The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

Local History

June 13, 2011

Clerks of Court — who were they?

PRINCEVILLE — Since North Carolina was a colony back in the 1700s, the county court was the local county government and the person responsible for keeping the records was the Clerk of Court. The county court originally met every three months and the clerk of court took minutes of the sessions and recorded all documents related to the court session.

In addition to keeping the court minutes, today the clerk of court is not only responsible  for keeping records, but is also the “Judge of probate.” According to the website for the NC Court System, the clerk of court probates wills, administrates estates, hears special proceedings, and “exercises the same power as a magistrate.”  Today the clerk is an elected position and there are assistants and deputies to manage the paperwork.

In the past the clerk of court not only kept the minutes but also copied wills, deeds and other documents into the designated books by hand. So if someone goes to the courthouse to read some of the old court minutes or deeds, chances are those records were handwritten by the  clerk. Fortunately the citizens of Edgecombe County had clerks that had good handwriting.

Between 1760, when we first have records in the county, until 1950, Edgecombe County only had 16 people serve in this position. Who were these men who were the keepers of our records?

The first two men were occupied this office from 1760 to 1819 were James Hall and Edward Hall. James was also appointed by the colonial governor to the committee to supervise the building of the first court in the county. James served 12 years until 1772. Edward served the longest of any clerk in county history. He was in office from 1772 to 1819, a total of 47 years.

Little is known about the next two men. Michael Hearne served as clerk for 17 years and his successor Joseph Bell only served three years. But John Norfleet took the position in 1840 and served for 15 years.  Norfleet was a well-known figure in the area. His father Isaac had been an assistant marshal, a census taker, and a wealthy land owner. John’s brother William  was the county prosecutor.

One resource described John as “an honest man, who cared nothing for money, and served  as a adviser to every widow and orphan in the county.” That may explain why John served two different terms, the first between 1840 to 1855 and then after the Civil War, he served another six years from 1868-1874. Turner and Bridgers in their history of Edgecombe County reported that “John Norfleet was reputed to be as well skilled in the minor points of law as a practicing attorney.”

The years between Norfleet’s service were filled by two men. M.A.  Jones was clerk for eight years serving from 1856 until 1864. He was followed by Irvin Thigpen who was clerk from 1864-68.  John retired from service in 1874 and he died in 1880 at the age of 61 and is buried in the Norfleet family cemetery.  

Henry Logan Staton succeeded Norfleet in 1874 and he also served nonconsecutive terms. Staton was a lawyer before his terms as clerk. His first term was from 1874 through 1878. His obituary reported that “as a public office he won and held the confidence and esteem of his people.” Staton also had a fine reputation as an attorney, a position he went back to in 1879.

After Staton’s term, W.A. Duggin had the office from 1878 to 1882. In 1882, J.J. Atkinson won the office, but only served a few months in 1882. Then Staton returned to the office in 1882 and stayed until his retirement in 1886 due to health problems. He also decided to spend more time with his family. He had married Lalla Cobb and they had one son. Staton died on Feb.3, 1923 and is buried in Calvary Churchyard.  

Bryan J. Keech followed Staton, He served as clerk  from 1886 to 1890. For the next 16 years, Edward Pennington served as clerk of court. Prior to this Pennington was a bookkeeper. Pennington was married to Grace Palamountain and his father-in-law was a Civil War veteran and a the town’s blacksmith. In his later years, Pennington went died in 1921.

In 1906 a  man would take the office and hold it for the next 40 years, the second longest term in the county’s history. Amos T. Walston first entered the office in August as an appointment by the county commissioners. Walston was the son of William F. Walston and his wife Louise Pitt. He had married Lina Harrell in 1900 and they had three children.

A.T.,  as he was known around town, would be re-elected to the office for the next 40 years.  When he retired on Jan. 1,1946, Walston “was the oldest Clerk of Superior Court of continuous service” in the entire state of North Carolina.

His obituary stated that “during his tenure of office he was generally recognized as one of the most able and efficient clerks in the stat, and the records and administration of his office were frequently commended by judges of the Superior Court as well as in the grand jury reports.”

Walston retired from office in mid-term and county commissioners appointed W. S. Babcock to complete the term. Babcock took over the office after a special ceremony in a special session of the county commissioners.   Walston died on Nov. 2, 1947, not quite two years after his retirement.  

In a special editorial in The Southerner on Nov. 4, the editor proclaimed that the county was mourning the loss of a “ man who has left his imprint for the good upon the community.“  Walston loved his neighbors and was highly regarded in return.  His “patience, friendly counsel and advice throughout the years endeared him both as a private citizen and public official to all – rich and poor, white and colored – without regard to station, race or creed. “

When Walston retired a poem appeared In the paper. I am only including part of stanzas to give you the feeling for the person and of the love the community had for him.

"Amos T. Walston, that was his name;

"Served as court clerk and in serving gained fame.

"As keeper of records none could excel.

"Dispenser of Justice none did as well.

"In the year nineteen six he came Clerk of the Court

"And there he remained entrenched in his fort;

"And for thirty nine plus  years as a servant of Man

"His answer to all “I’ll do what I can.”

    "As Juvenile Judge he gave Justice Supreme

    "And troubles of widows always wood seem

    "Were nothing at all to this wisdom and might.

                     *****

    "Down thru the years it was always the same

    "Influenced not once by praise or by blame.

    "All gave thanks to God there was such a man

    "The one who could answer, “I’ll do what I can.”

May we all learn from the work and the life of Mr. Amos T. Walston and hope others we’ll say of us, “Tell me what you need , I’ll do what I can.”

Monika Fleming, the Historic Preservation Program director at Edgecombe Community College, is an Edgecombe County historian. Look for her reports each month on the Community page.

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