Author: Emily McDowell, Assistant State Archaeologist/OSARC
Built along the Roanoke River, the town of Halifax was established by a group of merchants in 1757 as a commercial center, taking advantage of the fertile land and easy transport the river provided. In 1758, Edgecombe County was divided, and the town of Halifax became the seat of the newly formed Halifax County. By 1760 the town had become a vital social and commercial hub in North Carolina. Halifax was the center of many North Carolina events, including the signing of the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776, the first official colonial call for independence.
The town served as the political and legal center of the county, so of course they needed a courthouse! The first courthouse was constructed in the 1760s at the center of the flourishing colonial town, which is documented on the 1769 town map by C.J. Sauthier. Originally a small wooden structure, it was used for trials, voting, and housing colonial records. By the early 1800s the ever-growing population in Halifax county had already outgrown the small courthouse, and it could no longer support the needs of an expanding county. By 1832, two devastating fires in Fayetteville and Raleigh prompted the building of a fire-proof clerk house to protect important documents right next to the aging courthouse. By 1845 the colonial courthouse was in constant need of repair and a new, larger structure was commissioned in 1846. In 1849, the original courthouse was sold and dismantled.
The exact orientation and location of the original courthouse is still a mystery. Archaeological investigations by Stanley South in the 1960s revealed a few interesting brick features in the field behind the still-standing clerk’s office, and South suggested they may have been associated with this structure, but he did not explore them further. Last fall (2018), a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey by East Carolina University found an anomaly, or abnormality, in the same field investigated by South. We at the Office of State Archaeology speculated this anomaly might be one of the features encountered by South and associated with the lost courthouse. In our ongoing efforts to support continued research at NC State Historic Sites, we went out to do an archaeological excavation for three days in November, and what we found was not what we expected!
We found brick, just as South had, but it was not laid in a pathway or built into a foundation. Instead, we appeared to have encountered a pile of discarded broken brick. Other artifacts mingled with the broken brick including glass, nails, and ceramics, most of which date to the time of the first courthouse. Our current explanation is that we have uncovered a drainage ditch, perhaps present when the courthouse was standing or created during the deconstruction of the building. Whole bricks were likely reused elsewhere in town, but it appears that the broken ones were tossed aside into this ditch which also collected other trash like broken plates, cups, bottles, and personal items.
Join us May 8-10, 2019 at Halifax State Historic Site as we continue our search for the elusive courthouse!
-Halifax State Historic Site
-Sauthier 1769 map of Halifax, NC, courtesy of NC Office of State Archaeology
-Archaeologists excavating at Historic Halifax, courtesy of NC Office of State Archaeology