Category Archives: Edgecombe County

Edgecombe County! – The view from 1891

Not long ago, MidLaw called attention to Joyner Library’s Digital Collections at East Carolina University. They collect and publish papers, photographs, maps, and other materials centered on northeastern North Carolina. There’s a trove of Tarboro and Edgecombe County materials there.

Partly in response to MidLaw’s post, a resident of Greensboro and descendant of Edgecombe’s Bridgers and Battle families came forward with a “motherlode” (her word, and she’s right) of documents. They include President Andrew Johnson’s hand-executed presidential pardon of Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers,  who commanded Fort Macon and earlier had commanded the Edgecombe Guards at the Battle of Bethel when Edgecombe’s Henry Wyatt was killed, becoming the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War.

Hands down, MidLaw’s favorite document from the motherlode is a 40-page pamphlet published in 1891, entitled Edgecombe County! North Carolina. Her People and Resources. The Foremost Agricultural Section of the State

It’s a unique and vivid picture of Edgecombe County in 1890 – in words and graphic sketches. And it evidences both how Edgecombe understood its past (“Cotton is no longer King!”) and also its robustly optimistic vision for the future (“The county offers every opportunity … and all that is needed is some men among us who have not cotton in their eyes, first, last and all the time.”)

It is spoken in the voice of an unabashed booster, seeking to attract people and investment to the County at the moment when Edgecombe was just beginning a major new emphasis on tobacco.

Tarboro is destined to be a great center for the sale and manufacture of tobacco. … How many of us thought, a little more than a year ago, what an easy mastery the bright leaf would have over King cotton?

At the time the pamphlet was published, the population of the County was 26,179. Only 7,956 of those were white. The pamphlet is breathtakingly racist and incidentally sexist as well:

It is well known that negro labor is unsuited to the cultivation of tobacco. It is a crop for white labor and small farms.

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What we want is increased white population to cultivate the tobacco crops in Edgecombe. 

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We cannot speak of the society of our section without bringing conspicuously into view our women … . They are the most refined and intelligent, and possess all the attributes of body and mind that are essential for them to adorn the highest society of the land. 

So, if African Americans and women are pushed to the side, then the pamphlet actually speaks for only about 4,000 people (about half the white people) in a county of 26,000.

But the claims it makes for Tarboro and Edgecombe – as an agricultural, manufacturing and railroad center – are exuberant. Local resources are confidently said to be without peer in the State:

  • The hotel accommodations cannot be surpassed in the State. (There is a page-sized sketch of “Hotel Farrar, Tarboro – Cost $40,000.”)
  • Four railroads run to or through the town.
  • The town has just completed the handsomest city hall in the State.
  • Edgecombe doesn’t owe a dollar; has better school-houses than any county in the State; and pays three times more per child for education than is the average for the State.
  • President Battle, of the State University, say[s] that there is a greater number of college-bred farmers in Edgecombe than in any other county in the State.
  • The most striking and notable characteristic of the people of this county is the very high degree of intelligence and culture prevailing among our farmers.
  • There is more culture among her people, as little crime and disorder, and more comforts and refinement in her homes than can be found elsewhere in North Carolina.
  • It is a land lying midway between the bleak North and the hot languid South, where peace and plenty bless all with their smiles.
  • There is no section of the country in which the seasons are more equally distributed than in Edgecombe.
  • Tarboro is as cosmopolitan as any town in the South.
  • Edgecombe’s citizens are the most enlightened, law-abiding, liberty-loving, congenial and courteous.
  • No more cultured, able and impressive ministers are to be found anywhere. Regular church attendance is very large.

Some twenty pages adumbrate Edgecombe’s unique agricultural potential. Beyond cotton, tobacco and peanuts (“no section is superior to this for growing peanuts”), the range of vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, crops, timber, dairy and livestock that can succeed in the County takes twenty pages and more to describe – from 50-pound watermelons to turnips, rutabagas, asparagus, all fruits, the tea plant of China, trailing arbutus, yellow jasmine, burdock, and the finest thoroughbred horses bred in North Carolina. “You stir the earth, nature does the rest.” Opportunities in manufacturing, transportation, and finance go from here.

Judge H.C. Bourne, who had come to Tarboro from Mississippi found that

The people of Edgecombe are unsurpassed for their energy, pluck and perseverance. They are hospitable and liberal, broad in their views and enterprising – requisites that always command success.

No doubt, salt is needed with this dish. Not a pinch, but a boxful.

Still – despite all the moral and social short-sightedness – and the pall of knowing that a hundred years of Jim Crow lie ahead – Edgecombe County, and all its towns and villages (which are described) are pictured as rising, hopeful and enterprising places. Leading farmers are cited by name.

The hyperbole itself is a gushing resource.

This is a great little artifact: parochial, chauvinist, historical, nostalgic. And it’s hard to resist the conclusion that, with all its (undisclosed) faults, Edgecombe County is a pretty cool place –  where the citizens are uncommonly “intelligent and hospitable”, the “plants please the eye and make glad the heart”, and the people “only die from old age”.

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Robust Tarboro Jewish community in 19th & early 20th Century — first bank holding company in US had roots in Tarboro

Tarboro attracted its first Jewish citizens just before the Civil War, following the construction of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.

Tarboro and Edgecombe investors had influenced the railroad to build its main line through Edgecombe County instead of Wake County. A spur line was built off the main line, which is now the Nash-Edgecombe County line, to Tarboro. It connected Tarboro to the wider world.

With the railroad, Jewish citizens among many others came to town. By the late 19th Century, Tarboro was home to a Jewish community that was robust, prosperous and creative, although it never exceeded 15 families.   A hundred years later,  they were mostly gone. Several with origins in Tarboro’s Jewish community went on to have notable careers well beyond Edgecombe County, including an international “man of curiosity, mysticism, and luck,” and a ground-breaking, nationally prominent American banker and consumer champion (by then a Presbyterian) who established the first bank holding company in the United States and originated Morris Plan banks.

Arthur J. Morris, University of Virginia Archives

Harold Bernard “Dov” Shugar

An odd bit of verse with an odd provenance about notable NC lawyers in the 19th Century

An odd little book found recently in a used bookstore (The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville), recites the following odd verse, which is attributed to Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers (see below). It features three leading lawyers of 19th Century North Carolina: Bartholomew F. Moore, Judge Robert Strange, Jr., and William A. Wright. All three are figures worth knowing about (see below), but this piece of doggerel about them is its own reward:

Messieurs Moore, Strange and Wright

Met to drink and good cheer to exchange

Said Moore, ‘of us three

The whole town will agree

There’s only one knave, and that’s Strange.”

Said Strange, rather sore,

‘I’m sure there’s one Moore –

A terrible knave and a bite,

Who cheated his mother,

His sister and brother.’

‘Oh, yes,” replied Moore, ‘that’s Wright.’

The book from which this comes is Law Tales for Laymen, written by Joseph Lacy Seawell and published in 1925. Seawell was the Clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Seawell attributes the verse to “John L. Bridgers”. (He says Bridgers “tells” it, not that he “wrote” it.) There were two John L. Bridgers (John and John Jr.).  Both were prominent lawyers, farmers, and businessmen from Tarboro. The elder Bridgers died in 1884. He had commanded the Edgecombe Guards and Fort Macon in the Civil War. His son, John L. Bridgers, Jr., was a local judge and an author of The History of Edgecombe County. He died in 1932. Jr. seems the more likely source of the verse.

Bartholomew Moore was one of that extraordinary line of lawyers who emerged along the Edgecombe-Nash County line. He was among the most distinguished North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century. Famously, he represented Will in State v. Will, a landmark judicial opinion which arose from Edgecombe County and was a major step forward in establishing the legal rights of enslaved people. Moore strenuously opposed the Civil War and refused to appear in Confederate courts, which required an oath of allegiance. Even so, he remained a prominent and highly respected member of the North Carolina Bar throughout the War and afterward.

Robert Strange, Jr., from Fayetteville, was a lawyer, a superior court judge and a United States senator. He wrote Eoneguski, or the Cherokee Chief, which is said to be the first novel set in North Carolina.

About William A. Wright, a superficial Internet search finds no references, which is Strange, but which permits MidLaw to say nothing Moore, and that’s alWright.

 

Edgecombe-connected guy recognized by BBC for greatest novel of 21st Century (well, 8th on the list)

Ben Fountain is not actually from Edgecombe County but his people are. Some of them back to the 18th Century.

He’s a North Carolina native and is also said to be possibly “the most nationally recognized and awarded Texas author since Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.” His novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk clocks in at eighth in the BBC’s reckoning of the greatest novels of the 21st Century. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker had pronounced him a genius before he ever wrote that book.

MidLaw is still on the theme that Edgecombe is no ordinary county.

I need a good statue – the ones we have don’t get the job done


My North Carolina heritage started in the mid-18th Century. After about 1760, my ancestors are from North Carolina all the way down.

Some of them were slaveholders, most not.

One, from Perquimans County, is identified as the first person in North Carolina to have liberated all his slaves because he concluded that slavery itself was immoral. Another, said to be the largest slaveowner in Guilford County, provided for his slaves to be liberated upon his death. This provoked litigation (to the Supreme Court) contesting his will by his disappointed son. His widow, evading local law enforcement, took off with the people to Ohio.

Others included founders of the North Carolina Manumission Society, secret participants in the underground railroad (a participant as best I can tell, it was secret after all), and abolitionists.

But, still others continued to hold slaves. And probably more than anything else my forebears were small farmers, laborers, teachers, and lawyers, preachers. One was an indentured servant.

When war came, two were Confederate officers: one was killed in a daring charge; another served for an initial term, then returned home to his family in Randolph County. Two more were private soldiers, one of whom spent much of his war as a prisoner, while the other one got trounced at Gettysburg then nearly starved to death on a long, solitary walk back to Edgecombe County.

Others opposed the war. One paid the fee that exempted members of peace religions from military service. He provided succor to deserters and escaped POWs for whom Guilford County was a gathering place. Another was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Confederate army. He was tortured by his North Carolina neighbors at the infamous Confederate prison at Salisbury.

So, what is my heritage? What monument do I claim?

I am not unusual. North Carolina’s story was never one of united, unreserved support for the Civil War. It was never so simple.

Few, if any of us, tie back to only one narrative — or to a simple, narrow “heritage.”

L’arachide edgecombais

They come from Edgecombe County. You can roast them yourself in 5 minutes. In the microwave. And they will extend your life.

All these years, we’ve been dancing around tobacco. (Edgecombe grows the best of that.) And trying to get excited about sweet potatoes. (Healthy, no doubt, and good, actually.)

But suppose Edgecombe also grows the best of something else – something that tastes great, fights cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and also has a certain jaunty cachet? Suppose that, if you eat them, you will live longer?

There are new studies — from around the world — and they agree.  THE EDGECOMBE COUNTY PEANUT. It will make you live longer.

High-powered, legitimate studies. There are more than 20 of them. And they say that, if you eat peanuts you will live longer.

Now, there’s no specific finding that Edgecombe County peanuts in particular are healthier than peanuts from other places, but that just seems likely.

Higher nut intake is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality, and mortality from respiratory disease, diabetes, and infections.

Consumption of just 1 ounce of nuts (tree nuts or peanuts) a day correlates to a 29 percent decreased risk of heart disease and a 15 percent lower risk of cancer. Moreover, compared to people who ate little or no nuts, those eating an ounce a day had 22 percent lower all-cause mortality rates, with the biggest drops seen for deaths from infectious diseases, respiratory illnesses, and diabetes.

MidLaw counsels that you roast your own.

Get you some raw shelled peanuts. You can find them readily on the Internet. There appears to be no Edgecombe-specific peanut source in the market just now but ask for them anyway.

MidLaw has developed this method:

  • Wet your raw shelled peanuts and drain then salt them. (The water will bind the salt to the peanuts.)
  • Place salted nuts in a shallow, microwave-safe dish. MidLaw’s preference is to arrange the peanuts to a shallow depth (one or two, maybe three, peanuts deep).
  • Microwave on high for about three minutes. Then mix up the peanuts; stir them around.
  • Run the microwave for another two or three minutes.
  • Let the nuts sit (they are still cooking) and cool.
  • Test to see if they are crunchy enough. (You know what to do.) You may need to experiment with your particular microwave oven.
  • Be patient.
  • Do what you have to do to get the peanuts crunchy to your taste without parching or burning. Remember that they will continue to get crunchier for a while after the microwave turns off.

These are going to taste way better than any jar-packed or cellophane-wrapped peanuts you ever had.

As you eat your home-roasted, life-lengthening, Edgecombe peanuts, you may wish to reflect that peanuts are not actually nuts. No, technically peanuts are legumes. They are classified with nuts because of their shared nutritional (and physical) qualities. But peanuts are legumes (like chickpeas), and unlike nuts, they also contain resveratrol, a phytochemical that is found also in grapes and red wine.

In fact, if you eat an ounce of peanuts a day, you can probably give up wine altogether. That is not required, however – because you are not nuts.

 

Columbian Peanut Company, Tarboro

 

Landmark court opinion defining rights of enslaved people arose in Edgecombe County

In 1834, on a plantation in Edgecombe County, a slave named Will refused to share a hoe he had made with his own hands, an act of defiance that got him shot in the back by his white overseer. As he lay wounded, Will reached up and fatally slashed his attacker on the hip and the arm, earning himself a trip to the gallows.

Josh Shaffer, The News & Observer, June 8, 2017

The upshot was a landmark decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court that was a major step forward in the ongoing definition of the status and rights of enslaved people.

Will was sentenced to death in the Edgecombe County Superior Court, Judge Donnell presiding, but plantation owner James S. Battle became convinced that Will had acted in self-defense and so he hired Bartholomew F. Moore to represent Will on appeal. In an opinion written by Justice William Gaston, the Supreme Court reversed Will’s conviction — holding that, if a free man was entitled to the defense of self-defense or to a lesser charge of manslaughter, then the same analysis should apply to an enslaved person. This was a step forward. It moved away from Justice Thomas Ruffin‘s earlier opinion in State v. Mann, in which Ruffin seated his reasoning on the nature of slavery, while Justice Gaston, four years later, focused on Will’s humanity, not his legal status as property.

Will’s case is recognized as a landmark. And so, on June 10, 2017, a historical marker is erected where his case began, at 275 New Hope Church Road in Battleboro, North Carolina.

The Bell Witch from Upper Town Creek (Edgecombe County)

The ghost in “America’s greatest ghost story” is an Edgecombe County native.

She left home and made a big mark in Tennessee. Recently, she inspired the celebrated movie, The Blair Witch Project.

She is often identified as Kate Batts (note the Edgecombe name) but better known as “the Bell Witch” after the Edgecombe expatriate family whom she haunted. The Bells left Upper Town Creek in 1803 and moved to Robertson County in Tennessee, where they and others from Edgecombe County settled.

Probably, no American ghost story is more extensively documented than the Bell Witch story. It is the subject of books, articles, documentaries, movies, and now Internet blogs and posts.

In short, the witch haunted Edgecombe native John Bell and his family and others in Tennessee over as long as two centuries. Early on, she mostly tormented her victims but sometimes she was kind, singing hymns and serving fruit to the ones she liked. Ultimately, she poisoned and killed John Bell and then she disrupted his funeral by singing drinking songs while the mourners tried to sing church music. Following Bell’s death though, and continuing well into the 20th century, she seems to have mellowed, merely visiting and hanging out from time to time with residents and others in the region .

In her first appearance, the witch confronted John Bell in a Tennessee cornfield. Famously, on that occasion, she manifested as a dog with the head of a rabbit. (This account, of course, is very consistent with Edgecombe County history. Not a single sighting of a dog with a rabbit’s head has been reported in Edgecombe County since the Bells left in 1803.)

Later, the witch appeared in other forms and often she spoke or acted without taking visible form. On that first appearance, Bell ran her off by firing his gun at her. Later, she was more persistent.

Different accounts explain where she came from.

One holds that John Bell had an affair with an Edgecombe County neighbor, Kate Batts, and then broke it off. This provoked Kate to threaten to tell the neighborhood how he had mistreated her. In response, Bell locked her in his smokehouse and left her there, tied up, until she died. Bell then left North Carolina for Tennessee with his family and Kate’s spirit followed. She haunted him to his death.

A second account is that Bell’s Edgecombe farm overseer, John Black, took up with Bell’s daughter, much to Bell’s disapproval. Ultimately Bell killed Black. By this account, the overseer’s spirit pursued the Bells from Town Creek to Tennessee. The ghost was identified in Tennessee with the corporeal Kate Batts who was among others from Edgecombe County who had moved to Tennessee and settled in the same area as the Bells. She had disputes with them out there.

Either way, it started with sex in Edgecombe County. So many things do.

The Bell Witch haunting is a long and continuing Tennessee tale and it has won a place in Tennessee history. But the ghost came from Edgecombe County and for those who have grown up in Edgecombe and later left home, the notion that Edgecombe ghosts may follow you wherever you go comes as no surprise.

Nor does the idea that sex and sorrow leads to no good end.

 

Allan Gurganus tells all at Guilford College. Was it in Edgecombe or Nash County?

The Sherwood Anderson family made a major gift to Guilford College several years ago to encourage “the daring and power of the artistic imagination.” The endowment provides scholarships and brings major writers to Guilford’s campus every year.

Allan Gurganus, major author and native of Rocky Mount, was at Guilford this week, teaching and reading his work.

Last night he read a story he said he’s been working on for 40 years. It stemmed from a one-paragraph report he found while looking through Rocky Mount newspapers from the end of the 19th Century. (Was it called “the Evening Telegram” then?)

The circus came to Rocky Mount and a baby elephant escaped. Local citizens caught and killed it.

Gurganus did not say whether this occurred on the Nash or Edgecombe side.

Odd places documented: ECU library wants your papers, photos of Eastern NC, Tarboro

Tarboro is an odd place. Its swimming pool was refrigerated, the town government sold milk, the swimming coach was named after a rodent, and the people filled their Pepsi Colas with peanuts.

So it has become the object of historical scrutiny. The Special Collections Division of Joyner Library at East Carlina University is seeking to document “Eastern North Carolina’s unique culture and history.” It is collecting materials related to the food, music, and traditions of this strange region, including personal and family papers, photographs and other records, documents, and artifacts.

Working with UNC and Digital NC, Joyner is saving everything and putting it on the Internet. To see what they’ve already got, go to this link https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/special/ead/ . They have a particular thing for yearbooks.  https://www.digitalnc.org/collections/yearbooks/

If you have old Tarboro, Edgecombe or Eastern NC stuff, contact

Dale Sauter, Manuscript Curator and Head of Manuscripts and Rare Books Department, Special Collections Division Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858-4353, 252-328-0275, sauterd@ecu.edu

They are interested in “any and all material related to Tarboro, Edgecombe County or any other part of Eastern North Carolina.” They are also interested in projects and collaborations with people, businesses, and all kinds of organizations.