Craven County’s history is an important aspect of its future

Craven County Courthouse. Photo: Susan Rodriguez

Part of a history series exploring each of North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties.

The North Carolina coast is characterized by rural landscapes, water and small towns. Two counties in the state’s Coastal Zone do not even have a parish, while two others have only one parish with fewer than 900 residents. The counties, which have sizable urban areas, have a rich, fascinating history of development and diversity that contrasts with their quieter neighbors. Craven County is one of these coastal urban counties.

Dominated by the city of New Bern, Craven has transformed from a colonial trading post to a center for industry and tourism since its founding three centuries ago.

Craven County was the third area in North Carolina to be permanently settled by Europeans. While the Albemarle Sound and the Bath Creek region were inhabited by English settlers, the Neuse River and Trent River attracted Swiss and German immigrants. These Swiss and Germans arrived in 1710, led by Baron Christoph von Graffenreid. Explorer John Lawson laid out their city of New Bern that same year. Craven County was formed from Bath County two years later in 1712, according to David Leroy Corbitt.

The settlement of New Bern became the center of the Tuscarora War. It represented a major incursion by Europeans into territory held by the powerful Tuscarora Native Americans. The Tuscarora killed Lawson, captured von Graffenreid, and devastated both New Bern and the other city of Bath, North Carolina, according to historian David La Vere in his book The Tuscarora War. A South Carolina expedition finally ended the war in 1713 with a horrific massacre at the Tuscarora town of Fort Neoheroka.

Tryon Palace and Gardens. Photo: Eric Medlin

From 1766, New Bern became the capital of the North Carolina colony. It was a center of government and home to many of the colony’s most powerful families.

It was in the city that colonial governor William Tryon built his imposing palace in 1770, a building project that sparked the Regulators’ colonial rebellion. New Bern was also arguably where the American Revolution in North Carolina began. In May 1775, Tryon’s successor, Josiah Martin, was forced to flee Tryon Palace when a large mob gathered and threatened to break down the gates. Martin’s escape marked the unofficial end of royal control in the colony.

Josiah Martin
Josiah Martin

New Bern and surrounding Craven County had several natural assets that helped them grow to considerable wealth during the prewar period. The city lies at the confluence of two navigable rivers, the Trient and the Neuse. These rivers flow through hundreds of miles of fertile soil in Jones, Johnston, and Lenoir counties, as well as other nearby counties. Because these counties lacked significant markets, New Bern was their link to the rest of the world.

The city’s population increased accordingly, and by the 1840 census it was the largest in the state. Prosperity brought new buildings and expansions, as well as a large population of enslaved people. According to the Hergesheimer map, in 1860 Craven County had the 29th highest percentage of enslaved people in the state. It also had a large number of free African American residents, including wealthy barber and anti-slavery advocate John C. Stanly.

New Bern escaped much of the hardships that afflicted other coastal cities such as Elizabeth City and Plymouth during the Civil War. It was captured by the Union in 1862 and held for the remainder of the war. After the war, New Bern was economically overtaken by Piedmontese towns, which turned more quickly to industrialization. By 1900 it had sunk to become the seventh largest city. But New Bern still retained a significant amount of wealth given its importance to the state’s still-dominant agricultural sector.

This wealth was reflected in a number of grand government buildings and fine houses built throughout the city. The stately County Courthouse, a Romanesque Revival building with a mansard roof, was completed in 1897. One of the largest private houses was the Blades House (1903), described by historian Catherine Bishir in her book Architecture of Eastern North Carolina as “among the state’s first-rate displays of energetic synthesis by Massing in the Queen Anne style and Details of the early Colonial Revival.”

The WB Blades House at 602 Middle St. Photo: Eric Medlin
The 1907 WB Blades House at 602 Middle St. Photo: Eric Medlin

The 20th century was a time of transition and reflection for New Bern. The city began turning to industry and expanding its railroad connections. According to a 1920 city directory, the city had four banks, 12 timber companies, and six fertilizer companies. The railroad, which reached New Bern in 1858, continued to expand. It brought development to the town and allowed for the establishment of other towns in the county such as Havelock, Cove City and Dover.

Despite this growth, it was clear that New Bern’s place at the top of North Carolina’s municipal hierarchy was gone. This turn in the city’s fortunes caused it to embrace its past in a way few other North Carolina cities had. In 1945 the Tryon Palace Commission began raising funds for the rebuilding of Tryon Palace, which burned down in 1798. Thanks largely to the efforts of local philanthropist Maude Moore Latham, the historically accurate Palace opened to critical acclaim in 1959. The Palace has attracted over 200,000 visitors a year, according to newspaper articles and the Palace Foundation’s 2019 Annual Report, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy in hotels, shops and restaurants stuck downtown.

Today, Craven County is one of the wealthiest counties on the North Carolina coast. It continues to attract industry and tourism, with attractions such as Tryon Palace and the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. Havelock has grown rapidly with the addition of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. The county is also a popular stop for travelers en route down US 70 to the beaches and attractions of Carteret County.

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