Carteret County Courthouses - A History

1796 Courthouse
Painting by Mary Warshaw

The building is on the Beaufort Restoration Grounds.

The Carteret County Courthouse of 1796, built at the intersection of Ann and Turner Streets, was the third Beaufort courthouse. The first was built in 1724 after Beaufort had become the "county seat" of Carteret Precinct. The second courthouse was built in 1728 by William Davis of Davis Island.

In his 1965 thesis, Colonial Beaufort, historian Charles Paul noted Carteret deed books and court minutes that referenced the first courthouses. “In June, 1724, the church wardens bought from the town commissioners a ‘Lott of land ... together with the house now erected thereon ... being at present the house appointed for a Court House....Only three months later, though, a hurricane rendered it unusable by destroying its roof, and in the next year it was completely destroyed by fire. When the next courthouse was completed in 1728, the church started holding its services there and did so throughout the Colonial period.


According to research by Mamré Wilson, Colonel William Thomson was in charge of building the 1796 courthouse. Thomson was a Beaufort landowner and town official. As treasurer for the county and of public buildings, Col. Thomson was able to acquire the funds.


About 1837, after the decision was made to build a new courthouse, the 1796 courthouse, setting of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions for 40 years, was moved to the northeast corner of the same streets. The building was first sold to George Denby in 1843 for $170. A year later it was sold to Dr. James Hunt. When Dr. William Cramer, of Portsmouth Island, came to Beaufort in 1850 to help staff the new US Government Hospital, he purchased the old 1796 courthouse and made it his home.


Beaufort native Neal Willis, born in 1917, remembered that the building became the home of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel H. Thomas after Dr. Cramer died in 1864. Mrs. Thomas, “Miss Delight”, was the daughter of Mr. Nate Carrow, a civil war veteran. Neal Willis remembered seeing the old soldier “sitting on the front porch while I was passing with my father in the late twenties.”


Acquired in 1976 and moved to the Beaufort Historic Site in 1977, the building, having been sectioned off as a private home, was completely restored in 2001, as a one-room courthouse and returned to its original color. Today it proudly displays an original 13-star American flag.


The 1796 courthouse is the oldest surviving wooden courthouse in North Carolina and also the oldest remaining public building in Carteret County. Today it serves as a museum and hosts an interactive dramatization program that allows school children to conduct mock trials and reenactments.


The 1837 courthouse at the corner of Turner and Broad was built for $4400 by James Ward. Ward most likely hired brick masons who had come to Beaufort and stayed after finishing Fort Macon in 1834.


The building was 50 by 60 feet with two stories and walls fifteen inches thick. One entrance faced south on Broad Street and the other faced west on Turner Street. A brick-paved area separated the street from the west side of the courthouse. Inside the west door were the stairs to the second-floor courtroom, which occupied the entire space. The judge's bench was at the north end and there was space for lawyers and witnesses, all enclosed by a rail, similar to the interior of the 1796 courthouse. Long benches were available for spectators. On the first floor in the southeast corner was the register of deeds office. Two rooms at the north end of the first floor were occupied by the clerk of court and the library.


There was no room for the sheriff in this building, so his office was the second floor of the "old marketplace" at the northeast corner of Turner and Front Street. Nearly sixty years after the courthouse and the new jail were built, the mortar began crumbling and the fear that the building would collapse resulted in hiring people to stucco the exterior of both.


In a 1900 letter, Thomas Carrow wrote about helping with this stucco work in 1895 and being paid 75 cents for ten hours of work. From 1894-1898 he helped his father in the register of deeds office as a clerk. In 1903, the county commissioners made plans to build a new, larger
fireproof courthouse. This courthouse was built in 1907 at a cost $32,000 in the center of Courthouse Square. The old courthouse was used for a time as a public school and later as a library. In 1914 the court ordered the building sold and removed. When it was demolished, many of the old books and papers were still in the building.

The current active courthouse, built in 1907, designed by noted New Bern architect Herbert Woodley Simpson, is a monumental brick Classic Revival building occupying the center of the 400 block of Broad Street. Corinthian porticos face Broad and Turner streets and a tall octagonal cupola dominates the Beaufort skyline.