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The Albemarle
 
From these shores, from what is now the northeast corner of North Carolina, sprang all of Tar Heelia. Most of the counties in the region border Albemarle Sound, and, indeed, the area has long been known as “The Albemarle.” J. C. B. Ehringhaus, native of Elizabeth City and proud son of the Albemarle, was the state’s governor from 1933 to 1937. Speaking in Edenton in the last year of his term, Governor Ehringhaus proclaimed:
 
In Edenton, in Hertford, and in Elizabeth City, there is no pretense, no failure and unwillingness to recognize their country ways and heritage. While they manifest occasionally an inclination to bloom and while they have their own industrial activities, these are closely related to the products of the soil, and there isn’t any great desire for change. They are content with things just as they are. And small, stolid, and unambitious as they are, these towns of the Albemarle, there are those who love them.
 

Ehringhaus’s remarks, seven decades later, still have the ring of truth. Agricultural pursuits remain central to the local economy. Yet what he portrayed as sleepy little towns have developed into vibrant communities where residents, natives, and newcomers alike still have a sense of pride in their accomplishments and their unique heritage.

Before there was a North Carolina or even a Carolina, there was Albemarle County, where settlers from Virginia first moved around 1650. The first was Nathaniel Batts, who constructed a house on Salmon Creek, three miles south of the US 17 bridge across the Chowan River. No fewer than six colonial governors lived within the immediate vicinity of Batts House.

To Bertie County goes the title of “Seedbed of the Colony.”  Just across the river is the town of Edenton, often called the “Cradle of the Colony,” hotbed of Revolutionary sentiment and home to the Chowan County Courthouse, the only remaining colonial courthouse in North Carolina.

 

Native Americans Here 10,000 Years Ago

Of course those hardy souls in the mid-1600s were not the first on our shores. Rather, Native Americans, the first inhabitants, welcomed the English settlers in the 1580s. Drawings by settler John White document their villages and customs in striking detail. The native peoples, who arrived over 10,000 years ago, belonged to one of three groups—the Algonquian, Souian, and Iroquoian. Their tribes were the Secotan, Weapomeoc, Chowanoke, Nottaway, Hatteras, and Meherrin. Place names taken from Indian terms dot the region. Archaeologists continue their searches for evidence of these original Carolinians, investigating in recent years a site at Buxton.

The story of the initial contact—that of the ill-fated Roanoke colonists, 1584–1587—excites the imagination, and each season draws throngs to the reconstructed Fort Raleigh and to the nation’s oldest and longest-running outdoor drama, The Lost Colony, on Roanoke Sound. Over 3,000,000 people have seen the drama since it began in 1937. “We do not know the fate of Virginia Dare or the First Colony. We do know, however, that the story of America is largely a record of that spirit of adventure,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an address to the audience of The Lost Colony on August 18, 1937.

Many attractions distinguish Dare County, from well-known sites such as the Wright Brothers Memorial and Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island lighthouses to the quieter places such as Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station. Up the coast, in Currituck County, is another lighthouse, as well as the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. Proximity to Tidewater, Virginia, propels the local economy to ever-greater heights, setting Currituck and Dare counties apart as anomalies in the region.

 

Coastal Waterways

If any element defines the 16 counties, it is water, lapping at every shoreline and never far away. If one travels westward from Currituck County in a counterclockwise fashion, the next counties in turn are Camden, Pasquotank, Perquimans, and Chowan, also known as the “Finger Counties” (reference to a map makes clear the origin of the name).

Camden holds special appeal to the traveler interested in natural history, being the entry point for the Dismal Swamp Canal. George Washington in 1763 invested in land in the area. Pasquotank is home to Elizabeth City, where the Museum of the Albemarle interprets the history of the region. Perquimans is formed by two peninsulas named for early settlers John Harvey and George Durant: Harveys Neck and Durants Neck. The aforementioned Edenton, the seat of Chowan, has been called “an architectural treasure house” and is a must for any history-minded traveler. The tale of Harriet Jacobs, the fugitive slave who moved north and penned her life story, is a highlight of Edenton’s history and is interpreted in a walking tour.

 
Off to the Races

It was along the borders of Gates, Hertford, and Northampton counties that William Byrd and his party surveyed the dividing line with Virginia in 1728. No fan of his southern neighbors, the aristocratic Virginian wrote that "surely there is no place in the World where the Inhabitants live with less labour than in N. Carolina" and labeled the colony "Lubberland."

During the antebellum period, the region along the Virginia border was the nation's center of horse racing and predated the rise of the sport in Kentucky.

"Sir Archie" was the king of the thoroughbreds. Old-timers can point out sites of the old oval racetracks, now marked by curved stands of trees that once provided shade on the side of the track.

Agricultural production, from "King Cotton" in the late 1800s to peanuts, tobacco, and soybeans, which are dominant today, essentially gives the lie to Byrd's libel. The first commercial processing of soybeans took place in Elizabeth City in 1915. The faithful restorations in the town of Murfreesboro, home to Chowan College, deserve a side trip.

In 1831 the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner just north of the border had repercussions throughout the region. The counties in the state's northeast region, among them Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, and Chowan, had among the highest concentration of slaves in North Carolina. In 1830 the slave population considered as a percentage of the total population in those four counties exceeded 70 percent. The legacy of that African American heritage extends to the present day. The counties along the Virginia border constitute the state's "black belt" and retain a high percentage of African Americans. The region’s rich culture, from the visual arts to gospel music, also reflects that demographic.

 

First in Freedom

Halifax County is home to Historic Halifax, where North Carolina delegates on April 12, 1776, approved a resolution endorsing independence, giving rise to the state’s “First in Freedom” claim. Remnants of the Roanoke Canal, constructed between 1819 and 1823 (the heyday of internal improvements), can be seen on a walking tour between Weldon and Roanoke Rapids. Like its neighbors, Halifax County was home to large plantations such as Caledonia, owned by the Johnston family and site of a prison farm since 1892. Medoc Mountain State Park was the scene of wine producer Sidney Weller’s important early experiments in establishing vineyards in North Carolina.

Travelers with an interest in the Civil War will enjoy moving south and east to Martin, Washington, and Beaufort counties. Earthworks can be visited at Fort Branch, high on a bluff overlooking the Roanoke River. The town of Plymouth, occupied by federal troops from 1862 to 1864 (as was much of the region), hosts the Port O’ Plymouth Museum, where the tale of the ironclad Albemarle is interpreted. Along the Pamlico River, Washington, the first town in the nation to be named for the first president, was a center for shipbuilding. The first incorporated town in North Carolina was Bath, which celebrates its tricentennial in 2005.

Finally, in this counterclockwise circumnavigation of the northeast, one comes to Tyrrell and Hyde, two of the state’s least populated counties. Fewer than 6,000 people reside in either, and Hyde residents boast that the county has not a single stoplight. Lake Mattamuskeet was drained and farmed from 1915 to 1933, but the project was ultimately abandoned because the pumping station costs proved insurmountable. Today the lake is the site of one of the nation’s premier wildlife refuges.

Tyrrell was home to the Pettigrew family, who were among the leading planters in antebellum North Carolina. Their neighbors, the Collins family, operated Somerset Place, home in 1860 to 328 slaves and today open to the public as a State Historic Site.

Explorers of this Web site will find detailed descriptions of a host of attractions in the 16-county region. Yet, as perceptive travelers are aware, all answers cannot be found on the Web. Readers interested in learning more about the region are encouraged to consult Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern’s A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996), which conveys a fine appreciation of local history in addition to inventorying the noteworthy structures in each county. Two older works also are useful: Bill Sharpe’s A New Geography of North Carolina (4 volumes, 1954–1965) collects county profiles originally published in The State magazine. Even older but no less valuable is North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State (1939; revised, 1955), compiled by a team of writers and editors employed the Federal Writers’ Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration. That volume is the touchstone for historical travel in the Tar Heel State.

Michael Hill
North Carolina Office of Archives and History
 

 
The Albemarle
Native Americans
10,000 Years Ago
Coastal Waterways
Off To The Races
First In Freedom
 
 
 

 

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