A History of Bath, North Carolina

St. Thomas Church - Bath, North Carolina

European settlement near the Pamlico River in the 1690s led to the creation of Bath, North Carolina's first town, in 1705. The town's location seemed ideal with easy access to the river and the Atlantic Ocean 50 miles away - at Ocracoke Inlet. It was the county seat of Bath County.

The first settlers were French Huguenots from Virginia. Among early English inhabitants were John Lawson, Surveyor General of the colony and author of the first history of Carolina (1709), and Christopher Gale, first Chief Justice of the colony, as well as an often member of the Executive Council.

A library sent to St. Thomas Parish in 1701 became the first public library in the colony. In 1707, a grist mill and the colony's first shipyard were established in the town. By 1708, Bath consisted of twelve houses and about 50 people. Trade in naval stores, furs, and tobacco was important, and Bath became the first port of entry into North Carolina. The parish also established a free school for Indians and slaves.

Early Bath was disturbed by political rivalries, epidemics, Indian wars, and piracy. Cary's Rebellion, in 1711, was an armed struggle over religion and politics in the colony. An epidemic of Yellow Fever and a severe drought also occurred in 1711. Furthermore, the Tuscarora War between the weakened settlers and the powerful Tuscarora Indians followed immediately in the same year and lasted over two years.

Bath became a refuge for the surrounding area until the Indian power was broken in 1715. Bath was also the haunt of Edward Teach, better known as the pirate ''Blackbeard.'' An expedition of the British Navy killed him in a naval battle near Ocracoke in 1718.

Later Bath offered a more peaceful, settled life. The first Beaufort County courthouse was built in the town in 1723. Construction of St. Thomas Church, the oldest existing church in the state, began in 1734. Ferry service was established across the Pamlico River, and the Post Road linked Bath to New Bern and Edenton.

In 1751, Captain Michael Coutanch, a merchant, legislator, and commissioner for Bath and Portsmouth, built the Palmer-Marsh House, Bath's oldest and in the colonial period its largest residence. Col. Robert Palmer, Surveyor General, Customs Collector for the Port of Bath, and member of the Governor's Executive Council, later owned the house.

The General Assembly met in Bath in 1743, 1744, and 1752. In 1746, the town was considered for capital of the colony. Governors Robert Daniell, Thomas Cary, Charles Eden, and Matthew Rowan made Bath their home for a time, as did Edward Moseley, long-time Speaker of the Assembly.

In 1776, a new town, Washington, was formed 15 miles up the Pamlico River. When Beaufort County government moved there in 1785, Bath lost most of its importance and trade.

In the early 19th century, the Marsh and Bonner families and Jacob Van Der Veer added to the vitality of the town as merchants, shippers, and active citizens. Van Der Veer manufactured rope outside of town and was a partner with Joseph Bonner in an early steam sawmill. Bonner also operated a turpentine distillery.

During the American Civil War, Bath was spared from Union occupation, common in coastal North Carolina.

By the turn of the century, Bath had improved land transportation. Waterborne activities also increased as several large sawmills were operated nearby.

Yet Bath remains a small village. Restoration efforts in Bath have saved the St. Thomas Church, the Palmer-Marsh House, the c. 1790 Van Der Veer House, and the c. 1830 Bonner House. The original town limits are the boundaries of a National Register historic district.

By the year 1704, planters along the Pamlico River realized that if their community was to achieve commercial and political importance within the province, it should have a town as the center of its activities. There is no record of who first initiated the action to incorporate the town of Bath. The new Deputy Governor, the Landgrave Robert Daniell, fresh from Charles Town, and conscious of the fact the vast area he governed was without an incorporated town, and had no permanent seat of government, was undoubtedly among those who initiated it. John Lawson, Joel Martin, and Simon Alderson, who became the first commissioners of the town, were also undoubtedly involved. Major Christopher Gale, Captain William Barrow, Captain Nathaniel Daw, and David Perkins, all land owners in the neighborhood, were probably also involved.

A site was selected on the eastern bank of Old Town (Bath) Creek, on the point formed by the confluence of Old Town and Adams (Back) Creek. This had been the site of the Indian town referred to as Pamtico's Town in the 1684 Sothel grant. It was also the site of the old Pomouik town of Cotan, from which the creek derived the name “Old Town.”

This site was part of a plantation settled earlier by David Perkins. It adjoined the plantation of Captain William Barrow, to the east. At some time during the year 1704, John Lawson, Joel Martin, and Simon Alderson bought about sixty acres of the Perkins Plantation, and laid out streets and lots for a town. There is no direct record of this sale in the present Beaufort County records. However there is a record which confirms this sale. Two years later, when Perkins sold the remainder of his plantation to Governor Thomas Cary, for the use of the Governor's son John, the record of transfer states: “the within mentioned Tract (160 acres and 11 poles) except that Part which we formerly sold to Joel Martin Gent., Simon Alderson Gent., and John Lawson and now laid out for a town.”

On 2 March, 1705, the new Deputy Governor Thomas Cary issued a patent to David Perkins, confirming his title to the plantation. At about the same time, Cary issued a patent to Barrow for his plantation, which Cary also later bought.

On 8 March, 1705, the tract of land purchased by Lawson, Martin, and Alderson, was incorporated into the town of Bath, by the General Assembly meeting at the home of Captain John Hecklefield, in Albemarle. It now seems obvious by the timing of Cary's grant to Perkins that this action was to give validity to the title to lots to be sold in the new town.

Apparently the name “Bath” had been selected for the new town prior to its incorporation. On 11 February, 1705, a month before the town was incorporated, Simon Alderson sold to Mr. Nathaniel Wyersdale “a certain Lott in Bath Town formerly called Jacob Conrow's Lott lying about the middle of Town, a front lott and all the background.” This is one of two land transactions in Bath Town in which Alderson's name appears as grantor. It also shows that if houses had not yet been built, lots were certainly being sold or optioned prior to the incorporation. More than a year later, Lawson and Martin recorded the sale of about two dozen lots in Bath Town, including one lot to Wyersdale, “on which the said Wyersdale now lives.” Again, this appears to be a transaction to validate Wyersdale's title, rather than a new sale.

Between 26 September and 2 October, 1706, Lawson and Martin recorded the sale of about two dozen lots in Bath Town. The vague description of these lots, which were not recorded by number at first, makes it practically impossible to say who bought which lot during these first sales. Most of the lots sold were on “front street with front privelages.” The “front” street referred to was the 100 feet wide main street, running parallel to Old Town Creek for the length of the town, shown above as Water (Bay) Street. These lots were on the east side of the street, and the “front privelage” meant the use of the extension of these lots west of the street to the creek.

Early records in the office of the Register of Deeds for Beaufort County include the following names among the early purchasers of lots in Bath Town: Nathaniel Wyersdale, Christopher Gale, Dr. Maurice Luellyn, Daniel Matthews, Captain James Beard, Levi Truewhite, Richard Oden Jr., George Birkenhead, Otho Russell, Lionel Reading, Giles Shute, Joel Martin, Captain Nathaniel Daw, John Lawson, and the new governor, Thomas Cary. The names of Thomas Sparrow, a merchant of Maryland; John Porter and John Worley, merchants of Chowan; and Thomas Peterson, a merchant of Albemarle, were among the out of town purchasers recorded. Sparrow, Porter, and Worley later moved to the Pamlico.

It is now difficult to determine which of the early lot owners actually lived in Bath Town. We know that Wyersdale and Shute did. Their deeds read “the lott on which he now lives.” Christopher Gale and Dr. Luellyn did. The title to Gale's lot reads “the lot on which Dr. Luellyn now lives.” John Lawson owned two lots, “containing an acre and eight poles, within a fence.” In December of 1706, Lawson leased “all his site and Lots of Land whereon he now liveth on front street in Bath Town, also all houses, edifices, buildings etc.” to Hannah Smith for seven years, for an annual rent of “one ear of Indian corn, if demanded.”

In 1709, the Rev. William Gordon, a missionary of the S.P.G., visited Bath Town. In May of that year, he wrote the Secretary of the S.P.G.: “Here is no church, though they have begun to build a town called Bath. It consists of about twelve houses, being the only town in the whole province. They have a small collection of books for a library, which were carried over by the Rev. Dr. Bray, and some land is laid out for a glebe; but no minister would ever stay long in the place, though several have come hither from the West Indies. * * * There is no money * * * everyone buys and pays with commodities—pork, pitch, and corn, which price, though fixed by law, they can seldom reach anywhere else * * * the difference in their money and sterling is one to three. If you buy a plantation for £300 of their pay, they would much rather take £100 in England.”

Among the first inhabitants of Bath Town were at least two lawyers, Christopher Gale and the “young gentleman” who read prayers each Sunday at Gale's home. There was a doctor, Dr. Maurice Luellyn “physician and Chirurgeon”; a blacksmith, Collingswood Ward; a silversmith, Robert Mellyne; and two shipwrights, Thomas Harding and William Powell.

The first recorded ship to be built on the Pamlico was in 1707. In that year Governor Thomas Cary entered into a contract with Thomas Harding for the latter to build “at his landing in Bath Creek one sloop, 46 feet by the keel, 18 feet by the beam, and 8 feet in the hold.” Harding was to do all the ship carpenter work and finish the sloop “workmanlike.” Cary was to furnish all plank, iron, oakum, tar, and pitch. Cary also agreed to “find meat, drink, and lodging” for Harding and his helpers while the sloop was being built.

In 1710, Christopher Gale, who had been in London, apparently in connection with the feud between William Glover and Thomas Cary over who was Governor, and John Lawson who had been in London in connection with the publication of his book, returned to the Pamlico. They brought with them a group of German Palatines, destined for the settlement on the Neuse. After a long and disastrous thirteen-week voyage, during which almost half the settlers died, they reached the entrance to the James River. There the ship carrying the more prosperous of the settlers was stopped and plundered by a French privateer. The Frenchmen took everything the settlers had, including their clothes and personal property.

During its early days, three governors, Robert Daniell, Thomas Cary, and Charles Eden lived in or near Bath Town. Matthew Rowan, who later became governor, lived in Bath Town for a number of years when he first came to Carolina. It also seems probable that George Burrington resided in Bath Town for a short while after being relieved of his duty as a Proprietary Governor in 1725. Edward Hyde, Gabriel Johnston, and Arthur Dobbs each visited Bath Town and held one or more meetings of their Executive Council there.

The Rev. John Urmston, an S.P.G. missionary who visited Bath Town in 1717, held a very low opinion of Bath Town's First Citizen, and thought even less of Governor Charles Eden than he did Christopher Gale. In a letter to the Secretary of the S.P.G., Rev. Urmston wrote: “He (Gale) is a clergyman's son in Yorkshire, bears the great name Gale—I know not how near kin to the late Dean of York. He has a little smack of school Learning, was sometime Clerk to a country attorney at Lancaster (this) great show of Learning gains him great Esteem. Among the Beasts in the woods (the Pamlico settlers) he has passed long for an Oracle, and being learned in the Law, was made Chief Justice of the whole Province. Being arrived at that High Pitch of supposed grandeur, he grew very impertinent, he hath often opposed me in matters relating to Church discipline. I can't see why I should be borne down by such a Blockhead.”

Governor Charles Eden established his first seat of government in Bath Town. In the year 1717, he owned lots number 9, 10, 22, and 23 on Front Street, with front privileges down to the water. He also owned back lots number 67 and 68. Eden also purchased a four hundred acre plantation on the west side of Bath Creek, adjoining the land of the late Deputy Governor and Landgrave Robert Daniell. The remains of the brick foundation of Eden's home may still be seen. The old brick, which according to John Lawson “were made exceptionally well in the province,” are strong and firm after two and a half centuries of exposure to the weather. Tobias Knight bought the Daniell Plantation on Archbell Point from Daniell's widow, and became Eden's neighbor. Eden sold this plantation to John Lillington in 1718, and moved to Chowan (Bertie) County.

Bath Town's most notorious citizen was Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. When King George I succeeded Queen Anne to the English throne, his Mercy Act provided that pirates who surrendered and threw themselves upon the mercy of the Crown, would be pardoned. Teach accepted this offer and surrendered to Governor Charles Eden. He was tried before the Vice Admiralty Court in Bath Town, which determined he was a privateersman instead of a pirate. Pardoned by Governor Eden, in the King's name, Teach was permitted to keep his ship. Teach then established his home on Plum Point, across Bath Creek from Eden's home.

Legends of Blackbeard are numerous in the Bath Town area. One is that Blackbeard paid unsuccessful court for the hand of Governor Eden's daughter. Being engaged to another man, she rejected him. Angered by her rejection, Blackbeard kidnapped his rival, carried him out to sea, where he cut off the hands of his rival and dumped the man into the sea. He then placed the severed hands in a jewel casket and sent them to Miss Eden. It is alleged she promptly languished and died.

It also provided for a revision of the incorporation of Bath Town and a resurvey of the town. The original Act in 1705 specified each lot was to be one half acre in size. The lots as laid out and sold, contained one half acre and four poles, or about one tenth of an acre more than the law provided. The 1715 Act required the lots to be reduced to the original half acre.

To encourage building within the town, this revised Act provided that if “a good, substantial, habitable house” had not been built on a lot within one year after purchase, the sale would be cancelled, and the lot revert to the commissioners to be sold again. The commissioners ruled that a habitable house, fifteen feet square, or the equivalent thereof in area, constituted a “good substantial house.” From this provision came the term “saved lot,” meaning a lot on which a minimum standard house had been built, so the owner could retain ownership.

After the resurvey of the town, Bath Town experienced a minor boom. Chart No. 2 shows the seventy-one lots and six streets into which Bath Town was divided by the 1715 survey. This is a copy of a “Plan of Bath Town” which was copied in 1807 from a plan dated 22 February, 1766, now preserved with the John Gray Blount papers in the Department of Archives and History in Raleigh. It will be noted this plan, made the same year the Assembly directed the courthouse be removed from Bonner's Field and returned to Bath Town, does not show the courthouse at the end of Craven Street, as shown by the Sauthier Map of Bath Town, made three years later.

Between the dates of 25 March and 20 October 1717, all owners of lots on Water (Bay) Street, initially called Front Street, paid ten shillings per lot to retain ownership of the extension of their lot from the west side of the street to the low water mark of Bath Creek. Chart No. 2 shows the lot owners, as of the dates shown above. These names, taken from the records in the Office of the Register of Deeds for Beaufort County, have been added to the original chart. A footnote on the 1807 chart lists lot “No. 29, Publick School Lotte.” This could mean that Mary Clarke, the minor daughter of John Clarke, who paid her ten shillings to retain her “front privelages,” did not build the “good and substantial house” on her lot within the required time, and the lot reverted to the commissioners

Bath was granted a US Post Office on April 1, 1801, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Thomas Alderson. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

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