The roots of NC were in the colonies of Albemarle, not in the “lost colony”

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The Chowan County Courthouse, shown here, was built in 1767. Photo: Susan Rodriguez

Every elementary school student in North Carolina learns the story of the lost colony. This 16th-century settlement on Roanoke Island was indeed the first sustained English settlement in North America, but it earned its nickname for a reason.

The colony was lost within five years of its establishment. Rather, the current state of North Carolina has emerged from a much less famous region. The Albemarle settlements, of which Chowan County comprised the western section, were the real beginning of this state. Chowan County reflects this long historical heritage and is today as closely linked to the past as any county in the state.

It could be argued that John Pory, and not John White, is the true founder of the colony of North Carolina. Pory, professor, explorer and politician living in Virginia, descended the Chowan River in 1622 and, according to a Virginia chronicle of 1622, wrote of “a very fruitful and pleasant country, full of rivers, where two harvests occur in only one year. . “

After his report, some Virginians moved south in search of fresh tobacco land. The voyage of Pory preceded the concession of 1629 of King Charles Ier which gave its name to Carolina or “Carolana” as it was called at the beginning). Many Virginians settled along the river that Pory traveled. By 1664 enough settlers had settled in the area to form Albemarle County to provide some semblance of government. The western boundary of this county, the constituency of Shaftesbury, became the constituency of Chowan in 1685 and the county of Chowan in 1739.

The center of Chowan County was Edenton, one of the first towns in North Carolina. It was named after Charles Eden, a governor more famous today for his friendship with pirates than for his governance. Bill Hand noted in the New Bern Sun Journal that “some historians suggest that Eden got a percentage of the pirate; in any case, after Blackbeard’s death, much of his loot ended up in a barn owned by Colony Secretary Tobias Knight.

One of Eden’s rivals, Edward Moseley, was arrested for publicly implying that the governor was receiving Blackbeard’s stolen treasures. When Blackbeard was finally killed in North Carolina waters, it was not by Eden’s militia but by Virginia troops.

In its early years, Edenton barely achieved the title of town. William Byrd II, one of Virginia’s leading planters and founder of Richmond, remained near Edenton when he participated in the survey of the colonial border between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728. Byrd wrote in his “History of the Dividing Line” that the city had between 40 and 50 houses and that he knew of no other place of European settlement where “there is no church, chapel, mosque, synagogue or any other place of public worship of any sect or religion that it would be “. For Byrd, the people of Edenton had no ambition and considered having a brick fireplace on his house a sign of extravagance.

This state of affairs did not last. Over time, Edenton has become a center for some of the colony’s most respected citizens. These included First Supreme Court Justice James Iredell and Governors James Iredell Jr. and Samuel Johnson. The governor of North Carolina resided in Edenton as it was the colonial capital from 1722 to 1743. The town contained some of the most elegant buildings in the colony. Several of them, such as the Chowan County Courthouse built in 1767 and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church built in 1736-1766, are still standing and can be visited today. The 300-year-old Edenton courthouse still survives in the middle of town.

A detail from a London cartoon of the Edenton Tea Party, 1775. Source: Library of Congress
A detail from “A Society of Patriotic Ladies”, a 1775 London cartoon of the Edenton Tea Party by Philip Dawe. Source: Library of Congress

A pivotal moment in the history of women and colonial history occurred in Edenton in 1774. Spurred on by the hated tea tax and similar events in the colonies, the so-called Edenton Tea Party took place this year. A group of women, led by Penelope Barker, signed a document pledging to boycott the purchase of English tea and cloth until England ceases its practice of taxation without representation.

According to Sandra Lancaster of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the letter was “one of the first organized political actions for women in US history.” It also sparked ridicule in London. Phillip Dawe designed and printed a cartoon depicting women as masculine, lustful and decidedly anti-feminine. A statue of a teapot commemorating the event sits atop a cannon near the county courthouse.

The teapot commemorating the Edenton Tea Party.  Photo: Susan Rodriguez
The teapot commemorating the Edenton Tea Party. Photo: Susan Rodriguez

Throughout the revolutionary period and the early days of the Republic, the considerable wealth of Chowan County was built on shipping and local plantations, with much of its territory outside the city limits comprising extensive plantations. of tobacco. The town of Edenton was also centered on slavery.

The 1860 Slavery Distribution Map, created by Edwin Hergesheimer, showed that the county had the seventh highest proportion of slaves in the state to free people. One of the most famous of these slaves was Harriet Jacobs. After years of torment on the part of his owner, Jacobs escaped and spent several years in Edenton hiding in an attic before heading north. Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave” became one of the most famous pre-war slave accounts, and she spent the rest of her life in the North. to fight for abolition and later for social reform. Free African Americans also called the town house. They could get jobs as ship pilots or work on the docks. Harriet Jacobs noted that some of these free men and women helped her, her brother John Jacobs, and others escape to freedom by boat.

The fortune of Chowan County declined in the 19th century. As David Leroy Corbitt noted in his authoritative history of the counties of North Carolina, Chowan lost its prosperous upper part with the formation of Gates County in 1779. The port of Edenton was greatly affected by the closure of Roanoke Inlet after a hurricane of 1795.

The city was then occupied by federal troops at the start of the Civil War. After slavery ended, Edenton survived by turning to industry, including the cotton mill that still stands at the end of King Street and the peanut mill on Church Street.

After the Civil War, with the decline of plantation agriculture, the entire Albemarle region suffered economic hardship that continued for much of the 20th century. Edenton only reversed this decline by embracing its history. One of the first historic preservation efforts in North Carolina took place in 1918, 40 years before the Tryon Palace was rebuilt. The women of Edenton formed an association to rehabilitate the Cupola House built from 1756 to 1758, one of the oldest houses in North Carolina.

La Coupole is presented as it appeared in 1936, before major renovations.  Photo: Library of Congress
La Coupole is presented as it appeared in 1936, before major renovations. Photo: Library of Congress

Over the next century, affiliate groups such as the Edenton State Historic Site and the Edenton Woman’s Club restored dozens of structures and helped found numerous inns and bed and breakfasts. State funding and income from tourism helped create a bustling city center with museums, house tours and a tram tour.

This story captured the imagination of one of North Carolina’s most remarkable novelists. Inglis Fletcher, who owned a historic plantation in Chowan County, wrote a dozen books set in historic North Carolina and Edinburgh. These included “Men of Albemarle” in 1942 and “Roanoke Hundred” in 1948. There was also “Lusty Wind of Carolina” in 1944, the story of a serf and the daughter of a Huguenot weaver who fell lovers, help to establish the colony and fight the pirates. The books are all fictional but filled with historical facts as well as cameos of historical figures.

The dome house is represented as it appears today.  Photo: Éric Medlin
The dome house is represented as it appears today. Photo: Éric Medlin

Today, Chowan County retains the north-south dynamic that defined it since the early 18th century. Its northern regions are rural and have changed little over the past hundred years. The exception is the growing seaside community of Arrowhead Beach. Other northern communities, such as Rockyhock and the amusingly named Sign Pin, are little more than crossroads.

The southern part of the county, comprising Edenton, has grown into a vibrant and vibrant community dedicated to tourism and history. Edenton now has a bookstore and about two dozen restaurants. Its old mill buildings have new tenants, including a fitness center and museum. Chowan County has found a way forward by embracing both its natural wealth and the lure of the past. It has become one of Inner Banks’ most significant successes.


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