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The candidates' challenge - County seat confusion

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, June 21, 2010

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Chapel Hill, NC - As the primary runoff campaign for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination draws to a close, it is fair to ask what has been the hardest challenge for the two candidates.

I will tell you my answer in a minute. But first I am going to give you the name of a useful book that every statewide political candidate should carry in the front seat of the car.

Here is the book: The North Carolina Gazetteer, Second Edition: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Places and Their History. The new book is an update of the 1968 classic that was compiled by North Carolina history hero William Powell. Michael Hill from the N.C. Office of Archives and History updated Powell's almost 20,000 entries and added about 1800 new cities, towns, crossroads, waterways, islands, mountains, counties, and other geographical and historical points of interest.

Now, what is the challenge for political candidates and how would this book help? Consider the experience of one U.S. Senate campaign in which the candidate was invited to give a speech at "the courthouse in Rockingham." On the appointed date, the candidate arrived at the courthouse in Rockingham in Richmond County near the South Carolina border. Finding the courthouse doors locked, he wondered why not a single supporter had shown up to greet him.

Meanwhile, at the Rockingham County Courthouse in Wentworth, not far from the Virginia border, the small group that had gathered to greet the candidate gradually dispersed, wondering why he had not shown up.

With a quick look at page 448 of the Gazetteer, the candidate would have noted the two Rockinghams and their different locations. Also, he could have gotten a little interesting history to add to his speech-noting, perhaps, that Rockingham (both city and county) and Wentworth were named for the same man, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquis of Rockingham and a British Prime Minister who had been friendly to the American colonies.

Travelers in North Carolina, as well as candidates, get confused because so many county seats carry the names of counties other than their own. For instance, Asheboro is the county seat of Randolph County and Asheville is the county seat of Buncombe County. The county seat of Ashe County is West Jefferson.

The county seat of Washington County is Plymouth, not Washington ("Little Washington), which is the county seat of Beaufort County. Beaufort is the county seat of Carteret County.

The Greene county seat is Snow Hill, not Greensboro (county seat of Guilford) or Greenville (country seat of Pitt). Pittsboro, meanwhile, is county seat of Chatham County.

Jackson County's seat is Sylva, not Jackson (county seat of Northampton) or Jacksonville (county seat of Onslow).

There are more. Columbus is county seat of Polk; Lenoir of Caldwell; Graham of Alamance; Franklin of Macon; Waynesville of Haywood; Yanceyville of Caswell; and Henderson of Vance (although Hendersonville is, appropriately, the county seat of Henderson County.)

The Gazetteer takes care of this confusion about counties and county seats and other things that create problems for statewide political candidates, who sometimes mispronounce the names of the places where they campaign, places like Robeson County (ROB-uh-son, according to the Gazetteer), Rowan County (ROW-an), Tyrrell County (Tir-ehl) and Beaufort (BOE-furt). I hope future editions will tell candidates and young public radio reporters how we pronounce Salisbury and Concord.

Also thanks to the Gazetteer, our U.S. Senate candidate could develop his or her foreign policy resume by visiting places like Warsaw, Belgrade, Dublin, Lisbon, Bolivia, and Arabia, without ever leaving North Carolina.

If you are looking for a gift for your favorite political candidate or any other "serious North Carolinian," the Gazetteer might be the answer to your challenge.

Note: Michael Hill is scheduled to talk about the Gazetteer at UNC-Chapel Hill Saturday, July 24th, as part of a meeting of the Cumming Map Society.


D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

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The candidates' challenge - County seat confusion

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