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When was Wilmington founded?

Ben Steelman

The city’s charter passed the colonial General Assembly in New Bern on Feb. 23, 1739/40 and received the assent of the royal governor on Feb. 25, 1739/40.

(The “39/40″ business kicks in because, in the early 1700s, the English dated the beginning of the year from late March instead of the first day of January. So, if you want to get picky, call it 1740.)

The settlement on the east bank of the Cape Fear River, just at the fork of the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers, was already getting started by the early 1730s, on land being developed by John Watson, James Wimble, Michael Higgins and Joshua Granger. (Wimble placed it on a map dated April 16, 1733, as “New Carthage” — apparently vetoing Watson, who wanted to call it “Watson.”)

From 1734 to 1736 the settlement was noted in county deeds and documents as “New Liverpool.” From 1735, state records referred to it as “New Town” or “Newton.” In 1737, surveyor Matthew Higginbotham supplied a plan for the new town, apparently closely modeled on that of Philadelphia.

(To this day, Wilmington shares an unusual number of downtown street names — Walnut, Chestnut, Dock, Market, etc. — with Philadelphia. In Wilmington, however, numbered streets run north-south, while in Philadelphia, they run east-west.)

The new town found a supporter in the colonial governor Gabriel Johnston, who was at odds with the backers of nearby Brunswick Town and wanted to use it as a counterweight. It was Johnston who apparently supplied the name, for his political sponsor back in England: Spencer Compton, first Earl of Wilmington, Lord President of the Council, who would become prime minister in 1742. The chartering act made Wilmington the seat of New Hanover County, and Johnston quickly moved as many court sessions and public offices, such as collector of customs, to the new town as he could. Wilmington was guaranteed one member in the colonial House of Commons, and it was the first town in the province to be given the right to elect its own commissioners.

Wilmington quickly eclipsed Brunswick Town. It was less swampy and less susceptible to mosquitoes (and thus, to malaria and yellow fever, although the cause-and-effect relationship was not yet understood). It was less vulnerable to attack (as the Spanish raid on Brunswick proved in 1748). It also stood above the farthest reach of saltwater in the Cape Fear channel — an important consideration in the days of wooden ships, when vessels’ bottoms were vulnerable to marine shipworms. (Freshwater killed the worms.) Wilmington’s positition at the fork in the rivers, moreover, gave it a more advantageous position for trade with inland plantations and posts.

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