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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Armorial Bearings

The bookplate of Governor Gabriel Johnston, showing his coat of arms. Armorial Bearings were coats of arms, crests, and other insignias formerly borne on shields by knights and later granted by the Crown or other designated officials to individuals, public and local authorities, and corporate bodies such as guilds. Before the American Revolution, persons in North Carolina entitled to bear arms would use a seal to impress their family arms in wax when sealing a document such as a deed or will. Among the surviving examples of documents authenticated with seals are those pertaining to Thomas Harvey (1699) of Albemarle County; William Boyce (1703) of Perquimans County; Frederick Jones (1722) of Chowan County; Emanuel Low (1727) of Pasquotank County; Roger Mason (1752) of Hyde County; and Thomas Symons (1757) of Pasquotank County. Many people used seals depicting only a single object, perhaps from the crest of their arms. For example, Jacob Ternell's seal in 1713 had a swan, Grace Pilson's in 1743 had a watchdog, and James Sumner's in 1750 had a castle.

After the Revolution, coats of arms, except as used by descendants of original grantees, ceased to have any authentic purpose. In the twentieth century prints and drawings of coats of arms, plaques, and signet rings with an intaglio seal began to be offered for sale commercially without regard to descent of the purchaser or entitlement.


J. Bryan Grimes, North Carolina Wills and Inventories (1912).

Mary Hilliard Hinton, "Heraldry and Its Usage in the Colony of North Carolina," North Carolina Booklet 14 (July 1914).

Additional Resources:

Mackenzie, George Norbury. Colonial families of the United States of America, in which is given the history, genealogy and armorial bearings of colonial families who settled in the American colonies from the time of the settlement of Jamestown, 13th May, 1607, to the battle of Lexington, 19th April, 1775. Baltimore, Maryland: Seaforth Press. 1917.

Image Credits:

The bookplate of Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston, showing his coat of arms. From Hinton, Mary Hilliard. "Heraldry and Its Usage in the Colony of North Carolina." North Carolina Booklet 14. July 1914.




Quite good I guess


This article needs to be revised to correctly reflect what an Armorial Bearing truly is, and the fact that there is no such thing as a "family coat of arms". Some of the sighted material is good, but there are misleading and non-scholarly statements that are metaphorically like hearing nails scrape across an old chalkboard to those of us informed on the subject.

Firstly, the Armorial Bearing is a personal property that may be passed down through individual members of a family but is not a property of the family. Arms in the USA are usually recorded as a Blazon of Arms which describes the elements of the individual arms (in the old Norman language), and with multiple heirs cadence marks may be used, assuming that the heir does not assume or be granted new or different arms. Historically many arms were divided (per pale) with the fathers Arms on the Dexter side and mothers ancestral Arms on the sinister side, but there are numerous variations on division and style.

Also, the use of Armorial bearings do have a very important role in our modern society as devices to preserve our NC and American heritage, as well as identify the role of our state institutions which also have their own grant of arms from the Sovereign People of the State.

Consider the fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both not only bore Arms, but also concerned themselves with insuring the legitimate use of their Arms. Even our current President has an Armorial bearing and clearly some NC Governors have.

So, I do find that the subject matter could be presented better, but also, I am wondering if there has been any projects initiated to record historic NC Arms and the individuals connected to them. (maybe I should start a proper NC College of Heraldry, lol)

As someone who has studied Heraldic traditions and there use, I would be willing to assist in improving this to better reflect what Armorial Bearings represent and their importance in our modern society. It's not just a matter of heritage and history, but also we live this society seeing these devices in our daily lives. A Blazon of Arms / Armorial Bearing is not a logo or trade mark. It is far more than that and represents a true pictograph language that can convey volumes of information to the informed observer.

Just a note: I love NCpedia and am grateful for the information it is putting out as a resource to the public. You dedicated folks are doing a good thing. So even though I might be addressing where content could be better, I want to be clear that I'm glad that we have NCpedia and I'm grateful to the folks making it happen :)


Dear Brian,

Thanks so much for visiting NCpedia and sharing this thoughtful comment about the entry. NCpedia welcomes new content contributions and I am replying more fully to you via the email address you included with your comment.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

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