History in Edenton NC

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Edenton NC
“a round unvarnish’d tale”
Our history travel writer takes us through “one of the 20 best small towns to visit in 2015.”

By Renée S. Gordon

Edenton is the second-oldest town authorized by legislation in North Carolina and it has been a witness to and participant in our nation’s history for more than 300 years. It is known as “the prettiest town in the South” and has been designated by the Smithsonian as “one of the 20 best small towns to visit in 2015.” This tiny gem has epic stories to tell; walking, riding and sailing tours each deliver a “round, unvarnish’d tale” that is inclusive of the gentry, farmers, traders, slaves and freedmen.

Archeological excavations have indicated that the Algonquians entered the region approximately 10,000 years ago and that’s whom the early explorers encountered. Nathaniel Batts is often cited as the first documented North Carolina settler even though his 1660 deed, granted by Indian Chief Kiscutanaweh, was for land that at the time was part of Virginia. George Durant purchased land the following year from another chief, Cisketando, and his deed is considered the oldest in the state. Additional settlers migrated to the area from Virginia and South Carolina in hopes of establishing farms and finding freedom before the colony was officially founded.

In 1663 England’s King Charles II granted eight Lords Proprietors a charter to a large tract of land; shortly thereafter, a governor and council were appointed for the Albemarle River and the colony of Carolina and Albemarle County were established. The western section of the new county was referred to in 1668 as Shaftesbury Precinct and then Chowan Precinct in 1685 after the Chowanoac Indians.

Slavery and slave labor were an integral part of the colonization of North Carolina from its conception. The 1669 Fundamental Constitution legalized the status of slaves and by 1681 land grants were based on a headright system. Unclaimed land was given to an individual based upon how many people he imported including himself and any slaves. The average grant was 50 acres and the system encouraged the importation of slaves. Owners brought in the first slaves to the colony, but by 1680 records indicate that slaves were being directly imported from Africa, though large numbers of slave ships did not dock long the North Carolina coast because of the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks and ruthless hurricanes. A 1730 count lists 6,000 slaves in the entire colony, 100,572 in 1770 and by the onset of the Civil War 331,059, a third of the population, lived in the state.

As Chowan Precinct developed it became increasingly apparent that there was a need for a permanent courthouse for business and legal purposes. In response the General Assembly gave permission for a town to be created at the fork of St. Anne’s Creek in 1712. Half-acre town lots were to be laid out on the land of Nathaniel Chevin. ‘Ye towne on Queen Anne’s creek,’ located at the point where Queen Anne’s and Pemberton Creek merge into Edenton Bay, was named Edenton in 1722 in honor of the recently deceased Royal Governor Charles Eden.

The colonial legislature first met in Edenton in 1708 but at that time there was no established capital and meetings were held in a variety of locations. In 1722 Edenton was voted the first official Colonial Capital by the legislature. Twenty-one years later legislation made New Bern the permanent Colonial Capital.

The town had a name and a courthouse, but growth was slow because the area was not readily accessible. Nevertheless Edenton was a thriving river port with more than 800 trading ships docking in the harbor in the 1770s. The 2,200-sq. mile Great Dismal Swamp, a morass of cypress, tupelo gum forests, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes, blocked passage from the north. It was not until a 22-mile canal was hand dug by slaves from Deep Creek, Vir., to South Mills, N.C., that more access by water to Albemarle Sound was possible. It is the oldest excavated water route in the U.S. Work began in 1793 and was completed in 1805. The canal opened the area to settlement but also caused a decrease in river traffic as commerce increasingly moved to Norfolk.

Edenton NCMore than twenty sites in and close to Edenton are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, consisting of 342 buildings with more than 170 historic buildings situated within one-square mile. Many of the structures were built using black labor in the form of carpenters and architects and two-thirds of the town’s documented carpenters at the turn of the 20th Century were of African descent. Edenton’s Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and expanded in 2001.

Tours of the historic area are a tour of American architectural history and no place is that more apparent than the Courthouse Green. The structures that surround the public green include Federal, Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles. The site, oriented toward the water, has been used for public celebrations and commemorations since 1712. The southern end of the green is ornamented with three Revolutionary cannons purchased by the colonies from the French and a 1932 monument to Joseph Hewes a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Secretary of the Navy. Midway the green sits a bronze sculpted teapot, an iconic symbol of Edenton.

1767 Chowan County CourthouseAt the northern end of the Courthouse Green is the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the second on the site. An earlier courthouse had been constructed in 1719. No architect is named but it is believed John Hawkes designed it. The classic Georgian building is a five-bay brick with a three-bay pedimented central pavilion, topped by a two-stage cupola. Offices flank the courtroom on the ground floor. The second floor functioned as a meeting room and event space and was considered at the time the largest paneled room in the colonies. The Williamsburg Courthouse is modeled after it.

The courthouse is the most intact colonial courthouse in the country as well as the oldest courthouse still in use. The upstairs is completely original as is the staircase. The lower level has ballast stone floors and columns that were added in the 1800s to support the balcony. James Monroe and John C. Calhoun visited the courthouse in 1819. A small museum showcases artifacts from the courthouse and an example of a lawyer’s wig from the 18th Century.

Edenton NCReplicas of colonial stocks, pillory and whipping post are located in the rear of the courthouse. Interpretive signs provide information on crime and punishment in the 1700s and the site is an excellent photo op.

The jailor’s house and jail are situated a few yards from the courthouse. The jailor’s house dates from 1905. The 1825 jail was the fifth built in the county. On each of its two stories there are cells. It was used until the 1970s.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is one of the oldest churches in North Carolina. In 1701 the Vestry Act established a council to tax landowners to generate funds to construct district churches. A simple building was erected in 1702 but was quickly outgrown. A second wooden structure was built and then the current Georgian-style church was constructed of Flemish-bond brick. In the 1800s a wooden floor and spire were added and chancel woodwork and furniture were designed. The churchyard contains more than 700 internments including that of Charles Eden.

Thomas and Penelope Barker built a home in 1782 that is a mixture of Georgian and Greek Revival-styles. The house was originally two rooms but was expanded to three floors and contains eight fireplaces. Today it serves as the Edenton Welcome Center. This is a great place to sit on the porch and enjoy the scenery. Edenton Trolley Tours are regularly scheduled and depart from the Barker House.

Penelope Barker was an ardent supporter of the colonists and she felt that women’s voices should be heard. On October 25, 1774 she gathered 51 women to sign a petition to protest King George’s taxation by boycotting tea and other products. The event has come to be known as the Edenton Tea Party, the first organized female protest in the nation.

Francis Corbin, an agent of John Carteret, Earl of Granville, built the Jacobean-Georgian Cupola House in 1758. The octagonal cupola provides both ventilation and a view of the water. The home was purchased by Samuel Dickinson in 1777 and remained in the family for 141 years. In 1918 a descendent sold the first floor Georgian woodwork to the Brooklyn Museum causing residents of Edenton to raise funds to purchase and preserve the property. The woodwork has been reproduced, the second floor is original and the home has been furnished with period antiques. The pattern of the Cupola House Herb Garden replicates the pattern in the lower panel of the wooden entry door.

Colonial Waterfront Park is the perfect place to focus on the maritime history of Edenton. A number of interpretive plaques detail various aspects of the seaside trade and Edenton’s role in the Maritime Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The 1886 screw-pile Roanoke River Lighthouse is newly reopened for tours after a four-year restoration. The lighthouse was relocated to Edenton from the Roanoke River eight miles west. The two-level Arts and Crafts House is 1250-sq. ft. with downstairs living space and bedrooms on the upper level.

Edenton NCEdenton NC

One of the real joys of the waterfront is an Edenton Bay Cruise aboard the “Liber-Tea.” The 40-minute tour aboard the 22-ft. long electric boat is fully narrated and filled with stories that interweave land and sea tales. The legend of the Dram Tree is one of my favorites. A huge cypress was situated in Edenton Harbor when the first colonists arrived. It became customary for trading ships entering the harbor to leave a bottle of the best rum in a hollow in the tree trunk and for the captain to salute Edenton by drinking a dram from a bottle at the Dram Tree when departing. Dire consequences awaited anyone who failed to heed the custom. Regularly scheduled, themed and private tours sail from Colonial Waterfront Park.

Cannon’s Ferry River Walk is dedicated to the story of herring fishing in the region. A boardwalk has interpretive information and provides water views and photo ops as well as information on Edenton’s seven paddle trails for kayaking and canoeing. Difficulty ranges from beginner to moderate.

Edenton’s Hampton Inn hotel is centrally located and is accessible to all of the city’s sites and attractions. Amenities include free parking, WIFI, outdoor pool, business center, designated smoking areas, express check-in and a comfortable bed. Specials are available online.

Edenton’s history includes the remarkable story of an incredible woman, Harriet Jacobs, who hid for years in a place too small to stand upright to escape slavery. I will trace her journey in my next feature.

More Information…

Visit Edenton

Visit North Carolina

Read @21plusTravel’s 10 reasons to visit Edenton.

– Photo Credits: courthouse courtesy Visit Edenton; remainder by Renée S. Gordon

Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.

Renee GordonRenée S. Gordon has written a weekly travel column for the Philadelphia Sun for the past 14 years and has published travel articles in numerous publications. Her columns focus on cultural, historic and heritage tourism and she specializes in sites and attractions related to African American and African Diaspora history. Renée serves as a consultant for educational trips and history-related tourist destinations. She considers herself a “missionary journalist” and as such she continues to promote heritage and sustainable tourism. She has been honored with several awards including the 2013 Recipient of African Diaspora World Tourism and Flame Keeper in Media Award for Travel Writing.

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