In the first installment of our monthly piece that focuses on the history of small towns in North Carolina, we take a look at the rich heritage of the first incorporated town in the Old North State.
From colonization to Indian wars, rebellion and even swashbuckling pirates, there’s plenty of history behind the little town of Bath. Nestled along the mouth of the Pamlico River in Beaufort County, Bath holds the distinction of being the first formally organized town in North Carolina.
Before the peak of American colonization in the early 18th century, North Carolina lacked a permanent population of settlers. That all changed in 1690 when Heugenots fleeing political and religious turmoil in France began to settle along the Pamlico area.
Regarded as the town father of Bath, John Lawson led the efforts to establish a permanent town in the North Carolina colony. Lawson was a known explorer and naturalist who often wrote about the beauty and wonder of the coastal Carolina region. After laying out the town plan, Lawson successfully earned a royal charter for Bath on March 8, 1705. The lifeblood of the town was the Pamlico River, which served as the primary means of transportation and trade for the residents.
Bath originally consisted of 12 residences and a tiny population of about 50 people. The small town served as the de facto capital of the Carolina colony from 1705 to 1722. Even so, Carolina lacked any formal government system until New Bern became the official capital in 1743.
Bath’s greatest claim to fame is being the home of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate. Blackbeard, having received a royal pardon from North Carolina governor Charles Eden after promising to hang up his pirate’s hat, settled into Eden in June of 1718. Blackbeard’s retirement, however, didn’t last as he returned to piracy just two months after his pardon.
Though many historians have commented on Bath’s quaint beauty and small-town charm, the town’s history has also been marked by hardships and tragedy. 1711 was a particularly tumultuous year for the area, as the town was hit with an outbreak of yellow fever, a severe drought, Cary’s Rebellion, and the onset of the Tuscarora War, the latter of which claimed the life of town father John Lawson.
During the Great Awakening, Bath was the site of an unusual encounter between the Methodist evangelist George Whitefield and the town’s residents. Between 1747 and 1762, Whitefield attempted to evangelize Bath on four occasions. During his last trip to the town, Anglican leaders refused to allow him to preach. In response, Whitefield apparently shook off the dust from his shoes just outside the town limits, pronouncing a curse upon Bath and her residents that they would forever remain a small village, forgotten and left behind by the everchanging world. For some, it would appear that the curse was real.
Today, Bath remarkably remains relatively unchanged. The town-proper still sits on its original site. Bath is a favorite of historians as it is one of the few remaining early-colonial towns that has survived modern development. Bath’s surviving history includes St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the oldest standing church building in North Carolina. The Bath State Historic Site offers tours of the 1744 Palmer-Marsh House, one of the oldest residences in North Carolina and the oldest surviving home in Bath. The Bonner House, built in 1830, is believed to contain the chimney of a home built by John Lawson.
Bath has retained its charm for over 300 years, making it a wonderful destination for history lovers and proud North Carolinians. Its sleepy demeanor often hides its rich and fascinating story. The town is one of the many treasures of North Carolina that harken back to a time of exploration, hardship, and political uncertainty. There is still much that this little village can teach the residents of the Tar Heel State.
For more information on Bath and its history, check out the link below. Also, please feel free to subscribe to this blog to receive updates on new posts!
Historic Bath: https://historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/historic-bath
William Denton is a historian & author. You can read more at www.williamdenton.com