History And Capitalism
Somewhat recorded history, somewhat more reliable
Giovanni de Verrazzano left a historical legacy during his exploration of 1524, in letters written home assuring his backers that the Pamlico Sound was a direct pipeline to the Pacific Ocean. He did not come ashore here because the river was impassable in parts and this was one hot, sultry, sweaty, buggy, weedy marshland. And at some point somebody put up a sign saying so. A couple of failed settlements along the Cape Fear River might have packed up and gone home after reading the sign.
One of the earliest settlements was called Charlestown, and had it survived to this day the confusion with our neighbor in South Carolina would have survived with it. That's as good an explanation as any as to why the site was abandoned in 1665. Other efforts to live here came and went, and other names were tried on and discarded, New Town and Newton, which didn't particularly flatter anybody's ego. New Liverpool was another fleeting possibility, and purportedly some of the city's streets were named after the streets of Liverpool in England. In one of the newer sections of town near Market and College streets, some of the newer Liverpool imports are represented: John, Paul, George and Ringo streets.
Wilmington became the permanent selection in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, an Englishman and patron of Gabriel Johnston, at that time North Carolina's Governor. At last the appropriate level of posturing had finally been achieved.
Brunswick Town is a relic of a 18th century settlement, where visitors can see the crumbling remnants of the walls of St. Philips Church (1768) and the foundation of Russelborough, home of royal governors Arthur Dobbs and William Tryon.
Dobbs was more than 70 years old when he decided to retire to his homeland in Ireland, but then his eye fell upon a likely lass who was a mere 15 years old. He married her and was still in town when Tryon arrived to assume the provincial governorship. Tryon actually had to wait for him to die—and be buried on-site with a huge smile on his face—before he could assume the mantle of leadership. He busied himself drawing up plans for his governor's mansion, in New Bern, eventually to become a major tourist attraction.
Brunswick Town may have gone the way of the sloth because of numerous pirate raids, though historians dispute this point because the Cape Fear River had to be dredged repeatedly throughout the 19th century before large ships could pass. In a spot that was called a haulover everybody had to get out and either pull or push.
Nevertheless, it is part of local lore that Blackbeard frequented these waters, as did another notorious pirate by the name of Stede Bonnet. Citizens who spotted their black flags on the river quickly buried their valuables in the back yard, locked up their wives and daughters, and loaded their muskets. The pirates were notorious for their cold-blooded murders, and one legend has it that Blackbeard had his wife killed by his men aboard his flagship, The Queen Anne's Revenge.
Blackbeard was killed in a skirmish about 100 miles up the coast, but Stede Bonnet, "the gentleman pirate," was brought to justice near Southport, in an area now known as Bonnet's Creek. He'd taken his flagship, the Royal James, ashore for much-needed repairs and wound up surrendering after a cannon duel with a couple of British sloops under the command of Colonel William Rhett in 1718.
Actually he was one of their own, a British major in the Barbados militia and, as legend has it, escaped to the high seas to flee a nagging wife. After he was apprehended he was taken to Charleston and hanged—still a far better fate than having to listen to a woman with a voice "that could peel paint."
Another school of thought is that the Spanish launched various attacks on Brunswick Town, and the reason that theory could be plausible is that there may be some proof. After a hearty exchange of gunfire, a valuable old oil painting was retrieved from a sinking Spanish ship. "Ecce Homo," or "Behold the Man," painted by Francisco Pacheco, now hangs in St. James Episcopal in Wilmington.
The dawn of capitalism
A lot of the early settlers were so-called second sons who weren't going to inherit anything because the common practice was for the first son to inherit everything. Many came to Carolina from other English colonies because, frankly, England owned about 75 percent of the globe at that point in time. And the mother country was intensely interested in all the ship-building materials she could lay hands on.
The Land of the Longleaf Pine filled her order many times over, with lumber and pine derivatives such as tar, pitch and turpentine, used to waterproof lumber. One popular theory is that this is how North Carolina became the Tarheel State, with someone or another inevitably stepping in the sticky stuff.
More than 50 sawmills sprang up along a 30-mile stretch along the Cape Fear River, and pine and cypress logs were floated downstream to them. The colonials did not possess the wherewithal to retrieve the "sinkers," and a company called Cape Fear Riverwood has in recent years begun bringing those up, using historical maps, sonar and cranes, and finding that some of the logs still bear the stamp of King George III. In an environment with no oxygen, the logs are remarkably well preserved. Talk about saving a tree.
Huguenots moved into the region, as did Welsh families from Pennsylvania and Highland Scots who settled upstream—all staking claims in close proximity to the river, and all traveling often to Wilmington for commercial or legal transactions.