Burke County, North Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2010)



Thomas Burke - Governor of NC


Legislative Act Creating County

First Settled / By

County Evolution by Decade

Official County Website

Click Here

1760s / English Welsh, Scots-Irish

Click Here

Click Here

Historical Post Offices

American Revolution

American Civil War

Significant Education Events

Alphabetical / Date Started

Battles & Skirmishes / Militia

Coming Later

Click Here

Airports in Burke County

Maps of Burke County

Books About Burke County

Genealogy Sources

Click Here

Click Here

Click Here

Click Here

A History of Burke County

Henderson Grist Mill - 1912

The Act establishing Burke County specified that the first court was to be held at a place the justices should decide until they selected a permanent place for the court house and had it constructed. In 1784, Morgansborough was established and made the county seat, and was since renamed to Morgantown, then Morganton, the current county seat.
Burke County's roots go back to the days of the earliest settlers in the Catawba valley basin. In November of 1776, the Fifth 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 Dr. Thomas Burke, then a representative in the Continental Congress and later to be the third governor of the state. Governor Thomas Burke was born in Ireland and later migrated to Orange County, North Carolina.

The new county of Burke comprised such a large territory that it later became the mother of all or part of sixteen 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 court house 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 court house until 1833 when a two-story building was authorized by the General Assembly. During the last year of the American Civil War, Federal raiders under Major General George Stoneman allegedly threw many court records out on the court house square and burned them. In 1901, a complete remodeling was done. Until vacated for the new court house in 1976, the Old Burke County Court House was the oldest public structure still being used for its originally designated purpose in western North Carolina.

At the end of the Civil War, the Federals demanded that North Carolina modify its State Constitution, which was approved in 1868, and gave citizens of all counties 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 was initially 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 now 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.

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 in the north to its green rolling hills in 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.

Northern Irish (Orangemen, Presbyterians, Scots-Irish), English, and Highland Scots were among the first to arrive in Burke County after the French and Indian War in the early 1760s. Unlike their English-speaking brethren to the east, these settlers arrived mainly from Pennsylvania, traversing the Shenandoah Valley and arriving at what today is Burke County. 

The German-speaking community arrived earlier, with the presence of Moravian Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenburg. First settling with companions in Quaker Meadow in 1752, the stay would not last long. Much like the the Roanoke Colony, this initial settlement would soon be abandoned. Being 70-80 miles from the nearest settlement the isolation was probably unbearable. Fortunate for these early colonists, their retreat to Wachovia was timely, for the French and Indian War soon began.

Although the first battles of the American Revolution occurred in the north, the fighting later shifted to Charles Town and the southern backcountry due to a plan by British commander Sir Henry Clinton to divide and conquer the rebel colonies. With this strategy, a British army led by Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis would destroy all Patriot forces in the Carolina Piedmont while Major Patrick Ferguson raised an army of American Volunteers in the backcountry. At the same time, Major Ferguson intended to incite Cherokee Indians of the Blue Ridge Mountains to attack colonial frontier settlements from Georgia to Virginia.

As battles raged in South Carolina, British Regulars and American Loyalists marched as far north as Ramseur's Mill (Lincolnton), Cane Creek (Dysartsville), and Pleasant Gardens (Marion) to only be turned back by local Patriot militia units. This threat of further invasion caused the backwoods settlements along the eastern foothills to develop their own scheme to stop the British.

During the summer of 1780, Isaac Shelby and John Sevier organized Patriots in "Old Burke" along the Watauga and Nolachucky rivers (present northeast Tennessee) and sent messengers into the countryside to raise defenders. On September 25, Shelby and Sevier gathered at Sycamore Shoals with over 400 men. William Campbell of Virginia arrived with an additional 400 riflemen. A unit of some 160 Burke County militiamen were already camped in the area, and their leader, Colonel Charles McDowell, traveled home to announce that these Patriots were on their way.

Now numbering more than 900 strong, the Sycamore Shoals militiamen marched south on September 26 intending to fight Major Patrick Ferguson somewhere near Gilbert Town (near present-day Rutherfordton). This impressive number arrived at Major Joseph McDowell's Quaker Meadows farm on September 30, 1780. On the same day they were joined by Colonel Benjamin Cleveland from Wilkes County and Major Joseph Winston from Surry County with an additional 350 men.

The combined forces camped at Quaker Meadows in Burke Coounty now totaled more than 1,400 men. That evening the leaders, all colonels, met in council under a handsome, wide-branching oak tree in a nearby field to discuss their plans. As history records, it was these "barbarians" (as British Major Ferguson named them) who then ambled southward from to meet their destiny at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.

Henry River Village and Mills

Just before the American Civil War began, a machine shop was located in eastern Burke County because of the great amount of water power there. The little settlement was called Henry River for an early explorer named Henry Whitner.

In the early 1900s, Michael Rudisill, a native of Lincoln County, learned of the water power at Henry River, so he decided to build a cotton mill along the river there. Others soon came to the area and together they formed a corporation called the Henry River Manufacturing Company. The settlement consisted of the company store, the cotton mill, a two-story boarding house, and several small houses for the mill employees.

By 1905, Henry River Mills was complete and operating in the manufacturing of fine cotton yarns, most of which was sold in New York. Eventually a large brick store building was built to supply the mill workers with groceries and other goods. The second floor served as a school, a meeting place, and as a church. The company came under new ownership but continued to manufacture yarn until the early 1970s.

Many changes occurred in the mill town through the years. Students who met for school in the store building were moved to Hildebran School. Mt. Hebron Lutheran Church moved from the store to the town of Hildebran. Many of the millworker's homes were occupied by families who were employed elsewhere.


Located about five miles northeast of Morganton, this town was once named Hoodsville after the town's first postmaster. It was also home to the Adako Indians.


This town first served as a center for a sawmill and was on the original railroad line coming through Burke County. As more men came to work at the sawmill, the town began to grow. The name of the town came from a rich family who owned part of the railroad. At first, Drexel was called Baker. Today, Drexel is home of Drexel Furniture Company, one of the world's largest manufacturers of furniture. This industry began in 1906 when Samuel Huffman began a small factory in which to make bedroom furniture. There are and have been hosiery mills located in Drexel also.


This town was begun in 1895 when A.Y. Sigmun opened a small store and sawmill near the railroad lines. In 1902, a factory to manufacture cotton cloth was established. It was called the Henry River Mills, which consisted of seventy-five homes grouped around the mill, and was part of the Hildebran community. Because of its close location to the Henry River, waterpower was used for the mills, and the railroad was used to transport goods.

Rutherford College

In 1858, John Rutherford gave a large amount of land in eastern Burke County to Robert Laban Abernathy of Lincoln County for the purpose of opening a school in a little village known as Excelsior. The school was called Rutherford Academy. It was later called Rutherford Seminary because many of the students graduating went on to school to become ministers. Later, the school became a four-year college and the name was changed to Rutherford College. In 1901, the State of North Carolina changed the town's name from Excelsior to Rutherford College because the college was so important in the town's growth.

Connelly Springs

Once called Happy Home, it owes its existence to the railroad. About 1886, a mineral springs was discovered nearby and was used for certain medical purposes. Water from the springs was believed to help cure certain sicknesses and so it was shipped to various parts of the United States. The name Connelly Springs was chosen in honor of Colonel William L. Connelly, an early settler of the town. At one time, a huge hotel with over 100 rooms was used as a vacation spot.

Glen Alpine

This town was built around the railroad in 1868 and was once known as Turkey Tail because a tree beside the railroad tracks resembled a turkey. It later became known as Sigmunsburg. The famous Glen Alpine Springs Hotel was once a popular vacation spot.


Located six miles from Morganton, Enola was settled by several families who farmed and logged for timber. In the early 1800s and 1900s the Enola community began to grow to include four stores, a barbershop, a blacksmith shop, a school, a post office, a shingle mill, and a post office. Many stories are told about where the name Enola came from. The most accepted one is about a man who was passing through one day and commented on how alone this place was, and he suggested that the word alone be spelled backwards to make Enola.


Rhodhiss is a small town located on the Catawba River in eastern Burke County. It was started when George Hiss and John Rhodes built a water powered cotton mill beside the river, thus the name Rhodhiss. At one time, the town consisted of a post office and a general store along with homes occupied by the mill workers.

George Hildebrand

The community of George Hildebrand began when a man named George Hildebrand came to the area to earn money cutting timber for a landowner. After the timber was cut, Hildebrand bought the land and started his own lumber business. First, he had a sawmill and a shingle mill, then a blacksmith shop and dry kiln was added. Many years later, a cotton gin was added. Hildebrand's lumber business grew as he hauled lumber by wagon to customers in Morganton and Hickory. Most lumber delivered to Hickory was shipped to other parts of the Southeast by train.

After George Hildebrand built the lumber plant, his house and barns, set out orchards, planted fields of grain and hay, and had green pastures for his cattle, he and his wife decided to call, the place "Locust Hill."

© 2019 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved