New Bern

In 1710, Baron Christophe von Graffenried led a group of Swiss and German Palatine settlers to the confluence of the Trent and Neuse Rivers at the lower edge of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. There, they founded the town of New Bern (named after the Swiss capital) on land von Graffenried supposedly purchased from the Tuscarora Indians.

The early settlers suffered from debilitating diseases, a warm, humid climate, lack of adequate supplies, and constant conflicts with the local natives, especially the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora complained about the colonists’ encroachment on their homelands but received no redress of grievances. In frustration, they attacked the settlers, triggering the Tuscarora War in the Carolinas from 1711 to 1715. The North Carolina militia burned several native villages and traded sieges with the Native Americans before the Tuscarora finally made peace and moved to New York to join the Iroquois confederation. New Bern, the second oldest town in North Carolina, enjoyed a quiet existence as a modestly successful port town through the early and mid-eighteeenth century. It exported a variety of crops, but its main exports were lumber and naval stores. Tar, pitch, turpentine, resin, and shingles all left the swamps and long-leaf pine forests surrounding the town and made their way to England in the holds of merchant ships.

The port town enjoyed a surge in prestige and prosperity when, in 1770, Royal Governor William Tryon chose New Bern as the site of the colony’s first permanent capital. He commissioned Tryon Palace, designed by English architect John Hawks, as the governor’s residence and capitol building. After becoming the capital, New Bern developed the nickname the Athens of North Carolina for its cultural institutions. The colonial capital became the home of the first printing press, the first newspaper, and the first incorporated school in the colony.

In the days leading up to the American Revolution, New Bern played a significant role. The Sons of Liberty, led by Cornelius Harnett, held meetings here that defied the Stamp Act and subsequent parliamentary acts. In 1775, patriots drove Josiah Martin, the royal governor, from the capital, forcing him to seek refuge first in Fort Johnston and then finally on board a British warship. The military hardships of the war itself came to New Bern in August 1781, when Major James Craig led a British force of nearly 300 redcoats and 300 Tories from Wilmington to New Bern. On August 19, they entered the town, burned property and outlying plantations, and then returned to Wilmington.

After the Revolution, New Bern became the first place in North Carolina and the third place in America to celebrate Independence Day. North Carolina’s capital moved to Raleigh in 1792, but New Bern enjoyed increasing prosperity as a thriving port town into the nineteenth century. Judkin Browning See also: North Carolina; North Carolina (Chronology); Ship’s Stores. Bibliography Beaumont, Sarah. Colonial New Bern. Raleigh, NC: Capital Printing Company, 1901. Taylor, H. Braughn, ed. Guide to Historic New Bern, North Carolina. New Bern, NC: New Bern/Craven County American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1974. Watson, Alan D. History of New Bern and Craven County. New Bern, NC: Tryon Palace Commission, 1987.

New Bern Photo Gallery

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