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What is Brunswick Town?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

The first permanent European settlement on the Lower Cape Fear, Brunswick Town was never very big, but its importance outweighed its size.

In colonial times, it was the official port of entry for Southeastern North Carolina; although the North Carolina Assembly met there, the Governor’s Council often did. Colonial governors Arthur Dobbs and William Tryon kept their official residence at Russellborough nearby (at least until Tryon moved to his new “Palace” at New Bern in 1770). Brunswick lost ground to Wilmington, however, after the latter city was chartered in 1739; by the end of the Revolutionary War, the site was all but deserted.

Located on the west bank of the Cape Fear, Brunswick was founded in 1726 by Col. Maurice Moore, the son of the royal governor of South Carolina and the brother of “King” Roger Moore, the founder of nearby Orton Plantation. Granted 1,500 acres of land by Gov. George Burrington, Moore set aside 320 acres for his town and proceeded to divide it into half-acre lots.

In 1729, Brunswick was made a township and an official port of entry. (The name was a tip of the hat to the British royal family, the German-rooted House of Brunswick-Hannover, who had bought the colony of North Carolina from the Lords Proprietors in 1729.) From 1731 to 1734, it was the county seat of New Hanover County, until Gov. Gabriel Johnston moved the courthouse to the future site of Wilmington. From 1764 until the coming of the Revolution, it was the Brunswick County seat.

The port was a center for the trade in tobacco, lumber, furs and naval stores (tar,pitch and turpentine) needed to keep Britain’s fleet afloat; the Royal Navy posted a captain there to supervise the naval stores business. A number of South Carolina planters came north, settled and bought lots in the new town, although it did not have a church until construction began on St. Philip’s in 1754. (The church was not completed until 1768.)

In 1748, three Spanish privateering vessels attacked the town, holding it for three days and doing considerable damage before they were were repulsed by local miltia units. Loot found on the Fortuna, a privateer that exploded in the river during the battle, was used to help pay for the building of St. Philip’s; a painting also found on the ship — a portrait of Christ with crown of thorns, titled “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) remains in possession of St James Episcopal Church in Wilmington.

In January 1766, Stamp Act protesters seized the customs house at Brunswick and in February 1766, a large mob surrounded Gov. Tryon’s residence at Russellborough, forcing the province’s customs officer, William Pennington to resign. The incident may have helped prompt Tryon to move his capital to New Bern.

Brunswick Town’s population probably never exceeded 200 people; in the 1730s, Hugh Meredith described it as “at present, but a poor, hungry, unprovided Place, consisting of not above 10 or 12 scattering mean Houses.” Once Wilmington was settled, moreover, the town seemed to have gone into a decline.

The area was swampy, leaving inhabitants more prone to malaria and yellow fever than they would be at Wilmington. Unlike Wilmington, Brunswick did not lie above the level of salt-water intrusion into the Cape Fear, which meant that wooden-bottomed ships that docked there were still vulnerable to shipworms, or teredo worms, cellulose-eating mollusks known as the “termites of the sea.” Moreover, Wilmington — at the junction of the main and Northeast branches of the Cape Fear, quickly came to dominate internal river trade. Then there was the Moore family, which controlled most of the land in the area and tended to threw their weight around; royal governors such as Johnston tended to promote Wilmington to get away from the Moores. Also, as the Spaniards proved, it was more vulnerable to attack.

Sometime in 1776, a raiding party from the Royal Navy vessel HMS Cruizer seems to have burned Brunswick Town; what was left may have been sacked by Lord Cornwallis’ forces in 1781. By the end of the Revolution, the town was deserted and in the 1830s, the owner of Orton Plantation purchased the former town site for a total of $4.25.

During the Civil War, Confederates built a series of earthwork river fortifications, originally called Fort St. Philip and later Fort Anderson, to guard Wilmington and the Cape Fear from attack. Much of these earthworks are still visible.

In the 1950s and 1960s, historian Lawrence Lee and archaeologist Stanley South surveyed and excavated the Brunswick Town site. The visitors’ center for the State Historic Site, featuring a mural by Claude Howell depicting the Spanish attack, was dedicated in 1967.

The Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic site at 8884 St. Philips Road SE, Winnabow [Map this], is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.

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One Response to “ What is Brunswick Town?”

  1. On May 29, 2009 at 1:31 pm Bryan Wiggins wrote:

    The site at Brunswick Town is currently being excavated again, this time by Archaeologists at Peace College who are teaching a Field School there. The dig is not open to the public, but they will be giving public tours on Saturday, June 6th.



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