The Cape Fear River
Native Americans had the Cape Fear region all to themselves until European settlers arrived. In 1524, when Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano took his French-financed expedition into an unknown river in a wild place, he ushered in a new historical period that would lead to European development of the area.
Verrazzano wrote glowingly of the area in his journal: "The open country rising in height above the sandy shore with many faire fields and plaines, full of mightie great woods, some very thicke and some thinne, replenished with divers sorts of trees, as pleasant and delectable to behold, as is possible to imagine."
Despite the explorer's enthusiastic description, very little happened in terms of development at that time.
Queen Elizabeth I paved the way for colonization by decreeing that the British had a right to conquer and occupy land not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. In 1629, Sir Robert Heath, attorney general for King of England Charles I, was granted a large area of what is today named Carolina. Neither Heath nor his heirs did anything to develop the area, so in 1663, Charles II granted the area as a reward to eight men who were called the Lords Proprietors.
Members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, led by William Hilton, attempted to colonize the Cape Fear region in 1663. Their effort failed, but the following year English settlers from Barbados, led by John Vassal, established a settlement. By 1667, that settlement was abandoned because of a disagreement with the Lords Proprietors who backed another settlement, Charles Town, farther south on Cape Fear River's west bank. That effort failed in 1667 because of pirates, mosquitoes, hostile coastal Indians, weak supply lines and other problems that drove residents south. There, they founded Charles Town Landing, later to become Charleston, S.C.
Ironically, the Cape Fear River that sparked initial interest in the area contributed to the settlements' failures. James Sprunt's Chronicles of the Cape Fear River contains settler George Davis' vivid 1879 description of the river's dynamic:
"Looking to the cape for the idea and reason of its name, we find that it is the southernmost point of Smith's Island - a naked, bleak elbow of sand, jutting far out into the ocean. Immediately in front of it are the Frying Pan Shoals, pushing out still farther, twenty miles to sea. Together, they stand for warning and for woe; and together they catch the long majestic roll of the Atlantic as it sweeps through a thousand miles of grandeur and power from the Arctic toward the Gulf. It is the playground of billows and tempests, the kingdom of silence and awe, disturbed by no sound save the sea gull's shriek and the breakers' roar. Its whole aspect is suggestive, not of repose and beauty, but of desolation and terror. Imagination can not adorn it. Romance cannot hallow it. Local pride cannot soften it."
In a reverse of the abandonment of Charles Town, the Town of Brunswick was founded by disgruntled English settlers from South Carolina in 1726. Located on the west bank of the river, it soon withered away as more strategically located Wilmington, on the high east bank, began to prosper. There, river rafters would stop to trade at a place called the Dram Tree.
Wilmington's success says a lot about the tenacity of settlers who managed to tame what was a wild place. They understood, as do their descendants, that the river presented more opportunities than obstacles. Positioning the city on a bluff created a port relatively safe from storms. Later, it provided a protective barrier against invaders from England during the Revolutionary War and Union troops during the Civil War.
The Cape Fear River was a profitable area for trading goods such as tar, turpentine, and pitch, but sailors disliked coming here. The waters were dangerous to navigate and the residents viewed sailors as unsavory. By statute of the time, tavern keepers, retailers of liquor, and keepers of public houses were not permitted to give credit to seamen, and seamen were not permitted to be kept, entertained, or harbored by any resident longer than six hours. In addition, Wilmington did not and would not have sewerage or drainage systems for years to come. As a result, diseases prevailed, including small pox and malaria, and there were few doctors, the first of whom, Armande de Rossett, did not arrive until 1735. It was with trepidation and dread that seamen sailed into the river's waters, and that is how it came to be known as the "Cape of Fear."