Orange County is included in the Durham-Chapel Hill, NC Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is also included in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC Combined Statistical Area, which had a 2012 estimated population of 1,998,808.
The county was formed in 1752 from parts of Bladen County, Granville County, and Johnston County. It was named for the infant William V of Orange, whose mother Anne, daughter of King George II of Great Britain, was then regent of the Dutch Republic.
In 1771, Orange County was greatly reduced in area. The western part of it was combined with the eastern part of Rowan County to form Guilford County. Another part was combined with parts of Cumberland County and Johnston County to form Wake County. The southern part of what remained became Chatham County.
In 1777, the northern half of what was left of Orange County became Caswell County. In 1849, the western third of the still shrinking county became Alamance County. Finally, in 1881 the eastern half of the county's remaining territory was combined with part of Wake County to form Durham County.
Some of the first settlers of the county were English Quakers, who settled along the Haw and Eno Rivers. Arguably, the earliest settlers in the county were the Andrews family, which would later marry into the Lloyd family.
Colonial period and Revolutionary War
The Orange County county seat of Hillsborough was founded in 1754 on land where the Great Indian Trading Path crossed the Eno River and was first owned, surveyed, and mapped by William Churton (a surveyor for Earl Granville). Originally to be named Orange, it was named Corbin Town (for Francis Corbin, a member of the governor's council and one of Granville's land agents), and renamed Childsburgh (in honor of Thomas Child, the attorney general for North Carolina from 1751–1760 and another one of Granville's land agents) in 1759. It was not until 1766 that it was named Hillsborough, after the Earl of Hillsborough, the British secretary of state for the colonies and a relative of royal Governor William Tryon.
Governor William Tryon's conspicuous consumption in the construction of a new governor's mansion at New Bern fuelled the movement's resentment. As the western districts were under-represented in the colonial legislature, it was difficult for the farmers to obtain redress by legislative means. Ultimately, the frustrated farmers took to arms and closed the court in Hillsborough, dragging those they saw as corrupt officials through the streets and cracking the church bell. Tryon sent troops from his militia to the region and defeated the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771. Several trials were held after the war, resulting in the hanging of six Regulators at Hillsborough on June 19, 1771.
William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was buried in the Presbyterian Church cemetery in October 1790. However, his remains were later reinterred at Guilford Courthouse Military Battlefield. His original gravestone remains in the town cemetery.
University of North Carolina
Chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly on December 11, 1789, the University of North Carolina's cornerstone was laid on October 12, 1793, near the ruins of a chapel, chosen due to its central location within the state. Beginning instruction of undergraduates in 1795, UNC is the oldest public university in the United States and the only one to award degrees in the 18th century.
The Reverend Robert and Margaret Anna Burwell founded and ran a school for girls called the Burwell School from 1837 to 1857 in their home on Churton Street in Hillsborough. Elizabeth Keckley was enslaved in the Burwell household as a teenager. She later became the dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln and wrote a memoir.
When the Civil War began, Hillsborough was reluctant to support secession. However, many citizens went off to fight for the Confederacy. During the war, North Carolina Governor David Lowry Swain persuaded Confederate President Jefferson Davis to exempt some UNC students from the draft, so the university was among few in the Confederacy that managed to stay open. However, Chapel Hill still suffered the loss of more of its population during the war than any village in the South, and when student numbers did not recover, the university was forced to close during Reconstruction from December 1, 1870 until September 6, 1875.
In March 1865, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston wintered just outside of Hillsborough at the Dickson home, which now serves as the Hillsborough Welcome Center in downtown (the house was moved from its original site in the early 1980s due to commercial development). The main portion of the Confederate Army of Tennessee was encamped between Hillsborough and Greensboro.
After his March to the Sea, while camped in Raleigh, Union General William T. Sherman offered an armistice to Johnston, who agreed to meet to discuss terms of surrender. Johnston, traveling east from Hillsborough and Sherman, traveling west from Raleigh along the Hillsborough-Raleigh Road, met approximately half-way near present-day Durham (then Durham Station) at the home of James and Nancy Bennett, a farmhouse now known as Bennett Place. The two generals met three times on April 17, 18th, and finally on the 26th, which resulted in the final terms of surrender. Johnston surrendered 89,270 Southern troops who were still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. This was the largest surrender of troops during the war, and effectively ended the Civil War.
Occoneechee Speedway, just outside Hillsborough, was one of the first two NASCAR tracks to open and is the only track remaining from that inaugural 1949 season. Bill France and the early founders of NASCAR bought land to build a one-mile oval track at Hillsborough, but opposition from local religious leaders prevented the track from being built in the town and NASCAR officials built the large speedway Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama instead.
Chapel Hill, along with Durham and Raleigh, makes up one of the three corners of the Research Triangle, so named in 1959 with the creation of Research Triangle Park, a research park between Durham and Raleigh.
The Morehead Planetarium at UNC was, when it opened in 1949, one of only a handful of planetariums in the nation, and it has remained an important town landmark for Chapel Hill. During the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, astronauts were trained there.
In 1968, only a year after its schools became fully integrated, Chapel Hill became the first predominantly white municipality in the country to elect an African American mayor, Howard Lee. Lee served from 1969 until 1975 and, among other things, helped establish Chapel Hill Transit, the town's bus system.