A History of Hertford, North Carolina

Perquimans County Court House - Hertford, North Carolina - 2016

In 1701, an informal settlement at Phelps Point was established on the land of Jonathan Phelps at the narrows of rhw Perquimans River; it was renamed to Hertford in 1758.

The town of Hertford, North Carolina is the county seat of Perquimans County. It is a peninsular bounded on the east, north and west by Perquimans River. Hertford is south sixty-one miles from Norfolk, Virginia. To the northeast fifty miles away is located at Kill Devil Hills the pylon monument commemorating the birth of aviation by the Wright brothers in 1903.

The town was named after the borough of Hertford located in Hertfordshire, England, which has a history dating back to some of the earliest events in that country.

Eagle Tavern - Hertford, NC - Originally Built in the 1750s

One of the very important contributing factors in the growth of a town is transportation. The Norfolk Southern Railroad traverses Perquimans County from north to south; also a great and beautiful river, the Perquimans River, which one day had a weekly service between Norfolk and Belvidere at the head of navigation. In the 1950s it was only used by a fleet of oil tankers that supply oil for home, the U.S. Navy, and other uses.

The other great artery is U.S. Route 17, or the “Ocean Highway,” originating in Maine and paralleling the Atlantic Seaboard to Punta Gorda, Florida.

Some years ago, when the bridge at Hertford was built, there was a discussion that a bridge bypassing what is called the “Causeway” would in the long run pay dividends as it was very expensive to keep that mile stretch in good passable condition.

This is a scenic spot. On the west is the Perquimans River with its sheen of blue water flowing down from its source near the reaches of the Great Dismal Swamp. Looking east we see the eternal vistas and we are told that it was here that the writer of songs penned the beautiful “Carolina Moon.” Along the northeast shore the oldest recorded deed conveys land from the Yeopim Tribe of Indians to George Durant on August 4, 1661. And it is also reported that it is the first deed from an Indian to a white man in America.

On the southern shore we have some of the earliest history in the Commonwealth of North Carolina—Harvey's Neck, named for John Harvey who was five times Speaker of the House of Burgesses.

Edmundson and Fox, the Quaker preachers, visited the Albemarle region in 1672. William Edmundson and companions walked between two trees all night in crossing from Virginia to the Albemarle. In the morning they reached the home of Henry Phillips who came to Perquimans in 1665. The house was situated on the Albemarle (Perquimans River) where the town of Hertford now stands. Phillips and his wife came from New England and were the first Friends in Perquimans County.

Click Here for much more detailed history provided during the town's bi-centennial in 1958. Link is current as of October 2015.

Despite isolation and poverty, the little settlement was a leader in the early history of North Carolina. Until 1716, it served as the state's first capital, with the first public buildings: prison, storehouse and pillory. Legislative and court sessions took place in private homes along the river, and today the Newbold-White House, open to the public, stands as sentinel to those historic times. Many gatherings of the Executive Council met at Capt. John Hecklefield's home on Little River in Perquimans Precinct starting in 1703.

Early on, Quakers were a strong influence on the community. They held the first religious service recorded in the state in a home near the river. Apparently it was attended by both the religious and the irreligious; the latter smoked pipes throughout the service.

Mild winters and a fertile soil beyond expectation fostered family farming. Indian corn fed people and livestock and made good liquor. By 1770, 65% of corn grown was exported, along with livestock, furs, and shingles.

Most cargoes were bound for New England and the mid-Atlantic states, slipping through Currituck Inlet until it closed in 1828. Molasses, sugar, and liquor came in from the West Indies. During the Revolutionary War, when Boston was hard pressed, Perquimans farmers donated a handsome cargo of corn, flour, and pork to their northern friends.

Regular ferry service linked communities, but after ferry-goers repeatedly complained of great delays and danger from high seas during southeast winds, Hertford's first bridge across the Perquimans River was built in 1798. Twenty feet wide and floating on empty whiskey barrels, the privately owned drawbridge was eventually purchased by the county for $5,786 and tolls for residents were abolished.

A hundred years later, when high waters dislodged the old bridge, a new one was christened with a 207-foot trestle, a 153-foot draw, and strict limitations. Crowds were forbidden, and no one was permitted to drive faster than a walk. The former float bridge sold at public auction for $16. Finally, in 1928, the current “S” bridge of concrete, steel, and "Carolina Moon" fame was constructed.

For almost a century, steamboats were the link to the outside world. Biweekly trips between Norfolk and Hertford dispatched circuses, passengers, lumber, and cotton. To ensure unrestricted passage, the county ordered road overseers to keep streams clear, and state law prohibited the felling of trees into the river.

Several times during the American Civil War, Union troops sailed up the Perquimans River destroying bridges to stem the circuitous flow of smuggled goods from Norfolk to Lee's army in Virginia. Hertford, founded a century earlier, remained relatively unscathed, though its float bridge was destroyed and one plantation on the river was pillaged by the Federals.

Vast forests primeval of oak and cypress that once covered the land, providing furs and meat, tar, pitch and turpentine, shingles and barrel staves, were being whittled away. In fact, a modest shipbuilding industry thrived in Hertford, with a 50-ton vessel built in 1832.

When the railroad arrived in the 1880s, (five stations in Perquimans County alone) lumber companies burst on the scene. By 1920, forested land in the county was reduced by half. Fifty years later, massive areas in the county would again be lumbered, ditched, and drained for agriculture. Such vast changes interrupt the natural seepage of waters from swamp to river, alter habitat once used for spawning of fish, and create potential for agricultural run-off.

In 1706, it is recorded that Samuel Phelps was appointed "Keeper of ye Toll Boke at ye Head of Perquimans River." An Executive Council held at the home of Captain Richard Sanderson on Little River in 1715 ordered: "That for the better convenience of people passing through the country, a good and sufficient ferry be duly kept and attended over Perquimans River, from Mrs. Anne Wilson's to James Thickpenny, and that Mrs. Wilson do keep the same, and that no other persons presume to ferry over horse or man within five miles above or below that place."

As time went on, the crowds attending the courts and Assemblies became too large to be accommodated in private dwellings. As early as 1722, the General Assembly ordered a court house to be built at Phelps Point, now the town of Hertford, and tradition states that the old building was erected on the point near the bridge, where the home of Mr. Thomas McMullan now stands.

One of the most interesting spots in Perquimans County is the strip of land lying between the Perquimans and the Yeopim rivers, known as Harvey's Neck. This was the home of the Harveys, men who for over a century bore an important part in the history of our state. It was in older days, as now, a fair and fertile land. Herds of deer wandered through its forests; and great flocks of swan and wild geese floated upon its silver streams, feeding upon the sweet grass which then grew in those rivers. The waters were then salt, but with the choking up of the inlets that let in the saline waves of the Atlantic, the grass disappeared, and with it the wild fowl who wintered there.

Of all the members of the famous Harvey family whose homes were built on this spot, none proved more worthy of the fame he won than John Harvey, son of Thomas Harvey and Elizabeth Coles. Elected when just of age to the House of Burgesses in 1746, he continued to serve his state in a public capacity until his death in 1775.

Resisting the tyrannical endeavor of Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs to tax the people against their rights, he nevertheless stood by the same governor in his efforts to raise men and money for the French and Indian War. Serving as Speaker of the House of Burgesses in 1766, he took an active part in opposing the Stamp Act, and boldly declared in the Assembly that North Carolina would not pay those taxes. In the House of Burgesses in 1769, he proposed that North Carolina should form a Non-Importation Association; and when Royal Governor William Tryon thereupon angrily dismissed the Assembly and ordered its members home, John Harvey called a convention independent of the governor, and the association was formed.

When Royal Governor Josiah Martin refused to call the Assembly of 1774, for fear that it would elect delegates to the Continental Congress, John Harvey declared: "Then the people will call an Assembly themselves;" and following their intrepid leader, the people did call the First Provincial Congress in August of 1774, elected their delegates to Philadelphia, and openly and boldly joined and led their sister colonies in the gigantic struggle with the mother country that now began.

In the time of Boston's need, when her ports were closed by England's orders, and her people were threatened with starvation, John Harvey and Joseph Hewes together caused the ship Penelope to be loaded with corn and meal, flour and pork, which they solicited from the generous people of the Albemarle region, and sent it with words of cheer and sympathy to their brethren in the New England town. In 1775, John Harvey again braved the anger of the Royal Governor and called another people's convention, whose purpose and work was to watch and circumvent the tyrant in his endeavor to crush the patriots in the state.

"The Father of the Revolution" in North Carolina, he was to his native state what Patrick Henry was to Virginia, in the early days of the Revolution, and what Hancock and Adams were to Massachusetts. His untimely death, in 1775, caused by a fall from a horse, was deeply mourned by Patriots throughout the land.

Among other eminent sons of Perquimans County during the Revolutionary period the names of Miles Harvey, Colonel of the militia regiment from that county; William Skinner, Lieutenant-Colonel of the same regiment; Thomas Harvey, Major then Colonel, and Major Richard Clayton, are recorded in history. Among the delegates to the Provincial Congress called by Harvey and Johnston we find the Harveys, Whedbees, Blounts, Skinners, and Moores, men whose names were prominent then as now in the social and political life of the state.

As time went on, Phelps Point at the narrows of the Perquimans River became so thickly populated that by June of 1746, a petition was presented to the colonial Assembly, praying for an Act to be passed to lay out one hundred acres of land in Perquimans, including Phelps Point, for a town and a town commons.

But a disturbance arose in the province about that time concerning the right of the northern counties to send five delegates each to the Assembly, while the southern counties were allowed to send only two. Royal Governor Gabriel Johnson sided with the southern section, and ordered the Assembly to meet at Wilmington in November of 1746, on which occasion he and the southern delegates proposed to make a strong fight to reduce the representation from the Albemarle region counties.

The northern counties, tenaciously clinging to their rights, established in the early days of the colony when the counties south of Albemarle Sound had not been organized, refused to send delegates to this Assembly; whereupon that body, though a majority of its members were absent, passed an Act reducing the representation from the Albemarle region to two members from each county. Indignant at this Act, which they considered illegal, the citizens in the northern counties refused to subscribe to it, and for eight years declined to send any delegates at all to the colonial Assembly; and the bill for establishing a town in Perquimans County was heard from no more until the trouble between the two sections was settled.

Finally the people of Albemarle sent a petition to King George II, praying him to restore their rights in the General Assembly, and the king graciously granted their request. In 1758, an Assembly met at New Bern, at which delegates from all sections of the colony were present; and in answer to a petition presented by John Harvey, it passed an Act for the erection of a town at Phelps Point in Perquimans County.

The little village was called Hertford, a word of Saxon origin, signifying Red Ford. It was named for the Marquis of Hertford, an English noble who moved for the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, and who was ambassador at Paris in the reign of King George III, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

The settlement at Phelps Point was already an important rendezvous for the dwellers in the county. The cypress trees under which Fox had stood and preached to the little band of Quakers still stood, as they stand today, bending lovingly over the stream, close to the end of the point. A little Church of England chapel farther down had, since 1709, been the center of the religious life of its members in the county, and the court house on the point since 1722 had been the scene of the political and judicial gatherings in Perquimans County.

The House of Burgesses of 1762, realizing the importance of the little town to the community, decreed that a public ferry should be established "from Newby's Point to Phelp's Point where the court house now stands," and in 1766, Seth Sumner, William Skinner, Francis Nixon, John Harvey, and Henry Clayton were appointed trustees of the ferry; a three-penny tax was laid on all taxable persons to defray the expenses of the ferry, and "All persons crossing to attend vestry meetings, elections, military musters, court martials and sessions of the court" were to be carried over free of charge.

The site of the town, described in colonial records as "healthy, pleasantly situated, well watered, and commodious for commerce," was the property of John Phelps, who gave his consent to the laying off of one hundred acres for the town on condition that he should retain his own house and lot, and four lots adjoining him. The public ferry having fallen into his hands, the further condition was made that the town should allow no ferry other than his to be run so long as he complied with the ferry laws. The subscribers for the lots were ordered to build within three years, one well-framed or brick house at least sixteen feet square; and in one month from purchase, were to pay the trustees the sum of 45 shillings for each lot.

As early as 1754, before the little settlement began to assume the airs of a town, the old Eagle Tavern still standing on Church Street, was a registered hotel; and there when court week appeared on the calendar, the representative men of the county and the surrounding precincts would gather.

Quiet Quaker folks from Piney Woods, eight miles down from Newby's Point, Whites and Nicholsons, Albertsons, Newbys and Symmes, jogged along the country roads behind their sleek, well-fed nags, to answer with serene yea or nay the questions asked on witness stand or in jury room. Powdered and bewigged judge and lawyer, high and mighty King's officers from Edenton, or New Bern, or Bath, brilliant in gay uniform, rolled ponderously thither in cumbersome coaches.

Leaving their great plantations on the adjoining necks in the hands of their overseers, Harveys and Skinners, Blounts and Whedbees, Winslows and Gordons, Nixons and Woods, and Leighs, dashed up to the doors of the tavern on spirited steeds. Hospitable townsfolk hurried to and fro, greeting the travelers, and causing the host of the inn much inward concern, lest their cordial invitation lure from his door the guest whose bill he could see, in his mind's eye, pleasantly lengthen, as the crowded court docket slowly cleared.

Very sure were the guests at the tavern that horse and man would be well cared for by the genial landlord; for the law required that the host of Eagle Tavern should give ample compensation for the gold he pocketed. When business was ended, the strangers within his gates wended their way homeward. No skimping of the bill of fare, no inattention to the comfort of the wayfarer did the landlord dare allow, lest his license be taken from him for violation of the tavern laws.

Many an illustrious guest the ancient inn has known, and a story cherished by the Hertford people ascribes to the quaint old structure the honor of having on one occasion sheltered beneath its roof the illustrious "Father of his Country," George Washington.

Whether our first President came to Hertford on business connected with lands in the Dismal Swamp in which he was interested, or whether he tarried at the old tavern while on his triumphal journey through the South in 1791, no one now knows, but the room is still shown, and the tale still told of the great man's stay therein.

Diagonally across the street from the Eagle Tavern, at the end of the yard enclosing the old Harvey home, may be seen two great stones which are said to mark the grave of a mighty Indian chief. Possibly Kilcokonen, friend of George Durant, lies buried there. The Hertford children in olden days, when tales of ghost and goblin were more readily believed than they are today, used to thrill with delicious fear whenever in the dusk of the evening they passed the spot, and warily they would step over the stones, half-dreading, half-hoping to see, as legend said was possible, the spirit of the old warrior rise from the grave, swinging his gory tomahawk and uttering his blood-chilling war cry.

During the long years that have passed since the white man came into Albemarle, old Perquimans has borne an enviable part in making the history of our state.

Hertford itself felt little of the fury of the storm of the War of Secession, though during the awful cataclysm the peaceful Perquimans County was often disturbed by the gunboats of the Northern Army. One brief battle was fought in the town, in which one man was killed on each side. And the old residents still love to boast of the heroism shown by the courageous Hertford women, who, while the skirmish was going on, came out on their piazzas, and, heedless of the shot and shell flying thick and fast around them, cheered on the soldiers battling to defend their homes.

A ball from one of the gunboats on the river, while this skirmish was taking place, went through one of the houses down near the shore and tore the covering from the bed on which the mistress of the house had just been lying.

The cruel war at last was over, the darker days of Reconstruction passed heavily and stressfully by; the South began to recover from the ruin wrought by the awful struggle and its aftermath; and in the quiet years that followed, the Spirit of God brooded over her rivers, hills and plains, and brought peace and prosperity to the troubled land. Her farms were tilled again, the wheels of mills and factories were set whirling, and new business enterprises offered to the laboring man opportunities to earn a fair living.

And the old colonial town of Hertford, sharing with her sister towns and cities in the southland the prosperity for which her children for many weary, painful years had so bravely and manfully striven, sees the dawn of a new day, bright with the promise of a happy future for her sons and daughters.

Click Here for the Source of much of this information, which includes much more history on the entire Albemarle region of North Carolina. Link is current as of October 2015

Hertford was granted a US Post Office on March 20, 1793, and its first Postmaster was Ms. Sarah Decrow. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

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