by Claude Milot
Photos courtesy of Chowan County
Tourism Development Authority
Called “The South’s prettiest small town,” Edenton is just down the road from Albemarle Plantation and a “must see” on our list of places to visit.
In 1658, adventurers from Jamestown found a natural harbor on the site of what is now Edenton. Not much later, the site became the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas. Established in 1712, the place was known by various names until it was renamed Edenton in 1722 in honor of Charles Eden, North Carolina’s Governor from 1713 to 1722.
It was also in that year (some sources say it was in 1725) that the North Carolina Assembly established Edenton as the state’s first capital. Before then, governors had governed from their homes. Eden himself had governed from Eden House, his plantation in Bertie County. He died and was buried there in 1722, but his body was later reinterred on the grounds of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edenton.
Even though the capital was later moved to various locations after 1736, Edenton continued to thrive as a port because of its access to the sea. That prosperous period ended, however, when Oregon Inlet silted up in 1795. Later, the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the advent of the railroad further diminished the importance of Edenton as a port. But it did enjoy an economic revival beginning in 1890 with lumber, cotton, and peanuts leading the way.
In 1774 Penelope Barker led what became known as the Edenton Tea Party when she and fifty-one other women boycotted English Tea and other British products. It was the first political action by women in the colonies.
Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was our first Secretary of the Navy and said by President John Adams to have “laid the foundation, the cornerstone of the American navy.” James Iredell was appointed by President Washington to the first United States Supreme Court. His son, James Iredell, Jr., served as governor of North Carolina, as well as a United States senator.
Samuel Johnston, a planter and a judge, served as Governor of North Carolina and in the United States Senate.
Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, died in Edenton in 1798.
Ohio Governor William Allen (1803-1879) was born in Edenton.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Robert Brown was born in Edenton, as was Zack Valentine who won a Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both Brown and Valentine were football stars at Edenton’s John E. Holmes High School.
Edenton is noted for its authentic architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are just a few of its many treasures:
The Lane House, dating from 1719, may be the oldest house in North Carolina.
The Cupola House, a registered National Historic Landmark, was built by Francis Corbin in 1758. The interior was restored and furnished in 1967 and the formal gardens replanted through the years. It is museum of the preRevolutionary period open to the public.
Another National Historic Landmark is the Chowan County Courthouse. Said by some to be the finest example of Georgian architecture in the South, it has been in continuous use since its construction in 1767.
The Barker House, Penelope Barker’s home, is operated as a museum on colonial history and can be visited any day of the week, free of charge.
The Iredell House, home of James Iredell, is a National Historic Site.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, begun in 1736 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest church in Edenton, the second-oldest church building in North Carolina, and the only colonial church still in regular parish use.
St. Anne’s Church is one of only two surviving pre-Civil War Roman Catholic churches in North Carolina and the only one in continuous use since 1857.
Beverley Hall, now a private residence, was a state bank from 1811 to 1936. It has a huge secret vault encased in steel and a key that weighs two pounds, reminders of the cumbersome banking equipment in the old days.
The 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, in commission at the mouth of the Roanoke River from 1887 until 1941, is believed to be the last extant example in the United States of a rectangular frame building built for a screw-pile base. It was moved to Edenton in 1955 and is open for tours.
Hayes Plantation, the home of Samuel Johnston, is located on 1,000 acres east of Edenton and overlooks Edenton Bay and Queen Anne’s Creek. The main house, begun in 1814, is considered to be one of the South’s most accomplished examples of a five-part palladian villa. The house is privately owned, but is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Just outside the home is a small graveyard where notables (see above) Penelope Barker, Samuel Johnston, James Wilson, James Iredell, Sr., and his son, James Iredell, Jr., were buried.
To arrange for a tour of many of these landmarks, visit Historic Edenton, a state historic site located at 108 N. Broad Street, Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Walking tours of the historic district are offered several times a day, and special themed tours throughout the year. You can even take a guided trolley tour of the district, Tuesday to Saturday throughout the year, from the Penelope Barker Welcome Center at 505 S. Broad Street.
Or you can park your car anywhere downtown and take a leisurely walk along the tree-lined streets to soak up the beauty of our charming neighbor. Enjoy!