A History of Wilmington, North Carolina

USS North Carolina - Wilmington, North Carolina

In 1729, New Hanover Precinct (county) was formed from Craven Precinct (county). By 1730, a few Quakers settled in the Cape Fear area. Little is known about them, for all records have been lost.

In 1731, the lower Cape Fear spawned a few wealthy families whose lives became connected by marriage and economic interests. Thirty five members of the "Family," as historian Lawrence Lee termed them, owned 115,000 acres of land privately. The Moores – Maurice, Roger, and Nathaniel, Edward Moseley, John Baptista Ashe, Samuel and John Swann, Thomas Jones, Edward Smith, Moseley Vail, Eleazer Allen, John Porter, and John Grange. In April, Royal Governor George Burrington, who counted the Brunswick clique among his many enemies, asked the colonial General Assembly to "pass an Act for building a Town on Cape Fear and appointing Commissioners for that purpose."

The present site of Wilmington was laid out in 1733 and it was first called New Carthage, then New Liverpool, then New Town, then Newton. John Watson granted 640 acres in New Hanover Precinct. Watson, along with Joshua Grainger, Michael Higgins, and James Wimble were the chief owners of land on which Wilmington now stands. In April of 1733, they joined in laying out the town after a plan similar to that of Brunswick, originally settled in 1726 across the Cape Fear River, and the existing County Seat for New Hanover.

James Campbell referred to himself in 1734 as a "merchant of New Liverpool," thus making him one of Wilmington’s earliest residents. A town commissioner and the father of future commissioners — James, John, Samuel, and William Campbell — the elder Campbell was dead by 1756. (New Hanover County Deed Books, AB, 100,101)

In March of 1735, the inhabitants in and around Newton petitioned the governor’s Executive Council to designate the place as a town. On May 13th, Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston announced his intention to open a land office and ordered the Executive Council and the Court to meet in Newton. (Saunders, Colonial Records, IV, 44, 45, 48.). They continued to meet here throughout his term as governor, although not exclusively.

Market Street, Front Street, Dock Street, Mulberry Street, Chestnut Street, Red Cross Street, King Street, Queen Street, and Nun Street were listed in existence as of 1736. In October, a bill, that failed to win legislative approval, was introduced to establish the town of Wilmington "at a place now called Newton."

Richard Eagles was granted land now called Eagles’ Island in 1737, present site of the Battleship North Carolina. Shipbuilding existed by this year when Michael Dyer operated a shipyard between Church and Castle streets. (New Hanover Deed Books, AB, 60)

George Whitfield, the English divine, preached in Newton in 1739. On February 20, 1740, Colonel William Bartram of Bladen County introduced a bill into the House of Burgesses for the establishment of the town and township of Wilmington. The bill passed into law and the village of Newton was incorporated as the town of Wilmington. It was named in honor of Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, and patron of Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston.

St. James Parish, created in 1729, was divided in 1741, and the area west of the Cape Fear River, including Brunswick Town, became St. Philip's Parish. Armand John deRosset (1693-1759), "Doctor of Physick," purchased a house in Wilmington and was living there by this year. (New Hanover Deed Books, AB, 137, 152.)

Anglican missionary James Moir reported to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.) in 1742 that the county contained about 3,000 inhabitants, two thirds of whom were black, also that the people of St. James Parish in Wilmington were dominated by Dissenters who interfered with his work and refused to pay him a livable wage for his service. At the same time, they objected to his trips to officiate at St. Philip's Parish in Brunswick Town. In disgust, Moir left Wilmington to accept the Brunswick ministry; then the Wilmington vestry, in an effort to exasperate the people of St. Philip's Parish, began to insist that Moir officiate frequently in Wilmington. (Saunders, Colonial Records, IV, 605-608).

Jeremiah Vail was employed to resurvey the town and draft a plan in 1743. (Wilmington Town Book, May 30th) According to Ida Brooks Kellam, late Wilmington researcher, the Smith-Anderson house, 102 Orange Street, may have been constructed in 1744 making it the oldest structure in the city.

On June 23, 1747, at a meeting of the commissioners, ‘Ordered that all the male inhabitants in the town meet at the court house on Monday the 29th instant by six o’clock in the morning with proper tools to work on the streets & bridges for six whole days, provided the work require so long a time.’ (Wilmington Town Book, 1743-1778) An alarm was sounded in Wilmington in 1748 when Spanish war ships dropped anchor down the Cape Fear River and invaded Brunswick Town.

Wilmington was surrounded by sand hills, and numerous streams flowed throughout the city. It was necessary to bridge these streams or to build drainage arches or tunnels through which the water could flow. One example of this can be found in the provisions of a 1749 deed from Richard Hellier and wife to Caleb Mason for a lot on the northeast corner of Front and Dock streets. Hellier reserved the right "to build a drain sink or gutter underground with brick into the run of water that runs through the said lot & to have Egress & Ingress & Regress into the premises to & for to repair the same forever." (New Hanover Deed Books, C, 211)

The original St. James Episcopal Church was constructed in 1751 on land donated by Michael Higgins. To raise funds for the building, subscribers reserved space for family pews, each pew in proportion to the amount donated. The early church was a simple, square brick building with a peaked roof and no belfry.

Vail’s plan of Wilmington was accepted as official by a final Wilmington Act in 1754 and with slight changes and allowances for increase of territory, remains the official plan for the present city. Wilmington Town Book of 1755 reveals 106 taxables in the city; one year later this number had increased to 125. These statistics do not include women, white males below the age of sixteen, or slaves below the age of twelve, and accordingly are not an accurate record of the town’s population, but, there were in the town 58 house owners with property subject to tax evaluations.

Hugh McAden, pioneer Presbyterian minister, preached in Wilmington in 1756. The town apparently suffered a major fire in this year. Author Peter Du Bois wrote in 1757, "...the regularity of the streets are equal to those of Philadelphia and the buildings in general very good. Many of brick, two and three stories high with double piazzas, which make a good appearance." The regularity Du Bois speaks of was due to design.

One water engine or fire engine with hose was bought by Captain Benjamin Heron through his brother in England in 1759. Wilmington was a town under commissioners elected by the freeholders until 1760. By royal charter under the provincial seal, dated Brunswick, February 25th, and signed by Governor Arthur Dobbs, Wilmington was erected into a borough town. John Sampson became the first mayor of Wilmington, followed by Frederick Gregg, and Moses John deRosset, each dubbed "His Worshipful."

The Cape Fear Library was founded in the 1760s and located on the north side of Market Street, between Front and Second. A ferry ran at the foot of Market Street across the river in 1764; a road was authorized to extend over Eagles' Island; and, the first printing press and newspaper, the Cape Fear Gazette, was established in Wilmington.

Royal Governor William Tryon took the oath of office in 1765 in Wilmington, which had nearly a populace of 800. The House of Burgesses met in Wilmington the same year. George Whitfield, the eminent English divine, visited Wilmington for the second time. Demonstrations against the Stamp Act were held in Wilmington. Effigy of Lord Bute was burned in protest. William Houston, stamp officer, was forced to resign.

Cornelius Harnett was chosen in 1766 to represent the borough town in the House of Burgesses. Armed citizens challenged Royal Governor William Tryon at his residence regarding the hated Stamp Act. Shortly thereafter the Royal Governor announced the repeal of the Stamp Act.

Click Here for a Slightly Larger Version of this Map

In 1769, the newspaper, Cape Fear Mercury, appeared in Wilmington.

Royal Governor William Tryon brought Claude Joseph Sauthier, a Swiss military surveyor, to North Carolina in 1770, and by the spring of this year Sauthier prepared handsome detailed maps of several towns including Wilmington.

Wilmington authorities met in 1772 "to prevent Rioting and Disturbances that often happen among negroes" in town. To do this they barred all slaves, even those who had their masters’ permission, from trading at stands, and they re-enacted the 1765 ordinance prohibiting more than three slaves from "playing, rioting, or caballing." Despite the stated need to pass such ordinances, not one case of a slave violator appears in the available records for Wilmington, including its Town Book, between 1765 and 1772.

Josiah Quincy, a Patriot of Boston, visited with Cornelius Harnett, at his plantation called Maynard (later called Hilton) in 1773. Quincy referred to Harnett as the "Samuel Adams of the South."

In January of 1774, Royal Governor Josiah Martin wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth in England, "I inclose herewith, the Cape Fear Mercury, a weekly paper printed in Wilmington in this Province, under which head, in the last page, your [Lordship] will see what disingenuous representations are made to inflame the minds of the People." A Committee of Safety was formed by Cornelius Harnett, John Quince, Francis Clayton, William Hooper, Robert Howe, John Ancrum, Archibald Maclaine, John Robertson, and John Walker. Freeholders of Wilmington held a meeting to effect measures recommended by the First Continental Congress.

The Wilmington Committee of Safety endorsed the local newspaper, the Cape Fear Mercury in 1775. News was received in Wilmington regarding the battles of Lexington and Concord (May 8). Janet Schaw, a lively social commentator, and author of Journal of a Lady of Quality, visited her brother Robert Schaw and mentioned, "the accommodations in Wilmington, while not spacious, were well furnished on the inside."

Colonel James Moore with his colonial forces departed from Wilmington to oppose McDonald, McLeod, Campbell, and others marching toward Wilmington in February of 1776. The opposing forces met at Widow Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 27th. Formal notice of the Declaration of Independence was received in Wilmington on August 1st. Cornelius Harnett, of Wilmington, was elected president of the North Carolina Council of Safety. British forces make foray on plantations along the Cape Fear River just south of Wilmington.

Visitor Elkanah Watson attended a slave auction in 1778 in Wilmington describing a negro family as "driven in from the country, like swine for market." It is known that at least 24 physicians practiced in Wilmington prior this year (Wilmington Town Book 1743 - 1778). Undoubtedly some of them were self-styled "doctors of physicks" with little formal training, who practiced medicine as the need required.

The army of Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis arrived in Wilmington while en route from Guilford Court House to Yorktown in April of 1781, and he remained for over two weeks. Political and military prisoners imprisoned in the "Bull Pen" on Market Street, between Second and Third, included Governor Thomas Burke, and Cornelius Harnett captured by British, abused while in ill health, and as a result died. Virginia Lt. Colonel Henry ‘Light Horse Harry" Lee arrived in Wilmington in early November of 1781 with the news of Lord Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown in Virginia. Major James H. Craig left Wilmington with the British fleet on November 18th.

Jesuit missionaries stopped over for a short stay in Wilmington in 1784. Though there were only an estimated 150 houses in Wilmington by this year, they were thought to be "comfortable, clean, and generally better than those in New Bern. There is more commerce...and the inhabitants appear to be more sociable, more generous, and better dressed." (Francisco de Miranda, New Democracy in America, 12-14.)

Wilmington Map of 1785 - Click Here for Larger Version

The Thalian Association, an amateur theatrical group, was formed in Wilmington in 1788. In June of that year, an article in The Wilmington Chronicle & North Carolina Weekly Advertiser entitled "Hints for young MARRIED WOMEN," agreed that a woman was allowed much greater freedoms when single than when married. Upon entering the married state she had to "cease to command, and learn to obey."

The U.S. Federal Census of 1790 listed 6,831 people living in New Hanover County, including Wilmington. George Washington, first President of the United States, visited Wilmington in 1791 on his "Southern Tour." The newspaper, The Wilmington Chronicle, was first published in 1793.

Rev. Father Burke spent a fortnight in Wilmington during 1796, but he found only a few Catholics in this city, so he continued his journey southward. The First Methodist Church was organized in Wilmington in 1797. A disastrous November 1798 fire in Wilmington destroyed all but twelve houses.

The Innes Academy opened in 1800 at Third and Princess Streets on land willed by Colonel James Innes before the Revolution for a free school. The U.S. Federal Census of 1800 gave a total of 1,689 people living in the town of Wilmington.

Wilmington inhabitants petitioned the U.S. House of Representatives in 1803 concerning the "peace and safety of the people" after the arrival of negroes and mulattoes from the French island of Guadaloupe, which had recently been shaken by a slave rebellion. However, fear could scarcely be pacified by an Act of Congress.

The cornerstone for St. Johns’s Masonic Lodge on Orange Street was laid in 1804. A map of Wilmington was drawn by J. T. Belanger in 1810. The steamboat, Prometheus, arrived at Wilmington in 1817. The Henrietta arrived the following year. Judah P. Benjamin arrived in Wilmington to live in 1818. He later served as the Confederate States Attorney-General, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War. The first steam sawmill was established in Wilmington the same year.

In 1819, a terrible fire destroyed 300 buildings in Wilmington, including the Presbyterian church; a Yellow Fever epidemic struck killing many citizens; and, John C. Calhoun, U.S. Secretary of War, was entertained by Dr. A. J. DeRosset, Sr. in Wilmington. James Monroe, the fifth President of the U.S. visited Wilmington.

2,600 people lived in Wilmington, ranking it the fourth largest city in the state as of the 1820 U.S. Census. The Canova statue of George Washington, weighing 2 ½ tons, arrived in Wilmington en route to Raleigh in 1821. John England, the first bishop of the Charleston Diocese arrived and found 22 Catholics. The first improvement of the Cape Fear River was begun by the state of North Carolina in 1823. Work was taken over by the Federal government in 1829.

The First Presbyterian Church located on Front Street, between Dock and Orange, was destroyed by a fire in 1825. The newspaper Wilmington Herald was discontinued in 1828. On May 18th, Catherine Ann McKay, born in July of 1822, a founder of St. Thomas Church, was baptized at St. James Church.

The First Baptist Church was organized in 1833. A new newspaper appeared in Wilmington called The People’s Press. Aaron Lazarus, Jewish merchant, established the first planing mill in North Carolina at Wilmington. The Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad (later Wilmington & Weldon) was chartered in 1834. Edward Bishop Dudley, born in New Hanover County, was elected governor of North Carolina in 1836, serving until 1841. Dudley was known for his hospitality and genial generous disposition. After an 1843 fire in Wilmington left disastrous results, Dudley pledged his whole estate for alleviation of the losses.

The Wilmington Iron Works founded was founded in 1838 and it is still in operation as of 2015.

The newspaper The Wilmington Chronicle was established in 1839. The cornerstone was laid for the new church of St. James at the southeast corner of Third and Market streets. Bishop John England, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, while visiting, was denied the use of the court house in Wilmington, the magistrates explained that a rule had been made in order to keep out juggling exhibitions, singing companies, and the like. They instructed the sheriff that henceforth whenever the Bishop was in town, he should be accorded the privilege of preaching from the bench.

As of the 1840 U.S. Census, the population of Wilmington was 4,744. A "Log Cabin" that was erected as a political gimmick on Market Street to honor William Henry Harrison was blown up. A disastrous waterfront fire destroyed 150 or more buildings, including the Custom House, and the last spike was driven for the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad line, completing 161 ½ miles of track, making it the longest in the world at that point in time.

The first lodge of Odd Fellows was organized in Wilmington in 1842. In 1843, a disastrous fire on waterfront destroyed railroad offices, warehouses, and shops. Henry Clay, famous American statesman, visited Wilmington in 1844. The Wilmington Journal, a weekly Democratic newspaper, established in opposition to the Whig party, was first issued on September 21st, with editors David Fulton and Alfred Price.

Wilmington boasted nine steam sawmills in 1845, which cut 30 million feet of lumber annually. Thomas Murphy (1806-1863), Wilmington’s first full-time priest, was appointed Vicar-Forane of the newly-organized St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Parish. The founders for the purchase of the church lot were William Berry, Bernard Baxter, and Catherine McKay.

The Gothic Revival style Church of St. Thomas Apostle was completed at 203 Dock Street in 1847, continuing Wilmington’s longtime Roman Catholic history. Daniel Webster, American Statesman, visited Wilmington and resided with Governor Edward Dudley on south Front Street.

Wilmington was host to ex-President James Knox Polk in 1849, a native North Carolinian. In less than three months he died at his Tennessee home.

The remains of John C. Calhoun passed through Wilmington in 1850 with great ceremony from the railroad station to the steamer Nina bound for Charleston. A committee of Wilmingtonians accompanied the remains to that city. Jenny Lind, the famous "Swedish Nightingale," visited Wilmington briefly while on a tour of southern cities.

Click Here for the Source of this excellent write-up. Link is current as of July 2023.

View of Wilmington, NC During the Civil War - Union Troops Escorting Confederate Prisoners - February 27, 1865

Click Here to learn more about the four (4) known "Street Railways" that operated in Wilmington from 1888 to 1939.
Click Here to view/download an Adobe PDF file of the book, entitled "Journal of a Lady of Quality Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, Portugal, North Carolina, in the years 1774-1776," by Janet Schaw, published in 1923.
Wilmington was granted a U.S. Post Office on February 16, 1796, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Bradley. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.
Click Here to view several maps of the city of Wilmington provided by the State Highway Commission / DOT.

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