American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1900


WILMINGTON
"THE FREE TOWN ON THE CAPE FEAR"
BY JOSEPH BLOUNT CHESHIRE


NORTH CAROLINA might be called the State without a city, eivitas sine utbe. It has never had a capital or a metropolis, except arbitrarily and in name only. It has been a rural State, a State of planters and farmers. Its eminent lawyers, and even its physicians and merchants, have often been also its eminent farmers. The first president of the State Agricultural Society was the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court.

The physical conditions of a country predetermine the lines of its development. North Carolina's interminable length of dangerous coast line repelled the earliest attempt at English settlement. Sir Walter Raleigh's expedition of 1585, coasting along its inhospitable sands, divined their true character, and marked down upon the first map that ominous name - Promontorium Tremendum - Cape Fear. And in spite of all improvements in navigation they have remained a menace and a terror. Hatteras and Cape Lookout and Cape Fear warned off commerce and settlement.

The eloquent words of the late Mr. George Davis, of Wilmington, applied to Cape Fear, are descriptive of the general character of the North Carolina coast,

Looking then to the Cape for the idea and reason of its name, we find that it is the southernmost point of Smith's Island, a naked, bleak elbow of sand jutting far out into the ocean. Immediately in its front are the Frying Pan Shoals, pushing out still farther, twenty miles to sea. Together they stand for warning and for woe; and together they catch the long majestic roll of the Atlantic as it sweeps through a thousand miles of grandeur and power from the Arctic towards the Gulf. It is the playground of billows and of tempests, the kingdom of silence and awe, disturbed by no sound but the seagull's shriek and the breakers' roar. Its whole aspect is suggestive, not of repose and beauty, but of desolation and terror. Imagination cannot adorn it. Romance cannot hallow it. Local pride cannot soften it. There it stands today, bleak and threatening and pitiless, as it stood three hundred years ago, when Grenville and White came near unto death upon its sands. And there it will stand, bleak and threatening and pitiless, until the earth and the sea shall give up their dead. And as its nature, so its name, is now, always has been, and always will be, the Cape of Fear.'"

But the broad sounds and rivers and fertile lands which lay behind these barriers of sand and storm invited immigration, and soon after the middle of the seventeenth century settlers began to pour in by different routes. From Virginia they crowded across into the northern and eastern sections. The Swiss and the Palatines came into the Neuse, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the Highland Scotch were swarming up the Cape Fear, while the Scotch-Irish from Pennsylvania spread over the country on both sides of the Yadkin, and westward to the Catawba, where they were mingled with the Germans, who also came mostly by way of Pennsylvania. Coming into the country by different routes, separated from each other by the unsettled wilderness, finding no centre of power or of influence within the Province to draw them together, each of these sections lived in a measure to itself, and communicated with the outside world through those routes of travel by which each had first entered the country. The Albemarle section traded with Virginia, Cape Fear with Barbadoes and Charleston. The Scotch-Irish of the Piedmont country were better acquainted with their brethren in Pennsylvania, and in nearer sympathy with them, than with the Scotch on the upper Cape Fear and lower Yadkin. The little settlement of Maryland Churchmen in Rowan kept up communication with their kinsfolk in St. Mary's County at the mouth of the Potomac, and their Lutheran neighbors sent back to Hanover for teachers and ministers, and had their services in the German tongue until well on in the nineteenth century.

Not only was there no metropolis, for the first fifty years there were no towns. The Palatines and Swiss at the confluence of the Neuse and the Trent laid out the little town of Newbern, and the Moravians, soon after 1750, began their town of Salem, but nowhere else in the Province was a town made the basis of the settlement. The Anglo-Saxon self reliance and freedom never showed itself more self reliant and free than in the unconscious daring which spread over thousands of square miles of savage wilderness with never a centre of strength or of succor provided against a time of danger.

Fifty years after the beginning of its permanent settlements, its first town, Bath, had only a dozen small houses, and its second, Newbern, was just founded. Edenton dates from 1716; Beaufort from 1723; Brunswick from 1725, though not incorporated until '745 and Wilmington from 1730 or 1735. At the end of one hundred years of settlement, North Carolina had only these six villages, and it is doubtful if the most populous had as many as six hundred inhabitants, though there was a population of over fifty thousand in the Province.

Bath, incorporated in 1705, was never more than the inconsiderable village which it is today. The first town to become of any importance was Edenton, looking southward from a gentle elevation at the head of a beautiful little bay on the north side of the upper end of Albemarle Sound. Over against this bay the broad mouths of the Chowan and the Roanoke brought her the trade of the back country, and down the sound and across the shifting bars at Ocracoke and New Inlet a little fleet of schooners and brigs began to carry on trade coastwise and with the West Indies, and presently across the ocean.

The facetious Colonel William Byrd of Westover visited Edenton in 1728, and tells us that its forty or fifty houses were mostly small and poor, and that only the better sort had brick chimneys. He says that the Court House looked like a tobacco barn, and that it was, as he supposed, the only "metropolis" in the world which had no house of worship of any kind, and no religious teacher or minister. This may have been true as to the corporate limits of the town, but we know that a church had been built at "Queen Anne's Creek," the former name of the point where Edenton stands, twenty five years earlier; and a few years after Colonel Byrd's visit the church still standing was begun, and after many years was completed in such fashion that today St. Paul's Church, Edenton, remains the most admirable example we have of our Colonial architecture, and a stately and becoming temple of Christian worship. About the same time the present Court House was also built. It fronts upon an open square, sloping gently down to the margin of the bay, so that the judge, sitting on the bench and looking through the front windows, enjoys a beautiful view of the waters across the sound towards Plymouth. This has not always been conducive to the despatch of business. A very able and learned judge from the up country, upon his first holding court in Edenton, is said to have stopped the eloquent counsel in the midst of his speech, and to have declared that it would be impossible for him to attend to his argument until it could be explained to him how two vessels, which he saw out in the bay, could be sailing in exactly opposite directions on the same wind.

Edenton never became a very large town. The sloops and schooners and brigs which carried the wheat and corn and pork and lumber to the Northern or West Indian markets, could very often run up the deep creeks and inlets almost to the farmer's barn, or to the lumberman's camp in the swamp; and a few merchants were enough to do the limited business of a purely agricultural community. But from 1722 to 1743 the Assembly met here, with few exceptions, and the General Court was held here, so that it was the first settled seat of government. And even after the growth of the Province to the southward demanded a more central location for the government, Edenton still grew and prospered, and became a place of wealth and importance, and the centre of a society as cultivated and refined as could be found anywhere in the country. It was a port of entry, though the official title of the collector was Collector of the Port of Roanoke; and thither, in 1769, came James Iredell, a lad of seventeen, as deputy under his kinsman, Henry Eustace McCulloh. He afterwards became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and had a county of North Carolina named in his honor. He was one of the most truly admirable characters in our history, and his correspondence is our richest mine of information concerning the social life of his times, as well as the most instructive view we have had left us of the civil and political history of the State during its sub revolutionary period. He has left us a bright and pleasing picture of the old times in Edenton, when Samuel Johnston, Joseph Hewes, Charles Johnson and Hugh Williamson were its leading men, and, with the other notables of that region, Blounts, Skinners, Hoskinses and others, made up a society whose traditions remain and give to Edenton a distinction which time has not entirely destroyed. After it had long ceased to be the seat of government it retained to a considerable extent its prestige in all the northern section of the State, commercially and socially.

Newbern, laid out by Colonel Thomas Pollock on his own lands about the time of the coming of De Graffenreid, was not incorporated until 1723. In 1738, Governor Gabriel Johnston called the Assembly to meet there, and in 1746 the Assembly designated it as the seat of government. With a few exceptions the subsequent sessions of the Assembly were held there during the continuance of the royal authority. Tryon, the first of the royal governors who wholly abandoned residence in the country, built his famous "Palace" there, in which he and his wife sat while receiving their company, with an assumption of royal state which offended the pride of the Colonial gentry, who did not lack a sense of their own dignity.

Into the Cape Fear River adventurers from New England had come as early as 1661, and had begun the raising of cattle on the abundant natural pasturage of the country. They soon abandoned the enterprise, driven off, it is said, by the Indians, whose children they had sent to be sold for slaves in New England.

In 1665, Sir John Seamans, a wealthy planter of Barbadoes, brought in a colony from that island, and began a settlement at "Old Town," eight miles below the site of Wilmington. This was also abandoned after a few years, Yeamans going back to Barbadoes, and the settlers going either north to the Albemarle section, or south to the new city Charleston, at the confluence of the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers.

At the end of the proprietary period the whole of what was known as Clarendon County had only about five hundred white inhabitants. In spite of its noble river and fertile lowlands it had a bad name. Two attempts to settle it had failed, as we have seen; and, added to the terrors of the coast, which its very name, Cape Fear, advertised, the lower river had been for years the refuge and rendezvous of bands of pirates. As early as 1684 they are known to have resorted to these remote and solitary waters, and early in the eighteenth century it was the headquarters of that nefarious band among whom Stead Bonnet and Teach, or Black Beard, were leaders, who with unparalleled insolence lay off the harbor at Charleston and sent a deputation into the city to hector the very Governor and Council, and to demand and obtain certain medical supplies which they needed. This insolence, however, proved their ruin: Governor Johnston and Colonel Rhett attacked Bonnet and his party in their Cape Fear retreats, and carried off all whom they did not kill, to be tried and hanged at Charleston; at about the same time Teach and his crew were attacked and killed or hanged by an expedition from Virginia under officers of the royal navy, so that the Cape Fear was permanently freed from these pests.

The settlers from the Albemarle and the Neuse now began to press down toward the fertile bottoms along the northeast branch of the Cape Fear, while about the same time a movement from South Carolina brought a number of its distinguished men into the same region from the opposite direction. The names Moseley, Lillington, Swann, Porter, Ashe, Harnett, Rowan and others, first prominent in the Albemarle settlements, became the leading names in the southern section; while the Moore brothers, descendants of Sir John Yeamans, and already distinguished in the Province of South Carolina, led a number of their best families to seek a new home and to extend the culture of rice into this region.

The town of Brunswick, in the new county, of New Hanover, was laid out by Maurice Moore in 1725 or thereabouts, though not incorporated until 1745. It was intended for the county town, and affords even now in its ruins many evidences of the wealth and culture of its inhabitants. All about it are remains of Colonial plantations and residences of whose owners we have in most cases very insufficient knowledge, but who must have been people of wealth, culture and taste. The most notable Colonial residence now remaining in North Carolina is the mansion known as "Orton," built by Roger Moore before 1734, a mile or so above Brunswick, though part of the building is of more recent date. The new Church of St. Philip was solemnly dedicated Tuesday in Whitsunweek, 1768, by the Rev. John Barnett and the Rev. John Wills, with a special service approved by Governor Tryon, who declared this to be "the King's Chapel." Its dimensions were seventy five feet by fifty five; and its walls, nearly three feet thick, and still standing almost untouched by time, though for the better part of a century roofless and abandoned, indicate the dignified character of the original building. The size and workmanship of the gravestones in the churchyard, no less than the names and inscriptions thereon, attest the wealth and intelligence of the worshippers. The King sent over a communion service of massive silver, which some have supposed to be the service now the property of Christ Church, Newbern, transferred to Newbern when Governor Tryon built his "Palace" there, and made 'Christ Church the "King's Chapel" of the Province. St. Philip's, though dedicated in 1768, had been begun more than twenty years earlier, and had probably resounded to the strains of that remarkable "Thanksgiving Hymn" composed by Governor Arthur Dobbs upon the capture of Quebec by Wolfe in 1759.

But the glory of old Brunswick was transient, and its life was absorbed by the new settlement fifteen miles higher up the river. In 1739, the Assembly passed an act by which it was provided that the county offices of New Hanover, and the office of the Collector and Officer of the Port of Brunswick, should thereafter be established at the "village called Newton," at the confluence of the two branches of the Cape Fear River; and this village was incorporated as a town by the name of Wilmington, in honor of Spencer Compton, Baron Wilmington, the friend and patron of Governor Gabriel Johnston. Its more favorable situation attracted the increasing trade which came clown the two branches of the river, and afforded greater security against the severe storms as well as the privateers which now and then threatened vessels lying in the roadstead at Brunswick, while its more healthful climate made it a more desirable place of residence. The wealth and influence of Brunswick for a while prevailed, and it fought hard to retain its superiority, but it fought in vain. For some years before the beginning of the Revolution Wilmington was securely established as the chief town of the Cape Fear section, and in a manner the heir apparent to the culture and influence of Brunswick.

In itself, Wilmington was an inconsiderable place until some time after the Revolution. But it was the centre of a most cultivated, high spirited and intelligent population, and, as it were, the stage upon which all the eminent men of the country around performed their parts. It was at once the head and the heart of the Cape Fear section. Its history is not the history of the dwellers within its corporate limits alone. The owner of a house and lot in the town could vote for its member of the Assembly, though he left his house vacant and lived in the country; and the qualification of its representative was not residence in the town, but the ownership of town property. So it came about that many of the most prominent characters in its history, those who were actors in its most stirring scenes, and who are identified with its memories and traditions, never resided within its limits. There were wealthy and intelligent and public spirited townsmen, - James Innes, Louis and Moses John de Rosset, William and George Hooper, Archibald Maclean, Eagles, Quince, Lloyd, Davis, Hogg, Campbell and others; but the greater number of its most eminent names are those of men living in the country around, - Ashe, Waddell, Moore, Burgwin, Harnett, Lillington, Moseley and Swann. One of its notable citizens was Colonel James Innes, who, having been an officer in the North Carolina contingent sent to aid Admiral Vernon's ill fated expedition against Carthagena, afterwards commanded the joint forces of Virginia and North Carolina against the French in 1754. Another distinguished man of this section, Major Hugh Waddell, commanded the North Carolina troops sent to Virginia in the second French war.

It was in the dissensions preceding the Revolution that Wilmington first assumed the position of leadership in the Province. She had no single man superior to Iredell or Johnston of Edenton, but there were in Wilmington, and residing in the country around, a larger number of men than could be found in any other portion of the Province of like commanding character and eminent ability.

Wilmington may fairly claim the first place among all the towns of America for resistance to the Stamp Act. Governor Tryon, in his despatches, tells us how Colonel Ashe, with the militia of New Hanover County, came openly to the Governor's house in Brunswick and compelled William Houston, the stamp master, who had gone to the Governor for protection, to go with them to Wilmington, and before the Mayor, Moses John de Rosset, and the City Council, in the Court House, to resign his office and to take an oath that he would not receive the stamps. He also says that upon the arrival of the sloop of war Diligence at Brunswick with the stamps, they were not landed, as there was no person to receive them. But h e neglects t o give the true reason, which was that the men of New Hanover, under Colonel Waddell, assembled at Brunswick and notified the commander of the Diligence that they would not allow the stamps to be landed. A few weeks later, when Captain Lobb, of the Viper, had seized two vessels in the harbor for the want of proper papers bearing the required stamps, the men of Wilmington, this time under the lead of Moore, Harnett, Lillington, Lloyd and Ashe, in defiance of two armed vessels, the Viper and the Diligence, compelled the surrender of the vessels which had been seized, to the great disgust of the Governor. All these actions were open and undisguised, the people of the country assembling in arms under their chosen leaders, and compelling both the civil and the naval authorities to yield to their demands.

The same prompt and intrepid spirit showed itself throughout the whole struggle, which was just beginning in 1765. Nine years later this little community, hardly to be called a town, raised eight hundred pounds in a very short time in response to the appeal in behalf of Boston; and sent to that city a ship load of supplies. Its Committee of Safety, whose minutes have been preserved from 1774 to 1776, when its function was superseded by the organization of the State under its Constitution, kept a very vigilant watch, and enforced most faithfully the recommendations of the Continental Congress. One day they are providing powder, preventing the importation of negroes, and compelling the reshipment of those brought in; and the next day they are ordering the discontinuance of public balls, and requesting ladies not to allow them in their private houses, as being contrary "to the spirit of the 8th Article of the Association o f t h e Continental Congress." Their courage and address interposed a constant obstacle between Governor Martin in Fort Johnston and his party friends among the inhabitants; and when they found that that fortification, in the Governor's possession, was a menace to the cause of American independence, they encouraged and endorsed its destruction. Inspired by their sympathy, Colonel John Ashe in July, 1775, resigned his office of Colonel under the Provincial government, accepted an election as Colonel by the people, marched with the militia to the fort and burned and demolished it.

From 1773, the name of William Hooper becomes prominent in Wilmington. The son of a Boston clergyman, he had come to Wilmington and begun the practice of law some years before. At his first appearance in public affairs he took his place alongside of Samuel Johnston, James Iredell, Cornelius Harnett and John Ash; as a leader of public sentiment. In the proceedings of the Continental Congress during the Revolution and in the fateful struggle for Federal union which followed, he was second to none in integrity of character, in brilliancy of talents and in the utility of his public services rendered to the State and to the country. About the same time Archibald Maclean removed to Wilmington from Brunswick, and was a fiery and caustic champion of liberty and of constitutional government.

Wilmington suffered much during the Revolution. For almost the whole of the year 1781 it was occupied by the British under the command of Major Craig, a cruel and implacable enemy, and was the centre of active enterprises, mostly carried on by means of the worst class of Tories, extending as far as Chatham and Orange, and marked by circumstances of rapine and atrocity. The brutal David Fanning, who captured Governor Burke and all his suite at Hillsboro' in August of this year, was one of Craig's favorite instruments. The most distinguished inhabitants, and even women and children, as in the case of Mrs. Hooper, were treated with inexcusable cruelty. Wilmington has few monuments, but the house still stands where Cornwallis had his headquarters when passing through towards Yorktown; and Cornelius Harnett's house, the Harnett whom Josiah Quincy called the Samuel Adams of North Carolina, was standing near by the north boundary of the city only a few years ago.

After those stormy and bitter days Wilmington saw many years of prosperity and peace. There had been a distinctly literary element here in Colonial days. The first American drama, The Prince of Parthia, by Thomas Godfrey, was written here in 1759, and was years afterwards produced on the stage by a company of local amateurs. Its author lies buried in St. James's churchyard. When peace had brought again plenty and prosperity, and when commerce began to change the provincial town into a bustling mart of trade, social refinement and intellectual culture revived, and under changed conditions democratic institutions the Cape Fear section asserted again its old pre eminence.

During the war between the States, Wilmington was specially noted as the centre of the important intercourse between the Confederate States and foreign countries by means of the "blockade runners." A hundred steamers are said to have been engaged in this traffic between Wilmington and the West Indies, and for many miles north and south of the inlets into the Cape Fear, the beach is still marked by the wrecks of those run ashore to escape the blockading squadron. Some of them, however, ran almost with the regularity of mail boats, and one steamer is said to have made over fifty successful trips. By these vessels supplies of all kinds and munitions of war were brought in, and large fortunes made by the owners and commanders of the successful steamers. The State of North Carolina owned one of the most fortunate and famous of these, the Advance, which eluded capture and continued year after year to bring in shoes, blankets and clothing for the North Carolina soldiers in the Confederate army, and cotton cards for the women at home, until a few months before Lee's surrender. Even on her last fatal voyage she had skilfully slipped between the blockading vessels under cover of the darkness, and before day dawned she was well below the horizon on her way to Nassau. But, unhappily, she had been obliged to take in at Wilmington a quantity of coal mined in Chatham County, and not suitable for her use, and a thick trail of smoke settling down over the quiet sea betrayed her. The blockading steamers gave chase and ran her down by her trail, the inferior quality of her coal making it impossible for her to attain her proper speed.

Wilmington is still the largest town and the most important port of entry in the State. Its population, like that of the State at large, has been but little diluted by foreign immigration. It retains its traditions of culture, of hospitality, of loyalty to the Anglo-Saxon heritage of freedom and independence, and is as ready now as ever it was in the past to resist the aggressions of power.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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