The Tour

Cornwallis memorabilia is on display, though the general stayed only 18 days. His family seal rests on a desk, his portrait and coat of arms hang upstairs, and his signature appears on a framed historic document. George Washington's signature can be seen as well, on a lottery ticket pertaining to distribution of land.

As the story goes, Cornwallis did not want to surrender his sword to Washington and instead sent an underling to do it. Upon hearing of this, Washington sent an underling of his own to accept the sword.

Most of the house's furnishings and accessories are legacies of the Wright family—their silver, their wedding china, their playing cards with no numbers or letters on them because King George imposed a writing tax. Many things that had been carried off by relatives or sold at auction have over the years trickled back into the house.

William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, has a portrait in the house, and at one time had a house of his own a couple blocks away. A historical marker has been placed near where his house once stood, but neglects to mention that Hooper paid a high price for signing that incendiary document. His wife and family were sent to prison and the king launched a cannonball through his house.

Handsomely framed historical maps reflect not only a remarkably accurate perception of the southern coastline but the elevated status of their owners. Only the extremely wealthy could hire a mapmaker and pay for what might amount to years of travel expenses. The artwork is excruciatingly detailed and the words too tiny to be deciphered. One of them apparently was commissioned by the King of England, as evidenced by his little crown in the corner.

The Wright family took its meals upstairs, due to the dirt and noise outside from the constant foot and horse traffic, and dined beneath a 1795 Waterford chandelier. The marble on the mantel was from Ireland and the dishware was bone china from England.

From their upstairs dining room they had a view of the walled garden beside the house, filled with fig and pomegranate trees and laid out in the pattern of the British flag. They also had a view of the river off in the distance without all those big buildings in the way.

The source of two popular cliches can be found upstairs. The portrait of Sir James Mackenzie, an officer in the British army in the 1600s, explains in a glance the origins of the term "bigwig." The portrait of Julianna Howe shows her hands, for which she no doubt had to pay the painter double, on the theory that hands are hard to draw. Today we'd say she paid an arm and a leg.

A fan collection in an upstairs bedroom is a reminder that women used their fans in the same way a signal corps uses flags. Chaperones were very strict and didn't want girls flirting at dances, so they created a fan language with an estimated 250 messages, covering everything that possibly could be subtly communicated with a fan in a public place. The Spanish combs were popular because women rarely attained five feet in height and they relentlessly sought out fashion items that made them look taller.

Baths were an all-day effort because they required numerous trips to the well with heavy wooden buckets. For that reason baths could be annual events. It is thought that June became a big month for brides because that was bath time.

Down in the basement you get a glimpse of the dungeon—it looks like someone very bad may still be down there—and a glass case with all the shards and pieces that were unearthed when the foundation had to be excavated a few years back. With no curbside pickup or county landfill, the family put it all in a backyard garbage pit: fools gold, stones from China, pieces of rum bottle, a horse's jaw and dog bones, to name just a few items of interest.

Also of extreme interest on a subterranean level is a network of underground tunnels running through downtown Wilmington, one of which runs from the Burgwin-Wright House to the Cape Fear River. All told there are five such tunnels, collectively known as Jacobs Run.

At one time eight streams ran through this district and the tunnels were built to let them flow through to the river while roads, sidewalks and buildings were constructed above them. Flooding was a common occurrence in the early days and canal boats made their way along Market Street, like something you'd see in Venice.

But tunnels are inherently mysterious and for some reason somebody at some point put down plank flooring. The professional guessers think it may have been part of the Underground Railroad—a part that was literally underground—while the professional naysayers point out that the tunnels empty deep beneath the surface of the river. Which does not entirely rule out the guess.

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Terms: Pre-Colonial through Revolutionary period in Cape Fear: The Tour

Pre-Colonial through Revolutionary period in Cape Fear: The Tour

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