New Hanover County, North Carolina

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King George II, House of Hanover


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1720s / English/Welsh, Scots-Irish

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A History of New Hanover County

Fort Fisher - Civil War - Mouth of Cape Fear River

In October of 1662, the English explorer, William Hilton, Jr. made a three-week reconnaissance of the lower reaches of the Cape Fear River. He wrote:

"ye 4th Octob. [1662] we weighed, and went into ye Haven, where was fathoms water, and in a weeks time, spent with ye indians, and in sounding ye River (now called Charles River) and ye ship turning up alway against ye wind, we gott up 15. or 16. leagues into ye river; and after in our long boate, half of us went 15. leagues further, till at ye head of ye river we could not tell, which of ye many rivers to take, and so returned to our ship, and as we went and came, we found many faire and deep rivers, all ye way running into this Charles River."

Hilton's report contained favorable comments on the fish, fowl, and wildlife of the region. He also noted:

"vast meddows, besides upland fields," "greatt swamps laden with varieties of great oakes, and other trees of all sorts," and the potential for good growing conditions. Hilton wrote that the Indians were "very poor and silly Creatures," that he had observed fewer than one hundred of them, but that they were "very theevish." He wished "all Englishmen, that know how to improve and use a plentiful Countrey and condition, not to delay to posses it...."

During his 1664 visit, Hilton remained almost two months on the Cape Fear River. The explorers spent much of their time on the Northeast Branch which they felt was the main channel. They anchored their ship, Adventure, and rowed the ship's long-boat on trips up several tributaries. The longest of these explorations was four days' travel up-stream and two back down. On more than one occasion fallen trees in the rivers prevented them from proceeding farther. On the Northeast Cape Fear River, they found:

"a very large and good tract of land on the N.W. side of the river, thin of timber, except here and there a very great oak, and full of grass, commonly as high as a mans middle, and in many places to his shoulders, where we saw many deer and turkeys; one deer having very large horns and great body, therefore called it Stag-Park."

At that point they turned their boat back down the river. Topographic maps today show Stag Park 5.25 miles east-southeast of Burgaw on the west bank of the Northeast Branch, about 40 miles above its mouth. The elevation there ranges from three to six feet above sea level. In other places they found high banks along the rivers, swamps and marshes, meadows, pine woodlands "in some places as barren as ever we saw land, but in other places good pasture ground." Near the end of their stay they ventured up Hilton's River as they called the Northwest Branch. Hilton wrote:

"The Land and Timber up this River is no way inferior to the best in the other, which we call the main River: So far as we discovered, this seems as fair, if not fairer than the former, and we think runs further into the Countrey, because there is a strong Current comes down, and a great deal more drift-wood.

As the Hilton party left the Cape Fear they "made a purchase of the river and land of Cape Fair, of Wat Coosa...." They found a warning near the mouth of the river left by the New Englanders (of the ill-fated colony earlier that year) which disparaged the country and warned against settlement there. Hilton's report concluded with a rebuttal to that warning:

"we have seen facing both sides of the river and branches of Cape Fear aforesaid, as good land and as well timbered as any we have seen in any other part of the world, sufficient to accommodate thousands of our English nation, and lying commodiously by the said river's side."

William Hilton, Jr. and his expedition were not the first Europeans to explore the Cape Fear. John Cabot sailed by it in 1497 and claimed the land on behalf of England, giving that country an edge when it came to settling this part of the New World. Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sailing under the French flag, sailed by the Cape Fear area in 1521. And, several Spanish sailed along the Cape Fear - Francisco Gordillo and Pedro Quejo joined forces in 1521 and apparently sailed by the Cape Fear, with their superior, Lucas Vasquez de Allyon, following in 1526.

But, it was William Hilton's detailed account - in English, of course - taken back to an English colony - Massachussetts - that really helped to spur interest in settling the Cape Fear region. Soon after his return in 1662, a group of New Englanders sailed south and attempted to create a settlement along the Cape Fear in what is present-day Brunswick County, right across the Cape Fear River from New Hanover County. The New Englanders purchased thirty-two square miles of land along Town Creek from the local Indians - the Cape Fear Indians - but, they did not particularly like the area and left within two or three months, returning to their homes in New England.

In 1664, Sir John Yeamans of Barbados brought a second group to essentially the same location and established the first town in the new colony - Charles Town. This was six years before the second Charles Town that was established along the Ashley River in present-day South Carolina. The barbadians built a thriving settlement that peaked out at around 800 souls in 1666. In 1667, things deteriorated rapidly. The colonists were running out of supplies and then they were hit by a gigantic hurricane in August that wiped out the entire settlement. The disgusted colonists gave up and found their way up to the Albemarle region and some even as far north as Virginia - apparently, they walked.

This failure set the Cape Fear region back by more than fifty years. From 1667 to 1720, the Lords Proprietors focused their attention on the two primary settlements in the Province - the Albemarle region and the Charles Town region. Interestingly, in 1666, before the demise of the first Charles Town in 1667, a pamphlet was published in England extolling the virtues of the Cape Fear region. Click Here to read the earliest "marketing campaign" ever for New Hanover County and the surrounding area.

In May of 1713, Barren Island (Bald Head) was granted to Landgrave Thomas Smith, and in 1725 Governor George Burrington began to distribute land along the Cape Fear for colonization. Many of the new settlers came from South Carolina because of the lower taxes in North Carolina. Maurice Moore founded Brunswick Town on his grant on the west bank of the river - in present-day Brunswick County - and by June of 1726, a map of the town was filed with the Secretary of the Province. The next year a ferry was in operation across the river.

In 1729, New Hanover Precinct was formed from Craven Precinct. New Hanover was named after the house of Hanover, of King George II. By 1730, a few Quakers settled in the Cape Fear area. Little is known about them, for all records have been lost.

In 1731, the lower Cape Fear spawned a few wealthy families whose lives became connected by marriage and economic interests. Thirty five members of the "Family," as historian Lawrence Lee termed them, owned 115,000 acres of land privately. The "Family" consisted of the Moores–Maurice, Roger, and Nathaniel, Edward Moseley, John Baptista Ashe, Samuel and John Swann, Thomas Jones, Edward Smith, Mosely Vail, Eleazer Allen, John Porter, and John Grange. In April, Governor George Burrington, who counted the Brunswick Town clique among his many enemies, asked the General Assembly to "pass an Act for building a Town on Cape Fear and appointing Commissioners for that purpose."

The present site of Wilmington was laid out in 1733 and it was first called New Carthage, then New Liverpool, then New Town or Newton. John Watson granted 640 acres in New Hanover Precinct. Watson, along with Joshua Grainger, Michael Higgins, and James Wimble were the chief owners of land on which Wilmington now stands. In April of 1733, they joined in laying out the town after a plan similar to that of Brunswick, originally settled in 1726 across the Cape Fear River.

Governor Gabriel Johnston's taking office in 1734 continued the feud with the "Family." By declaration he opened the Land Office on May 13, 1735, in Newton (Wilmington) to "prevent confusion and unnecessary disputes," and he ordered the Court of Exchequer and the Court of Oyer and Terminer to convene there instead of in Brunswick Town. The fortunes of Brunswick Town declined from that time forward. It was largely deserted and was burned during the American Revolutionary War. On the other hand, Governor Johnston reported "amazing progress" in Cape Fear development during Newton's first eight years.

A wide variety of sailing craft called at Wilmington. The Flats, the shoal between the two towns of Wilmington and Brunswick, limited the size of vessel that could reach the upstream destination, but some ships lightened their loads at Brunswick and then proceeded with a lessened draft to Wilmington. Schooners, sloops, brigs, snows, and other ships called at both Cape Fear ports.

Schooners and sloops were ordinarily used in the coastal trade between the colonies and were the most frequently seen vessels on the Cape Fear River. A schooner was two-masted while a sloop had only one mast. Both carried sails rigged fore-and-aft; sails were suspended by gaffs from the aft side of the mast or masts. The schooner and sloop varied in size from six to less than fifty tons, and had an average crew of four.

The average size of a brig, or brigantine, was one hundred tons with a crew of seven. A brig carried sails on two masts, a fore-mast with square sails and a mainmast on which were both square sails and one rigged fore-and- aft. Snows and ships were larger than brigs. They averaged about 150 tons and carried crews of ten or eleven. Ships were three-masted vessels with square sails. Snows had two square-rigged masts and a small third mast, set into a step above the level of the deck, rigged with a try-sail.

A variety of small craft also plied the Cape Fear River and its tidal estuary. The dugout canoe usually crafted from cypress logs, unchanged from its Indian original, was ubiquitous. A small canoe for two or three men sold for just a few shillings. Janet Schaw attended a funeral at Point Pleasant plantation on the Northeast Branch and reported that "above a hundred" persons arrived for the service in canoes. She continued that other canoes:

"... are so large as to carry thirty Barrels, though of one entire Piece of Timber. Others that are split down the Bottom and a piece added thereto, will carry eighty or an hundred."

This wide canoe was a called a perriauger. Crittenden elaborated on its method of construction:

"To construct a perriauger a cypress log was hollowed out, as if to make a dug-out; the log was split down the middle, and the two halves were laid parallel to each other several feet apart; to form the bottom of the craft several strong boards were laid between the halves of the log, parallel to them; the ends were closed up to keep out the water; and the whole was fastened firmly together."

It was probably a perriaguer James Murray had in mind when he wrote a London merchant that "a Cooper and a Craft that will carry about 100 barrels will be absolutely necessary. I have suffer'd much for want of them..." Small perriaguers were propelled by oars or paddles, and larger ones could also be outfitted with a sail. Their greater width made them more stable and enabled them to carry a larger number of men, provision barrels, or livestock. When Janet Schaw "sailed" on the river it was probably in a perriauger. Affluent planters could add other enhancements to the basic perriauger. Miss Schaw further reported that:

"Mr. Rutherfurd has a very fine boat with an awning to prevent the heat, and six stout negroes in neat uniforms to row her down, which with the assistance of the tide was performed with ease in a very short time."

A large perriauger could cost much as £20 in North Carolina currency. Perriaugers, flatboats, scows, and temporary rafts were the work boats that plied the river between Cross Creek and Wilmington during the colonial period. Flatboats and scows resembled perriaugers by having flat bottoms, but they had squared sides and were constructed from planks rather than hollowed-out logs. With their shallow drafts they could operate on small streams. Janet Schaw visited John Rutherfurd's plantation, Hunthill, on the Northeast Branch, observed his "grand" saw-mill, and described the transportation of naval stores:

"with the river, by which he sends down all the lumber, tar and pitch, as it rises every tide sufficiently high to bear any weight This is done on what is called rafts, built upon a flat with dales [i.e., deals, sawn boards or planks] and the barrels depending from the sides. In this manner they will float you down fifty thousand (feet of) deals at once, and 100 or 200 barrels, and they leave room in the centre for the people to stay on, who have nothing to do but prevent its running on shore, as it is floated down by the tides, and they must lay to, between tide and tide, it having no power to move but by the force of the stream. ... [Rutherfurd] is able to load a raft once a fortnight -- the plantation not only affording lumber, but staves, hoops and ends for barrels and casks...."

Flatboats and rafts most frequently used the current for propulsion. In the tidal reaches of the river they had to be tied up when the tide was rising to avoid being driven back upstream. They were steered by long poles fixed on fulcrums placed at either end of the vessel. Floating with the current was slow but not difficult when all one had to do was to "prevent its running on shore." On the other hand moving a flat one hundred miles up the river from Wilmington to Fayetteville was very difficult.

"Ordinarily craft were propelled up-stream by oars or setting poles, but where the current was very swift they might have to be warped up by means of ropes fastened to trees on the bank. Progress against the current ordinarily was very slow.

In a short span of time change came to the river. Internal improvement projects beginning in 1815 began to make river travel easier. Snags were removed, dams and locks were installed, and the river was made navigable a greater distance towards its headwaters. In 1818, steamboats made their first appearance and the upstream trip became much easier to accomplish. Railroads proved to be more permanent and reliable than the river for transportation and commercial traffic on the river began to decline. The naval stores industry experienced a boom in the 1840s, but that led in turn to an exhaustion of the pine forests and the removal of the industry to the deep south in the early 1900s. Soon the trumpets of the Northwestern raftsmen were no longer heard on the reaches of the Cape Fear River.

Travel on the Cape Fear During Colonial Times, by John A. McGeachy [with minor edits]

Click Here to go to the New Hanover County Library. Link is current as of August 2005, November 2015, January 2018, and December 2019.
Click Here for an early map showing the known Plantations along the Cape Fear River between 1725 and 1760.
Click Here for an early map showing the Cape Fear River area in 1749.
Click Here for an early map showing the Cape Fear River area in 1781, when Lord Cornwallis occupied this area.
Click Here for an early map showing Frying Pan Shoals and surrounding area in the 1780s.
The town of Exeter was established in New Hanover County just before or just after the American Revolution. It faded in the early 1800s.

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