The court system of colonial North Carolina began to function some time shortly after the grant of Carolina to the Lords Proprietors in 1663. The first court to open in the colony probably was composed of the governor and Council, the governor's advisory body. Extant records do not reveal its name or functions, or the year of its organization, but evidence suggests either 1664 or 1665. The governor and Council apparently sat as the highest court of law in the colony until 1698, during most of this time bearing the name "General Court" and hearing civil and criminal cases in both an original and an appellate capacity. During the early decades of the proprietary period, which lasted from 1663 to 1729, courts held by the governor and Council included the General Court, Court of Chancery, Palatine's Court, Council of State, Court of Grand Council, and Grand Court--the latter two possibly being variant names for the General Court. Several of the courts had executive as well as judicial powers, and all of them had jurisdiction over the entire colony. Functions as well as terminology were far from being firmly set during this period, and likely the courts had overlapping responsibilities.

Records relating to any of the higher courts in early North Carolina represented in the series Colonial Court Records (CCR) are extremely scarce until 1683, and are almost non-existent for several higher courts well after that date. Records of the General Court, the most important of these courts in terms of powers and amount of business transacted, do not begin to be abundant until 1694. It is therefore necessary in many instances to draw only tentative conclusions about the structure and work of the courts during the colony's early years.

The general court was a court of judicature with general jurisdiction over civil suits involving a value in excess of 50 Pounds. It functioned from as early as 1670 until 1754 and during those years heard a great number of lawsuits involving decedents estates. When the records of this court were arranged at the Archives about 1959, papers from cases concerning estates were sorted out of the other loose papers and were designated Estates Records even though they were not true estates reports, inventories, accounts, etc. Papers concerning approximately six hundred estates resulted. They were then foldered individually by decedent and arranged alphabetically. In 1979 another lot of papers were sorted, and an additional 125 estate folders were arranged in a second series.

To see a more detailed account of what materials are in the Colonial Court Records, please visit DOC, the online catalog for the State Archives of North Carolina.