A Brief History of Swansboro
Images posted below were not a part of this report.
|Portion of 1730 Map by Cartographer Herman Mol|
The first documented settlement in Onslow County did not occur until 1713. English, Scot, African, Welsh and French immigrated to the area from New England, Maryland and Virginia, and the northeastern section of North Carolina.
Agriculture and a large naval stores industry soon formed the basic of the area’s economy. The White Oak River along with the New River became the centers of early settlement, much like other rivers up and down the eastern seaboard. More than likely, vessels were built in Onslow County before it was formally organized. The concentration of people along the water routes made it likely that small craft, row boats, canoes, periaugers and small sailing vessels would have been built for local transportation. Dug-out cypress canoes commonly called “cunners” were probably the first small vessels built in the area. A ferry, known as Sneads Ferry, was established across New River by 1731.
Swansboro was patented by 1730. Thomas Harding, a shipwright, purchased 540 acres of land in Onslow County in 1726, but did not settle on the property. Isaac and Jonathan Green Sr., two brothers from Falmouth, Massachusetts, were to become Swansboro’s first European residents. On April 7, 1730 they purchased from Ebenezer Harker “…a certain plantation and tract of land containing by estimation 441 acres situate lying and being in ye precint of Carterett in ye county and province of aforesaid being ye west side of ye mouth of White Oak River.”
|1738 Whimple Map|
An early map by H. Mol, dated 1730, shows Bogue Inlet and Weetock River, but no evidence of any settlement in the area. The better known Whimple map of 1738 shows Bogue Inlet with a nine foot channel through the bar and designated anchorage in the sound. The shoreline of the White Oak River shows eight sites having plantation type settlements, but only the settlement of Dudley was named. These early charts are rather general and frequently have a variety of inaccuracies.
Activity along the White Oak River began to increase in the latter 18th century. In 1757 Theophilus Weeks was appointed inspector of exports for Bogue Inlet. Weeks also operated an “ordinary;” a combination inn and boarding house. Around 1770 Weeks decided to start a town on his plantation. He laid out six streets and forty eight lots, each sixty feet by two hundred feet. In 1771 the first public sale of lots occurred in the fledgling town. Weeks became the “Founder of Swansboro,” which at that time was the only town on the coast between Wilmington and Beaufort. Mouzon’s 1775 map of North Carolina shows Bogue Inlet, the White Oak River and Dudley, but indicates no other settlement in the area.
Swansboro, formerly known as Bogue, Week’s Point, The Wharf and New Town, was officially designated on May 6, 1783 by the North Carolina General Assembly. The enactment stated that “the said village of New-Town shall be and is hereby erected into a town by the name of Swannsborough.” In 1877 the village was incorporated with its present spelling, Swansboro.
During the American Revolution, a warehouse was established at the mouth of the White Oak River to supply the Continental armed forces. Here, beef and pork were salted and barreled. A British blockade of the coast greatly reduced the importation of salt, making its production of critical importance. In response to the crisis, several salt works were established in the Swansboro area to produce salt from sea water. Jeremiah Hote operated a salt works on Deer Island during these years. Throughout the war, vessels from the port of Swansboro engaged in privateering, and a military company from the town patrolled the coastal area.
In 1783 a treaty was signed with Great Britain that ended America’s struggle for independence. In the years that followed, Swansboro emerged as a coastal port. Week’s Wharf became one of the inspection points for the Port Beaufort customs district, which included Onslow County. In 1786 the territory trading through Bogue, Bear and New River inlets was separated from Port Beaufort and created into the port of Swansboro. A post office was established in the new port in 1799.
The major industry in the White Oak River area was related to the extensive forests and the exportation of naval stores such as tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin. Turpentine was mentioned in the county minutes as early as 1734. For more than 100 years after that date, turpentine and tar continued to be the chief source of revenue for that area. Other exports included hide, pickled beef, pork, lumber and staves.
Naval store were packaged into barrels and kegs of local manufacture. These products were exported from Swansboro and Deer Island from the 1770s until the end of the nineteenth century. The barrels and kegs were rolled down the wharf into cargo nets. The nets were then gathered up and the cargo lifted aboard waiting schooners.
The period between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 saw an increase in Onslow’s shipbuilding industry. In 1807, William Tatham, an agent of the national government sent to survey the coastal area between Chesapeake Bay and the Cape Fear River wrote, “The town of Swansborough seems to be chiefly employed in shipbuilding for the West India and coasting trade.” The fledgling shipbuilding industry, however, was hampered by the natural tendency of shoaling in the channels and inlets, limiting the draft of vessels. Tatham reported that “a ship built here [in New River], and towed out to sea as light as she could be floated, [still had] difficulty … passing a shifting shallow bar.” The bar, like many others in the area, “seldom admit six feet of water…a great prohibition” to navigation. The Coles and Price chart of 1806 shows Bogue Inlet with an eight foot channel. Cedar Point at the confluence of Bogue Sound, as well as Swansborough appear on the map.
The beginnings of Swansboro’s shipbuilding industry may go back as far as 1787. In that year the North Carolina Gazette of New Bern carried the following advertisement:
For sale and now ready to be launched at Bogue a new vessel, built of live oak and cedar, of the following dimensions—48 or 49 feet keel, 19 feet beam, 7 feet 10 inches hold with double ends…for terms apply to Titus Ogden.
By 1812, at least twenty-three ocean going vessels had been built in Onslow County. Two-thirds of these ships, including all the large ones, were built in Swansboro.
|Snapdragon Model by Jim Goodwin|
During the War of 1812 the British Navy imposed another blockade of the American coast. This blockade led to a decline in trade and ship construction. American privateers countered the British move by harassing the British merchant trade. A Swansboro native, Otway Burns became North Carolina’s most famous privateersman during the conflict. When war was declared, he sailed to New York and purchased a vessel named Zephyr for $8000. The 147-ton vessel, renamed Snapdragon, was armed with five twelve-pounders, fifty muskets and four blunderbusses. Snapdragon cruised the South American coast, West Indies, Caribbean Sea and as far north as Greenland in search of British merchant vessels. Captain Burns and his crew had great success, netting on one cruise an estimated $2.5 million in British prizes.
After the war, Captain Burns began shipbuilding on the Swansboro waterfront. In 1818 he built Prometheus, the first steamboat constructed in North Carolina. The following year he sold his shipyard to William Pugh Ferrand [built “Old Brick Store” circa 1838]. Then he served in the state legislature and ended his career as lifeboat keeper at Brant Shoals Lightship near Portsmouth, North Carolina.
Between 1800 and 1861 William P. Ferrand, Charles H. Barnum, Cyrus B. Glover and Robert Spence McLean were the town’s chief exporters of naval stores. After 1840 Daniel L. Russell Jr. became Onslow County’s foremost cotton producer and exporter. Agricultural products became increasingly important in Swanboro’s maritime trade after the War of 1812 and reached their peak before the Civil War. Products such as peanuts, corn, hickory staves, wheat, oats, potatoes and cotton were shipped form the port’s wharves. Beginning around the 1860s, Chesapeake Bay bugeyes were quite often used to transport cargo. The bugeye’s design was copied by local shipbuilders and adapted to fit the local waters.
Like numerous other southern towns, Swansboro was greatly affected by the Civil War. To help Confederate forces, it reestablished its salt making industry. The works, owned and operated by C.H. Barnum, consisted of one large copper boiler and eleven iron vats. They were housed in two buildings on Deer Island. The saltworks was destroyed during a Union raid led by Lt. Benjamin H. Porter in August of 1862. A fort built on Huggin’s Island to guard Bogue Inlet was also burned by the Union forces that year. Twice captured by Federal forces in 1862 and once again in 1864, Swansboro’s commerce was severely crippled by the war’s end.
From 1865 to the early 1900s, the town’s maritime activity slowly recovered. Exported products included naval store, lumber, farm products, hogs, beef, corn crackers, corn and fresh salted fish. These were sold to consumers in Baltimore, Philadelphia and even Great Britain. The lumber industry and commercial fishing became the nucleus of the town’s economy during these years. Swansboro’s shipbuilding industry, however, did not recover. This was particularly true for the construction of ocean-going sailing vessels. The nearby inlets, particularly Bogue, silted up and without dredging stifled shipping activities. More detailed maps of the area emerged in this period. The 1876 U.S. Civil Engineer’s map shows the inlet, the channel with soundings, Dudley’s and “Hoggin’s” Islands and Swansboro. Twenty-five structures were located in Swansboro at this time.
In the 1870s and 1880s the need for railroad and steamboat transportation was a popular topic among the farmers, fishermen and businessmen in Swansboro and along the White Oak River. They were bitterly disappointed that the railroad being built from Wilmington to New Bern crossed the river at Maysville, some five miles above where navigation on the White Oak River ended. Despite efforts, no railroad linked that part of the county with the inland areas. In 1883 the steamer Tarboro, built in Washington, North Carolina, was sold to a transportation company in Swansboro and put in operation on the White Oak River. A second steamer, Minnie B, was built at Stella and plied the White Oak by 1887. These steamers began a new age in transportation for the Swansboro and White Oak River basin. Steam and gasoline-powered vessels came into use for the freight and passenger trade between Morehead City and New Bern. From 1882 to 1925 the area was serviced by at least twenty of these boats. Not all were locally constructed, but some were. The Swansboro Land and Lumber Company, Swansboro’s largest mill, initiated considerable growth and prosperity until the Great Depression of 1930. In 1897 this company built the steamer Nina in Swansboro.
|Onslow Beach 1944 - 41st Engineers Camp, Joint Task Force|
By the turn of the century, Onslow County’s timber supply began to diminish. Tobacco became the county’s new money crop. The fishing industry also flourished. By the beginning of World War II there were more than twenty-five trawlers in the county, many of them locally constructed. In the early 1920s the Interstate Co-operate Company operated a circular saw mill on Deer Island. In addition to turning out board lumber, the mill manufactured barrels and kegs. The mill was short-lived and fell into disuse during the Great Depression.
After World War II, the growth of the nearby U.S. Marine Corps base at Jacksonville, Swansboro’s economic base shifted to civil service employment, tourism and the development of the town as a retirement community.