John
Carteret (by title known as the Earl of Granville) the county was named
Granville in his honor. Over the years, Granville yielded areas to new counties
as settlements grew: Orange (1752), Bute (1764, which in turn became Franklin
and Warren in 1779), and Vance (1881).
Samuel Benton was Granville County's
representative to the State Assembly in 1761, when he purchased 1000 acres of
land and built a plantation home known as "Oxford." In 1764, the Assembly
ordered that this area be known as the county seat and Benton gave one acre of
land where the courthouse was to be built. Not until 1811 did the Assembly
authorize the county to buy 50 acres around the courthouse from Thomas
Littlejohn and began to lay out the town, selling lots at public auction in
1812, and incorporating the town in 1816.
Through the colonial and revolutionary
periods, the county was the home of a number of citizens of considerable social
influence in North Carolina. Most notable was John Penn, a landowner in present
day Stovall, who was elected in 1775 to be a member of the Continental Congress.
He was one of North Carolina's three signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Granville County plantations and farms had some of the state's best
agriculturists, consistently growing large crops of tobacco with the help of
slave population. Oxford had become a sophisticated town and was famous as
a seat of learning by the creation of several academies and colleges. Although Granville was one of five counties with as many of 10,000 slaves, there was also
a sizable community of free blacks claiming dozens of craftsmen, especially
masons who helped build the grand homes of the more affluent families.
With the outbreak of the Civil War,
several militia companies were formed, among them the "Granville Grays." It is
estimated that over 1,500 Granville County men participated vigorously in many
battles until the war's end.
The fall of the plantation economy
based on slavery did not end Granville County's dependence on tobacco profits.
The discovery of Bright Tobacco, which is cultivated in a sandy soil rather than
rich clay soil and is "flue-dried," provided a greater incentive to cultivate
the golden leaf. with the coming of railroads, tobacco warehouses and factories
were built. Smaller farms with hired labor, renters, and sharecroppers
increased. New towns of Stovall, Stem, and Creedmoor were created on these rail
lines. Because the sand soil found in the southern townships was best suited to
grow Bright Tobacco, the shift of the county's economic focus turned southwards
where farm laborers migrated.
Bright Tobacco brought business to
Oxford. Businessmen positioned themselves to take advantage of this new industry
and many merchants, lawyers, and doctors set up shop in town. New schools,
churches, literary societies, and two orphanages were formed. By the late 19th
century, this thriving local economy resulted in a beautiful brick commercial
district which included as many as three banks, general and hardware stores, an
opera house, various professional offices, and new types of businesses.
Two world wars and the Depression
brought many changes to Granville County. Even with revenues from Bright
Tobacco, many Granvillians left the county for larger cities with more
opportunities. The establishment of Camp Butner at the beginning of World War II
engulfed many of their homes and tobacco fields, but spawned what is today a
thriving community due to the various hospital and prison facilities situated in
Seeing the need for attracting new
industries to the county, several local business leaders formed organizations in
the 1950s and 1960s to accomplish this task. By the 1980s, there were 38 major
manufacturing industries in the county, principally around Oxford and Creedmoor.
After more than two centuries, Granville County no longer has a primarily
Even though many changes
have occurred since 1746, there is a sense of tradition and place. A visitor
once noted that "the people of Granville County are tops" and in 1830, an
advertisement noted "The village of Oxford, in Granville County, present
inducements, whether health, comfort, or pleasure equal to any in the state. It
is decidedly the most beautiful village in North Carolina." Granvillians believe
these descriptions of one of the oldest counties in one of the thirteen original
states to still be true.