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Why do they call it Watha?

Ben Steelman

Originally, this Pender County town was called Hiawatha, but the name somehow was shortened over time, according to the North Carolina Gazetteer.

Actually, it started out as a settlement called South Washington, near Washington Creek on the Northeast Cape Fear River. Malatiah Hamilton laid it out around 1740 as a trading post for Welsh settlers in the so-called “Welsh Tract.” It was incorporated as South Washington in 1791. In 1840, however — as railways displaced rivers as the main mode of transportation — the whole town was uprooted and moved about 1.5 miles southwest, to a site along the railroad line. The name was changed to Hiawatha, after the local railway station.

Why someone chose to name a North Carolina rail stop after Hiawatha, the legendary chief and peacemaker of the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York, is unclear. Longfellow’s famous poem “The Song of Hiawatha” wouldn’t be published until 1855, 15 years later.

After Pender County was formed in 1875, Watha served as the county seat for about two years. The town was incorporated, this time as Watha, in 1909.

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