History of a Colonial Seaport
By the time Harriet Jacobs came to the realization, at age 6, that she was indeed a slave when her mother died, entrusting her fully to her mistress Margaret Horniblow the year was 1819. Edenton was an old colonial seaport that had seen better days.
During the Revolutionary War when the British blocked the major American ports, Edenton’s secluded location in the shallow waters of the Albemarle Sound worked to the advantage of the Patriot forces. A critical supply line developed from Edenton through Virginia and on to Gen. Washington’s army. Illustrious citizens who gave their all to the founding of the new nation included Joseph Hewes, who signed the “Declaration of Independence”; Hugh Williamson, who signed the Constitution of 1787; and James Iredell, who sat on the first United States Supreme Court.
The local economy, already prosperous thanks to established trade routes to New England and the West Indies, continued to thrive during the Revolutionary period. When restrictions on the larger seaports were lifted after the war, however, Edenton’s fortunes began to reverse. Additional setbacks resulted from the construction of a canal through the Great Dismal Swamp, which diverted trade to Norfolk and Portsmouth, and from a hurricane that closed off direct access to the Atlantic through the Roanoke Inlet. Maritime trade was further depressed in Edenton, as elsewhere, by the blockades imposed during the War of 1812.
Responding to these changed conditions, Edenton’s leaders turned to steamboats, although the vessels were of limited value in reviving maritime trade. The first boat acquired by the Edenton and Plymouth Steam-Boat Company was the Albemarle, which launched in 1819. President James Monroe was treated to a trip on the Albemarle during a celebrated visit to Edenton that year. But the real purpose of the state visit to persuade the President to find the resources to reopen the Roanoke Inlet was not achieved.
For years to come, Edentonians continued to place futile hope on the reopening of the inlet. During the 1830s and again in the 1850s, still wedded to that dream, they turned down opportunities to support a railroad. Thus was Edenton’s fate sealed as a stagnant community of regional rather than national significance. The population of the town appears to have remained stable from 1790 to 1850, right at 1,500 people (free and enslaved). For Chowan County as a whole, the 1850 census listed 2,939 whites, 3,673 slaves and 109 free blacks. Overall, economic conditions did not materially improve until well after the Civil Waruntil 1881, in fact when the railroad finally came to town. From 1819 through the 1840s, Edenton’s most lucrative business was the fishing industry. Sources indicate that by 1850, 15 fisheries in Chowan County were producing more than 13,000 pounds of shad and herring, largely through the labor of enslaved and free blacks. But life on the water had its risks. Contagious diseases such as smallpox, yellow fever and cholera were a constant fear.
Culture and Lifestyle
For wealthy white families, antebellum Edenton offered education and culture ample opportunities for gracious living. The Edenton Academy, chartered in 1770, served as the town’s leading school throughout the period, maintaining a curriculum that emphasized Latin and Greek, along with English grammar, math and geography. Other schools were established, including a female seminary founded in the 1840s. Private lessons in music, dancing, drawing and other pursuits were available. Dancing was an especially popular pastime. The assembly room in the handsome Chowan County Courthouse (built in 1767 by free and enslaved artisans and today a national landmark) was the scene of many a festive evening. “Cotillion parties” were frequently held in the courthouse, as were plays and other entertainments.
Poor whites were unable to live in such style, though, for Edenton was distinctly hierarchical. Even within the enslaved population, not all were of equal rank, at least in the eyes of whites: the relative status of a slave mirrored that of his or her master. Harriet Jacobs’ status was elevated, in theory at least, by the high status of James Norcom, a physician. But no amount of association with highly placed whites not even her involvement with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, whose aristocratic bloodline out-classed Norcom’s could protect Jacobs from her primary status: she was a slave.
In the eyes of their owners, slaves were an asset, a burden and a danger. Since long before Harriet Jacobs’ birth, the bottomland swamps surrounding Edenton had sheltered untold numbers of maroons, fugitive slaves who operated in concert, helping each other evade capture (and occasionally stealing into Edenton on missions of theft). White Edentonians lived in constant fear that the blacks would rise up in revolt.
In 1830, the entire region was put on edge by a widely circulated pamphlet, David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Walker, a free black born in North Carolina, combined the rhetoric of the “Declaration of Independence” with that of the Bible to urge slaves to take freedom into their own hands, by force if necessary. The North Carolina legislature responded by sharply limiting the activities of free blacks as well as slaves. Among other things, the teaching of slaves to read or write was outlawed. In August 1831, anxiety shifted to panic in Chowan County as news came of Nat Turner’s rebellion, just up the coast in Southampton County, Va. Local slave patrols intensified their activities, as Harriet Jacobs witnessed: she watched helplessly as they stormed and ransacked her grandmother’s house. Edenton was placed under martial law. Perhaps as many as 21 blacks were arrested on claims of incitement to insurrection, although all charges were eventually dropped. The suspicions of white Edenton were not borne out by the facts, but they did find expression in tighter and tighter control over the slave population.
Even with new local ordinances that joined the strengthened state laws to restrict the mobility of Edenton’s slaves, the problem of geography remained: the swampy wilderness surrounding the town continued to conceal scores of nimble and well-connected runaways. Together with the slaves, the free blacks and the occasionally sympathetic whites who worked the waterways, these fugitives formed a communication and transportation network that the whites had good reason to fear. Jacobs herself was harbored in a snake-infested pocosin for a time in 1835, while the hideaway in her grandmother’s house was being prepared. This interlude was made possible by a free black sailor, a man Jacobs’ narrative identifies simply as a friend named “Peter.” Seven years later, one evening in June 1842, the same man escorted her down the streets of Edenton to the ship that would carry her safely to Philadelphia.
Sally Greene is an independent scholar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she serves on the Town Council. She is an adjunct professor of law at Elon University School of Law. Her scholarship includes an essay published in the March 2009 issue of the North Carolina Law Review on the landmark slavery case State v. Mann, which arose in Edenton in 1829.
Allen Parker Slave Narrative (1895), annotated ed., Slave Narrative in American History Class taught by David Cecelski, East Carolina University, 2000, http://core.ecu.edu/hist/cecelskid/
Brodsky, Marc D. The Courthouse at Edenton: A History of the Chowan County Courthouse of 1767 (Edenton, N.C.: Chowan County Government,1989).
Butchko, Thomas R. Edenton: An Architectural Portrait (Edenton, N.C.: Edenton Woman’s Club & Chowan County Government, 1992).
Cecelski, David S. The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001).
Edenton, North Carolina: Community, Family, Church: African American Life in Edenton 1700’s to the Present (Chowan County Heritage Development Council, n.d.).
Franklin, John Hope. The Free Negro in North Carolina 1780-1860,
(Chapel Hill: UNC Press, new ed. 1995).
Hinks, Peter P, ed. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloroued Citizens of the World (University Park, Pa.: Penn State Univ. Press, 2000).
Johnson, Guion Griffis. Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1937).
Parramore, Thomas C. Cradle of the Colony: The History of Chowan County and Edenton,
North Carolina (Edenton, N.C.: Edenton Historical Commission, 1967).
Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
May we recommend?
For information about the Underground Railroad, please visit: www.nps.gov/ugrr
For information about North Carolina and the Civil War,
go to www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/exhibits/civilwar/index.html