History

From the official History of New Bern - New Bern's 300th Celebration website.

The Founding and Early Years

The site of a Native American community called Chattawka, the area was already known to early explorers and settlers including the English naturalist, John Lawson who described the environment in his own A New Voyage to Carolina, in 1709. Founded in 1710 by Swiss and German settlers at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers, New Bern, the second oldest city in the state, has played an important role in the history of North Carolina and the American nation for the last three hundred years. Christophe de Graffenried, member of an important family from the area around Bern, Switzerland, led the group of early Swiss and German settlers who signed a treaty with the native inhabitants and laid out the center of town at the crossing of a north and south axis, today’s Middle Street and an east and west axis, today's Pollock Street. He named the town New Bern, honoring his home. The relationship to the mother city, Bern, continues to be an important part of New Bern's identity, the bear blazon having been adopted as the emblem of the city.

Life for the early settlers presented many challenges, including disagreements with the native population that led to the Tuscarora Wars. In 1715, an Anglican church was established and Christ Episcopal Church is found today at the corner of Middle and Pollock Streets, the center of the town. Despite early difficulties, by the mid eighteenth century New Bern was well established. Agriculture, trade and naval stores assured a measure of prosperity.

North Carolina Begins Here

Royal Governor William Tryon chose New Bern as the site of the first permanent capital of the North Carolina colony and, between 1767 and 1770 built a beautiful Palace to serve as the seat of government as well as home to the Governor and his family. This structure, soon regarded as the finest public building in the American colonies, was designed by John Hawks, an architect whom Tryon had brought with him from England. The Palace served as the capitol under Governor Tryon, who left New Bern in 1771 to become Governor of New York and Royal Governor Josiah Martin, who fled in 1775 at the beginning of the American Revolution.

Of particular interest is the founding of New Bern Academy in 1766. This early school became noted for instruction by the Lancasterian method, more advanced students teaching others, thus enabling the teacher to encourage individual progress. The year 1772 marks the founding of Centenary Methodist Church.

In 1774, New Bern was the site of the first Provincial Congress held in defiance of British orders.Many patriots like John Wright Stanly and Richard Dobbs Spaight, the latter a signer of the United States Constitution, made important contributions to the Revolutionary cause. The new State of North Carolina was born in New Bern. Four State governors used the Palace: Richard Caswell, Abner Nash, Alexander Martin and Richard Dobbs Spaight before Raleigh became the capital in 1794. George Washington dined and danced at the Palace in 1791 during his Southern Tour. In 1787, a three-judge panel established an early precedent for judicial review of legislation in Bayard vs Singleton, a case that would have significance in the establishment of that principle in the American Constitutional process.

In the early years of the Republic, New Bern continued to grow as an important center of commerce. The construction of St. John's Masonic Lodge, New Bern Academy, the organization of First Presbyterian Church and of First Baptist Church were all indices of a thriving community. Domestic architecture and churches from this period reflect prosperity and great civic pride. A visit by President James Monroe was the second by a sitting American president (Harry Truman would add to that tradition in a 1948 visit to First Baptist Church).

Leaders emerged who would contribute at the state and national level. Of special note is William Gaston, legislator and State Supreme Court Justice. It is Gaston who was an important founder of Saint Paul’s Church, oldest Catholic congregation in the state. Having distinguished himself as the first student at Georgetown University and later at Princeton, Gaston's devotion to freedom and rights made him a leader in the cause for religious tolerance and diversity as well as an advocate for the rights of free African Americans and empathized with the condition of the slaves.

Turmoil, Debate and Issues of Justice

New Bern and Craven County as well as Carteret County had many free blacks who played important roles in the community in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In addition, the enslaved population included people with considerable skill as artisans and mariners as well as in agriculture. Of particular note is John Carruthers Stanly, son of John Wright Stanly, who prospered in business and eventually owned several plantations and the largest number of slaves of any African American in the south even though he himself was born enslaved.

In the 1830's, conditions for African Americans worsened. At the State Constitutional Convention in 1835, free black males lost the right to vote, despite William Gaston's strong effort to maintain it. The New Bern area participated fully in the national debate that led to the 1861 outbreak of war. In 1862, New Bern was occupied by Union forces under General Ambrose Burnside after the Battle of New Bern which took place on the south side of the Trent River on a site that is preserved today by the New Bern Historical Society.

This occupation lasted through the war, interrupting supplies that could have been distributed to the Confederates via railroad. The town and the surrounding area became a haven for fugitive slaves, many of whom eventually joined the Union Army. The stories of men like William Henry Singleton and Abraham Galloway, both fugitives, are well chronicled. The latter was an important leader during the war and entered the N.C. legislature in the first elections that followed. There are many accounts of this period from locals and occupying soldiers.

African Americans played a critical role in the formation of the North Carolina Colored Troops. The establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau and the community of James City, a home for freed slaves on the south side of the Trent River were early indications of reconstruction. St. Peter's was organized in New Bern in 1864 as the first AME Zion congregation in the south.

In the years following the war, the period of Reconstruction and the last decades of the century witnessed struggles as the white and black populations defined new relationships and white supremacy was eventually established. The story of George White, the last black, southern Reconstruction U.S. Congressman mirrors these events.

Early Twentieth Century

The early twentieth century brought economic prosperity, much of it associated with the lumber industry. The fine houses and churches, many designed by architect Herbert Woodley Simpson, reflect the confidence and affluence of this period. The First Church of Christ, Scientist was built by Simpson in 1907. Simpson also designed the temple occupied by Chester B'nai Sholem, which was founded in 1908. In addition, Caleb Bradham, a local pharmacy owner at the corner of Middle and Pollock Streets, developed "Brad's Drink", a cola known today the world over as Pepsi. A bridge across the Neuse between Bridgeton and New Bern brought the residents north of the river in Craven and Pamlico Counties closer to the residents on the south side.

The period also brought tragedy which is exemplified in the 1922 Great Fire of New Bern. This fire, the greatest in the history of North Carolina, leveled 40 blocks and destroyed 1000 buildings. It left 3,200 people homeless, causing particular pain to the African American community. All but 20 families left without homes were black. A rich oral history continues relating not only tragic events, but heroic humanitarian efforts at the time.

Throughout its history, the area has enjoyed a rich literary and artistic tradition, being home to many people of creativity including James Davis, the first printer in North Carolina, Mary Bayard Clarke, a well know 19th century poet, Bayard Wooten, nationally known early 20th century photographer and Ervin Rouse, fiddler and composer of the Orange Blossom Special. Many writers, including Mark Twain and Jules Verne chose New Bern as the setting for stories. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries New Bern was called the Athens of North Carolina.

During both World Wars, area residents contributed substantially to the efforts. The development of nearby military bases brought the presence of many service people and their families, enriching the community where many remained or returned after their service years. The period between the wars also saw the growth of interest in preservation, including the restoration of Tryon Palace, opened to the public in 1959. While much of the material culture of the centuries has been lost, much was saved.

The Recent Past and an Exciting Future

The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a renewal of civic pride and interest with investments by the public sector and private individuals restoring many fine buildings and revitalizing the downtown. This renaissance continues with projects that will be completed by 2010 including the new North Carolina History Education Center at Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens, a restored Federal Court House, a new and expanded Fireme's Museum, a new visitor center at the Battle of New Bern site, a new bridge across the Trent to complement the recently constructed new bridge across the Neuse, a redesigned and enhanced Broad Street, and the first phase of the Riverwalk.