Origins of the Office
The Register of Deeds office as we know it today in North Carolina traces its roots back to the Lords Proprietors who colonized the region under a charter from King Charles II. In order to entice and lure settlers to the area the Lords Proprietors quickly realized that they would have to make certain written concessions regarding individual rights on which the settlers could rely. They wanted some guarantees in regards to their property rights and titles. As a result, they executed, “The Concessions and Agreements of the Lords Proprietors of the Province of Carolina, of 1665.” Item 3 of this act provided for the appointment of “chiefe registers or secretarys.”
The earliest statute in our state dealing with the Office of Register of Deeds was enacted by the Colonial Assembly in 1715. This law provided that the voters of each county were to select three freeholders as nominees, and from one of these three individuals, one would be appointed by the Governor. This process remained unchanged until just after America won its independence from the crown and North Carolina became a state. In the year 1777, the General Assembly provided that the justices of the county court or the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions should appoint the Register of Deeds in each county. The Register was required to furnish a bond in the amount of 5,000 pounds and was allowed to serve for life or during good behavior. In 1837, the process was amended in that the Register of Deeds was still selected by a majority of the justices of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions but for a four-year term, and the bond was set at $10,000.
After the Civil War, North Carolina ratified a new state constitution and the Register of Deeds then became a constitutional office. This marked the first expansion of the Register’s duties since 1777. At this time in Duplin’s history county government consisted almost entirely of the Sheriff, the Treasurer, the Register of Deeds, the Clerk of Court, the Coroner, and the newly created Board of County Commissioners.
The responsibilities of the Office of the Register of Deeds in Duplin County went far beyond that of just a recorder of property conveyances as it was originally intended. For example, it was the responsibility of the Register of Deeds in those days to prepare tax lists, keep an account of registered voters and poll books, file the county financial reports, and keep a record of all bonds and reports of county officials. Also, North Carolina’s new constitution ratified after the Civil War provided that the ROD should serve, ex officio, as clerk to the newly created Board of County Commissioners. Finally since they served the Commissioners as their clerk it was only logical that they would also serve as the Clerk to the County Board of Education, which they did. The Register of Deeds continued to serve in many of these capacities well into the next century.
However as the world became an increasingly complex place, the trend has been to eliminate all of the Register’s duties in connection with the governing of the county which served to restrict them from their core and intended function of recording and maintaining property records. It was not until 1925 that Duplin County created the position of Tax Supervisor, and it was not until 1967 that the Register of Deeds ceased to serve as the Clerk to the Board of Commissioners.
History of Record Keeping Within the Duplin County Register of Deeds Office
The original function of the Register of Deeds office is the recording of property related transactions is still its main function today. The Concessions and Agreements of the Lords Proprietors of 1665 stated that the office of the Register of Deeds “shall keep exact entries in fair books of all public affairs of the said counties and to avoid any deceits and lawsuits shall record and enter all Grants of Land from the Lords to the planter and all conveyances of land house or houses from man to man.” In a general sense this is much the same as what we do today in the real property section of our office. Property records are recorded to enable the owner of an interest in property to give public notice of that ownership. The recorded notice in turn affords other persons interested in the property some protection against unknown transactions and secret liens.
The Registration of property documents remained the same for the first 217 years of Duplin County’s history. An instrument (deed, deed of trust, mortgage, etc.) would be presented to the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions before 1868 and the Clerk of the Court after 1868 who would then probate the acknowledgment or review and certify that the document was properly notarized. If the Court and later the Clerk found that the document meet the elements of the law then they would order its registration and deliver or have it delivered to the Register of Deeds who would put the document on public record. In 1967, the responsibility for probating or certifying the document was transferred solely to the Register of Deeds and it no longer needed to go before an officer of the court before it could be registered. This was a dramatic change in the way documents were recorded because since the beginnings of government in NC property records had had to go before the court before being put on record and one that gave the Register of Deeds a lot more responsibility.
We are very fortunate in Duplin County to have copies of almost all of the deeds and property records ever recorded in Duplin County on file in our Registry. From 1750 until Jan. of 1933, copies of all instruments presented to the Register of Deeds in Duplin County were transcribed verbatim from the original. Documents were recorded in the same fashion until 1933. That year saw the first use of typewriters to record instruments in the Duplin County Registry. The next major development that changed the way documents were put on record came about in Sept. of 1960. This is when we see the first use of a machine used to reproduce an exact copy of the original. This was an important development because it proved to be a tremendous time saver as well as helping to eliminate the inevitable errors of human transcription. These first copies were made via a photostat process that used cameras and sensitized paper. The process involved exposing the paper to the print, immersing it in a developing bath and then finally drying it. This is the process that created the unique records that have white writing on a black background. We see the first use of a copy machine the way we know them today in Oct. of 1969. This produced a good quality copy that lends itself well for reproduction.
The next major change in the technology utilized in the Registry came about in January of 1982. This was the time when all of the indexes began to be typed into a computer database in addition to being placed in a hardcopy or book. This innovation allowed for the faster and more efficient retrieval of document index information. Building on the success of this initiative, the office created computerized index databases for all of its birth, death, and marriage indexes to allow for the quicker retrieval of those records as well in the 1990’s under the leadership of then Register of Deeds Joyce Williams West.
Beginning in 2001, Register of Deeds Davis H. Brinson initiated a program to digitally scan all documents into a computerized image database in order to allow recorded documents to be viewed and printed from computer terminals. This led to the Register of Deeds being able to permit documents to be viewed not only in the office in the courthouse, but for the first time in history, they could also be retrieved remotely via the internet. In 2002, the office unveiled a website which allowed the automated access to the public records of Duplin County. Today, the Duplin County Register of Deeds office is one of the very few in the state which has digitized all of its records including birth, death, marriage, military discharge, notary public and real property records.
The Register of Deeds is not only the custodian of all of the county’s property records, but also keeps the county’s vital records as well. This roll as a vital records keeper as we call them today began in 1868. In that year addition to their other general duties the legislature also gave the Register of Deeds the responsibility of issuing of marriage licenses and the keeping of a marriage register. This was formally the responsibility of the Clerk of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. We do have a marriage register that dates back to this time period, but unfortunately none of the original marriage licenses survive between 1868 and 1893. We currently have over 33,500 original marriage records on file in our office and available for public inspection.
It was not until 1913 that the Register of Deeds began keeping records of births, and deaths. However, it is interesting to note that the Register of Deeds was in the original statute creating the office in 1715 required to maintain a register of births, marriages, and deaths until parish clerks could be appointed to take over this duty. This registration of births, deaths, and marriages was, however, tragically never seriously undertaken. In fact, Governor Tryon in 1767 stated that at that time no such record was being kept in any county in the colony. Therefore, when the county governments were reorganized under the constitution of 1776 this general failure was taken into consideration and the 1777 act relating to the office of the Register of Deeds provided no other duty than that of recording property conveyances. In 1913, NC law mandated that a record of all births, and deaths be maintained by the State Board of Health and that a certified copy kept by the Register of Deeds in each county.