The site of modern-day Stanly County was originally peopled by small tribes of hunter-gatherers and Mound Builders whose artifacts and settlements have been dated back nearly 10,000 years. Large-scale European settlement of the region came in the mid-18th century via two primary waves: immigrants of Dutch, Scots-Irish and German descent moved from Pennsylvania and New Jersey seeking enhanced religious and political tolerance, while immigrants of English backgrounds came to the region from Virginia and the Cape Fear River Basin in Eastern North Carolina.
In early English colonial times, the Stanly County area was politically part of the New Hanover Precinct, out of which the Bladen Precinct was created in 1734. The renamed Bladen County was subdivided to create Anson County in 1750, which in turn spawned Montgomery County in 1779.
Stanly County was formed in 1841 from the part of Montgomery County west of the Pee Dee River. It was named for John Stanly of New Bern (1774–1834), who served several terms in the North Carolina House of Commons and two terms (1801–1803, 1809–1811) in the United States House of Representatives.
Hanging of Alec Whitley
Whitley was accused of theft and murder in Stanly County and also in Arkansas. Following a short manhunt through several states, he was captured by a local posse near Big Lick in 1892. Shortly after his capture and incarceration a mob of angry citizens gathered at the jail to demand Whitley be turned over to them. Sheriff Snuggs had been alerted to the mob's intention and he transferred all the prisoners from the jail to his own home across the street—except Whitley, who was seized by the mob, beaten, and hanged from a tree off South Street in Albemarle.