Burke County History




Burke County's roots go back to the days of the earliest settlers in the Catawba Valley Basin. In November 1776, the fifth and final Provincial Congress of North Carolina convened and adopted a North Carolina State Constitution. In conformity with the new constitution, the first General Assembly convened in 1777. An act was passed, dividing Rowan County and establishing a new county as of June 1, 1777, named in honor of Thomas Burke, then a representative in the Continental Congress and later to be the third governor of the state. Governor Burke was born in Ireland and later migrated to Orange County.

The new county of Burke comprised such a large territory that it later became the mother of all or part of 16 counties including Buncombe, Catawba, Mitchell, Madison, Yancey, Caldwell, McDowell and Alexander. In 1834, Burke County was reduced to its present size of 514 square miles.

Burke County's first courthouse was built of logs in 1785 about eight years after the county was formed. A second and more substantial building was constructed in 1791 and served as the county Courthouse until 1833 when a two-story building was authorized by the General Assembly. During the last year of the Civil War, Federal raiders under General George Stoneman allegedly threw many court records out on the courthouse square and burned them. In 1901, a complete remodeling was done. Until vacated for the new courthouse in 1976, the Old Burke County Courthouse was the oldest public structure still being used for its originally designated purpose in western North Carolina.

Burke County Today

Burke County with Morganton as its seat is situated in the section of North Carolina where the rolling hills of the Piedmont blend with the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the south side of Burke County are the South Mountains. To the west are the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Burke County has about 514 square miles, or 329,469 acres, and has a population of 89,148 (census 2000). The largest landowners in Burke County, are the U.S. Government, Crescent Resources (Duke Energy Co.), and the State of North Carolina. The County also has the third largest concentration of state employment in the state through the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Department of Correction, School for the Deaf, Western Carolina Center, and Broughton Hospital. Burke County has been referred to as the "Western State Capital."

Government Growth

Counties originally were created to administer state functions and the governor appointed the first county officials, known then as Justices of the Peace. They formed the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, which performed judicial and administrative duties.

The State Constitution, approved in 1868, gave citizens of a county the authority to elect the officials who govern them -- a Board of County Commissioners. Commissioners were assigned administrative responsibilities for Burke County and judicial affairs were delegated to judges and justices. The Burke County Board of Commissioners initially was made up of five members. In 1885, the General Assembly reduced the number to three, then returned it to five in 1911. In 1957, through a referendum, commissioners' terms were staggered and lengthened to four years. The commissioners hold office four years. At the first meeting each year, the Board of Commissioners chooses one of its members to serve as chairman for the ensuing year.

County government has grown in complexity throughout the years because of new agencies and departments being added by the General Assembly to serve under the Board of Commissioners. The first county manager was appointed in 1968 to oversee all the various county departments and functions.

Gem of the South
Burke County possesses a natural beauty that equals or surpasses that of any county in the state. Its appeal has been acclaimed as being representative of a rare jewel in the vast array of gems that make up the state and this country as a whole -- the envy of communities across the globe. From its majestic purple hills to the north to its green rolling hills to the south, Burke County lies nestled in the Catawba Valley River basin seemingly protected from the severe storms so common in other parts of the state and the country.

Burke County boasts Lake James, believed to be one of the few pristine lakes remaining in the Southeast. Efforts are constantly under way to protect our lakes and streams. Efforts also to preserve a bit of Burke County's environmental heritage for posterity have resulted in the establishment of Lake James State Park and South Mountain State Park. Other attractions include the wild, rugged and scenic wilderness of Linville Gorge, the age-old mystery of the Brown Mountain Lights, panoramic vistas from the top of Table Rock, Short-Off Mountain, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Efforts by the government of Burke County, as well as clubs, agencies, organizations, and private individuals have focused on preserving the natural beauty of Burke County for posterity. The combined efforts have hinged on a philosophy that to allow the beauty and appeal of Burke County to slip through our fingers would result in the loss of a rare jewel that could never be recovered.

Source: 1998 Burke County Annual Report



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