The third oldest town in the state, Beaufort was established in 1709 and has three centuries of stories to tell. You’ll find pirates including the notable Blackbeard, star-crossed lovers and a slew of quirky characters filling the town’s colorful past. Visit the Town of Beaufort website for a detailed history.
North Carolina’s third oldest town, Beaufort lies on the coast bordering the southern tip of the Outer Banks. Originally a fishing village and port of safety dating from the late 1600’s, Beaufort has been visited by patriots, privateers, merchants, and skilled craftsmen who built Bahamian and West Indian style homes and public buildings. Approximately 150 of these restored historic homes proudly bear plaques noting names of earliest known owners and dates of original construction.
The Plan of Beaufort Towne, laid out in 1713, survives in a 12-block area which today is on the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the heart of this historic district is the Beaufort Historic Site, which depicts 18th and 19th century coastal Carolina.
The entire downtown area is part of the historic district of Beaufort, boasting plaqued houses from all eras of American history.
Beaufort has a rich history of boat building and boating dating back to Native American dugout canoes. The North Carolina Maritime Museum shows many of the different types of boats used here over the years and has a working boatshop where you can see boats being built and restored.
Common sailboats used in fishing and trawling are sharpies and spritsails, which can still be seen on the Beaufort waterfront on occasion. The menhaden and shrimp industries both have their classic boat styles. Shrimp boats are still seen daily on the waterfront.
The Civil War caused massive damage throughout the entire South. Beaufort managed to escape this fate through luck and a subpar town militia. In April, 1862, Beaufort was invaded and the Union forces took over the town as a head quarters. Although slightly embarrassing, Beaufort’s location isolated itself from the rest of North Carolina so support and even news of the takeover were slow to reach important towns in the state.
Good did come from being occupied early in the war; little damage befell the predominantly wooden buildings and underhanded forms of aid popped up. Beaufort acted as a beacon for scattered Confederate soldiers in the area on the run because of the Union hold of the coast. Espionage became a popular occupation for the women of Beaufort.
Emeline Pigott, Beaufort’s most famous Civil War spy, smuggled relief items, such as mail, food, extra clothing, and boots, to the Confederate soldiers using inventive techniques such as hiding them under her large hoop skirt. While Ms. Pigott supported the Confederates, freed black men used Beaufort as a halfway camp of sorts.
The Union’s hold on the town created a safe harbor for freed slaves in the South that provided an easier location to attain instead of the distant North states. This created a unique dynamic for Beaufort during and after the war as the country finally came to peace.
Once peace was established, Beaufort returned to its usual way of life: living off the sea, supporting tourism, and surviving the coastal North Carolina elements one day at a time.
The Hammock House in Beaufort is perhaps the most shrouded in mystery of all the Beaufort houses. Myths linking it to Blackbeard the pirate abound, and add to its mystique. Recent research has brought to light the following:
Hammock House was built in the early 1800’s next door to where a white house had been located on a hillock since the early 1700’s. The white house on the hill was the earliest house in the area. It showed up as a landmark on maps for sailors since it’s white color and location on a 12 foot rise made it clearly visible from the water. It would have been this white house (which no longer exists) which Blackbeard stayed in.
People enjoy going to see Hammock House, but tours are not available as it is currently privately owned.
The use of menhaden in Carteret County dates to the 19th century. One story tells that northern soldiers occupying Beaufort saw that the waters were full of menhaden, and stories they told on their return encouraged businessmen in the north to come down and start plant operations here.
In 1881 a menhaden factory was established in Beaufort at Lennoxville, just east of Beaufort, in 1881 by Mr. Charles Pittman (C. P.) Dey, who came to the area from the northeast specifically for the purpose of starting a menhaden factory here. This was a sizable and successful factory, with a large planked platform for drying the fish. Mr. Dey’s boats had access to both the ocean and the sound waters. Several larger vessels (Nellie B. Dey and the C. P. Dey) fished in the ocean, and there were some other boats (i. e., Olympia, Bonito, and Convoy), both sail and motor, that fished in the sound. Mr. Dey became a prominent businessman in Beaufort, becoming involved in several other ventures, as well as performing civic responsibilities for the town.
Also, there were several early menhaden factories on the North River side of Beaufort (i. e., Ralph Howland in 1882 at Steep Point, Jones and Caffrey in 1885 at Lennoxville) that had boats fishing in the surrounding waters. Mr. Howland’s factory had a steam boiler, hydraulic press, steam pump, and used purse boats with seines. The factory was capable of processing 2,000 barrels of fish per day. The letterhead of his business showed Ralph Howland as a “manufacturer of fish scrap and oil, dealer in fish and general merchandise and commission merchant.”
The North Carolina menhaden fishery flourished up into the late 1960s. Landings in the state accounted for about 70 percent of the South Atlantic fishery and about 20 percent of the total annual catch. At its height there were 7 major reduction factories in the state; 4 in Beaufort, 2 in Morehead City, and 1 in Southport. In the 1970s, however, the state’s menhaden fishery began to decline due to a reduction in the numbers of fish and competition from foreign sources. The last factory, Beaufort Fisheries on Taylors Creek, closed its doors in 2005. The Boathouse at Front Street Village was built in its former location.
Menhaden was a year-round fishery, and people could often smell the fish being reduced in town, calling it “the smell of money”. Reduction of menhaden generates three products: fish meal (presscake), condensed fish solubles, and oil. These are used as fertilizers, animal feeds, and human food supplements and in industrial applications.
Located on the 400 block of Ann Street in Beaufort’s historic district, the town’s oldest cemetery holds fascinating stories about Beaufort’s 300-year history! Established in the early 1700’s, its weathered tombstones chronicle the heritage of North Carolina’s third oldest town and the surrounding coast. Used for Anglican church services in nearby St. John’s Parish, the cemetery was later deeded to the town of Beaufort in 1731 by Nathaniel Taylor following the first survey of the town. Today, the Old Burying Ground is owned by the Town of Beaufort and maintained & managed by the Beaufort Historical Association.
Many graves are marked with shell, brick, or wooden slabs because stone markers would have to have been brought from afar by wooden sailing vessels. Others have vaulted markers, which were covered in brick to protect them from high water and wild animals and are characteristic of many historic seaport towns.
Uncovered by an archaeological survey in 1992, the seemingly empty northwest corner of the cemetery is in fact its oldest section, with many unmarked graves dating from the early 18th century. A record from September 1711 notes the area had “been depopulated by the late Indian War and Massacre.” It is probable some of the unmarked graves were victims of the Indian wars whose skulls were cleft with tomahawks of hostile Coree and Neusiok Indians.
Other inhabitants include a child who died at sea and was buried in a keg of rum, as well as the great privateer Captain Otway Burns and the crew of the Crissie Wright who died when their schooner went aground at Shackleford Banks during a January storm in 1886.
History of Oystering in North Carolina
When overfishing resulted in the depletion of the New England oyster beds by the beginning of the nineteenth century, oystermen began moving south. In 1822 North Carolina closed its waters to out-of-state oystermen and forbade dredging by use of drags, scoops, or rakes. Only hand tongs were legal, and North Carolina oystermen were permitted to continue shipping pickled oysters to the West Indies in quantities not to exceed 60 gallons in any one vessel.
In 1858 the state established a procedure by which citizens who were willing to enclose up to 10 acres of suitable estuarine ground and seed it as an artificial oyster bed could secure perpetual fishing rights to it by special license from their local courts. Over the next 30 years, oystermen in Carteret, Dare, Hyde, Onslow, and Pamlico Counties created 52,000 acres of licensed private oyster gardens. Oyster canneries and shucking houses were established in Elizabeth City, Washington, New Bern, Morehead City, and Beaufort in the late 1880s.
Southgate Packing Company
The Southgate Packing Company was established in Beaufort in 1912 in a frame building at the foot of Ann Street, on a channel of the Newport River. Operating from October to June each year, the Southgate specialized in oysters but also packed shrimp as well as beans, tomatoes, and potatoes produced by the local truck farming industry which provided seasonal jobs. African Americans, especially women, found work in the oyster canning operation at Southgate. As one elderly woman recalled, “When the oyster factory opened the women went there to work instead of the fields.”
In the 1920s one could see a huge “oyster rock” that extended from West Beaufort or Gallant’s Point all the way to the present bridge for highway 70. The gathering process was a way of life of many women: “You could see them [the black women] out there, when the tide went out, getting oysters. My children never went hungry—I got them oysters before school.” Carrow recalled the importance of this oyster rock as a source of subsistence in the 1890s:
About the distance of a short city block west of the shoreline there was a celebrated oyster rock known as Jones Rock. On low water you could walk to the rock which we children always did. I may be mistaken, but my impression is that before the oyster factories came Jones Rock provided all the oysters that were required by the people in that vicinity and some for sale. I do know for sure that at any time at low water anyone could, and many did, go out on Jones Rock and pick up a mess of very fine oysters.
The combination of over-harvesting, dredging and channel improvements in what is now called Gallant’s Channel have gradually eliminated the famous “oyster rock.”
Oyster shells were also burnt and used to make mortar in the building of Fort Macon.
Pirates plundered the North Carolina shore from the Cape Fear to Currituck. Below are a couple of the worst of the worst. Edward Teach (Bleackbeard)’s ship is underwater off the coast of Beaufort and artifacts from it are on exhibit at the NC Maritime Museum. If you are interested in pirates, come watch and participate in the Beaufort Pirate Invasion on the second weekend in August!
Notoriety: Daring, crafty and frightful looking, his long black beard, which he twisted and tied into tails, gave him the name “Blackbeard.”
His story: After serving as a privateer in Queen Anne’s War, he joined a pirate crew, capturing a French ship and renaming it Queen Anne’s Revenge. He blockaded Charleston, S.C.; marooned crewmen, ran theQAR aground in Beaufort Inlet and made off with the booty; held and infamous pirate party on Ocracoke; and had a home in Bath, where he hobnobbed with polite society.
His ending: In 1718, Teach opened fire on pirate hunter Capt. Robert Maynard and believed he’d won the battle. Once onboard Maynard’s ship, the pirates were overpowered by crewman hidden in the hold. Teach was killed after reportedly being shot five times and cut more than 20. Maynard displayed Teach’s head on the bowsprit of his boat.
Notoriety: “The Gentleman Pirate” was born into wealth and owned a plantation on Barbados, but threw it away to become a pirate.
His story: Abandoning his life and family in 1717, Bonnet bought a sloop he named Revenge and joined Blackbeard’s pirate fleet, only to lose his command, crew and loot to the craftier corsair. After Blackbeard ran the QAR aground in Beaufort Inlet, Bonnet fled to Bath for a gubernatorial pardon, then he resupplied his ship, got a new crew and set out to exact revenge, sailing under the name Captain Thomas.
His ending: Anchored at Bonnet’s Creek on the Cape Fear Inlet, he was captured in September 1718 by Col. William Rhett to answer for his crimes in Charleston, S.C. There, he escaped, was recaptured and hanged.
Built in 1820, Purvis Chapel is the oldest Beaufort church in continuous use. It was originally part of the Methodist Episcopal Church South with both black and white members but in 1854 the white members build the Ann Street Methodist church and gave the Purvis Chapel to the black members.
The church continued as a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, with white ministers. Ten years later, in 1864, the church joined the AME Zion church, becoming only the second AME Zion church in the south (the first was St. Peter’s in New Bern), now with black ministers.
It has on display in the balcony a bell made in Glasgow, Scotland in 1798, which was given to the original British Anglican church built on the site in 1724.