More about the History of Brunswick County

“Your lungs sound like crap,” the doctor said yesterday afternoon. I went for a followup since it had been a week since I was diagnosed with pneumonia. I am tired; everything is full of effort. I explained to the doctor that I get out of breath and fatigued from simple things like taking a shower or walking the dogs. “People used to die from pneumonia,” he said, “so I’m not surprised you’re feeling out of it. You’re going to be recovering for another two weeks at least.” Because my job is physically demanding, he put me out of work through the rest of this week. But he didn’t say I’d feel better any time soon. He said it wasn’t good news since I’ve been through all the treatments they normally prescribe for symptoms such as mine. In other words, he isn’t sure what else to do if I’m already taking all the steroids and pills and inhalants and I’m still not breathing better.

I’m scheduled to see another pulmonologist on December 23rd.

For most of the day yesterday I read from The History of Brunswick County. Some more things I have learned about this area:

  • Before the Civil War, the primary cash crop in this area was rice, of all things. I would’ve expected that like the rest of the South the plantation owners would invest in tobacco and cotton. But it turned out the banks of the Cape Fear river and surrounding tidal areas were excellent for growing rice. During the summer months, many of the plantation owners along the river moved to Brunswick County’s only established town in the antebellum period: Smithville (later renamed Southport). They did so to avoid a vaporous disease they believed emanated from the rice fields, particularly at night. We now know that mosquitoes were to blame for the yellow fever and malaria that plagued the residents in the summertime. But Smithville’s cool summer breezes from the Atlantic kept the mosquitoes, and thus wasting disease, at a minimum.
  • The second largest economic export in the county, particularly for inland residents, was using the pine trees to harvest and distill turpentine.

A large segment, perhaps the majority of the people of Brunswick County, lived in the pine forest. Many were poor, indolent, and with little or no purpose in life. Others were so-called turpentine farmers, slave owning members of the middle class, who were people of some affluence. Some knowledge of them is conveyed by the account of Frederick J. Olmsted, who traveled through the Carolina turpentine country in 1853 and recorded his impression. He did not write of the people of Brunswick County specifically, but of those of the turpentine forests in general. Of the white inhabitants, he observed:

…there is a large number, I should think a majority, of entirely uneducated, poverty-stricken vagabonds. I mean by vagabonds,…people without habitual, definite occupation or reliable means of livelihood. They are poor, having almost no property but their own bodies; and the use of these, that is their labor, they are not accustomed to hire out statedly and regularly, so as to obtain capital by wages, but only occasionally by the day or job, when driven to it by necessity. A family of these people will commonly hire, or “squat” and build, a little log cabin, so made that it is only a shelter from rain, the sides not being chinked, and having no more furniture or pretension to comfort than is commonly provided a criminal in the cell of a prison. They will cultivate a little corn, and possibly a few roods of potatoes, cow-peas, and coleworts [collards]. They will own a few swine, that find their living in the forest; and pretty certainly, also, a rifle and dogs; and the men ostensibly, occupy most of their time in hunting.

The majority of what I have termed turpentine-farmers — meaning the small proprietors of the long-leafed pine forest land — are people but a grade superior, in character or condition, to these vagabonds. They have habitations more like houses…their property is…often of considerable money value, consisting mainly of negroes, who associating intimately with their masters, are of superior intelligence to the slaves of the wealthier classes.

– from The History of Brunswick County North Carolina, by Lawrence Lee

  • The Civil War for North Carolina actually began in Brunswick County, with the illegal seizure of Forts Johnston and Caswell, located at the mouth of the Cape Fear near Smithville. The taking of the forts was illegal because NC had not yet seceded from the Union, but the locals anticipated the threat of Union control of the Cape Fear and thus the Port of Wilmington.
  • Goods received in and through the Port of Wilmington supplied about half of the needs of Robert E Lee’s army in Virginia. Though the Union posted a blockade on Southern coasts, and particularly at the mouth of the Cape Fear, fast, sleek blockade runners continued to slip past the Union gunboats throughout the war.
  • In April 1868 the Republican-controlled legislature passed a state constitution which empowered the blacks. “Supported by the Negro vote, Republicans were able to control both state and local government.” (pg 168). I suppose as blacks moved away from rural areas to urban areas (the modern demographics look nothing like the post-War, when blacks constituted half the population), the Democrats were again able to exert suppressive power in North Carolina, as they have done for most of the South’s history.
  • Francis Asbury, the great Methodist circuit rider, was active in Brunswick County:

The work these men did was difficult and, at times, frustrating. Almost everywhere their pulpit was in the home of a member of the flock, the church at Shallotte and another near Lake Waccamaw being unique in the Brunswick County of that time. They also were subjected to the villification of some who did not approve of the Methodist custom of preaching to the slaves. The loneliness and despair they sometimes felt was expressed by Asbury in 1785, after preaching to a small gathering in the chapel near Lake Waccamaw. He said, “This is a desert country, has few inhabitants, and fewer still who have any deep sense of religion.

– from page 147


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