History of Wake County, North Carolina – Hope Summerell Chamberlain
Wake County, N. C., was one of the latest of the pre-Revolutionary counties to be set off from the rest, and its boundaries were not in any sense natural boundaries, dependent upon natural barriers or the course of streams, but were run and divided for purely political reasons. The story of the making and naming of Wake County is an interesting one, and properly to tell it requires some general account of the Colony of North Carolina and its beginnings. Even more interesting is the history of this newborn county, that Mrs. Chamberlain tells in this book so elaborately and detailed.
History of Wake County, North Carolina.
Excerpt from the first chapter:
IT is difficult to realize beginnings. Let us turn back the stream of time, let us look at our old familiar places in the light of former days. No one has stepped twice in the same river, and its onward flow changes all shores.
Who has not said to himself, as he passed along familiar streets and considered familiar landmarks, —
“I wish I’d seen
The many towns this town has been.”
So it is with this country we live in and possess. When we go abroad upon the hilly roads of this pleasant inland County of Wake, when we note the outlines of its ridges against the sky, and see field and forest and farm, and scenes of man’s long residence, we often wish to think backward and perceive clearly these old well-known scenes with the eyes of the first European explorers as they threaded their way through forest glades, peopled at that time only by the red men.
The first historian of North Carolina, the explorer Lawson, although known to have passed through the central part of this State, cannot actually be proved to have trod the soil of Wake County. One authority on our local history thinks that he did, and indeed it seems more than possible.
Lawson made a journey through western and middle Carolina in the year seventeen hundred or thereabout. His course was a long loop coming out of South Carolina and crossing the Catawba and the ”Realkin” (or Yadkin) and other streams, continuing in a northeasterly direction and then due east, until he finally reached the settlements of the North Carolina seaboard. His descriptive traveler’s journal reads as fresh and as crisply interesting as if penned last year, and we get the impression of a writer alert in every sense and perception. He was a fine optimistic fellow, and though he was hired no doubt to praise the new colony, and so draw in settlers from among the readers of his account, yet no one can close his book without the feeling that he too, like many another coming to North Carolina to live, soon fell in love with the climate, and delighted to bask under the sunny sky.
Hear his account of leaving ”Acconeechy Town” (which must have been near Hillsborough), and marching twenty miles eastward over “stony rough ways” till he reached “a mighty river.” ”This river is as large as the Realkin, the south bank having tracts of good land, the banks high, and stone quarries. We got then to the north shore, which is poor white sandy soil with scrubby oaks. We went ten miles or so, and sat down at the falls of a large creek where lay mighty rocks, the water making a strange noise as of a great many water wheels at once. This I take to be the falls of News Creek, called by the Indians We-Quo-Whom.”
For a first trip through an unknown wilderness, guided only by a compass, this suggests the neighborhood, and describes the granite ridges that traverse Wake County, and produce the Falls of Neuse, where the river flows across one of these barriers.
During the next days’ travel he comments on the land “abating of its height” and “mixed with pines and poor soil.” This, too, makes it sound as if he perceived the swift transition which may be seen in the eastern part of Wake County from one zone to the next, from the hard-wood growth to the pine timber, and from a clay to a sandy soil.
Lawson highly praised the midland of North Carolina, between the sandy land and the mountains, and it is pleasant to read his enthusiastic account of this home of ours, and learn the impression it made on a good observer in its pristine state, and before the white man’s foot had become familiar with the long trading path, which must have crossed west, near this section, but not certainly in the exact longitude of Wake County.
This trail is known to have passed Hillsborough, and to have crossed Haw River at the Haw Fields. It may well have followed the same course, as later did the Granville Tobacco Path, which certainly traversed Wake County near Raleigh.
Wake County was one of the latest of the pre-Revolutionary counties to be set off from the rest, and its boundaries were not in any sense natural boundaries, dependent upon natural barriers or the course of streams, but were run and divided for purely political reasons.
The story of the making and naming of Wake County is an interesting one, and properly to tell it requires some general account of the Colony of North Carolina and its beginnings.
The first settlement of the Carolinas was begun under the charter of a company of English noblemen, the Lords Proprietors. If these owners received their quit-rents as specified, they did not take much further interest in their plantations, nor molest the settlers; hence, the northern colony, being so neglected and more isolated, was ever the freest of all the Old Thirteen; one might even say the freest and easiest of them. Having no good harbor, and hidden behind the sand-bars from the storms of Hatteras, it enjoyed its immunity. Not being easily reached from outside, it did as its people chose with governors and edicts, dodged its taxes, harbored fugitives, and governed its own affairs quite comfortably.
The Lords Proprietors employed John Locke, the great English philosopher, to draw up a form of government for their two infant colonies, and when he did so a more unsuitable set of constitutional provisions for a thinly settled state would be hard to find.
This “Fundamental Constitution” was a confused and complicated plan full of strange titles and orders of nobility, with its “Landgraves” and its ”Caciques,” a plan which it would have been hard enough to follow in a populous society, with no will of its own; and which it was quite impossible to carry out in a sparsely peopled edge of the wilderness where the principal aim in life of the inhabitants was to escape all outside coercion, and to delight in space and liberty.
The confusion brought about by this famous Locke Constitution was also a cause of this glorious opportunity, eagerly grasped by the colonists, to avoid outside interference, as well as dispense with all the inconveniences of home rule and superfluous government.
Still another cause of freedom was the rapid succession of governors sent by the Lords Proprietors, some grossly incompetent, some most tyrannical, and all objectionable to the temper of the colony even when of average diligence, or because of that diligence.
The later Royal governors were on the whole better men, but the custom had gone on too long for them to subdue those who had defied so long and so successfully any other government save their own.
Again, the liberty of North Carolina was favored simply by the shape of the coast as mentioned above, indented as it is by sounds and wide tide-water rivers, intersected by great swamps, and the whole shut in from the highway of nations by shallows and sand-bars. Even neighborhoods were secluded from each other by sounds and estuaries, while the whole was protected from outside interference. The individual planter scarcely saw a dozen folk outside of his own family in a year.
This freedom of the free in North Carolina was well known, and many came to her borders to enjoy it.
The adventurous, then as now, longed for a wilderness in which to wander; the hunter wanted game, and found abundance there.
Religious sects, persecuted elsewhere, were unmolested in North Carolina; dissenters and Quakers could settle in peace. Indeed the colonists, like Sir John Falstaff, had almost forgotten what “the inside of a church was like.” Those also who wanted to rub out their reckoning and begin life over again, could do so unquestioned, and those who simply wanted to make a living, could make it almost too easily for their own welfare, by half cultivating the rich bottom-lands.
At no time were there any more really criminal persons in North Carolina, in proportion to the population than there were in Virginia, although there may well have been more fugitives from the law in the strip of no-man’s-land that intervened between North Carolina and Virginia before the dividing line was run and agreed upon.
One may read and smile at the witty libel of Colonel William Byrd of Westover, and note how this colony and its liberty roused the ire of the aristocratic Virginian.
He regards it as a big brother does a very impertinent smaller one who has run away and is making faces from over the fence. His chuckles are a bit spiteful as he describes the inferiority, compared with Virginia, of the “Rogues Harbor,” this “Redemptioners Refuge.” He waxes sarcastic over their over-primitive homes, and habits of living, choosing extreme examples; he refers to their lack of piety and churches, adverts to their love of liquor and laziness, their lack of baptism for their children and of the sanction of church ceremony for the union of the parents, and then, having had his merciless fling at them, he unwillingly acknowledges that the dividing line win have to be run fifteen miles or so north of the line that Virginia has always been claiming.
He is also forced to record that all the settlers on this strip of territory were glad to hear that they had been set off into North Carolina forever, but seems also to regret that by this means these undesirables and border ruffians were deprived of chance for future amendment.
Colonel Byrd coveted the pleasure of seeing them put to rights, although the including of them in Virginia would have seemed to spoil the high moral average of that colony according to his telling.
The fundamental nature of our population was sound and wholesome, incentive to crime was lacking; there was plenty of a rude sort, no crowding for any, and the excess of liberty was better endured there than in the west of the eighteen-fifties, where there was gold, and the lust of it, to excite men’s ambition.
Colonists were coming in great numbers by the middle of the eighteenth century. Great Indian wars were fought to a conclusion, and the west was opened up more and more, as people pushed up the great rivers. By 1765, Mecklenburg and Rowan had filled up, faster perhaps than the intervening lands. The soil grew more fertile farther west. Scotch-Irish, Moravian and Pennsylvania ”Dutch”, second generation pioneers, came down the Piedmont and settled the pleasant valleys.
A few years later, Salisbury and Charlotte were thriving little frontier towns and Hillsborough was almost as large as it is today.
For many years after Col. William Byrd and Edward Mosely had surveyed the dividing line. Wake County was but an undistinguished part of the middle western woods, with here and there a settler; but by 1765 it had become adjoining parts of the counties of Johnston and Orange.
It was in this same year that William Tryon came to be the new Royal Governor of North Carolina, and the colony became daily more prosperous, the west having filled up as stated, while the eastern precincts grew rich and became refined in their ideas of comfort and even luxury. Those eastern folk enjoyed agricultural abundance from the fertile soil, they plied a coastwise trade, and owned large ships trading to Bermuda and even to English seaports. Their sons were sent to be educated in England or in the northern colleges, and the leading men showed “a. prevalence of excellent education” although there were no colleges and few schools worth the name in all Carolina.