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What was Sedgeley Abbey?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

Located in the vicinity of modern-day Kure Beach, Sedgeley Abbey was a colonial plantation which became gauzed in mystery and mystique.

Historian James Sprunt, in “Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear,” wrote that the Abbey was one of the “grandest colonial residences on the Cape Fear” and compared it, in size, to the Gov. Dudley Mansion in Wilmington. Its walls were built of coquina (a soft stone composed mostly of crushed seashells) and, according to Sprunt, a “beautiful avenue of oaks” extended 1,500 feet from the house toward the ocean.

The house was demolished n the 1870s, Sprunt reported, in order to make the coquina into fertilizer. Even so, Sprunt recorded, the locals regarded the place with “superstitious awe.” Rumors of buried treasure circulated about the place, but whenever anyone came digging (again, according to Sprunt), sunny skies would suddenly turn dark and threatening, winds would rise and a ghostly moaning could be heard.

Alas, the facts were a little more prosaic.

The property was once owned by James Wimble, one of the founders of Wilmington, and by 1751 had been acquired by William Dry, collector of customs at Brunswick Town, who incorporated it into his Belmede plantation. Dry seems to have grown indigo on the site. In 1776, Dry and his wife sold the land around Telfair Creek to John Guerard (sometimes spelled Gerard or Geuard), who eventually built up an estate of some 1,000 acres with 17 slaves.

Guerard had been the stepson or ward of Darby Eagan, who operated a tavern at Brunswick and a ferry across the Cape Fear to the “Haulover Point.” Although Sprunt claimed that Sedgeley had been built in the 1720s — even before Orton — the evidence of colonial deeds suggests that Guerard had the house constructed during the Revolutionary War period. Guerard died in 1789 and was buried in St. Philip’s churchyard at Brunswick Town. Barely nine months later, his wife Rebecca married Peter Maxwell, who had immigrated to the Cape Fear from Glasgow.

At this point, the myth of the palatial plantation house begins to break down. Historian Wilson Angley of the N.C. Division of Archives and History found the 1790 matrimonial contract between Rebecca Guerard and Maxwell. Included was a detailed inventory of the property the wife was bringing to the marriage, including 17 slaves, 20 cows and 25 sheep. The furnishings — including one desk, two dining tables, two tea tables, four mirrors, three sets of curtains, five andirons and 34 pictures — would only have been enough, Angley concluded, for a six-room house.

That conclusion was buttressed by archaeological surveys in 1978 and 1992, which located the cellar for Sedgeley Abbey on private property in what is now the Telfair Forest subdivision. The substantial cellar sank 8 feet deep into bedrock, but was only 30 feet long and 12 feet wide — suitable for cozy house rather than a Dudley-sized mansion. The excavations did confirm, however, that the foundations had been built with coquina.

Alfred M. Waddell, surveying the “sandy plain, thinly covered by pines and scrub oaks,” deduced in the late 1800s that Sedgeley Abbey had never been a working plantation but only a beach resort. Records show, however, that Maxwell raised indigo and other crops and even kept a horse-racing track on the property. In 1801, when he offered Sedgeley Abbey for rent, Maxwell’s advertisement in the Wilmington Gazette touted “a remarkably fine Peach orchard,” cleared fields suitable for corn or cotton and about 16 acres of swampland that he claimed could be used for rice growing.

Peter Maxwell died in 1812 (two years after Rebecca). By 1821, Sedgeley Abbey was owned by Hosea Pickett, who held onto the plantation through the Civil War (although he once put it up as collateral for a debt). When Pickett died in 1866, the property was advertised as including “about 500 acres of good farming land” off the Federal Point road, considerable timberland, a five-room house, stable, barn and servants’ quarters. The real estate passed through the hands of William and Nicholas Norris — one or the other of whom seems to have demolished the house — and in 1876, it was sold to Robert B. Freeman, whose descendants would found the African-Ameican beach resort at Seabreeze.

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3 Responses to “ What was Sedgeley Abbey?”

  1. On September 24, 2009 at 7:21 am Jack Fryar wrote:

    The graves of most of the major players in the story of Sedgley Abbey can all be found at the St. Philip’s Church cemetery at Brunswick Town State Historic Site. There you’ll find the final resting places of Peter Maxwell, Rebecca Maxwell, and the Guerards.

  2. On September 25, 2009 at 11:05 am Doug White wrote:

    This is a great article. I would like to read more about Robert B. Freeman, however.

  3. On December 21, 2009 at 3:14 am Rob wrote:

    Great article about Sedgely Abbey plantation however you omitted one of its owners. My ancestor Sedgewick Springs, leased Sedgely Abbey from Peter Maxwell in the early 1800s and later bought the plantation after Maxwell’s death. He sold Sedgely Abbey to Hosea Pickett after he became the first keeper of the Old Baldy lighthouse in 1817.

    According to the information I have the name Sedgely Abbey was said to have been named after Sedgely Hall in England. Also, there is apparently some question as to whether the 12×30 cellar that was found and excaved was actually the cellar of the manor house or a smaller dependency on the plantation since it certainly does not match the dimensions described by James Sprunt. Since Sprunt had lived in the area since before Civil War he would have seen Sedgely Abbey many times prior to its destruction in the 1870s and would certainly have remembered its appearance.



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