Just a short way up the Cape Fear River lie the ruins of what was once North Carolina’s main seaport. Old Brunswick Town is located a little north of Bald Head Island and Southport and just south of the bustling city of Wilmington on the west bank of the river.
The following is an excerpt from the book “Tales of the Silver Coast” by author and illustrator Miller Pope and author Jacqueline DeGroot:
The little town called Brunswick was never very large, not much larger than a village, really. Yet during the brief five decades it flourished, the town played a very important role in the formation of the United States.
During little Brunswick’s heyday, it was North Carolina’s main seaport and served as the provincial capital. It was the largest supplier of naval stores for the ships of the mighty British Empire, and it exported rice and indigo to the world.
At the time just after the American Revolution a number of leaders of the young republic called Brunswick Town home—more than might be expected in a relatively small and isolated place.
Gen. Robert Howe, commander of the fortress of West Point and president of the court-martial that tried Benedict Arnold, was born in Brunswick in 1734; he was North Carolina’s highest-ranking officer during the Revolution.
Col. Benjamin Smith, George Washington’s aide-de-camp and later governor of North Carolina, was born in Brunswick County.
Cornelius Harnett, a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Chowan County but came to Brunswick to farm.
Alfred Moore, attorney general of North Carolina and later a justice of the first United States Supreme Court, was born at Brunswick, the son of Col. Maurice Moore. The list goes on—the little town made a contribution to the founding of the United States far out of proportion to its size.
Brunswick Town was founded by Roger Moore, a younger brother of Col. Maurice Moore, who had been granted a vast amount of land on the Cape Fear River in 1725. The Moores and their followers had all come from the Caribbean island of Barbados via Charleston in South Carolina.
Roger Moore initially purchased a site from his brother near Orton, his brother’s plantation that he would also eventually acquire. He laid out lots on the site and began selling them. A town was soon underway. The little town made an excellent port, situated on a high bluff where the Cape Fear River was about a mile wide and deep enough for large vessels to enter.
As plantations sprang up along the river and people began to settle the interior, the merchants of Brunswick began shipping products to the world. Brunswick even had a few ship owners. Arthur Dobbs, the royal governor in charge of North Carolina, directed the colony’s affairs from Russellborough, a large, unfinished house on the outskirts of Brunswick, beginning in 1758.
He was succeeded there by Gov. William Tryon, who began his tenure in office at Brunswick in 1764 but would later move to New Bern.
When the relative tranquility of little Brunswick was abruptly shattered in 1748 by an aborted Spanish raid, the citizens realized the vulnerability of their town to attack. They began to have other doubts.
Despite their courageousness in opposing the Stamp Act in 1765 and their patriotic decision to outfit and send a ship to aid their fellow colonists in Boston after the famous Tea Party of 1773, it was not lost on the people of Brunswick Town that other North Carolina coastal cities were beginning to outstrip them in growth and prominence.
In 1770 Governor Tryon decided to move the governor’s residence and thus the seat of the colonial government back to New Bern, because of its more central location. The citizens of Brunswick felt the loss keenly.
Wilmington, twenty miles upriver, had become a thriving rival to its counter- part on the west bank of the river even be- fore Gen. Sir Henry Clinton and his British force descended on Brunswick in 1777 and destroyed a large part of the town.
For many, the British raid and destruction was the last straw. They felt that Wilmington offered more safety, and they moved. The town was utterly deserted.
By the time the Confederate forces decided to build a fort at the site, nearly eighty years later, the forests had reclaimed the ruins. Only the tabby walls of old St. Philip’s Church still stood, as they still do today. St. Philip’s had once been the grandest church in the colony.
From 1855 until 1862 the site of old Brunswick was again abuzz with activity, this time for purposes of war. But then, once again, a big sleep of another hundred years ensued. The dense forests once more covered over the forgotten site.
In 1954 the old Brunswick Town was rediscovered by researchers. When the state realized what a historic treasure they had, archaeological excavations were undertaken.
Today the State of North Carolina maintains a fine little museum on the site, accessible via NC 133, the River Road between Southport and Wilmington, and you can walk down the streets of long ago and visit the remains of Fort Anderson. It is all free of charge and well worth a visit.
The excerpt you are reading is from the book “Tales of the Silver Coast” by author and illustrator Miller Pope and author Jacqueline DeGroot.
8884 St. Philip’s Rd. SE
Winnabow, NC 28479
Phone: (910) 371-6613
Visit the Old Brunswick Town website.