Some of the first European settlers of what would become the county were English Quakers, who settled along the Haw and Eno rivers. The county was formed in 1771 from Orange County. It had been named in 1758 for William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, who served as British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768 and opposed harsh colonial policies. In 1907, parts of Chatham County and Moore County were combined to form Lee County.
While not devoted to large plantations, the county was developed for small farms, where slave labor was integral to the owners' productivity and success. By 1860 one-third of the county population were African Americans, chiefly enslaved.
George Moses Horton, Historic Poet Laureate of Chatham County, (1797?-1883) lived most of his life enslaved on a farm in Chatham County, moving North after emancipation. In one period he would write poems on commission for students at University of North Carolina after delivering produce to the campus. It was the first money he earned from his poems. He is among the few poets to have published his work while still held as a slave.
Moncure, located at the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers forming the Cape Fear River, once served as the westernmost inland port in the state. Steamships could travel between it and the Atlantic Coast along that major river.
After the Civil War and emancipation, white violence against freedmen increased in an assertion of white supremacy and enforced dominance after emancipation. From the late 1860s secret terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, Constitutional Union Guard, and White Brotherhood were active against blacks in the county. After Reconstruction and into the early 20th century, a total of six lynchings of African Americans were recorded here.
There was a notorious mass lynching of four African Americans on September 29, 1885, who were taken from the county jail in Pittsboro by a disguised mob at 1 a.m. The mob of 50-100 people hanged and killed Jerry Finch, his wife Harriet, and Lee Tyson, arrested for a robbery/murder. Harriet Finch was one of four black women to be lynched in the state. They also hanged John Pattishall, who was awaiting trial for two other unrelated robbery/murders. Afterward, the editor of The Chatham Record strongly condemned the lynchings. The county had the second-highest total of lynchings in the state, a number equaled by two other counties in this period.
On March 25, 2010, the Chatham County Courthouse, built in 1881 in the county seat of Pittsboro, caught fire while undergoing renovations. It has now been rebuilt.
Spanning the southern border of Chatham County, the
Deep River Coal Field contains the only known potentially economic bituminous coal deposits in the state. Coal was mined here on an artisan scale in colonial times. It was commercially produced beginning from the early 1850s.
The communities of Carbonton and Cumnock (formerly called Egypt in Lee County) developed with the coal mining industry. Much of the coal mined in the field during the Civil War was used for Confederate operations.
The Coal Glen Mine Disaster of the 1920s, frequent flooding by the Deep River, the depth of the coal seam, and faulting of the seam sealed the fate of the mines. Production ceased in 1953.
Agriculture and industry
The county was long dependent on agriculture as the basis of the economy, and there were numerous subsistence farmers in historic times. The area's natural soil conditions (composed mostly of the hard red clay soil common to the Piedmont) did not support the cultivation of commodity cash crops such as tobacco; this was never important in the county's economy. As a result, settlers held fewer slaves than in some areas of the state, but by 1860 enslaved African Americans constituted about one-third of the county population. The production of livestock has always been more important to the county, especially the breeding of cattle and poultry.
The county once had a thriving dairy industry, but in recent years most farms have been sold and developed. The county is one of the state leaders in the poultry industry. Forage crops such as hay are also grown in large quantities in the county.
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has been housed in Chatham County, along with many organic agriculture farmers, including Councilman Farms and Phillips Dairy Farms.
Industrial growth in the county has been focused around the Siler City and Moncure areas of the county, with Moncure dominating. Companies in that area include, Progress Energy, Boise Cascade, Honeywell, and Arauco. Brick manufacturing, which makes use of the local red clay soil, has been an important economic factor in the Moncure area, with several brick plants operating there and in Brickhaven.
3M operates a greenstone mine south of Pittsboro along US 15-501. Greenstone is processed to manufacture roofing-shingle granules. In 2007, residents opposed to industrialization successfully blocked a similar quarry from being developed in the western part of the county.
The scenic rural environment has attracted many artists (
Chatham Artists Guild), and arts-related tourism is a growing economic influence.
Chatham County has a deep tradition in southern music. Tommy Thompson, of the Red Clay Ramblers, and Tommy Edwards have entertained for decades with traditional, old time and bluegrass. Artists in many styles of music have emerged, from rock and roll to big band. Of late, Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance hosts various styles of music. A four-day outdoor festival is held twice each year, in April and October. Artists who have performed at Shakori Hills include Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Hugh Masekela, Donna the Buffalo, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Avett Brothers and Jim Lauderdale. Shakori Hills is also the location of the Hoppin John Fiddlers Convention and Mountain Aid benefit concert.