A History of Bethabara, North Carolina

Bishop Augustus Spangenberg led a party to survey a 100,000 acre tract of land in North Carolina, which came to be known as Wachau after an Austrian estate of Count Zinzendorf. The name, later anglicized to Wachovia, became the center of growth for the church in that region. Bethabara, Bethania, and Salem (now Winston-Salem) were the first Moravian settlements in North Carolina in the early 1750s.

The first settlers arrived in November of 1753, a group of eleven single men selected to provide the necessary skills for establishing a new community. Four others accompanied them on the journey but returned to Pennsylvania soon after. Additional settlers arrived beginning in 1754 and 1755, including the first women. The first community established was Bethabara, initially a stockaded fort protecting the neighboring farms. Never much more than a farming community in the early days, it is now within the city limits of Winston-Salem, on the northwest side of the city center.

There was a strong need, however, for a larger, central town. After several years of planning and construction, beginning in 1765, Salem came fully into being from 1766 to 1772. Most of the Bethabara residents moved there.

Other smaller, agricultural settlements were established at Friedberg, Friedland, and Hope in the southern part of the Wachovia Tract. The skilled Moravian tradesmen from Bethabara constructed new sawmills, breweries, and tanneries. Salem soon began to grow and prosper as a backcountry trading center and congregation town.

Bethabara - meaning house of passage - was to be a temporary settlement until the town of Salem was established. The area formerly known as Bethabara is now inside the city limits of Winston-Salem, which is the county seat for Forsyth County.
The 1754 sleeping hall was replaced in 1755 with a dwelling structure containing separate quarters for the minister and the business manager, who apparently needed less "watching" than the others. The initially primarily communal economic system at Bethabara was soon superseded at Bethania with a German village pattern of common woods and pasture and privately owned or controlled means of production (fields and tools), which was in turn superseded by a pattern of large, privately-held farms similar to those of their British neighbors. In addition, investigation of local tax, court, and internal Moravian records dating to the last quarter of the 18th century indicate distinct patterns of unequal distribution of individual material wealth within the Moravian community, active engagement in the growing national and world trade networks, which characterized early capitalism, and direct participation in local politics at the Surry County court held at Richmond, the county seat. All of this activity co-existed with an official doctrine of communal separation from civil society, self-sufficiency, and non-competition between members of the church.

Rigorous adherence to this ideology was compromised from the start by the strong emphasis on craft production and commercial activity in the organization of the Moravian settlements, along with a combined theory of private ownership of means of production and economic non-competition. As a result, Moravians could, and did, choose between various communal and/or individual strategies to achieve ends which were partially based on self interest and "foreign" values, and which were also partially structured by communitarian church values and centralized economic control by internal governing bodies. Controversy within the Moravian church over the structure of life in its settlements is well-documented for both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Moravian commerce and production, now centered at Salem since 1766, was dominated by competitive participation by individuals in a capitalist production and marketing system. This "capitalist" production had the characteristic southern feature of African-American slave labor in the Moravian craft shops and in the textile mills of the prominent Moravian Fries family, a productive labor source, which had been denied Moravians by the church until the 1820s.

This process of assimilation is documented by historian Michael Shirley, who sees the capitalist market as increasingly dominant over local production and trade throughout the first half of the 19th century, subverting church authority over Moravian tradesmen and shopkeepers and resulting in the cultural separation of economic and religious life. This initial economic assimilation was followed in the late 19th and 20th centuries by the rise of the tobacco and textile businesses in Salem’s non-Moravian neighboring city of Winston, the inter-mingling of leading Moravian and non-Moravian families into an ethnically indistinct (or more generally "caucasian") dominant ethnic group, and a growing ideological connection between the "new" wealth of Winston and a local colonial history that it never had.

Names and images from the Moravian past occur today attached not only to churches and history museums, but also prominent secular institutions such as the Wachovia Bank. Significant funding for land acquisition, research and preservation at Bethabara has come from "non-Moravian" sources such as the Mary Reynolds Babcock foundation. The board of trustees at Historic Bethabara includes representatives from Wachovia Bank and Trust, R. J. Reynolds, and Sara Lee Industries, indicating significant "non-Moravian" moneyed interest in Bethabara.

The settlement of Bethabara in what is today Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was founded on November 17, 1753 when fifteen Moravian brethren arrived after walking from Pennsylvania. The Moravians, or Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren), were German-speaking Protestants. As followers of Jan Hus, a Bohemian heretic who was burned at the stake in 1415, the Moravians are acknowledged as the first Protestants, pre-dating the Lutherans by 100 years. Bethabara became the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina. It was the beginning of a series of Moravian settlements on the 100,000 acre Wachovia tract that the Moravians had purchased on the Carolina frontier.

Bethabara ("House of Passage") was a center for religion, governance, trade, industry, culture, education, and the arts. The Moravians constructed over 75 buildings during the first 20 years of the settlement's existence. During the French and Indian War (1756-1763), Bethabara and its two forts served as defensive centers for regional settlers and a supply depot for the Catawba allies of the British.

Settlements began in other parts of Wachovia.. Friedburg in 1773, Hope in 1776 and Friedland in 1780. Salem became the focal point of Wachovia trade and religious life. It was started in 1766 and completed in 1771 and the Wachovia administration moved from Bethabara in 1772 to Salem. A new Gemeinhaus, or congregational church, still standing today in Bethabara, was built in 1788. But Bethabara as a town had ceased to grow and expand. It was but one of several agricultural villages in Wachovia, with a tavern, church, and a few tradesmen.

Bethabara Church - Built in 1788

After a fire in 1802, the distiller's house was reconstructed. As the years passed, Bethabara became less of a town and more of a farm. Its purpose was to provide food for the residents of Salem. A black slave, Johann Samuel, was named the farm superintendent in 1788. Samuel was granted his freedom in 1801 and allowed to rent land there from the church. The closed local shared economy, with everything owned and controlled through the church, had come to an end after nearly 50 years. Throughout the 1800s, Bethabara continued to decline. By the early 20th century, most of the structures had fallen to ruin, their foundations filled in to expand the farmland. The great mill, after 100 years of use had been abandoned... its original timbers used to build a lumber company in the bustling industrial town of Winston located just to the north of Salem.

By the mid 1900s, the frontier settlement was buried beneath a cornfield, the potter's and brewer's houses were private residences. The 1788 church was abandoned for a newer structure nearby. Today, the sun shines as brightly as when those first crops were planted with a homemade plow. With a great deal of community support and generosity, it is a time capsule; an exceptional park and history and archaeology museum... maintained by the City of Winston-Salem, with the administration costs shared by the city and the county of Forsyth. Many structural foundations have been excavated. Two historic buildings, including the 1788 Gemeinhaus, have been restored, another serves as a craft shop. The palisade fort has been recreated. The garden laid out in 1759 has been reconstructed and is the only documented colonial community garden in the United States.

This tract, between the millsite and the town, is being reclaimed, using bio-engineering techniques to restore the landscape, preserving unusual flora, and creating a wildlife preserve for some of the same types of animals listed by the Moravians in 1764. Traces of the Great Wagon Road, the path through the wilderness the Moravians trekked to found Wachovia, have been preserved. The Moravians improved the road through present-day Forsyth County and thousands of settlers followed them from Pennsylvania in the 1750s and '60s. Guides give visitors to Historic Bethabara Park a sense of what living on the colonial frontier really meant. And special event weekends throughout the year spotlight Bethabara's relationship with the rest of the young country of America. The character of the Moravian brethren, the enthusiasm of those first men, is the seed that grew to what Winston-Salem prides itself on today.

Historic Bethabara Park was incorporated as a not-for-profit museum in 1970. The mission of the museum is "to preserve, acquire, and interpret the (Moravian) past in order to make a better future." The city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County share administrative operating support for the museum.

The 1788 Gemeinhaus with reconstructed 1756 palisade fort. The Gemeinhaus is the last surviving example of an 18th-Century German-American church with attached living quarters remaining in the United States.

The 1756 Bethabara mill site was the location of the largest mill in the Carolina backcountry in the 1750s and ‘60s, as well as the location of a second French and Indian War fort and village.

The reconstructed 1759 community garden is the only known, well-documented colonial community garden in the United States.

The reconstructed 1761 Medical Garden is the earliest known, well-documented colonial medical garden in the United States.

The restored 1782 Potter's House is the oldest brick house in Forsyth County.

The restored 1788 Gemeinhaus is the only Eighteenth-Century German church with attached minister's living quarters remaining in the United States.

The 1803 Herman Buttner House is the earliest known distiller's house in the United States.

The 1757 God's Acre is the oldest Moravian graveyard in North Carolina and the site of the first sunrise service, in 1758.

The mass of written records, journals, inventories and maps, generated by the early Moravian settlers at Bethabara forms one of the most important bodies of research materials for the study of United States colonial history.

Bethabara is the site of the longest, unbroken record of early pottery manufacture in the United States, spanning the one hundred years from the 1750's to the 1850's.

For more information Click Here to go to the website of Historic Bethabara Park - an excellent site. Link is current as of October 2015.

Bethabara was granted a US Post Office on May 12, 1832, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Butner. On October 26, 1835, the US Post Office Department officially changed the name to Old Town, with Postmaster Mr. John Butner continuing.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved