Johnston County, North Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)



Gabriel Johnston


Legislative Act Creating County

First Settled / By

County Evolution by Decade

Official County Website

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1720s / English/Welsh, Scots-Irish

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Historical Post Offices

American Revolution

American Civil War

Significant Education Events

Alphabetical / Date Started


Battles & Skirmishes / Troops

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Airports in Johnston County

Maps of Johnston County

Books About Johnston County

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A History of Johnston County

The first court was held at the home of Francis Stringer at the Ferry of Neuse River. Court was held at Hinton's Quarter on the south side of the Neuse River 1759-1760, and probably before that date. In August of 1771, it was held at the home of John Smith. From 1771 to 1776, the county seat was called Johnston Court House. In 1771, the town of Smithfield was established "where the Court House, prison, and stocks now stand."

Mower's Attack on the Confederate Left, East of Bentonville, March 21, 1865.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

The Tuscaroras, an Iroquoian-speaking tribe, flourished in what is present-day Johnston County until the second decade of the eighteenth century. They were defeated in a bloody war with European colonists in 1711-1713, after which most Tuscaroras fled to New York where they became the sixth nation in the Iroquois confederation. Those allowed to remain in the Carolina colony were placed on a reservation in Bertie County, but many of these later followed their fellow tribesmen to New York. Tuscarora descendants still live on a reservation near Niagara Falls where much of their history and culture is kept alive. 

Johnston County was created in 1746 from Craven County and named in honor of Gabriel Johnston, North Carolina's royal governor at the time. Johnston County originally contained most of what is now Wake, Wayne, Greene, and Lenoir counties and part of Wilson County.

The first European settlers came from coastal NC and the Tidewater areas of Virginia and Maryland, many traveling along Green's Path, an old Indian trade route apparently named for Roger Green, an Anglican minister in Virginia who promoted migration to neighboring lands in North Carolina. These early settlers were primarily subsistence farmers who grew little more than was required to feed and clothe their families. Some made profits by raising large herds of swine and cattle which they drove to markets in Virginia. A few grew tobacco which they hauled on wagons to Virginia or shipped down the Neuse River to New Bern, and from there to Norfolk.

Smithfield, Johnston's first town, grew up at the site of Smith's Ferry on the Neuse River. The court house was moved there in 1771, and the town was incorporated in 1777. In 1770, the colonial General Assembly had attempted to boost North Carolina's tobacco trade by erecting a warehouse near Smith's Ferry for receiving and storing tobacco to be shipped down the Neuse River to the sea. Nonetheless, it would be another century and a quarter before this product would gain the attention of Johnston's commercial farmers.

Following the introduction of Eli Whitney's cotton gin into Johnston County around 1804, cotton gradually became the county's leading money crop. Corn was also produced for market, although profits were small in comparison to the white fleecy staple. Before the 1850s poor roads leading to distant markets were a deterent to commercial farming. Construction of the 223-mile North Carolina Railroad in 1854 placed Johnston County within the prosperous Piedmont Crescent between Goldsboro and Charlotte and meant an eventual shift from subsistence farming to market-driven agriculture. In addition to boosting cotton and grain productions, the railroad spurred growth in the turpentine and lumber industries and gave rise to towns at Princeton, Pine Level, Selma, and Clayton as well as a thriving industrial village at Wilson's Mills.

During the American Civil War, Johnstonians saw 1,500 of their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers go off to fight. Almost a third of those men died in service, and many of those who survived suffered from physical disabilities. Union forces sacked and plundered their way through Johnston County near the end of the war in March and April of 1865, leaving food supplies and livestock dramatically depleted. Emancipation of slaves and political turmoil further exacerbated the social and economic tensions that would not diminish significantly until the turn of the twentieth century. In 1868, a new State Constitution would bring into being Johnston's first townships: Bentonsville, Beulah, Boon Hill, Clayton, Elevation, Ingrams, Meadow, O'Neals, Pleasant Grove, Selma, Smithfield, and Wilders. Between 1887 and 1913, parts of these would be taken to form Wilson's Mills, Cleveland, Banner, Pine Level, and Micro townships.

In 1886, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad completed a second major line through Johnston County which later became the main line of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Called the "Short Cut" (from Wilson through Fayetteville to Florence, SC), the new line provided quicker travel along the East Coast than the older route that passed through Goldsboro and Wilmington. The towns of Kenly, Micro, Four Oaks, and Benson grew up along this line.

In the 1880s, Selma pharmacist Lunsford Richardson reportedly concocted a salve for treating colds and pneumonia. He later moved to Greensboro and began marketing it as Vicks VapoRub, named in honor of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick, a Selma physician.

In addition to being the birthplace of the VapoRub, Selma gained importance in the late 1880s at the junction of the North Carolina and Atlantic Coast Line railroads. This left Johnston County poised for unprecedented commercial and industrial growth.

A depression in 1893 and a resulting plummet in cotton prices forced many local farmers to look for another money crop. The success of bright leaf tobacco growers in the piedmont areas of North Carolina and Virginia soon began to catch on in Johnston and other eastern North Carolina counties in the 1890s to the extent that a market for tobacco was established in Smithfield in 1898. The county's first bank, by no coincidence, was also established that year. Within a few years, cotton mills had been built and put in operation in Smithfield, Clayton, and Selma, and telephone lines were extended to practically every town. Within a couple of decades Johnston townsfolk would have electric lights and running water. It was a time of great optimism for those who had wealth and those who aspired to it. The array of stately homes in both town and country, brick stores, paved streets, schools, and churches of the 1920s had certainly reached a level higher than those of only a generation earlier.

In 1908, Johnston County gained the distinction of "Banner Whiskey County" when its voters led the state in opposing statewide prohibition. Despite that opposition, the measure passed, keeping law-enforcement officials in a constant battle with alcohol producers, sellers, and consumers for the next twenty-five years.

World War I sent 1,000 young Johnstonians into military service, about fifty of whom paid the supreme sacrifice. Although it displaced manpower, the war further boosted the local economy by bringing a surge, albeit short-lived, in cotton and tobacco prices. The resulting prosperity fostered a progressive spirit across the county and state that brought revolutionary changes in education and transportation.

When the postwar boom put extra money in many local pockets, those funds were spent mostly on automobiles. Ford Model As and Ts were the most affordable, hence the most popular. Merchants and other businessmen throughout the state soon realized that in order to get people to drive into town more often they needed better roads, so their friends in the state legislature of 1921 authorized a $50-million bond issue for statewide road construction. As a result, two paved state highways came through Johnston County. East-west NC-10 (later renumbered as US-70) came through Princeton, Pine Level, Selma, Smithfield, and Clayton, and a north-south NC-22 (redesignated in the early 1930s as US-301) passed through Kenly, Micro, Selma, Smithfield, Four Oaks, and Benson. Towns soon began paving streets, and businesses boomed as never before.

Despite good fortune in commercial centers, farmers in the 1920s were suffering under a postwar agricultural depression that brought dramatic fluctuations in cotton and tobacco prices. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of mortgaged farms in the county grew from 793 in 1925 to 1,124 in 1930. Farms operated by tenants also jumped from an already high 51 percent in 1920 to 59 percent in 1930. Cotton farmers tried to make up for their losses by overproducing - a practice that only served to drive market prices even lower.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed intensified the hard times farmers were already experiencing. Most banks closed, and wealthy families in practically every town saw their fortunes literally disappear. The boll weevil joined forces with federal crop controls in dethroning King Cotton in Johnston County. While many farmers then turned to tobacco, market prices for the golden leaf remained low through the 1930s. Nevertheless, a combination of federal programs, conservatism, and firmly entrenched interdependence among families and neighborhoods saw people through this difficult era and prepared them for yet another trying time.

In 1941, as the economy gained strength and U.S. involvement in World War II was imminent, a Johnston County girl named Ava Lavinia Gardner was propelled to Hollywood stardom after an errand clerk for Metro Goldwyn Mayer saw her picture hanging in her brother-in-law's photography studio in New York. This internationally known Johnstonian's career would span five decades. She died in 1990 and is buried in Smithfield, where a museum showcases her life's work.

World War II sent an astonishing number of 7,000 Johnston County men and women into military service, at least 140 of whom died in service. The war also displaced many others who left for war-related jobs in cities. Those left at home faced the challenges of keeping farms, businesses, schools, churches, and other institutions and organizations running, all the while coping with rationing and other exigencies of war.

A March 1942 munitions-truck explosion on Highway 301 between Smithfield and Selma brought the war close to home in its early stages. Seven people were killed, more than a hundred were injured, and several nearby businesses were destroyed. The tragedy is referred to as the "Catch-Me-Eye" Explosion, named for a nearby tavern, tourist cabin, and service-station complex which was leveled by the explosion.

Smithfield's annual Farmers Day celebration on August 15, 1945 turned out to be "the most celebrated day in Johnston County history," according to the Smithfield Herald at the time. The previous evening, President Harry Truman had announced the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. Those who lived through the Great Depression and the war would no doubt agree that it was truly a moment without equal in Johnston County's history.

Following the war many soldiers returned home to family farms. Within a few years, however, farming operations were becoming increasingly mechanized, causing a loss of farm jobs. There was a corresponding decline in Johnston County's population, which dropped from 65,906 in 1950 to 62,936 in 1960. The county's alarmed business leaders responded by recruiting new industries such as Jerold Corporation, a garment manufacturer which came to Smithfield in 1954, and Shallcross Manufacturing Company, an electronic-assembly operation from Pennsylvania that set up shop in Selma in 1958. Other big-name industries followed in the 1960s and 70s. Two Interstate highways built through Johnston County - I-95 in 1960 and I-40 in 1990 - have boosted commercial and residential development in recent times.

With the state's largest number of farms and highest total farm income, Johnston County is still an agricultural, rural county. Agri-business has supplanted the family farms which were once the county's mainstay, but there are still a considerable number of farms which several generations have owned for a century or more.

Important dates in Johnston County's history:

June 28, 1746 - Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston signs legislation creating Johnston County.

Oct. 18, 1775 - Independent North Carolina's Provincial Council holds its first meeting at Johnston County Court House.

May 9, 1777 - Town of Smithfield chartered by the N.C. General Assembly.

May 3-15, 1779 - N.C. General Assembly meets in Smithfield.

Feb. 16, 1861 - Town of Boon Hill chartered - renamed Princeton in 1873.

March 19-21, 1865 - Battle of Bentonville rages as the "bloodiest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil."

April 12, 1869 - Town of Clayton chartered.

Feb. 11, 1873 - Town of Selma chartered.

Jan. 30, 1874 - Town of Pine Level chartered.

March 7, 1887 - Towns of Benson and Kenly chartered.

March 11, 1889 - Town of Four Oaks chartered.

May 1, 1899 - Town of Jerome chartered - renamed Micro in 1905.

Aug. 15, 1945 - Farmers Day in Smithfield celebrates the end of World War II.

Sept. 1, 1965 - Johnston County's public schools begin racial integration.

Oct. 1, 1991 - Land-use zoning instituted throughout Johnston County.

Aug. 2, 1996 - Town of Wilson's Mills re-chartered (original charter issued in 1927, revoked in 1971).

Excerpted from: Johnston County: Its History Since 1746, by Thomas J. Lassiter and T. Wingate Lassiter (Smithfield,NC: Hometown Heritage Publishing, 2004); and, Images of America: Johnston County, by Durwood Barbour and Todd Johnson, (Dover, NH: Arcadia Publishing Company, 1997) [with minor edits]
The Battle of Bentonville, fought March 19-21, 1865, was the last full-scale action of the Civil War in which a Confederate Army was able to mount a tactical offensive. This major battle, the largest ever fought in North Carolina, was the only significant attempt to defeat the large Union army of General William T. Sherman during its march through the Carolinas in the spring of 1865. This battle was waged in Johnston County.

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