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
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
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,
newcomers alike still have a sense of pride in their
accomplishments and their unique heritage.
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.
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.
Here 10,000 Years Ago
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
North Carolina Office of Archives and History