Land registration in North America began almost as soon as settlers arrived. Towns needed local records of their settlements within land grants from the British proprietors. The first office of a register of deeds on the continent was in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which provided a place to record a land transfer in a book with the names of the parties, terms of sale and payment, and descriptive bounds of the property. A law was passed in 1636 requiring all transfers to be acknowledged and recorded. In 1640, the Massachusetts legislature required all transfers to be recorded within one month, or they were to be void against anyone who later acquired a deed to the same property. This is basically the same recording law that today governs real estate conveyances throughout the country. 1
The history of land registration in North Carolina also can be traced to the 1600s. In 1663, King Charles II executed a charter to eight Lords Proprietors authorizing them to establish a colonial government in the region that is now North Carolina and to make land grants to individual settlers. To entice settlers, the Lords Proprietors acknowledged various individual rights. Their Concessions and Agreement of 1665 provided, among other things, for the appointment of “chiefe Registers or Secretarys” to record public business and grants, conveyances, and leases. Though archaic, the language of the Concessions leaves little doubt that a function of the chief registers was to serve as recording officers with many of the same responsibilities as present-day registers:
[A]nd to avoyde deceiptes and lawsuits [the registers] shall record and enter all Graunts of Land from the Lords to the planter and all conveyances of Land howse or howses from man to man, As alsoe leases for Land howse or howses made or to be made by the Landlord to any tennant for more than one yeare which conveyance or Lease shalbe first acknowledged by the Grantr or Leasor or proved by the oath of two witnesses to the conveyance of Lease before the Governor or some Chiefe Judge of a Court for the time being whoe shall … attest the acknowledgement or proofe as aforesaid which shalbe our grant for the Registers to record the same which Conveyance or Lease soe recorded shalbe good and effectuall in Law notwithstanding any other conveyance deede or Lease for the said Land howse or howses or for any part there although dated before the Conveyance deed or Lease soe recorded as aforesaid…. 2
This is essentially the same law as had been adopted in Massachusetts, protecting land transfers that were recorded with the register of deeds. The land registration system was essential for a form of government that protected individual property rights and other liberties. The ability to acquire land that was protected by law enabled citizens to build homes and clear farms.
As far as can be determined, the Lords Proprietors’ register of deeds office was first filled in North Carolina on November 14, 1665, when they appointed Robert Samford as “Secretary and Chiefe Register for our County of Clarendon.” 3 The earliest North Carolina statute dealing with the office of register of deeds was enacted by the Colonial Assembly in 1715. 4 This law provided that the voters of each county should elect three freeholders as nominees for the office, one of whom was then appointed to the office by the governor, acting with the advice of the Lords Proprietors’ deputies. No term of office was established.
During the colonial period, registers of deeds were important officials who represented the British government. One North Carolina register became infamous as a target of resistance at the dawn of the American Revolution. Edmund Fanning, who had studied at Yale and Harvard and was a member of the bar in North Carolina, was loyal to the British government and received appointments from the British Governor at the time, William Tryon. Fanning held court posts as well as the register of deeds office. He wrote to the governor and warned of local anger that was “threatening death and immediate destruction to myself and others.” 5 One ominous threat Fanning was hearing came from a group known as the Regulators, who complained that Fanning was charging more to record a deed than was permitted and that he was using the excess for himself. 6
The Regulators demanded that the colonial government get involved and “Examine the true Cost by Law for Recording and proving Deeds.” 7 In 1770, the rebels took out their anger on Fanning. As a newspaper described it, a crowd confronted him in the county courthouse and “seized him by the heels, dragged him down the steps, his head striking very violently on every step, carried him to the door, and forcing him out, dragged him on the ground over stones and brickbats, struck him with their whips and clubs, kicked him, and spit and spurned at him.” 8 Fanning soon left for New York and built his wealth and influence there, later commanding British troops in the Revolution as a general and becoming governor of Nova Scotia.
Things settled down for North Carolina’s registers after the Revolution. No further significant change in the office was made until after North Carolina became a state. In 1777, the General Assembly provided that the justices who constituted the county court should appoint the register of deeds in each county. By the time of the Revolution, the register was therefore an established public office. 9 after 1777, the register in each county was selected by a majority of the justices of the Court of Pleas and· Quarter Sessions for a four-year term. For many years, the existence and nature of the office was left to the will of the legislature because it was not required by the state constitution. It became a constitutional office after the Civil War, when the Constitution of 1868, Article VII, Section 1, provided for the biennial election of a register of deeds by the voters of each county. The office did not long enjoy constitutional protection from legislative change, however. A state constitutional amendment, Article VII, Section 10, adopted in 1875, empowered the legislature to “modify, change or abrogate” certain constitutional provisions, including those pertaining to the register of deeds. Acting pursuant to this power, in 1935 the General Assembly set the term of office at four years in all but twenty-nine counties. 10 since that time, through local acts, the register’s term has been extended to four years in every county of the state.
The North Carolina Constitution of 1971, in effect today, does not mention the office of register of deeds. Instead, Article VII, Section 1, states that “[t]he General Assembly shall provide for the organization and government … Of counties ….” The effect of this provision is to leave all matters regarding the office and duties of the register of deeds to the General Assembly.
1. Joseph H. Beale, Jr., The Origin of the System of Recording Deeds in America,19 The Green Bag 335, 335-37 (1907).
2. The Colonial Records of North Carolina I (1886-90) 79 (William L. Saunders, ed., 1886-90).
4. 1715 N.C. Laws ch. 38.
5. Letter from Edmund Fanning to William Tryon (Apr.23, 1768), in The Regulators in North Carolina: A Documentary History 1759-1776, at 84, 84 (William S. Powell, James K. Hurta & Thomas J. Farnham, eds., 1971).
6. Samuel A. Ashe, Edmund Fanning, in 1Biographical History of North Carolina (1905).
7.Articles of Settlement and Oath of Regulators (Apr. 30, 1768),in The Regulators in North Carolina: A Documentary History 1759-1776, at 97, 100 (William S. Powell, James K. Hurta & Thomas J. Farnham, eds., 1971).
8. Elizabeth A. Fenn, The Way We Lived in North Carolina 100 (Joe A. Mobley, ed., 2003).
9. 1777 N.C. Laws ch. 8.
The above excerpt is from the “North Carolina Guidebook For Registers of Deeds” by Charles Szypsazak Tenth Edition 2013.
New Hanover County is one of 100 counties located in North Carolina. Though second smallest in area, it is one of the most populated counties in the state. Wilmington is one of the state’s largest cities. The US Census estimates the population to be 213,267 for the year 2013. The county was formed in 1729 as New Hanover Precinct of Bath County, named for the House of Hanover, which was then ruling Great Britain.
In 1734 parts of New Hanover Precinct became Bladen Precinct and Onslow Precinct. In 1739 all precincts became counties.
The earliest recorded documents here in our office date back to 1728 and continue to the present time.
The following is a list of prior Registrars of New Hanover County who walked before me.
Prior Registrars of New Hanover County
- 1734 to 1740 John Rice
- 1740 to 1749 James Smallwood
- 1749 to 1760 Isaac Farris
- 1760 to 1778 James Moran
- 1778 to 1798 John Bradley
- 1798 to 1800 George Gibbs
- 1801 to 1810 R. Bradley
- 1810 to 1832 T. Burr, Jr
- 1832 to 1838 M. McKay
- 1838 to 1839 Edward Bishop Dudley
- Visit the Edward Dudley page to learn more about him.
- 1839 to 1841 W. Mckoy
- 1841 to 1848 Talcott Burr, Jr
- 1848 to 1853 David E Bunting
- 1853 to 1863 Jere Nichols
- 1864 to 1866 R. B. Wood, Jr
- 1866 to 1868 G. W. Pollock
- 1868 to 1870 R L Waldron
- 1871 to 1872 Wm J Bivins
- 1873 to 1876 Joseph C Hill
- 1876 to 1877 George W Bourdeaux
- 1877 to 1890 J E Sampson
- 1891 to 1896 John Haar, Jr
- Visit the John Haar page to learn more about him.
- 1897 to 1898 Charles W Norwood
- 1899 to 1906 W H Biddle
- 1906 to 1918 John Haar
- Visit the John Haar page to learn more about him.
- 1918 to 1920 Charles E Low
- 1920 to 1931 J H Hamilton
- 1931 to 1941 A H Elliot
- 1941 to 1951 Adrian B. Rhodes
- Visit the Adrian Rhodes page to learn more about him.
- 1951 to 1962 R L Black
- Visit the R L Black page to learn more about him.
- 1962 to 1965 Ada McCulloch
- 1965 to 1968 Paul Blanchard
- 1968 to 1980 Lois C LeRay
- Visit the Lois LeRay page to learn more about her.
- 1980 to 1992 Rebecca P Christian
- 1992 to 2000 Mary Sue Oots
- Visit the Mary Oots page to learn more about her.
- 2000 to 2008 Rebecca P. Smith
- 2008 to 2012 Jennifer H. MacNeish
- 2012 to 2022 Tammy Theusch Piver