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Why do they call it “Cape Fear”?

Ben Steelman

The origins are unclear, but the name goes way back. As early as the 1590s, maps were marking the poiint as the “Cape of Feare” or (for the Latin scholars) “Promontorium tremendum.”

According to historian William S. Powell, the name apparently had its start in 1585 when the English ship Tiger, on the way to the Roanoke Island settlements, nearly wrecked “on a breach called the Cape of Feare.” John White, governor of the Roanoke colony, had a similar experience in 1587 and repeated the name.

What the sailors were afraid of was the Frying Pan Shoals, which extend 28 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River out into the Atlantic. The sandbars continue to pose a hazard to navigation to this day.

Various efforts have been made to pretty up the hazardous name. In the 1600s, about the time Capt. William Hilton was trying to plant a settlement on the Cape Fear at Barbados, some mapmakers tried to rename it “Cape Faire,” and according to Louis T. Moore, a similar effort was made by local boosters in the 1800s. Cape Fear has stuck, though.

Incidentally, there is little apparent connection between the Cape Fear region, and “Cape Fear,” the 1962 and 1991 movie thrillers. (Both films are based on “The Executioners,” a 1957 novel by Florida-based mystery writer John D. MacDonald.) The main setting is the ficitional town of “New Essex, North Carolina” and the features were filmed primarily in Savannah (1962) and southern Florida (1991). The 1962 version, however, did co-star Polly Bergen, who had been Wilmington’s 1956 Azalea Queen..

The local Indians, incidentally, called the Cape Fear River the “Sapona.” Giovanni de Verraazano, who sailed by in 1524 in service of Francis I of France, called it the Rio Jordan. Early English explorers occasionally marked it as the Charles or Clarendon River.

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One Response to “ Why do they call it “Cape Fear”?”

  1. On October 4, 2013 at 2:49 pm Tony Wilhoit wrote:

    I had wondered if there also might have been a reference to ships in the early 15/1600’s reporting a “BOOM” which would have added to the fear and ship wreckage in the area.
    I suppose there is no record of a Boom going back that far…is there?
    Thank you
    Tony Wilhoit
    Tampa Florida

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