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What was Exeter?

Ben Steelman

It was Pender County’s “Town That Time Forgot” — or maybe “The Town That Never Was.” Chartered in 1754, this experiment in town-building had vanished from maps by 1800.

The town was organized on land acquired in 1750 by David Williams and Henry Skibbow (or Sciboe), a surveyor, in a bluff below Sand Hill Cove near Jumping Run Branch, on the east side of the Northeast Cape Fear River. A 40-acre site for the town was set aside, and some prominent local planters — including Samuel Ashe, John Gardner, Alexander Lillington, Thomas Merrick and Skibbow — were named as town commisisioners in the act of incorporation. The colonial Assembly authorized the commissioners to lay out streets and set aside land for a churchyard and marketplace.

Local developers apparently hoped that the site would become a significant river port and trading center. Several roads passed through or near the Exeter site, and a ferry across the Northeast Cape Fear might have been operating there before the American Revolution. (In 1798, the New Hanover county court authorized blacksmith John Player to run a ferry at Exeter.) From 1755 to 1764, the Assembly authorized Exeter to serve as a customs inspection point, along with Wilmington, Brunswick and Topsail Sound.

However, Exeter (or New Exeter, as it was sometimes known) never seems to have lived up to developers’ dreams. The Collet map of North Carolina showed only seven buildings at Exeter in 1770. The Mouzon map, printed in 1775, showed just 11 buildings. Sales of town lots seem to have lagged badly and by 1759, Henry Skibbow had moved away from the area.

During the Revolutionary War, British troops under Maj. James Craig dug field fortifications near the town site. According to the North Carolina Gazetteer, these earthworks were still visible as of 1968.

Competition from the nearby trading center of South Washington (later Watha) seems to have dried up the last of Exeter’s chances. It last appears on the 1792 Purcell map and was not included on maps after 1800 or so. The land went to Pender County when it was created in 1875, and deeds referred to the “Exeter” or “Extra” tract until at least the 1920s. As of 1968, William S. Powell reported, the headquarters of the Holly Shelter Game Management Area were located where the former town had been.

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One Response to “ What was Exeter?”

  1. On December 25, 2009 at 1:28 am Matthew Hillman wrote:

    The town of New Exeter was actually located just below the mouth of Ashes’s Creek at the old river crossing and about 1/4 mile down river from John Rutherfords Plantation.

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