A History of Edenton, North Carolina

Chowan County Court House - Edenton, North Carolina - 2016

Originally incorporated in 1715 as "the towne on Queen Anne's Creek," and later as "ye towne on Mattercommack Creek" and "The Port of Roanoke," the spot was named Edenton in 1722 in honor of Governor Charles Eden soon after his untimely death in that same year.

Historic Edenton Trolley Car

Old Chowan County Court House - Edenton, North Carolina - Built c.1767

The exact year of the settlement of what is now Edenton will probably never be known, but as far back as 1658 intrepid adventurers from the Jamestown neighborhood, drifting down the eastern streams and hewing a path otherwise through the wilderness from Virginia, effected a location on the bank of a natural harbor of exquisite beauty, the site of the future Edenton. Many, many years before, maybe a century prior, Amadas and Barlowe, explorers from one of the initial Raleigh expeditions, entered the waters of the Chowan River, they reported, where they found an established colony of Indians, numbering 800 and known as the Chowanokes. Their stories of their travels were vague, but from the hardy pioneers of the northland there was no uncertainty.

So here in this region was established one of the first permanent settlement in North Carolina, the "mothertown" of the state. Edenton at once became the focal point of civilization in the province, the capital of the colony and the home of several Royal Governors. Supposedly incorporated in 1715 as "the towne on Queen Anne's Creek," and running through a subsequent diversity of titles such as "ye towne on Mattercommack Creek" and "The Port of Roanoke," in 1722 the spot was named Edenton in honor of Governor Charles Eden, and was named as the county seat for Chowan County.

From its very beginning to the time when freedom from England was finally achieved Edenton was a hot-bed and center of continuous revolt and resistance to the Crown. Unjust, oppressive taxes, land rents, cruel and unusual punishments for crime, kept the community in constant turmoil, and the records of these stirring times reflect the grim determination of the people to throw off the domination of the British and gain for themselves that new freedom for which they had braved the many hardships and dangers incident to the settlement of this new land. Countless are the references in the Colonial Records of North Carolina as to the truth of these assertions, and the small town warfares and oppositions on the streets of Edenton and about its "Publick Parade," as its present day Commons was originally called, are reported with freedom and much candor.

These disputes, actually the growing pains of a people trying to be free, kept the jail overcrowded, the stocks, the rack, the pillory and the ducking stool, well overworked. Such smolderings of discontent and discord broke into vivid flame on August 22, 1774, when a mass meeting of citizens, presided over by the fiery Daniel Earle, rector of St. Paul's Church, gathered at the court house, publicly denounced the unjust imposition of taxes and prosecutions and condemned the Boston Port Act, openly declaring that "the cause of Boston was the cause of us all." Quickly followed on October 25 of the same year the famous Edenton Tea Party, particularized elsewhere, when fifty-one (51) ladies of the town met and openly resolved that "We, the Ladys of Edenton, do hereby solemnly engage not to conform to the Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea," or that "We, the aforesaid Ladys will not promote ye wear of any manufacturer from England until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed."

And in furtherance of this attitude of protest and a month or more prior to the Continental Congress's Declaration of Independence, the Vestry of St. Paul's Church, in a written document called "The Test," added an ecclesiastical note of protest in this wise -- "We, the subscribers, professing our allegiance to the King and acknowledging the constitutional executive power of Government, do solemnly profess, testify and declare that we do absolutely believe that neither the Parliament of Great Britain nor any member of a constituent branch thereof, have a right to impose taxes upon these colonies to regulate the internal policy thereof; that all attempts by fraud or force to establish and exercise such claims and powers are violations of the peace and security of the people and ought to be resisted to the utmost, and that the people of this Province, singly and collectively, are bound by the Acts and Resolutions of the Continental and Provincial Congresses, because in both they are freely represented by persons chosen by themselves. And we do solemnly and sincerely promise and engage under the sanction of Virtue, Honor and the Sacred Love of Liberty and our Country, to maintain and support all and every the Acts, Resolutions and Regulations of the said Contintental and Provincial Congresses to the utmost of our power and ability."

Joseph Hewes, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a citizen of Edenton, a large ship-owner and merchant, who carried on a great trade with England and the West Indies. War meant a tremendous financial sacrifice to Hewes but, true Patriot that he was, he signed the Declaration and put his entire fleet at the disposal of the Continental forces. To Hewes the nation is indebted for the brilliant services of John Paul Jones. Hewes who was Secretary of the Naval Affairs Committee of the Continental Congress and virtually the first Secretary of the Navy, was directly responsible for the elevation of Jones to his position in the new Navy. Jones never forgot his patron and sponsor and many letters are extant telling of the great gratitude he felt for Hewes' interest in him.

"You are the Angel of my happiness; since to your friendship I owe my present enjoyments, as well as my future prospects. You more than any other person have labored to place the instruments of success in my hands."

Hugh Williamson, celebrated physician, was another worthy son of Edenton during the Revolution. Dr. Williamson, at his own expense, fitted out ships with supplies for the American Army, was Surgeon-General of the State Colonial troops and rounded out a brilliant career by signing the Constitution of the United States, on behalf of North Carolina, in 1787.

Samuel Johnston of Edenton was another nationally known Patriot during these stirring times. He was a leader in the movement for freedom and was the first United States Senator from North Carolina. James Iredell, brother-in-law of Governor Johnston, was the political leader of this community for many years. After distinguished services to his country otherwise he was appointed by President George Washington to the Supreme Court of the United States. His opinions were famous in the field of jurisprudence and he was considered one of the outstanding jurists of his time.

During its long history of nearly three centuries Edenton naturally has passed through many vicissitudes of fortune. Fires, storms, and other calamities have taken their toll during the years but probably no one occurrence threw such an apprehension of certain doom into its inhabitants as on a morning of April in 1781, when 80-year-old Jeremiah Mixson, the town crier, shrilled the clarion news to the inhabitants that Lord Cornwallis was sending forces south from Suffolk to burn Edenton in revenge for the part Edenton had played in fomenting the resistance to British authority. Panic ensued. People ran to and fro not knowing what to do. Alarms were sounded, bells of the town were rung, and everyone congregated on the Green seeking some way to escape the impending peril. Resistance was out of the question as practically the entire male population was away in Washington's army. Soon a messenger arrived by boat from Windsor, where Edenton's danger from British attack had become known. He offered the people of Edenton refuge in his Bertie County town. The proffer was accepted eagerly and thankfully and by dawn Edenton was deserted. No living human or animal was left in town. For seven days the community was like a city of the dead. Then came better news. Lord Cornwallis, hard pressed, was having his own troubles. His Suffolk forces were recalled, the intended invasion fell flat, and the people of Edenton returned rejoicingly to their homes and carried on.

Then came the American Civil War, with its attendant suffering and reconstruction. Edenton, as had been its custom for over two hundred years, patriotically threw itself into the fray and sent several units to fight for the southern cause. Among these was its famous Edenton Bell Battery, whose field pieces, as in countless other sections of the South, were cast from the town bells in response to a general call to do so sent throughout the Confederacy and which was immortalized in a war lyric by F. Y. Rockett. The Edenton Bell Battery was organized in 1862 by Captain William Badham and was engaged in many battles throughout the war, finally surrendering to General William T. Sherman in 1865.

Although now a modern city, Edenton is fortunate in having preserved many old buildings rich in their association with colonial times, and the visitor finds here today numerous spots of historic interest carefully kept in their original setting.

Among the priceless buildings here is the court house, erected in 1767. The oldest court house in North Carolina and an architectural gem of national reputation. A sketch of its life reads like a panoramic review of the life of North Carolina: the hardships of the early colony, the struggles of Revolution, Civil War, and Reconstruction; all finally unfolding into the commonwealth that is the Old North State of today. Through six conflicts the call to arms has resounded within its walls; it can recall the inauguration of every president of the United States; governors from the time of Josiah Martin have spoken from its rostrum; princes and presidents have danced on its floors and the most illustrious lawyers of the state have pleaded their causes before its bar.

On the second floor is the famous panelled room, long used in the old days as a town social center. Also on the second floor is the lodge-room of the Freemasons, containing among other priceless relics, the chair used by George Washington in the Masonic lodge at Alexandria, Virginia.

The oldest corporation in North Carolina, St. Paul's Parish, was formed in 1701 and immediately erected a small wooden chapel on the shores of the sound on "Hayes" plantation. This was the first church in the state. We have it on the authority of the Rev. Mr. Rainsford, one of the early ministers, that this first edifice proved inadequate to accommodate the large congregations attending his sermons and he wrote that on many occasions he was compelled to hold his meetings out in the open, under the trees. Consequently, a second building was constructed, and the third, the present magnificent St. Paul's, was begun in 1736. It is known as the "Westminster Abbey" of North Carolina, and beneath its ancient oaks sleep scores of the founders of our commonwealth.

"Bandon," situated on the Chowan River, fifteen (15) miles above Edenton, was the former home of Rev. Daniel Earle, who established there the first classical school for boys in North Carolina, the initial school having been founded at a spot called Sarum, near the Gates County line. Daniel Earle, affectionately called "Parson" Earle was rector of St. Paul's, Edenton, during the Revolutionary War and a fiery patriot.

The "Cupola House," built in 1758 by Francis Corbin, land agent of Lord Granville in Carolina, now houses the Edenton Museum and the Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library.

Cupola House - Built in 1758

Johnston. Situated in the midst of its one thousand fertile acres and overlooking Edenton Bay, "Hayes", a pure American type, is a treasure-house of early Americana. Priceless portraits adorn its walls and its library of thousands of old volumes and manuscripts contains many rare "first editions."

"Beverly Hall", the old State Bank from 1811 to 1836, is now used as a residence. Its huge secret vault, encased in steel, and its key, weighing two pounds, are reminders of the cumbersome banking equipment of an older day.

Eastward from Hayes and stretching along the North Shore of Albemarle Sound lie other fine old estates and homes, including "Montpelier," "Atholl," "Mulberry Hill," "Greenfield," and others.

Many other objects and places of interest attest Edenton's association with the making of the Commonwealth. Some of these are the Revolutionary cannon brought from France and now mounted on Edenton's "Battery" at the foot of the Courthouse Green; the site of the famous Edenton Tea Party, marked by a Colonial teapot mounted on a Revolutionary cannon; the homes of Judge Iredell, Governor Iredell, the Littlejohn house and the Civil War fort at "Wingfield" on the Chowan River.

Edenton has the distinguished honor of being granted the first U.S. Post Office in North Carolina on October 5, 1786, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Mare. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.

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