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North Carolina’s first attorney general, Waightstill Avery, was born in 1741 in Groton, Connecticut, the tenth son of Humphrey and Jerusha Morgan Avery. He received his education from the Reverend Samuel Seabury and graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1766. Before moving to Edenton in 1769, he practiced law in Maryland. He then spent a year in Salisbury before moving to Charlotte.
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In 1772 Avery was elected to the provincial assembly and appointed attorney general for the Crown. In May of 1775, he was one of the signers of the Mecklenburg Resolves. He was a delegate to the provincial congresses at Hillsborough and Halifax in 1775 and 1776. Avery resigned his commission as attorney general to the Crown on May 10, 1776. In Halifax he served on the committee that drew up the North Carolina Constitution. With the creation of the state government, Avery was elected to the first General Assembly in 1777. It was that body which named him the first attorney general of North Carolina. He resigned the office in 1779 in order to become colonel of the militia of Jones County.
When independence was secured, Avery rejoined his family on his Burke County plantation, “Swans Pond.” Burke County elected him its representative to the House of Commons in 1782, 1783, 1784, 1785, and 1793. He served one term in the Senate in 1796. While trying a case in Jonesboro, Tennessee in 1788, he engaged in a duel with a lawyer from the opposing side, a young Andrew Jackson. Reportedly, Jackson shot once at Avery and missed. Avery did not return fire, but approached Jackson and lectured him much like a father would lecture a son. After that, their dispute was settled and the two remained on friendly terms. In 1801, he suffered paralysis of his lower limbs, but continued to travel from Raleigh to Jonesboro practicing law. He and his wife, Leah Probart Francks Avery, had four children. Avery died in Morganton on March 13, 1821 and was buried in a family cemetery. North Carolina’s Avery County, established in 1911, is named in honor of Waightstill Avery.
Edward W. Phifer Jr., Burke: The History of a North Carolina County, 1777 to 1920 (1982)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 70-71—sketch by Isaac Thomas Avery Jr.
Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, VII
Noel Yancey, “Duel in the Dust” (Raleigh) Spectator Magazine, August 16, 1990