The county was formed in 1746 from Edgecombe County. It was named for John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, who as heir to one of the eight original Lords Proprietors of the Province of Carolina, claimed one eighth of the land granted in the charter of 1665. The claim was established as consisting of approximately the northern half of North Carolina and this territory came to be known as the Granville District, also known as Oxford.
In 1752, parts of Granville County, Bladen County, and Johnston County were combined to form Orange County. In 1764, the eastern part of Granville County became Bute County. Finally, in 1881, parts of Granville County, Franklin County, and Warren County were combined to form Vance County.
John Penn (1741-1788) was an affluent politician of early America, as he was one of the three signers from North Carolina to sign the Declaration of Independence. After earning his admittance to the bar, Penn moved to Granville County in 1774. The county had become the hub of Carolina’s independence campaign. A remarkable orator, Penn had earned a place at the Third Provincial Congress of 1775, and he replaced Richard Caswell, joining William Hooper and Joseph Hewes in Philadelphia for the convening of the Continental Congress in 1776. Later, John Penn, with Cornelius Harnett and John Williams, signed the Articles of Confederation for North Carolina. Penn retired to Granville County, and he died at a relatively young age of 48 years old in 1788. His remains are interred at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro, NC.
Like most early counties on the eastern side of the early North Carolina colony, Granville was site of the Tuscarora uprising. Once the natives were defeated after the Tuscarora War, Virginia farmers and their families settled Granville County and they focused on producing tobacco. Slave labor proved vital to the fledging economy of the region, and by the start of the Civil War, Granville plantation owners worked over 10,000 slaves on their farms.
During the Civil War, more than 2,000 men from Granville County served the Confederacy. One company was known as the “Granville Grays.” Most in this regiment fought in most major battles during the war. Surprisingly, many survived until the end of the war.
Although the Civil War brought an end to the plantation and slave labor economy that had made Granville County prosperous, the agricultural sector continued to thrive in the county due to the presence of free African Americans in Oxford and the discovery of bright leaf tobacco. Many African Americans in Granville County were free before the start of the Civil War, and they made lasting contributions to the region, particularly through their skilled labor. Several black masons constructed homes for the county’s wealthy landowners. Additionally, the bright leaf tobacco crop proved a successful agricultural product for Granville County. The sandy soil and a new tobacco crop could be “flue-dried” proved a great incentive to farmers and tobacco manufacturers. According to historian William S. Powell, Granville has remained a top tobacco-producing county in North Carolina for several decades. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oxford had become a thriving town with new industries, schools, literary institutions, and orphanages forming due to jobs created by the bright tobacco crop.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, northern Granville County, together with Halifax County, Virginia were important mining areas. Copper, tungsten, silver and gold were mined in the region. The Richmond to Danville Railroad was a critical lifeline to the northern part of the county and provided an important link for miners and farmers to get their goods to larger markets in Richmond and Washington, DC.
In the 1950s and 1960s, various manufacturing businesses had built up across Granville County, and the region gradually moved away from the agricultural sector. Today, the manufacturing industry produces cosmetics, tires, and clothing products in Granville County.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Granville County played a pivotal role as tobacco supplier for the southeast United States. With many farms and contracts tied to major tobacco companies, like American Tobacco Company, Lorillard, Brown & Williamson, and Liggett Group, the local farmers became prosperous. With the Great Depression, came a plague new to the people of Granville County. The Granville Wilt Disease, as it became known, destroyed tobacco crops all across northern North Carolina. Botanists & Horticulturists found a cure for the famine at the Tobacco Research Center located in Oxford.
Camp Butner, opened in 1942 as a training camp for World War II soldiers, once encompassed over 40,000 acres in Granville, Person, and Durham counties. During the war, more than 30,000 soldiers were trained at Camp Butner, including the 35th and 89th Divisions. The hilly topography at Camp Butner proved helpful in teaching soldiers how to respond to gas bombings and how to use camouflage and cross rivers. Additionally, both German and Italian prisoners served as cooks and janitors at Camp Butner. Today, most of the land that was Camp Butner now belongs to the North Carolina government, and the no longer operational, Umstead Hospital was located at the Camp Butner site.
Granville County Courthouse