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charge this liability that General Smith had contracted to build
the tapia work at the fort. His lady, Mrs. Sarah Dry Smith,
was highly accomplished and was an hospitable friend to Dr.
Griffin and myself, and one of the finest characters in the coun-
try. She was the daughter and heiress of Col. William Dry,
the former collector in the colonial time, and also of the King's
council. This lady was also a direct descendant from Crom-

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136 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

well's admiral^ Eobert Blake. There was also residing at the
fort the family of Benjamin Blaney. A native he was of Kox-
bury, near Boston. He had migrated to Carolina as a carpenter,
and had by industry acquired a competence to enable him to
dispense aid to the sick and needy and other charities, in the
performance of which he was an example of usefulness, charity,
and unostentation. Most of the families at the fort were Fed-
eralists, and, though all deplored the event, they were the more
sensibly impressed with the news of the death of Alexander
Hamilton, who in this month of July had been slain in a duel
with Colonel Burr, the account of which had been written to me
by Colonel Williams. The whole Union was in a measure
moved to grief by this sad event. Colonel Hamilton occupied a
large space in the public mind. He had been the able leader of
Federalism — of a class of men who may in truth be said to have
been actuated by far higher motives than those of mere party.

My advices from West Point were that Major Wadsworth,
Capt. W. A. Barron and Mr. DeMasson formed the academic
corps; that Lieutenant Wilson was on duty at Fort Mifflin,
Lieutenant Macomb in South Carolina, and Lieutenant Arm-
istead in New York.

In my excursions on the water of Cape Fear I was aided by
Captain Walker, Dr. Griffin, and Mr. Blaney, who as sports-
men were familiar with the numerous shoals and channels and
anchorages thereof, so that the returns were not only in game
but also in giving me knowledge of the capacity of this harbor,
situate as it is on one of the most shallow and troublesome
coasts to navigators. The anchorage, covered from the ocean by
Bald Head, or Smith's Island, extending from the Main Bar to
the New Inlet, and upon which island there is a growth of live
oak and palmetto, and abounding with fallow deer.

Intimacy with Mr. Walker furnished me with many items
of the war in Carolina, with which he was familiar, although
not taking part in the battles, for he had been a moderate Tory,
averse to taking arms against the mother country, in which
his friend and brother-in-law, Louis DeRosset, had influenced
him. Mr. DeRosset was of the King's council. Mr. Walker
had been the executor of Gen. James Moore, the planner and
director of the American force at the Battle of Moore's Creek,
fought by Lillington and Caswell. From the papers of that
officer he had gathered many an anecdote of the march of Com-
wallis. Mr. Walker had been in the Regulators' War of 1770

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Early Years 137

and then commanded a company in the Battle of Alamance, in
the western part of the State. He was cured of much of his
Toryism by the tyrannical conduct of Maj. J. H. Craig, the
British governor at Wilmington, afterwards governor-general of
Canada. The conduct of this man had been oppressive and
needlessly cruel to the people of Wilmington, and Captain
Walker had been able to influence some relief for those who
were in arrest, etc. He and his brother-in-law, John DuBois,
had been appointed commissioners to arrange the cartel of pris-
oners, and to negotiate for the families who were to leave Wil-
mington when Comwallis marched to Virginia, thus showing
the confidence that both Whig and Tory had reposed in those
gentlemen. Mr. Walker's family were of the settlers called
"Eetainers," coming from Ireland under the auspices of Col-
onel Sampson and of his father, Robert Walker. Among the
families of "Eetainers" were those of the Holmeses, Owens,
Kenans, etc., now become independent planters and distin-
guished citizens. The father of Captain Walker, the above
Robert, was of the same family with that of the Protestant hero,
the Rev. George Walker, of Londonderry. The mother of Cap-
tain Walker was Ann, of the family of Montgomery, of Mount
Alexander in Ireland, who had made a runaway match with
Robert Walker. Capt. James Walker married Magdalen M.
DuBois, the daughter of John DuBois and Gabriella DeRosset,
his wife.

In the month of September, in reply to my report of the 26th
of July, I received orders from the War Department to proceed
with as much of the work therein contemplated as was embraced
in General Smith's contract upon the tapia work at the site of
old Fort Johnston, that had been there constructed in 1748
by His Excellency Gabriel Johnston, then colonial governor.
In clearing away the sand I found much of the old tapia walls
far superior to our contemplated plan for the battery of tapia.

Soon after this the slaves of General Smith commenced the
burning of lime in pens, called kilns, made of sapling pines
formed in squares containing from one thousand to one thou-
sand two hundred bushels of oyster shells (alive) collected in
scows from the shoals in the harbor — ^there abundant. These
pens were filled with alternate layers of shells and ^Tightwood"
from pitch pine, and thus were burned in about one day — ^very
much to the annoyance of the neighborhood by the smoke and
vapor of burning shellfish, when the wind was strong enough to

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138 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

spread the fumes of the kilns. In the succeeding month of
November I commenced the battery by constructing boxes of the
dimensions of the parapet, six feet high by seven in thickness,
into which boxes were poured the tapia composition, consisting
of equal parts of lime, raw shells, and sand and water sufficient
to form a species of paste, or batter, as the negroes term it.

At the close of this month of November a large Spanish ship
called the Bilhoa was cast away on Cape Fear in a storm. It
was alleged by the crew, who were brought by Pilot Davis to
my quarters, that the ship was laden with sugar, and that there
was much specie in the run ; that the captain and mate had died
at sea, and that having no navigator on board they had put the
ship before the wind and run her on shore near the cape. There
were twenty-one in this crew, a villainous looking set of rascals,
that I had no doubt they were. Lieutenant Fergus detained
them in the block-house at the fort until the collector sent in-
spectors to conduct the crew to Charleston, where the ship was
faiown to some merchant. These men all had more or less of
dollars in their red woolen sashes tied around their waists. On
their arrival in Charleston they were detained some time, but
no proof could be found against them and they went free. The
pilots and others were for some time after this exploring the
remains of the wreck, but nothing was found among the drift
save spars and rigging.


Let us contrast the swift steamer Wilmington, with the primi-
tive example of former days — let us turn back for three-quarters
of a century, when the town of Wilmington contained only a
tenth of its present population, and recall an incident, related to
the writer by the late Col. J. G. Burr, which created the great-
est excitement at the time, and which was the occasion of the
wildest exuberance of feeling among the usually staid inhabi-
tants of the town — the arrival of the first steamboat in the Cape
Fear River. A joint stock company had been formed for the
purpose of having a steamer built to ply between Wilmington
and Smithville or Wilmington and Fayetteville. Capt. Otway
Bums, of privateer Snap-Dragon fame during the War of 1812,
was the contractor. The boat was built at Beaufort, where he
resided. When the company was informed that the steamer was

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Early Years 139

finished and ready for delivery, they dispatched an experienced
sea captain to take command and bring her to her destined port.
Expectations were on tiptoe after the departure of the captain ;
a feverish excitement existed in the community, which daily
increased, as nothing was heard from him for a time, owing to
the irregularity of the mails ; but early one morning this anxiety
broke into the wildest enthusiasm when it was announced that
the Prometheus was in the river and had turned the Dram Tree.
Bells were rung, cannon fired, and the entire population, with-
out regard to age, sex, or color, thronged the wharves to welcome
her arrival. The tide was at the ebb, and the struggle between
the advancing steamer and the fierce current was a desperate
one; for she panted fearfully, as though wind-blown and ex-
hausted. She could be seen in the distance, enveloped in smoke,
and the scream of her high-pressure engine reverberated through
the woods, while she slowly but surely crept along. As she
neared Market Dock, where the steamer Wilmington is at pres-
ent moored, the captain called through his speaking-trumpet to
the engineer below : "Give it to her, Snyder" ; and while Sny-
der gave her all the steam she could bear, the laboring Prome-
theus snorted by, amid the cheers of the excited multitude. In
those days the river traffic was sustained by sailing sloops and
small schooners, with limited passenger accommodations and less
comfort The schedule time to Smithville, was four hours, wind
and weather permitting, and the fare was one dollar each way.

Note. — Steamboats were used on the Cape Fear very soon after their
introduction. On October 16, 1818, the Henrietta began to run regu-
larly between Wilmington and Fayetteville, and in April, 1819, Presi-
dent Monroe was carried on the Prometheus from Wilmington to Smith-
ville. The Prometheus was probably on the river long before 1819.


The growth of Wilmington was naturally slow, notwithstand-
ing the energy of the inhabitants. Indeed, because of the con-
stant exodus of North Carolinians to the new country at the
West and South, the population of the State hardly increased
at all during the early years of the last century. The popula-
tion of New Hanover County in 1810 was 11,465, and in 1820
it had fallen off to 10,866. In 1820 the population of Wil-
mington was, whites, 1,098, slaves, 1,433, free negroes, 102 — a
total of 2,633.

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140 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

Especially, because of the absence of good roads and facilities
for transportation — save by the river to Fayetteville — ^there was
but little opportunity for extending the trade of the town.

Further, the trouble with England, the embargo, the inter-
ruption of commerce by the War of 1812, with the attendant
financial embarrassments, brought loss and ruin in their train.

Superadded was the scourge of yellow fever during the sum-
mer of 1819, the disease in that season being more prevalent
throughout the Southern and Middle Atlantic States than had
at any other time been known. Baltimore, as well as the more
southern ports, was entirely paralyzed. As in 1862, many
families fled from Wilmington into the interior.

Hardly had the desolation subsided and commerce revived,
when Wilmington was visited by the most disastrous conflagra-
tion recorded in its history. The total loss, as stated by some
standard authorities, was about one million dollars, but the
Cape Fear Recorder estimated it at between six and seven hun-
dred thousand dollars — an almost total obliteration of the
wealth of the town.

We quote from the Raleigh Register and North Carolina
State Gazette of Friday, November 12, 1819 :

It is our painful duty to register a very extensive and calamitous
fire which took place at Wilmington in our State; and we do It
with those strong feelings of sympathy and regret which such events
naturally inspire. We cannot portray the circumstances in which the
town was placed more feelingly than it is depicted by the Editor of
the Cape Fear Recorder; "who feels them most can paint them best."

Fibb! Wilmington (says the Recorder) has experienced more awful
calamities by fire than any other place in the Union. Thrice, within
twenty years, has the devouring element laid in ashes the abodes of
her inhabitants. Enterprise, industry, and the assistance of her neigh-
bors, gave her, measurably, resuscitation, until the recent pressure
of the times bended her down almost to the sinking point. Em-
barrassments in pecuniary matters had reached that state which ap-
peared to baffle relief. Sickness and death followed in the melancholy
train. Despair had almost concluded that she could not sink beyond
this. Hope, the bright luminary by which man's path in this world
of care is heightened and cheered, brought consolation, and pointed
to better days. Disease had ceased — the periodical work of death
ccHnpleted — the late deserted abodes of her inhabitants filling— vessels
arriving daily in her port — the appearance of business reviving. On
Thursday morning, the 4th inst., about three o'clock, the cry of fire was
given, and the delusion vanished. Her bright hopes were destroyed.

The frightful picture is before us and it is our duty to present it to
our distant readers. The fire originated back of a small building

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Early Years 141

occupied by Mr. Samuel Adkins as a grocery store* situated on the
whart near Dock Street, and adjoining the large brick warehouse
lately occupied as the '76 Coffee-house, in part of which was the office
and counting house of Gabriel Holmes, Esq.

From the best calculation we can make, the whole number of houses
destroyed was about three hundred, of every description, Including the
Presbyterian Church, lately erected; and the total loss of property
between six and seven hundred thousand dollars.

The following persons are those who have lost by the destruction of

Col. Archibald F. McNeill, John London, Col. Thomas Cowan, John
Swann, jr., William McKay, Estate of Thomas Jennings, Seth Hoard,
Joseph Kellogg, Estate of J. London, Mrs. McRee, Jacob Levy, Richard
Bradley, Edward B. Dudley, William J. Love, S. Springs, James
Dickson, Hanson Kelly, David Smith, Henry Urquhart, John Walker,
George Jennings^ Robert Rankin, State Bank, Estate of Nehemiah
Harris, Estate of James Allen, M. Blake, Estate of M. Murphy, James
Usher, Mrs. Hoekins, Mrs. Toomer, William Harris, James Marshall,
Estate of P. Harris, Louis Paggett, Estate of Hilliary Moore, Reuben
Loring, William C. Lord, Gilbert Geer. This list is no doubt incomplete.

Among those who suffered by the destruction of other property the
principal in amount are, Isaac Arnold, Edmund Bridge, jr., Eleazar
Tilden, Dudley and Van Cleff, Dudley and Dickinson, Miles Blake,
Seth Hoard, Richard Lloyd, J. Angomar, George Lloyd, H. Wooster,
Patrick Murphy, B. C. GiUett, W. C. Radcliffe, Stewart Robson.

It is almost impossible to ascertain the amount of individual losses.
Every person within the bounds of the fire, and all those without it
who removed their property, lost more or less. But the extent of a
loss, as it regards merely its amount, is not the criterion of its injury —
it is he that has lost his all, the unprotected, the friendless, and the
helpless, that ought to excite our pity and compassion, and calls for
our assistance.

Only one life was lost— Capt Farquhar McRae, after the fire had
almost subsided, who ventured within a building for the purpose of
saving property not his own. The walls fell, he was crushed to atoms.
He was a useful citizen in his sphere of life and would have been
regretted even had he died on the couch of disease.

To the sufferings of others Wilmington has never remained indif-
ferent — limited as were her means, to know them was all that was
necessary for her to contribute her mite. She is now in distress —
hundreds of her inhabitants are suffering. The knowledge of her
situation will, we are certain, confer relief.

And all this is the work of an incendiary. Suspicion has been afloat,
but we suspect it has not been directed toward the right person.
Higher views than those of plunder must have been the object, for we
have heard of not much success and of very few attempts.

CRakich Recbter and North Carolina State Gawtte, Friday, December 3, 1819.)

Wilmington Fire — We have pleasure in stating that a subscription
has been opened for the relief of the sufferers by this disastrous event.

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142 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

not only among the citizens of Raleigh, but among the members of
both houses of the Legislature. The precise amount is not at present
ascertained; but we trust it will be such as will show the liberality
of the subscribers, considering the hardness of the times.

Other Eably Fires.

In the preface to his History of New Hanover County ^ pub-
lished in 1909, Col. Alfred Moore Waddell said:

''What is called the Lower Cape Fear region of North Caro-
lina has long been recognized by the writers of our history as
the most interesting and, as one of them designated it, 'the most
romantic' section of our State. Yet, up to this time, although
partial sketches, historical and biographical, have appeared, no
attempt at a regular history of it has been published, and now
such a history cannot be written because of the destruction, by
fire and other agencies, of a large part of the material requisite
for the purpose. There was, perhaps, no part of the country
where so many planters' residences with all their contents were
lost by fire as on the Cape Fear and its tributaries, and it is well
known among the descendants of those planters, some of whom
were members of the learned professions, that by these fires
many manuscripts, family records, and documents of various
kinds that would have been invaluable as material for the prep-
aration of a local history, were lost. Besides these fires on the
plantations, the town of Wilmington was, at an early period, as
well as several times afterwards, nearly destroyed in the same
way, with the same results.

"None of the ancient official records of the town of Bruns-
wick were preserved, and a considerable part of the county
records was destroyed by Northern soldiers when the town of
Smithville was captured by them in 1865. Some of the town
records of Wilmington of an early period have also disap-

Many years ago, I searched in vain the ruins of the first settle-
ment of Charlestown, at Town Creek, for records of that date,
but my search was rewarded later by the discovery in the ruins
of a house, said to have been the residence of Nathaniel Rice,
of the book of entries and clearances of the port of Brunswick
in a partly mutilated condition. I also searched at LiUiput
among the ruins of Eleazar Allen's residence, without result;
also, the ruins of Governor Tryon's Castle Tryon, or palace, at
Orton, which revealed a piece of pottery stamped "W. Dry,

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Harly Years 143

Cape Fear, 1765/' and a large bunch of housekeeper's keys
upon an iron ring and hook which fitted into a leather belt with
a spring by which a key could be withdrawn and replaced.
Other relics of less importance were discovered, but no papers.
All of these ruins, as well as the ruins of St. Philip's Church,
showed the devastation of fire in charred woodwork and melted
colored glass.

As early as 1771, Wilmington suffered from a terrible con-
flagration, and an act of Assembly was passed to regulate the
affairs of the town, in view of possible fires. In the account
just given of the destruction wrought in 1819, it is mentioned
that, in the previous twenty years, there had been several de-
structive conflagrations.

Mr. J. T. James says : ^^ilmington, in common with many
other of her sister towns and cities, has suffered often and seri-
ously from the terrible scourge of fire ; so much so, indeed, that
these visitations have, from time to time, seriously retarded its
growth. Scarcely would the citizens recover from the effects
of one blow, ere tiiey would be called upon to suffer again. The
old chronicles tell us that in November, 1798, a most destructive
fire occurred. On July 22, 1810, three stores and five houses,
situated near what is now the comer of Market and Second
Streets, but then known as Mud Market, were consumed by fire
caused by lightning. In 1819, there was a most terrible conflia-
gration, and the four squares bounded by Water, Princess, Sec-
ond, and Dock Streets were destroyed. In 1827, the square
south of the site of the present market house was again burned.
In 1840 the square north of the market was consumed for the
second time, together with the courthouse, which then stood at
the intersection of Front and Market Streets. In 1843 occurred
one of the most serious conflagrations of any ever experienced.
On April 30 of that year a fire originated in the alley just north
of the Cape Fear Bank building and swept with rapid strides
to the north. All exertions to check it were in vain, and it was
not until everything west of Front Street and north of the bank
alley and portions of every square east of the same street and
bordering upon it and north of Chestnut were consumed, that
its fiery course could be stopped. This fire also destroyed the
workshops and buildings of the Wilmington and Weldon Eail-
road Company, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, then situ-
ated, as now, upon the comer of Front and Walnut Streets.
Three years afterwards, in 1846, the square next south of the

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144 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River

market house was again and for the third time destroyed by

Reference was made to two of these fires by Sir Charles Lyell,
the famous geologist, who was in Wilmington in December,
1841, and again in January, 1842, and still again in December,
1845. In a letter written by him from Wilmington in Decem-
ber, 1845, he said: "The streets which had just been laid in
ashes when we were here four years ago are now rebuilt; but
there has been another fire this year, imputed very generally to
incendiarism, because it broke out in many places at once. There
has been a deficiency of firemen, owing to the State having dis-
continued the immunity from militia duty, formerly conceded
to those who served the fire engines." Some mention of the fire
of 1843 is also made in the article on Governor Dudley.


I find in the annual report of William P. Craighill, then
major of Engineers, and brevet lieutenant colonel. United States
Army, for the year 1873, a brief history of old surveys and maps
and charts made of the Cape Fear River between its mouth and
the port of Wilmington, which is a record of some value to us. I
have also found in the records of the War Department of 1828,
a lengthy report by Capt. Hartman Bache, of the Engineer
Corps, transmitted by Maj. Gen. Alexander MacComb, chief
engineer, to Hon. James Barbour, Secretary of War, who in
turn transmitted it to Congress, which had called for it by reso-
lution dated the 20th of December, 1827. This report is not
only interesting but valuable, as it indicates the initial measures
recommended and subsequently carried out by the Federal Gov-
ernment for the removal of obstructions to navigation between
the bar and the port of Wilmington, the navigation of the river
being greatly hampered by shoal water, which afforded, under
the most favorable conditions, a channel of less than nine feet.

It also appears from this report and from other data, that the
State work under Mr. Hamilton Fulton, State engineer in 1823,
was unsuccessful and was condemned in its most important fea-
tures by Captain Bache and by those who were directly inter-
ested in the commerce of the Cape Fear River.

About the year 1819 the State authorized Mr. Peter Brown,
an eminent lawyer residing at Raleigh, then intending to visit

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Early Years 145

Great Britain, to employ an engineer for the purpose of im-
proving our rivers and water transportation; and Mr. Brown
engaged Hamilton Fulton, at a salary of $5,000.

The work of putting in the jetties below Wilmington seems
to have been under Mr. Fulton's direction; but it is said that
the engineer in charge was Mr. Hinton James,^ who had been
the first student to enter the State TJniversity. Afterwards,
Mr. James, it is said, was mayor of Wilmington ; and he lived
in the town to a ripe old age. Mr. Fulton's work may have been

Online LibraryJames SpruntChronicles of the Cape Fear river, 1660-1916 → online text (page 15 of 74)