The earliest inhabitants of what is now known as Wilson County were Native American people of the Tuscarora tribe. By the early 18th century, most of the tribe had left the area. After this time, both European and African slaves moved into area around 1740. Many of the new settlers were well-to-do planters who produced turpentine and pitch from the vast stands of pine trees. Other inhabitants engaged in subsistence farming, hunting, and gathering.
Though it became a major industry of Wilson County it was not agriculture that brought a dramatic increase in the population. It was the coming of the railroad that brought more settlers.
As the population increased, Wyatt Moye, state senator from Edgecombe County proposed a bill to the state legislature to incorporate a new town near Toisnot Depot and Hickory Grove. It was to be named Wilson in honor and memory of Louis Dicken Wilson (1789-1847). Wilson was a prominent politician and military officer who died during the Mexican War. He was considered “the most eminent citizen of Edgecombe County.” On 29 January 1849, the town of Wilson was incorporated.
Joshua Barnes was noted as the area’s leading and most wealthy citizen and was a vocal advocate for the formation of Wilson County. It also should be noted that it was because of his friendship with Louis Dicken Wilson that the town and county was so named.
The formation of Wilson County was a matter of practicality. Forthe residents of the area, long distance travel was necessary in order to conduct business in the surrounding county seats. These county seats were located in the towns of Smithfield, Tarboro, Goldsboro, and Nashville. For this reason, Wilson County was formed on 14 February 1855, although the counties involved ceded just enough portions of their own territories to insure that this new county would remain smaller than the surrounding counties.
The geography of Wilson County is varied. Wilson County sits on the fall line that separates the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. There are rolling hills in the west which are characteristic of the Piedmont. Traveling in an easterly direction within the county, the geography becomes flat as the land quickly transitions into the Coastal Plain.
A major factor affecting the growth of Wilson County was organized mass agriculture. Earlier on it was cotton, but the face of Wilson County agriculture was forever changed with the demand for flue-cured tobacco.
Wilson County was ideally suited for growing tobacco because its climate and its sandy, loamy soil. By the turn of the century, tobacco had largely replaced cotton as the county’s main cash crop. In 1920, Wilson came to be known as the “world’s greatest tobacco market.” Tobacco continued to be one of the largest industries in the county well into the 20th century.
With the completion of the nationwide interstate highway system after World War II, Wilson County was able to diversify its economy even further. Interstate 95, a major north/south artery on the east coast of the United States, was constructed straight through the heart of the county. Coupled with the interstate and its intersection with US Highway 264 (now Interstate 587), and Interstate 795, new industries continue to be attracted to the county. Wilson County has developed a diverse industrial base that includes pharmaceuticals, life sciences, automotive parts, and building supplies. Moreover, agriculture still remains an important industry.
Wilson County is a major center for commerce, education, culture, and tourism in Eastern North Carolina. As new development and industry continue to grow within its borders, Wilson County maintains a strong presence in the communities of eastern North Carolina. Wilson County promises to continue as a vibrant community for today and tomorrow.