Some of the first settlers of what would become the county were English Quakers, who settled along the Haw and Eno Rivers. The county was formed in 1771 from Orange County. It was named, like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1758, for William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, who served as British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768 and opposed harsh colonial policies. In 1907, parts of Chatham County and Moore County were combined to form Lee County.
The award-winning PBS documentary Family Name notes Chatham County as the place the relationship between the African-American and European-American branches of the Alston family originated. George Moses Horton, Historic Poet Laureate of Chatham County, (1797?-1883) lived most of his life in Chatham County and is among the few slaves to have published material while still a slave.
Moncure once served as the western-most inland port in the state, linked all the way to the coast by steamships.
On March 25, 2010, the Chatham County Courthouse, built in 1881, caught fire while undergoing renovations. It has now been rebuilt. For more information, see Pittsboro, North Carolina.
The county is one of three counties that have known minable bituminous coal deposits in the state. The area along the Deep River, which forms the border of Chatham and Lee County and Randolph county was a major coal-producing area between the Revolutionary War and the Great Depression. It was called the Deep River Coal Field. The communities of Carbonton and Cumnock (formerly called Egypt in Lee County) originated with development of the coal mining industry. Much of the coal mined in the field during the Civil War was used to fuel Confederate operations.
A fatal explosion at the Coal Glen mine disaster in the 1920s, along with frequent flooding by the Deep River, sealed the fate of the mines; they were all closed by the 1940s. Recent attempts to tap the coal have proved failures; geologists say the coal is too highly faulted and the threat of explosive gases underground is too high. In addition, the high-sulfur coal cannot be economically used under environmental laws that have succeeded in reducing air pollution. Geologists once thought that natural gas and oil might also exist in the area where the coal mines were, but none that is economical enough to be pumped has yet been found. 96% of the coal mined in North Carolina comes from Chatham County, the other 3% comes from small quarries in Randolph and Lee counties.
Agriculture and industry
The county was long dependent on agriculture as the basis of the economy. The area's relatively unfertile natural soil conditions (composed mostly of the hard red clay soil common to the Piedmont), did not support the cultivation of commodity cash crops such as tobacco; this was never important in the county's economy. The production of livestock has always been more important to the county, especially the breeding of cattle and poultry. The county once had a thriving dairy industry, but in recent years most farms have been sold and developed. The county is one of the state leaders in the poultry industry. Forage crops such as hay are also grown in large quantities in the county. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has been housed in Chatham County along with many organic agriculture farmers.
Industrial growth in the county has been focused around the Siler City and Moncure areas of the county, with Moncure dominating. Companies in that area include, Progress Energy, Weyerhauser, Honeywell, and ATC Panels. Brick manufacturing, which makes use of the local red clay soil, has been an important economic factor in the Moncure area, with several brick plants operating there and in Brickhaven.
3M operates a greenstone mine south of Pittsboro along US 15-501. Greenstone is processed to manufacture roofing-shingle granules. In 2007, residents opposed to industrialization successfully blocked a similar quarry from being developed in the western part of the county.
The scenic rural environment has attracted many artists (Chatham Artists Guild), and arts-related tourism is a growing economic influence.
Chatham County has a deep tradition in southern music. Tommy Thompson, of the Red Clay Ramblers, and Tommy Edwards have entertained for decades with traditional, old time and bluegrass. Artists in many styles of music issue from this deep storehouse of talent, from rock and roll to big band. Of late, Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance hosts various styles of music. A four-day outdoor festival is held twice each year, in April and October. Artists who have performed at Shakori Hills include Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Hugh Masekela, Donna the Buffalo, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Avett Brothers and Jim Lauderdale. Shakori Hills is also the location of the Hoppin John Fiddlers Convention and Mountain Aid benefit concert.