A History of Washington, North Carolina

Washington, the county seat of Beaufort County, is the largest city in the county, and within the county, second only to Bath Town in age. It is the first city that was named in honor of General George Washington. The town of Washington was created amidst the strife and turmoil of the approaching Revolutionary War.

In 1771, James Bonner, then a member of the colonial House of Burgesses from Beaufort County, presented a petition “praying a Town be Erected at the head of the Pamlico, on the Plantation of Major James Bonner and William Boyd, a minor.” A bill to this effect was passed by the House and sent to the Executive Council or Upper House.

In the confusion of Royal Governor William Tryon's march against the Regulators that year, and the constant conflict between the Lower House and the Governor and his Executive Council, this bill was never approved by the Executive Council or the Governor. The year 1771 has frequently been erroneously referred to as the date of the founding of Washington.

Washington was actually founded in the fall of 1775. It is perhaps the first town erected in America after the collapse of the British Royal government in North Carolina. Royal Governor Josiah Martin had fled to the safety of the British man-of-war HMS Cruizer on the Cape Fear River, from where he prorogued the General Assembly, which was never again to assemble under Royal government; and the Third Provincial Congress, meeting in Hillsborough, was too engrossed in the preparation for war to give time to erecting a town.

In the midst of this confusion, James Bonner, without the approval of either the last colonial General Assembly or the Provincial Congress, established his town. The town was first known as the “Town at the Forks of the Tar River.” He laid out thirty acres of his farm, with a frontage of about 1,200 feet on the north bank of the Pamlico River, into sixty lots, six streets, and an alley. The six original streets were Water, Main, Second, and Third paralleling the river, with Market and Bonner streets and Union Alley running north from the river.

The boundaries extended from the western side of Union Alley, at the river, eastwardly to a point 210 feet east of Bonner Street. From there it ran north, paralleling Bonner Street to a point 210 feet north of Third Street; thence west, paralleling Third Street to the west side of Union Alley, and south with the Alley to the beginning. Following the custom established at Bath Town, the land between Water Street and the river was not laid out as separate lots, but provided a “front” for the lots on the north side of Water Street.

This land was originally granted by the Lords Proprietors to Christopher Dudley on 30 July, 1726. The Dudley grant was for three hundred and thirty-seven acres. The grant included all of present day Washington from the mouth of Jack's Creek, westerly along the course of the Pamlico River to Union Alley; thence north, with the extension of Union Alley to about Fifteenth Street. From there the line ran east and south to about where Twelfth and Charlotte streets would intersect, if Charlotte Street were extended. From that point it ran south along Charlotte Street to the northeast bank of Jack's Creek, and along that bank of the creek to the beginning.

The Dudley grant or patent changed hands twice during the same year it was issued. Dudley sold this grant almost immediately to Edward Salter, who in November of the same year sold it to John Worsley. Worsley built a house on this farm and lived there for about three years. This is the first recorded house to be built on land that is now Washington. On 16 October, 1729, Worsley sold the 337 acres to Captain Thomas Bonner, describing it as “the plantation whereon I now dwell.” On this deed, Worsley signed his name “Worley.”

Nearly twenty years later, on March 8, 1748, Thomas Bonner gave his son James the western 130 acres of his farm, “for and in consideration of the Natural love and affection I have and bear to my son James.” The farm given James Bonner extended from present Union Alley to a point 210 feet east of present Bonner Street, then north to present 15th Street. The town of Washington was initially laid out on the south end of this strip of land.

Four years later, in December 1751, Thomas Bonner gave the remaining 200 acres of his farm to his other son, Thomas Bonner, Jr.

Immediately west of James Bonner's land was a tract of 520 acres belonging to William Congleton. The Congleton farm extended westward from Union Alley to about present Hackney Avenue, and north to about present 15th Street, tapering toward the river as the north boundary moved westward. This 520 acres was surveyed initially by John Aldrige, but upon his death was patented by his heirs, Edward Ward and his wife Elizabeth. This patent was also issued in 1726. On September 22, 1731, Edward and Elizabeth Ward sold this 520 acre farm to William Congleton. Congleton built a house on this farm and was living there in 1748, when Thomas Bonner, Sr. gave the western portion of his farm to his son James.

Congleton later sold the eastern 120 acres of his farm, adjoining that of James Bonner, to William Phelps. This was a strip of land extending westward along the river front from present Union Alley to a point about 100 feet east of present Van Norden Street, and north to 15th Street.

Evidently James Bonner was considering erecting a town on the south end of his farm long before he did so. On March 15, 1758, he sold a “lot,” 105 feet on the river and back 210 feet, to Aquila Sugg, a merchant of Edgecombe County. This was lot No. 1 of his future town. A short time later Sugg bought the adjoining two acres to the west from Phelps. This was lots 1, 2, 3, and 7, 8, 9, as laid out later in Thomas Respess’ plan of Respess Town, though these lots apparently were never owned or sold by Respess. Sugg erected a wharf, warehouse, and other buildings on this land, from which he trans-shipped naval stores and other produce brought down the Tar River on flat-bottom barges, poled by slaves.

In the fall of 1775, James Bonner held a lottery for the purpose of disposing of lots in his “proposed town” on the north bank of the Pamlico. Each purchaser paid five pounds, then drew a number. This number indicated the lot Bonner was to deed to him. The first deeds, dated December 1775, were to John Cowper, Henry Erwin, William Groves, and the mercantile firm of Scott, Erwin, and Cowper. These deeds, and all others issued for the next year, specified a lot number “in an intended Township which was disposed of by said James Bonner by Lottery.”

On December 23, 1776, Bonner sold George Horn lot number 15, “in the Town of Washington.” This was the first time Bonner entered the name of his new town on the records of Beaufort County. The name Washington apparently had been in general use for several months before that date. The Journal of the Council of Safety, dated September 27, 1776, reads: “the brig General Washington, now lying at Washington, proceed with all possible speed to Ocracoke Bar.” This is the first record of the name of the new town being Washington.

On February 3, 1777, James Bonner transferred to John Cowper, Henry Bonner, Robert Salter, and Joseph Blount, “Commissioners appointed by the Proprietors of an intended Township, (a deed) to the Streets and Lot 21, for Public use of said Township (the lot on which the courthouse now stands) and Lot 50 for the building of a Church on.”

In 1761, William Phelps sold his remaining 118 acres, to the west of Bonner's town, to John Boyd. When John Boyd died, William Boyd, a minor, inherited the land. Twenty years later, in September of 1781, William Boyd sold this land to Thomas Respess. Respess laid out his land as far north as the border of Bonner's town of Washington, and called it Respess Town.

Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia and the War for Independence was almost over, before the North Carolina General Assembly of 1782 passed an Act incorporating the town of Washington. This same Act appointed Nathan Keais, Richard Blackledge, John Bonner, James Bonner, Jr., and John Gray Blount as commissioners for “designing, building, and carrying on said town.” The General Assembly also specified the town “shall be called Washington.” In the meantime, Washington had become a thriving port.

Before it became a town, Washington became a center of commerce. Vessels tying up to Sugg's wharf brought their cargos twenty miles nearer the people of the backcountry than did the vessels tying up at Bath Town. It seems probable that the merchants of Bath Town, noting Sugg's advantage, encouraged Bonner to start his town without waiting for legislative authority. James Latham, who had a water-powered grist mill at the head of Old Town (Bath) Creek, William Palmer, Daniel and Jonathan Marsh, all of Bath Town, were among Washington's early merchants. This group also included Eli Hoyt, Lewis LeRoy, Joseph Potts, and Thomas and John Gray Blount.

Naval stores were Washington's most important and profitable initial exports. As these items were urgently needed for the British navy, the British government paid a bounty for them. With the approach of the war, and the economic blockade adopted by the First Continental Congress, this profitable trade quickly vanished. Trade came to a halt. Merchandise piled up on the wharves and in the warehouses of the merchants, who faced bankruptcy. It looked as though the new town might die in its infancy.

Bearing in mind the complaints of the planters as to the inadequacy of Bath Town's taverns, one of the first houses built in Washington was Mulberry Tavern. This tavern, facing the river from the north side of Water Street, was on lot 31, of Bonner's Old Part of the town. For more than a half century, this old tavern provided food and drink for seafaring men whose ships were in port, and lodging for planters and farmers in town on business. Later the Wiswell Hotel was built on the northwest corner of Main and Market streets, on lot number 20. When Wiswell sold this hotel, its name was changed to the Washington Hotel. Horn's Tavern was another of Washington's early inns, though the records do not show where it stood.

Though Washington has far surpassed Bath Town in size and importance as a port, Bath Town continued to be the seat of county government. After listening to the complaints of the people of the more populous central and western portion of the county as to the “want of accommodations for persons obliged to attend on courts * * * and the ruinous condition of the Court House (in Bath Town),” the 1785 General Assembly acted to remedy the situation. On December 29th of that year, a law was enacted to “Alter the Place of Holding the County Court of Beaufort County from Bath to the Town of Washington, in said County, and to erect a new Court House, Prison, Pillory, and Stocks in said County.”

Nathan Keais, Richard Blackledge, and Joseph Palmer were appointed commissioners to erect the new court house and other installations. The justices of the peace of Beaufort County were authorized to dispose of the old court house and jail, and apply the funds received to the county's use. They were also directed that after January 1, 1786, court would be adjourned from Bath Town to “the School House which stands on the public lot (No.21) in the Town of Washington.”

There is no record of the exact date the new court house was completed. With good brick available, and labor no great problem, it was probably completed by the end of the year 1786. The Assembly specified the building should be not less than 40 by 25 feet. The building erected was about 42 feet square, two stories high, with an attic and clock tower. It was built on the southwest corner of Market and Second streets, on the northern end of the public lot number 21, which was deeded by James Bonner to the town commissioners. The original building, now nearing the end of its second century of service to the county, is still in use. Additions have been made to house the offices of the Register of Deeds and the Clerk of the Superior Court, with necessary space for their records.

After Washington was designated as the county seat, Wiswell built a new hotel on the northeast corner of Main and Market streets. This hotel occupied lots 26 and 32, with its stables and servant's quarters extending back to Second Street, on lot 33. He named this hotel the Lafayette. It had a spacious, forty foot square dining room on the first floor, and a ballroom of similar dimensions above it on the second floor. President James Monroe visited Washington during his administration (1817-1825), and was entertained with a grand ball at the Lafayette, among the other activities of his reception. Another distinguished visitor to Washington was the venerable Marquis de Lafayette, for whom the hotel was named. At the end of the Revolution, Lafayette returned to his own strife-ridden country. After the end of the French Revolution, he returned to America for a good-will tour. In 1825, he visited Washington, where he was received warmly, and entertained at the hotel which bore his name.

As the town grew and prospered, Hadrianus Van Norden, who had purchased the land west of Thomas Respess, laid out Van Norden Town. This extended from Respess Town to present Washington Street, and north to Sixth Street. John Gladden opened his property to the north of Respess Town, and called it Gladden Town. James Bonner then added land from his farm, as far north as Sixth Street, and called it Bonner's New Part, to distinguish it from the original town, which became Bonner's Old Part. When the Thomas Bonner land east of Bonner Street was opened later, it was first called Pungo Town, as the first lot owners in that area were from the Pungo River section.

Initially, lot number 50 of Bonner's Old Part was used for a community church and a public burying ground. As the various denominations constructed their own churches, it reverted to a burying ground. The town had outgrown this burying ground by 1835, and the commissioners purchased lots number 81 and 84, in Bonner's New Part, for a burying ground. These lots were located on the southwest corner of Market and Fifth streets. Lots number 73 and 74, in Gladden Town, on the southwest corner of Respess and Fifth streets, were bought for a Negro burying ground. Twenty years later, a large tract of land on the east side of the Washington-Jamesville Road (Market Street extended), and north of the original Thomas Bonner farm, was purchased as a burying ground. This was the beginning of Oakdale Cemetery.

Washington was granted a U.S. Post Office on June 20, 1790, and its first Postmaster was Mr. William Groves. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.

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