This small quaint seaport has roots back to April 7, 1730 when Isaac and Jonathan Green Sr. purchased from Ebenezer Harker "a certain plantation and track of land containing by estimation 441 acres situate lying and being in ye Carterett in ye county of province of aforsaid being ye west side of ye mouth off White Oak River." By 1771 Theophilus Weeks started a town on his plantation, laying out a plat and selling lots. Formerly known as Bogue, Week's Point, The Wharf and New Town, the town was officially designated by the North Carolina General Assembly on May 6, 1783. Above photo (from North Carolina State Archives) courtesy Jack Dudley, as included in Swansboro - A Pictorial Tribute

White Oak River

By F. L. Morris

Contemporary Photo by David Sobotta
White Oak River served as a highway of travel and transportation for two hundred years before railroads and the automobile came. It is not a great river—only covering 50 miles from its head in the center of White Oak Pocosin in northern Onslow County to Bogue Inlet, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

Prior to the railroads it had been the camping ground of the Indians, and the deep beds of shells at Cedar Point indicate the Indians had opened oysters there for generations or even centuries. In old permanent homes of the Indians in the mention of old Indian fields, and Indian Creek in lower Jones County and Indian Camp Branch, a prong of Starkey's Creek, in Onslow County must have been their larger settlements.

But these Indians joined the Tuscaroras in the massacre of the settlers along the Neuse and Trent rivers in 1711 and had fled their White Oak homes when the white settlers began to arrive in 1713.

The whites came from further north in this state, from Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Carteret County was set up in 1722, and in 1723 the Carteret Court ordered a bridle road laid out from the court house (where Beaufort is now) to a plantation on White Oak River. Three years later the Carteret Court established a ferry over New River, farther west, for convenience of travelers to the settlements then beginning on the Cape Fear.

The White Oak River settlements grew rapidly, for in 1728 they had a squabble as to location of roads to be laid out up the river on both sides. The question was taken to the Carteret Court, which named a commission to settle the differences. This commission included twelve of the most prominent men of the settlement: Richard Pitts, John Roberts, Samuel Jones, Sr., Thomas Houston, John Gillet, Nicholas Hunter, Richard Williamson, Esq., David Barry, Alexander Grant, Peter Starkey, Robert Harris and Edmond Lowell.

Creeks flowing into White Oak River perpetuate the names of some of these men, as follows: Holston (for Houston), in lower Jones County; Hunter's, formerly Deep Creek, line between Jones and Carteret counties; and in Onslow, Pitts, near Swansboro, Grant's, and Starkey's formerly known as Great Swamp. Descendants of most of these men still live along White Oak River.

On November 23, 1731, Governor Burrington and the Colonial Council set up the new County of Onslow, including White Oak River and two miles to the east. With New River, this gave Onslow two rivers all to itself. But four years later the two miles east was restored to Carteret, and White Oak River became the boundary line. The river continued to be the line until 1778, when Jones County was formed, replacing Carteret on the river's east side from its head to Black Swamp, three miles below the present town of Maysville. A few years later Jones County was extended further down the east side of White Oak River to Hunter's Creek, present line between Jones and Carteret counties.

In 1754, the White Oak Company of the Onslow Regiment of Militia was composed of 86 officers and men. The company area included all the west side of White Oak River from its head to Bogue Inlet, including Queens Creek and westward to Bear Creek. The colonel of the regiment was John Starkey of White Oak River, and the company officers were Stephen Lee, captain; Solomon Grant, lieutenant; John Dudley, ensign. Sergeants were Theophilus Weeks, Anthony Charlescraft, John Howell and Richard Pitts. Corporals were Peter Badcock and Samuel Spearman, while James Rook was drummer and Charles Hay clerk. That so many men could be found who were able to equip themselves with guns and ammunition for drill and inspection shows the settlement had grown up and was prosperous.

The wealth was from turpentine and tar, hides, and “pickled beef and pork,” exported through Bogue Inlet. Turpentine was one of the earliest exports mentioned in Onslow Court minutes of 1734. Pitch-Kettle Branch in lower Jones is the site of early tar-making.

Inspectors, appointed by the Colonial Assembly for the important landings, saw to it that only properly cured and casked commodities were shipped.

One of the great leaders of the White Oak River community was Col. John Starkey. With the exception of one session, he was a member of the Assembly from Onslow from 1734 until his death in 1765, and he was one of the two Colonial Treasurers from 1750 until his death. As a popular leader in the Assembly, he was a thorn in the side of Governor Dobbs, who removed him from the office of colonel of militia. Dobbs said Starkey got his popularity from “having a bald head, wearing a plain coat and shoe-strings.” He meant that it was the custom for men in Starkey's station to wear big wigs and shoe-buckles.

Starkey was succeeded as colonel of the Onslow regiment by another White Oak man, Col. Stephen Lee.

When the Revolution came on, Edward Starkey, a nephew of Col. John Starkey, was the representative of Onslow County in the Assembly, and he became a leader in the Provincial Congresses of the Patriot Cause in defiance of the Crown. Other White Oak River men represented Carteret County in the Colonial Assembly—Moses Houston in 1760, John Backhouse in 1761-2, and Richard Wallace in 1762. In April, 1762, John Backhouse and Edward Starkey were members of the Convention at Halifax that declared independence of Britain. Edward Starkey was also one of the eight men who formed the State Court during the Revolution.

White Oak River men also did their part in the armies of the Revolution. There were no active Tories on the river and an effort was made to keep moving the exports and imports which made living worth while. Beef and pork were cured and salted near the mouth of the river for the American armies.

There is tradition of a British raid on the Onslow side of the river at Starkey's Creek, when Militia Captain Kilby Jones gave the curious order, “Advance a few steps backward, my men—those Redcoats look mighty dangerous.” But little damage was done.

The war over, the village near the mouth of the river was chartered as a town by the name of Swansboro. It had been known as Week's Wharf, Bogue and New Town.

Later, Swansboro was made a port and an admiralty judge and collector of customs appointed. For six months in 1785, schooners and sloops arrived from New York, Philadelphia, New Bern, Wilmington, Beaufort, Dartmouth, Baltimore, Charleston and Providence. July, 1789, to March, 1790, eleven entries of schooners of 15 to 60 tons and eight sloops of 15 to 65 tons brought in salt, rum, water tumblers, ballast, dry goods, molasses, coffee, gin, and flour, indicating active business for the port.

The White Oak community's maritime traditions tell of loved ones who went to sea and never returned. Samuel Jones came out of the Revolution a Continental Line captain, went to sea ard never came back. Christopher Dudley lost a son at sea. Another young man was at sea five years before he returned like one from the dead.

In the days over a century ago, ships from manufacturing countries arrived loaded with general merchandise and anchored at Swansboro until their cargoes were sold out. Some made regular trips and the captains became popular, selling at both retail and wholesale, and their arrivals were awaited with interest.

The name Chapel Swamp for a creek on the Onslow side is thought to mean that the early settlers erected a house for religious services there. If so, no record of it has come down.

But tradition is definite that Peter Starkey held at least lay services at his home, and it is also said that he was an ordained minister of the Church of England.

Baptists, who had established a church on New River in 1757, soon thereafter established the White Oak Church as an “arm,” and in 1791 the Church at Hadnot's Creek in Carteret County was established with James Sanders as its pastor.

The visits of Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury to Swansboro must have created a great impression. On April 6, 1785, Asbury records that he preached “at Swansbury in sight of the sea,” where a few had already joined the Methodist Society. On December 24-25 of the same year he came again to Swansboro and held quarterly meetings, reporting “many people, little religion.” On January 26, 1791, he preached to “a large congregation at a private home on White Oak River” and the next day had many attentive hearers at Swansboro. After this service he returned to a home a mile out of town, but the people found where he was and went out, causing him to write that “sometimes I am tried when I cannot enjoy my hours of retirement.”

In the War of 1812, Otway Burns of Queens Creek with other White Oak River men did much in the privateers to win the war on the sea.

After that, trade continued with oak and hickory staves added to the exports until in the 1840's, when cotton came into the trade until the Civil War, during which White Oak River was a line between the forces of the Federals stationed at Newport and New Bern and the Confederates defending the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, lifeline of the armies in Virginia.

Several raids were made by the Federal armies into the area, one by way of Maysville towards Swansboro. It was in this raid that Palo Alto Plantation of Mrs. D. W. Sanders was wrecked, furniture carried away, and her carriage loaded with slaves and driven off. Her husband, one of the wealthiest planters of the section, had died in 1860, and her grandson, Daniel Lindsay Russell, later Governor, was away. Her slaves went off except two old Negro women, and she moved to Wilmington, never returning to what had been one of the finest homes in the section. It still stands as a memorial to the Age of Cotton.

After the Civil War came the sawmills at Stella and Swansboro, to which logs were floated down creeks to the river, there rafted and towed to the mills, cut into lumber and shipped out Bogue Inlet to northern cities. Also oystering on the four miles of oyster rocks above Swansboro was quite an industry, filling many a can with the delicious bivalves.

Steamers brought in fertilizer and merchandise for the stores at Swansboro, Stella and nearby landings, and took away turpentine and cotton.

Then in the early 1890's the railroad was completed from Wilmington to New River, crossing White Oak at Maysville, about five miles above navigation. This was a disappointment to Swansboro people, who had hoped that the value of their port would be increased by a crossing at navigable water. A branch line was projected and surveyed to Bunga Landing, at Palo Alto Plantation, but it was not built. Other efforts to promote railroads to make use of the port at Swansboro were projected but not built. One was from Goldsboro in 1911 and another from Lillington in 1919.

Now the Inland Waterway gives Swansboro a north and south waterway of even greater depth than Bogue Inlet, and it is connected by paved highways to inland points which carry products on automobile trucks and bring in manufactured goods. The river community is being given an all-weather road down both sides from Maysville, where the Coastal Highway crosses, connecting with New Bern and Wilmington, and the central parts of the State.

The river may not be so essential as in the past, but it is still a very good fishing place and its section has a climate hard to beat, what with its winds from the ocean—cooling in summer and warming in winter.

From: Commonwealth of Onslow - A History by Joseph Parsons Brown
Owen G. Dunn Company . New Bern, NC . 1960