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Introduction:  History Prior to 1793
Early History:  1793 to 1820
Antebellum Boom:  1820 to 1860
Elizabeth City:  1861 to 1880
Railroad Boom:  1881 to 1899
Twentieth Century Progress:  1900 to 1943
Elizabeth City After World War II
 

Introduction: History Prior to 1793 (1.1)

Situated at the narrows of the Pasquotank River, Elizabeth City has been the leading town in the Albemarle area since the 1820s. Even though the Albemarle claims the earliest settlement in North Carolina--dating from the mid seventeenth century--Elizabeth City is not a particularly old town, having been incorporated in 1793. Its history as a town dates from the early republic years when North Carolina was growing in its statehood.

While local tradition states that a port was in operation at the present site of Elizabeth City as early as 1722, the first record of activity dates from 1757, when Daniel Trueblood was granted authority to build a grist mill along present-day Charles Creek. In 1764 a law was passed which designated "the Narrows of the Pasquotank River" as an inspection station for products from throughout the colony, including "Hemp, Flax, Flax Seed, Pork, Beef, Rice, Flour, Indigo, Butter, Tar, Pitch, Turpentine, Staves, Heading, Lumber, and Shingles." Thus the narrows was recognized early as an advantageous trading location (Sharpe 1954, 239; Pasquotank Year Book 1955, 54; Griffin 1970, 20, 24).

The establishment of a ferry at the narrows in the 1770s was an important boost to the site. The ferry quickly overshadowed earlier ferries across the Pasquotank River at sites both up and down river from the narrows. Collet's Map (1770) reveals that the road from Norfolk to Nixonton (then the only town in Pasquotank County) passed by the narrows, a path now generally followed by Road Street. A road also ran south from the narrows to Newbegun, a trading community now known as Weeksville. The addition of the road from Lamb's Ferry, which crossed the Pasquotank River north of the narrows, formed another arm of the developing crossroads. During the 1770s and 1780s additional roads connected the narrows to other places in the county, particularly to Jones' and Pritchard's mills. The former was located west of town; indeed, as late as the 1880s, the western end of Main Street was known as the "Road to Jones' Mill." Another early road was the Pool Town Road, extending southwesterly to the crossroads of that name in the county; it is now known as Roanoke Avenue (Griffin 1970, 18, 23; Pasquotank Yearbook Vol.2, 292; Deed Book 66, p. 18).

 

A small community had begun to develop at the narrows by the mid-1780s. A road building act in 1784 mentioned "the school house on the Pritchard's Mill road leading to the Narrows." The Knobbscreek Church, the forerunner of Elizabeth City First Baptist Church, was organized in 1786 along Knobbs Creek, a large navigable creek that enters the Pasquotank River just north of the narrows; the site of the church was supposedly in the vicinity of the present U. S. 17 bridge. In 1792 Joseph Fxlney was given permission to operate an ordinary at the narrows "at the house Richard Smith formerly lived in" (Griffin 1970, 25; Outlaw 1961, 16).

This community at the narrows, consisting of a ferry, a mill, an inspection station (if it were still active), a nearby school and church, and an unknown (though certainly modest) number of dwellings and stores, was just a local transportation and trading crossroads until 1793. In that year the site was chosen for a town at the southern terminus of the Dismal Swamp Canal, the largest internal improvement project yet undertaken in North Carolina. The canal was designed to unite the fertile but isolated areas surrounding the Albemarle Sound with the bustling port of Norfolk, Virginia. The marriage of canal and town would prove strong for more than a century (Butchko 1989: 133-134).

Such a canal had been proposed as early as 1728 by William Byrd II of Virginia. A primary reason for Byrd's--and later George Washington's--interest in such a canal was to provide better access to vast stands of marketable timber (primarily cedar and juniper) that heretofore had been largely inaccessible due to the forbidding nature of the Great Dismal Swamp. The Virginia Assembly passed an "Act for cutting a navigable canal through the swamp" in 1787, stipulating that the act was not to take effect until the passing of a similar act by the North Carolina General Assembly; North Carolina did not reciprocate until November 1790. Even then, it was three years before construction would begin (Brown 1967, 24, 26, 31-32).


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