A Brief History of Guilford County
European settlers began arriving sometime in the late 1740’s in the area that would become Guilford. There were Native Americans already in the area, of course; but they soon retreated in response to all the pioneers arriving in search of cheap land and distance from various forces, such as British colonial restrictions on religion.
The first and predominant European settler groups to arrive in the area were:
(1) Germans, both Reformed and Lutheran, who settled in the eastern part of the county;
(2) Society of Friends (Quaker) groups originally from England and Wales, often migrating inland from settlements on the NC coast and Nantucket in New England, largely settling in the south and the west of the county;
(3) Scots-Irish Presbyterians, mostly from Pennsylvania and Maryland, who tended to settle in the central part of the county.
These settlements did not have definite boundaries. The different groups mixed and blended, and lived alongside each other in relative harmony.
When researching the people and families of Guilford, it is important to keep in mind the fact that Guilford County was created out of parts of Rowan and Orange counties (western 2/3 came from Rowan, eastern 1/3 came from Orange). Guilford County’s administration of its territory began on 1 April 1771, so no Guilford records exist prior to that time. All prior records will be in the records for Rowan and Orange.
Guilford County’s own genealogy
Guilford was named for Francis North, 1st Earl of Guilford, and father of Frederick North, Lord North, British Prime Minister from 1770-1782. “Old Guilford” was once three times its present size. Randolph County was created from the southern third of Guilford in 1779, and Rockingham County was created from the northern third of Old Guilford in 1785.
On 15 March 1781, General Nathanael Greene and his forces fought British General Charles Cornwallis and the British Army in what became known as the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. This battle is considered a turning point of the Revolutionary War, as it contributed substantially to the failure of the British Southern Campaign, and preceded Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown seven months later. Officially, Cornwallis won the battle, because Greene strategically retreated at the end, but it caused so many British casualties that it was said, “Another such victory would be the ruin of the British Army.”
With the labor-intensive crops that Southern colonial farmers often grew, the practice of buying and using slaves to raise crops soon invaded the area. Some Quakers did own slaves during the late 1700’s, but the Quaker congregations started divesting themselves of slaves in the early 1800’s, followed by or at the same time of the substantial Quaker migrations to the new slavery-free territories opening in the Midwest. These migrations had a major impact on the county’s Quaker population, and many Quakers who remained here were involved in the Underground Railroad. It took the Civil War to end slavery in Guilford County, and that war left its mark on the county in a number of ways.
As the county and its towns moved through the 1800’s, many changes occurred, and there was a movement at one time to make Greensboro the state capital instead of Raleigh. That movement failed, but Guilford and Greensboro remain part of the state’s vital central area.
The first county seat was Martinville, located near the Guilford Courthouse Battle Park, until the county authorities decided to relocate to a more central place in the county. Since 1808, the county seat has been Greensboro. In 1938 a second county court was started in High Point, making Guilford one of only a few counties nationwide which have a dual court system. Guilford is part of the Piedmont Triad metropolitan area.
In 1960 the Greensboro Four, African-American students from NC A&T State University in Greensboro, started a sit-in protest at the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter. It was the beginning of the sit-in strategy used by the Civil Rights Movement. In 1979 came the tragic Greensboro Massacre, when the Ku Klux Klan attacked an African American Communist Workers Party march, when several participants were killed and wounded.
Modern-day Greensboro and Guilford County deal with the same issues encountered in other cities and counties and states, but there is still much to celebrate and enjoy in the county today. Guilford is the home of several colleges and universities. It has an active and diverse religious and spiritual community, a vital and growing business world, a beautiful natural environment, and a population which reflects the many origins and heritages of this country’s history.