The county was formed in 1808 from parts of Bladen County and Brunswick County. It was named for Christopher Columbus.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 954 square miles (2,470.8 km2), of which 937 square miles (2,426.8 km2) is land and 17 square miles (44.0 km2) (1.76%) is water.
The county has seven incorporated towns: Bolton, Cerro Gordo, Chadbourn, Fair Bluff, Tabor City, Lake Waccamaw, and Whiteville. In addition there are nine townships: Bogue, Bug Hill, Lees, Ransom, South Williams, Tatums, Welch Creek, Western Prong and Williams