North Carolina - the 1800s

Overview of the 1800s in North Carolina

Less than two decades after Independence, the turn of the century in North Carolina brought many new promises and exciting times to those willing - and unwilling - to face them. As of 1801, Governor Benjamin Williams was well into his second of four terms (not consecutive), the Dismal Swamp Canal, started in 1793, would soon be completed (1805), and the state was divided into sixty (60) counties - some new, some dating back to 1668 - that were slowly figuring out just what their responsibilities were and were not to the new state government.

The emigration waves of the 1790s continued well into the early 1800s, and North Carolina - like so many of the original thirteen colonies/states - was struggling to keep its territory populated in the early nineteenth century. Free land, offered by newly-opened territories in western Georgia, Alabama, northern Florida, and even as far into the frontier as Mississippi and Indiana, drained some parts of the State and caused considerable hardship on those choosing to stay. Between 1815 and 1850, more than one-third (1/3) of the state's population emigrated westward - primarily due to a struggling economy, indifference to education, resistance to taxation for any reason, and general backwardness. There were many - both inside and outside of the state - who called North Carolina "The Rip Van Winkle State."

The War of 1812 resulted in another unpredicted stall in those coming to North Carolina directly from Europe - after 1815, there just were no large migrations into the state until the mid-, to late-1800s. Due to these two factors, by 1840 the white population finally exceeded the slave population - the first time in the state's history.

North Carolina had plenty of challenges internally. Progress had to be made - by those willing to make it - in every facet of life. The Western folks continued to be irritated with the political power held by the Eastern counties. Those in the Lowcountry were furious with new Federal laws prohibiting the importation of more slaves from Africa - and were dismayed to watch their fellow citizens emigrate "south and west" along with many useful (and increasingly expensive) slaves driving their wagon trains into "the frontier." Such capital leaving the state and going to "gawd knows where" was more than an inconvenience - it was a definite drain on the local economy. And.... way of life.

Yet, progress still had to be made. Until the War of 1812, there continued to be a trickle of new immigrants arriving in Wilmington by ships from Europe, and a few intrepid folks continued to follow the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania through Virginia into the Carolinas - some decided this was good enough, some went further south and west. The population was never completely stagnant, but the growth rate was tepid to say the least in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

In 1804, the Bank of the Cape Fear and the Bank of New Bern were chartered. These planted the seeds for the beginnings of economic improvments that would come decades later. In 1810, the state chartered the Bank of the State of North Carolina - a quasi-public entity that was wholly-owned by the State. It had branches in the heavily-populated counties as well as a few branches overseas. The state printed its own bank notes - and these were honored as well as respected all over the South. Private banks soon followed, even with their own bank notes, but these were only respected locally.

North Carolina $10 Note - 1834

One of the pressing concerns for the "everyman" was transportation. It was simply downright difficult to get around the state - and almost impossible for those in the Piedmond (much less in the mountains) to get their goods to the sea - for sale in Wilmington or to ship overseas. Likewise, anyone in Wilmington or elsewhere along the coast found it equally difficult to get their goods to the fairly-new state capital, much less to the mountains. As businessmen, even the most ardent politician knew that something had to be done, so the General Assembly passed legislation to address this pressing issue. As with Public Education, transporation issues were not resolved for many years to come, thanks to the general public refusing to accept taxation to pay for these.

In 1834, the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad Company was chartered, and 161-1/2 miles of track was laid between Wilmington and Weldon, in Halifax County. At completion in 1840, this was the longest railroad in the world. By the American Civil War, North Carolina had an extensive north-south and east-west railroad network already in place.

As with most other Southern States, Cotton was King. Not only the growing of cotton, but also the associated textile uses were soon becoming the backbone of the North Carolina economy. At the beginning of the century, nearly 100% of the state's cotton was exported, primarily to New England where the textile mills were being built in large numbers. It took the locals a few decades to realize that they had sufficient resources internally to build their own mills. The first cotton mill was constructed near Lincolnton in 1813 by Michael Schenck, and by 1860 there were thirty-nine (39) textile mills in North Carolina - more than in any other state in the Union.

There was a down side to King Cotton. Quite simply, it destroyed the soil in which it was planted. In the 1820s, a glut of cotton hit the European markets thanks to the opening of the Suez Canal, and North Carolina was hurt considerably as a result. Two decades passed before growing cotton was profitable once again. It would be quite a few decades more before the planters realized that they needed to rethink their cotton plantings and how it was hurting their farmlands.

The years of the nineteenth century marched on, and new "frontiers" continued to be opened up in the West. The emigration slowed down, however, and North Carolina's population began to increase steadily once again. Since 1820, Wilmington had surpassed New Bern and was still the largest city in the state in 1900, but Charlotte was not far behind. Small villages began to spring up in every county as the people first began to consider that "rural life" wasn't necessarily better than having friendly faces nearby. With the textile industry came the first "mill towns." Typically, there was a small to moderate sized family-owned mill built near a viable river source for energy, and folks simply started clumping nearby where they could find work.

Other villages arose near important bridges, crossroads, and useful river landings. At the start of the century, every county had its County Seat with a court house, jail, and other pertinent facilities - and these County Seats were "the place to go" for just about any type of business, from deed transactions, to proving wills, to finding that "must have" necessity for the old homestead. At the start of the century, there were not much more than abour 100 towns and villages (or even hamlets) established across the sixty (60) counties in North Carolina. By the end of the century, over 6,000 locations had been established as either a village, hamlet, or full-blown city - across the now ninety-seven (97) counties - most hamlets of which "disappeared" within a year or two. As one will soon find out, this was primarly due to the railroads.

Of course, the U.S. Civil War was "the prominent event" of the 1800s in North Carolina. Contrary to popular belief, the concept of Secession was not "owned" by South Carolina - from the 1820s to 1860, many other people in all parts of the Nation were also thinking about it, however, mostly "Southerners." The others were mostly thinking about stopping the Southern states from actually doing it.

On December 20, 1860, the prominent figures within South Carolina voted to do just that. They had had enough of "Federalism" crammed down their throats for decades. As most everyone today knows, the key issue was slavery. What most refuse to consider is that this was not the only "issue" for Southerners. The thing about slavery in the "South" was that the southern states' economies and "way of life" had evolved for almost two hundred years with no other concept in mind - threaten to take away an "entire way of life" and you'd be more than mildly irritated, as well. No - slavery is not "right" in any form in any place in the Universe, and it certainly had to be abolished, even in the South. Had "the Wawr" not happened when it did, it would have happened eventually - those living at the time certainly saw "life" from two completely different perspectives. And, the results made this country much better.

"The Wawr" started in South Carolina at Fort Sumter, just offshore of Charleston in April of 1861. North Carolina seceded on May 20, 1861, right after President Lincoln requested that the state provide 75,000 troops to support the Union Army. Since there is a complete section herein solely focused on "the Wawr," little will be offered in this summary. It was a terrible war, and it ruined many lives for many years afterwards. The aftermath was painful, and it took decades for the people of North Carolina just to get back to any semblance or normality - some never did.

Reconstruction in North Carolina was long and difficult, especially since "the Wawr" essentially ended here after the fall of Fort Fisher in January of 1865, cutting off the last port of Wilmington from acquiring any new supplies for the war effort. Martial Law was quickly established by the Union Army all over the state. North Carolina's Constitution was forced to be re-written after "the Wawr," and it was directed (by the Federal government) to revamp its entire political system from top to bottom. The Federals didn't like the fact that North Carolina didn't have a Lieutenant Governor, so one was added in 1868. This was just the beginning of how things had to change after "the Wawr." For more than ten years this went on and on, but finally North Carolinians stood back up and took the reigns of their destiny.

North Carolinians finally dusted themselves off, and progress had to be made - by the willing and the unwilling. Race relations had to be worked on - and still are to this day (but, this is true for just about any place on Earth). The newly-freed slaves had to adjust to their freedom - as did their former masters. Many ex-slaves quickly left the state. Most quickly left their immediate locations - simply wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Some accepted work from their previous owners, although not many, but perhaps more than seems to be acknowledged. The entire North Carolina economy had collapsed after "the Wawr," and everyone was busy picking up the pieces, testing out new relationships, with some pushing the envelope whenever they could get away with it.

Progress was made in every aspect of life - painful and slow as it was in many aspects. The freed slaves got the right to vote, and they made great use of it - for a while. Whites found new ways to disenfranchise the blacks, and blacks found new ways to get around them. Many simply found ways to get along with each other - and some found new ways to respect each other. Business was business, and North Carolina was getting back to business. There were crops to plant, tend, and harvest. There were textiles to manufacture. There were railroads to build, roads to build, newspapers to publish and deliver, food to prepare and serve, clothes to mend, baskets to weave. Ah - commerce. Perhaps the only thing we all have in common in a free society.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the Telephone - and everyone's still talking about it. In less than six years, the city of Raleigh had the first telephone exchange in North Carolina. Later that same year (1882), Wilmington had a telephone exchange; in 1886, Asheville installed its telephone exchange, and by 1890, the towns of Winston and Salem were talking on their own exchanges. Ah - Progress.

The town of Salem was the first to offer electricity in 1884. Individual towns either built or gave franchises to private companies for municipal power plants - for the generation and distribution of electrical power to its citizens. The town of Raleigh followed suit in 1885; the town of Wilmington had its power plant operational in 1886; and the town of Winston's plant was running in 1887.

The concept of Public Education had been around in North Carolina since before the turn of the nineteenth century, but little was done early in this century to move it forward. By 1800, forty-two (42) private academies had been established across the state, however, there were no truly public schools to be found. In the 1810s, legislation was introduced to make this happen, but no one wanted the tax increases needed to make it happen. The first real legislation to make public schools a reality was enacted in 1839, and the first truly public school in North Carolina opened in January of 1840 in Rockingham County. By 1850, there were 2,657 schools across the state, and by 1860, there were 3,082 public schools that included over 118,000 students enrolled.

The University of North Carolina had been opened earlier - in 1795. Higher education got a major boost from the religious entities starting in the 1830s. Guilford College was chartered in 1835 as the New Garden Boarding School by the Quakers. Wake Forest College was chartered in 1836 by the Baptists. Davidson College was chartered in 1837 by the Presbyterians. Union Institute was chartered in 1841 by the Methodists - later to be rechartered as Normal College in 1851, and as Trinity College in 1859. St. Mary's College was chartered in 1842 by the Episcopalians. Chowan Baptist Female Institution was chartered in 1848 in Murfreesboro. Catawba College was chartered in 1851 by the German Reformed Church in Newton. Statesville Female College was chartered in 1856 by the Presbyterians. Louisburg College for Females was chartered by the Methodists in 1857, as was Peace Female Institute in Raleigh by the Presbyterians.

The state finally got back around to higher education after Reconstruction. The Fayetteville Colored Normal School was chartered in 1877 - it is now Fayetteville State University. The North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Raleigh was chartered in 1887, and it opened for classes in 1889. It is now the North Carolina State University. In 1891, the state chartered three more - State Normal and Training School for Women (now UNC-Greensboro), State Normal and Training School for Blacks (now Elizabeth City State University), and the North Carolina School for the Deaf and Dumb in Morganton.

From 1801 to 1900, thirty-seven (37) new counties were established across the state. They were: Columbus and Haywood (1808), Davidson (1822), Macon (1828), Yancey (1833), Davie (1836), Henderson (1838), Cherokee (1839), Caldwell, Cleveland, and Stanly (1841), Catawba, McDowell, and Union (1842), Gaston (1846), Alexander (1847), Alamance, Forsyth, and Watauga (1849), Yadkin (1850), Jackson and Madison (1851), Harnett, Polk, and Wilson (1855), Alleghany (1859), Clay, Mitchell, and Transylvania (1861), Dare (1870), Swain (1871), Graham and Pamlico (1872), Pender (1875), Durham and Vance (1881), and Scotland (1899).

The state's population increased from 478,103 in 1800 to 1,893,810 in 1900 - a fourfold increase in one hundred years.

At the end of the 1800s, North Carolina was looking forward to the 20th Century, and it was poised for growth. The 1900s brought the prospect of many new promises and exciting times to those willing - and unwilling - to face them.


© 2004-2017 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved