A History of Winton, North Carolina

Hertford County Court House - Winton, NC - 1906

The colonial town of Winton is located in northeastern North Carolina approximately fifteen miles from the border of neighboring Virginia. Hertford County’s oldest town, Winton, is also one of North Carolina’s earliest populated areas. Situated on a high bluff on the edge of the Chowan River it has for centuries been a place to build homes in safety from flood, to conduct maritime commerce and other business activities, to fish the river’s waters, and to find rest and recreation.

The width and depth of the Chowan River at Winton have long made it one of the most attractive and active points on the river. The river is up to thirty feet deep and 750 feet wide there. The widest of the waters emptying into the Albemarle Sound, the Chowan River was first explored in 1585 by Ralph Lane, governor of what was to become known as the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island. He was followed by John Pory, the English explorer, who led an expedition from Jamestown, Virginia, up the Chowan River in 1622. Winton was a Royal Port of Entry prior to American Independence and during the American Revolution served as a staging point for the Continental Army. Life in Winton and the surrounding area has been to this day greatly influenced by the presence of the Chowan River.

The first inhabitants of what is now the Winton area were the Meherrin, the Chowanoke, and Tuscarora Indian tribes. Even in recent times Indian artifacts have been found in Winton near the edge of the bluff overlooking the Chowan River. The Meherrin Indian Tribe is still present and is governed by a Tribal Council and a tribal Chief. Underway is the construction by them of a typical Meherrin town which will illustrate the heritage and culture of these Native Americans who first populated the Winton area.

Winton was incorporated in 1768, but the Court House and Jail had already been built earlier. The bill incorporating the town was introduced in the General Assembly by Representative Benjamin Wynns who donated one hundred acres as the town common. The town was named for him and was briefly known as Wynntown. The new town was soon made the county seat of government and has remained such ever since.

As the new nation grew prominent New England traders used Winton as their trading point for southern goods. Among them was Elkanah Watson of Massachusetts who lived nearby and conducted his business in Winton. He later returned to New England where he completed the Erie Canal and began the state fair movement in America. Another was Eli Foote, grandfather of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who died while on a trading mission to Winton and is buried in the Colonial Cemetery here. The river continues to attract commerce and industry as is evidenced by the location of the Easco Aluminum Company within the Town of Winton and the Nucor Steel Mill nearby.

Winton also played a part in the development of the tobacco industry in North Carolina. Here in 1881, David Anderson Owen, tobacco pioneer who had traveled eastern North Carolina with Washington Duke, built and operated northeastern North Carolina’s only tobacco manufacturing factory. The Owen Tobacco Company produced Winton Smoking Tobacco, Owen Plug Tobacco, and other tobacco products. Owen’s grave is in the Old Church Cemetery in Winton.

Fishing has played a major role in the history of Winton. At one time the Chowan River teemed with herring and shad in season. The Jordan family of Winton carried on large seine fishing operations at Mt. Gallant on the west side of Winton and at Barfields and Petty Shore on the east. Hauls of 100,000 fish were made twice a day. Today the river remains a favorite place for sports fishing. Bass tournaments and other fishing events are held frequently.

During the American Civil War Winton suffered its greatest tragedy. On February 20, 1862 the town was invaded by Union troops and burned to the ground. This was the first burning of a town anywhere during the Civil War, occurring nearly two years before Sherman’s march through the South. The Federals approached Winton in three gunboats which had come up the Chowan River. They first bombarded the town. Finding it poorly defended they poured ashore plundering and setting fire to the court house and to all of the county’s colonial records and then to every remaining structure in town except a church and one or two houses identified as belonging to northern sympathizers. The town was virtually completely destroyed. The savagery and brutality of the uncalled-for sacking and burning of Winton evoked protests in the north even in New York City from which the Federal troops came. The result for the invading regiment was denial of medals it had received for earlier action and disgrace for its leader.

Today the only standing building to have survived the fire of 1862 is a detached kitchen which was a part of one of the spared houses. It is presently being restored as a colonial kitchen museum which will house cooking artifacts of the early 1800s. The museum will be open to the public. Also being planned is a full-scale re-enactment of the naval action on the river and of the invasion of the town and the military action there.

A new town arose from the ruins of the fire and produced some outstanding examples of the architecture of the nineteenth century. Located in Winton is Gray Gables a massive three-story Queen Anne structure which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Erected by James S. Mitchell, a local political and civic leader, as his residence, the timber for the house as well as the interior paneling and flooring were all cut to specification in Edenton and shipped up the Chowan River to Winton by boat. Gray Gables is being renovated and will be opened to the public for tours.

The Century Post Office & Museum in Winton is also the site of Hertford County’s oldest post office having been commissioned by President George Washington in 1792. The Winton post office has an unbroken history of over two hundred years.

Still standing in Winton is a unique brick building built specifically for a post office nearly a century ago. This building has been completely renovated as The Century Post Office Museum. It is being outfitted and furnished exactly as a small rural post office of a hundred years ago and will commemorate the role of the post office in the rural south. The museum will be open to the public.

One of Winton’s finest hours was the establishment here of the Chowan Academy for Afro-Americans by Dr. Calvin S. Brown, in 1886. A graduate of Shaw University, Dr. Brown was an eminent preacher and journalist. As pastor of the Pleasant Plains Baptist Church near Winton he resolved to organize an institution of learning for the black children of eastern North Carolina. To enlist the sympathy and help of the Winton community he published a monthly paper known as The Chowan Pilot advancing the idea of a school. The publication and Dr. Brown’s campaign for community support was a success and within eighteen months the construction of a two-story boarding school building was begun. Over the years the institution grew into a multi-building campus and its name was changed to Waters Normal Institute. It ultimately became the Calvin S. Brown High School. The graves of Dr. and Mrs. Brown are on the campus.

On the campus today is the C. S. Brown Regional Cultural Arts Center and Museum housed in the C. S. Brown National Registry Auditorium Building. Also located on the campus is the Office of Aging for Hertford County.

Nearby are located the headquarters and grounds for the National Elks Shrine facility known as the Hobson R. Reynolds National Elks Shrine. Hobson Reynolds who was born in Winton, became a prominent citizen of Philadelphia and was for many years national President of the Elks organization. He is buried on the grounds of the shrine.

The Winton community has had many distinguished citizens. In addition to those already named these include: General Thomas Wynns, first Congressman elected from the district under the United States Constitution and his son Benjamin, the founder of Winton; Congressman Kenneth Rayner whose plantation was nearby, and who maintained an office in Winton, in 1848; Rayner was a candidate for the nomination for Vice President of the United States but lost by one vote to Millard Fillmore who became President of the United States in place of Winton’s Kenneth Rayner upon the death of President Zachary Taylor in 1850; Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, world famous as inventor of the machine gun whose first employment as a young man was as a store clerk in Winton during which time he perfected his first invention, i.e., the principle of the screw propeller only to lose the race to the Patent Office to John Erricson, designer of the Monitor; Congressman Hallet Ward, colorful lawyer and orator; Thad Eure, one time mayor of Winton who served North Carolina as Secretary of State for more than half a century, his tenure in that office being the longest in any state in the entire history of the United States; Dr. R. T. Vann, president of Meredith College and long time leader of the Baptist denomination in North Carolina; Dr. Thomas Custis Parramore, born in Winton, became a distinguished professor of history at Meredith College and the successful author of numerous history books and articles some particularly relating to the history of Northeastern North Carolina.

Winton is a progressive place, proud of it’s history but not willing to rest on its illustrious past. The advent of new industry and business has blended the best of the new with the best of the old. This atmosphere is illustrated by the creation of a Town Beautification Committee which is actively engaged in planting trees and shrubs throughout the town. In addition the Town of Winton has acquired waterfront land on the banks of the Chowan River and is creating there a spacious recreational park for use by the public.

History provided by: John R. Jordan, Jr. [with minor edits]

Winton was granted a US Post Office on January 1, 1795, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Lawrence Mooney. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

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