Why do we have townships in North Carolina? What purpose do they serve? Earlier today, the North Carolina Room received a question that prompted our staff to investigate the history of townships in our state.

A customer was going through some family heirlooms and discovered some documents that her ancestor had signed in the 1800s. This ancestor, who lived in Old Town in Forsyth County, signed the document as “Township Clerk.” The customer became curious about the selection and job requirements for a township clerk. Was a township clerk an elected official? What did they do every day?

In order to understand this, we had to investigate the history of townships in North Carolina. We looked in local history books, government books, and even tried books about the history of occupations. We finally found our answer, thanks to Lise, in a basic reference book about the structure of government in North Carolina. County and Municipal Government in North Carolina, published in 2007 by the UNC School of Government, has a chapter entitled “An Overview of Local Government” that includes a section on the early history of local government in North Carolina. You can read it online for free. 

 The North Carolina Constitution, when rewritten in 1868, incorporated a new method for organizing the counties in the state. Upon ratification of the rewritten constitution, each county was subdivided into townships with three elected officials: two justices of the peace and one clerk. These officials served two-year terms as the governing body for each township, regulating roads and bridges, as well as managing taxation and property assessment under the supervision of the county commissioner. Each township also had a school board (3 members) and at least one constable. This system resembles the townships of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

One might imagine that our customer’s ancestor was quite powerful, considering his work with property and taxation. However, the township system was short-lived. The Republican Party after the Civil War consisted primarily of delegates from the northern states (many derided as “carpetbaggers”), and the township system undermined the political power established by Confederate landowners and merchants in the antebellum period.

Power shifted from the Republican Party to the newly-formed Conservative party (mostly former Confederates) around 1875. The constitution was amended to permit the North Carolina General Assembly to change the system created in 1868, and townships were stripped of their government system in 1877. Township titles were maintained as informal county subdivisions (sometimes for the census and infrastructure maintenance) but townships would no longer have any official government function.

Adelaide Fries’ book Forsyth: The History of a County on the March, explores how Forsyth County dealt with the legislature’s decision to divide the county into townships, starting on page 154. The county surveyor, M. H. Morris, ran the new township lines in twenty-five days and a map was drawn in December 1868 by James T. Lineback showing three tiers of four rectangular townships (this map may be found at the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem). A map showing the state’s townships (as of 1886, years after the powerof townships had been removed) was created by A. W. Shaffer and is available on NC Maps.

The townships in Forsyth County today are: Abbots Creek, Belews Creek, Bethania, Broadbay, Clemmonsville, Kernersville, Lewisville, Middle Fork, Old Richmond, Old Town, Salem Chapel, South Fork, Vienna, and Winston.