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Tyrrell County History 

 
Photo by Karen Loree -  2003-2004ocated on the south shore of Albemarle Sound, Tyrrell County was formed in 1729 from  Chowan, Bertie, Currituck and Pasquotank counties. 

Named for Sir John Tyrrell, one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony. Tyrrell County's original  boundaries originally stretched westward from Roanoke Island to near present-day Tarboro,. In 1870 the territory was divided and resulted in what is now known as Tyrrell, Martin, Washington, and Dare counties.  Elizabethtown, later renamed Columbia, was established on the banks of the Scuppernong River in 1793 and became the Tyrrell County seat in 1799. (Sharpe 1965: 2125-2128).

While settlers from Virginia streamed southward into the Albemarle region during the early eighteenth century, the development of Tyrrell County proceeded slowly. The county is part the region's most extensive tract of low-lying, poorly drained land that extends between Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound. The swamp forest as well as vast wetlands of muck-peat, pocosins, and pines restricted the penetration of the interior. Consequently, the county has been one of the most isolated and sparsely populated parts of the state. In 1840, there were 4,448 inhabitants in Tyrrell County. The population peaked at 5,556 in 1960, and in 1990 fewer than 4,000 people resided within its borders (Weeden 1990: 10-12).

Geography shaped the pattern of settlement which took place first along the Albemarle shore and the Alligator River, defining the eastern and northern boundaries of the county. The Secota villages of Mecopen along the Scuppernong River near present day Columbia and Tramaskecoc on the Alligator River near Gum Neck were  shown on maps as early as 1585.  Artifacts unearthed in fields, dense woodlands, and along waterways testify to communities of inhabitants long before that. 

The first permanent white occupation probably occurred about 1700 at Fort Landing, located near the mouth of the Alligator River. Other families later occupied tracts along the Scuppernong River and Kendrick Creek or ventured up the Alligator River and cleared lands along the coves and creeks in the southeastern part of the county. This section became characterized by modest farms, river landings, and hamlets all linked together by canals that facilitated farming and small-boat transportation. Inland settlement took place later, as small farmers settled along the edges of peat and muck bogs and on the ridges of high ground. However, a great deal of the interior remained undeveloped until the twentieth century when timber and pulpwood interests cut roads and drainage canals through the swamplands. 

The economy during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was largely based on subsistence farming and fishing though the Albemarle Sound and Alligator and Scuppernong rivers provided for the shipping of forest assets, especially shingles and staves. These products were transported across the sound to Edenton, the commercial center of the Albemarle region, where they were exported abroad or the northern markets (Merrens 1964: 96-98). By the antebellum years, goods were regularly shipped up the Pasquotank River to Elizabeth City where the Dismal Swamp Canal linked Albemarle Sound to the port of Norfolk, Virginia.

Although small-scale agriculture marked the area in the colonial period, this land also sustained a collection of large plantations. In 1736, the first recorded deed in Tyrrell County was filed by Joseph Buncombe, a planter from the West Indies, who bought 1,025 acres of high ground on Kendrick Creek (in present-day Washington County) and erected a residence on the tract (Davis 1963: 21). About 1766, his nephew Edward Buncombe built the plantation seat of Buncombe Hall on the property. On the west side of the Scuppernong River, in present-day Tyrrell County, the Spruill family, whose patriarch was Dr. Godfrey Spruill, established Round About Plantation in the early eighteenth century (Davis 1963: 22-23). No architectural evidence of these early estates survives.

By the late eighteenth century, the local planter class also included the Collinses and Pettigrews. These families, using vast amounts of slave labor, transformed the swamps bordering Lake Phelps into immense agricultural estates. The Collinses established Somerset Plantation in what is today Washington County, and in 1838-39, Josiah Collins III built the substantial Greek Revival residence that still stands by the Lake shore. Adjacent to Somerset, in Tyrrell County, the Reverend Charles Pettigrew established Bonarva Plantation in 1779. Also known as Lake Plantation, Bonarva was developed in the antebellum years by his son Ebenezor. In 1843-1844, Ebenezor Pettigrew built the plantation seat of Magnolia north of Lake Phelps along a stretch of the Bonarva canal. The unusual two-story, two-bay, frame house featured an encircling shed-roofed porch and, tradition has it, gargoyles along the cornice. The house no longer exists.

These lakeside plantations thrived in this thinly settled region of swamplands and bog. With slave labor, canals were laboriously dug from Lake Phelps to the Scuppernong River, a distance of six miles. the first canal was completed at Somerset as early as 1787. Lands were drained and cleared, and sawmill, grist mills, and shingle mills were constructed along the canals. Shallow-draft boats plied the 20-foot-wide canals transporting the forest products as well as rice, cotton, wheat, and corn to the Scuppernong and then on to Edenton or Columbia for export. Canals associated with both Somerset and Bonarva, including the Bonarva and Bee Tree canals in Tyrrell County, survive essentially intact.

During the Civil War, Union forces occupied the Albemarle region beginning with the surrender of Roanoke Island in 1862. Although Tyrrell County saw little serious military action, the town of Columbia was bombarded. As throughout much of North Carolina, the social and economic ramifications of the war were profound. The Pettigrew and Collins estates never recovered from the war and deteriorated into underutilized, subdivided tenant farms. In 1930, the federal government acquired most of these plantation tracts and launched the Scuppernong Farms Project, a short-lived resettlement program for small farmers. This part of the county contains a scattering of one-story, frame 1930s farmhouses that may represent this federally sponsored project. In 1939, the State of North Carolina purchased the plantation house at Somerset and a portion of Bonarva for Pettigrew State Park.

The county seat of Columbia was laid off on the east side of the Scuppernong River between 1793 and 1802. Primarily a fishing and trading center before the Civil War, the town grew in the late nineteenth century as a result of the expanding lumber industry. Between the 1880s and turn of the century, the population of Columbia rose from 166 to 382, as lumber mills appeared on the waterfront. The major employer was the Branning Manufacturing Company of Edenton, which built a substantial planing mill at the south end of town and laid a railroad spur into the rich timberlands. In 1908, the Norfolk and Southern Railway extended its tracks to Columbia, but withdrew to Creswell in Washington County in 1948 (Davis 1963: 62; Pezzoni 1994).

The remainder of Tyrrell County developed slowly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, characterized by small, isolated farms and commercial fishing operations. Farm tenantry led to a steady decline in the average size of farms, which dropped from 127 acres in 1890 to only 67 acres in 1940. Farmers raised corn, some cotton, livestock, and, increasingly, Irish potatoes. By the late 1940s, Tyrrell County ranked as the number one potato producer in the state (Davis 1963: 62).

The success of agriculture as well as the lumber and fishing industries was made possible by advancements in transportation. In addition to the Norfolk and Southern Railway, new, paved roads and bridges slowly improved access to selected parts of the county. During the 1920s, U.S. Highway 64 was paved through the county and, in 1926, a bridge was built over the Scuppernong River at the west end of Columbia's main street. N.C. Highway 94 was constructed across the heart of the county in 1933, linking Columbia with Hyde County to the south. The discontinuation of rail service after World War II was partially compensated for by a renewed road-building campaign, and, in 1962, the monumental three-mile-long Lindsay C. Warren Bridge was erected across the Alligator River to Dare County.

Photo by Karen Loree -  2003-2004In the 1970s, corporations such as First colony Farms purchased large sections of Tyrrell and adjacent counties for agricultural use (Schoenbaum 1982: 112-115). The result was the systematic transformation of the natural landscape on an unprecedented scale. A vast network of drainage ditches was constructed and thousands of acres of swamp forests were drained and cleared for row crops. Consequently, Tyrrell County is today not only one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the state but also one of the most recently transformed. Small, isolated, turn-of-the-century farmsteads and agricultural communities, such as Gum Neck near the south end of the county, stand in juxtaposition to  enormous, flat tracts of recently cleared farmland controlled by out-of-state interests. 

Tyrrell County's wild and remote nature may have contributed to its sparse population and light development in the past. Today, however, abundant water, forests and wildlife are recognized as some of its most valuable assets and are helping to build a healthy, sustainable future for this beautiful part of North Carolina.

View some interesting historical photos here.
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