Beaufort’s History

by Mary Faith Warshaw, Beaufort Historian

The land on which Beaufort sits today was once fishing and hunting grounds to the Coree who occupied what is now Carteret and Onslow Counties. Before white settlers entered the area, the Coree began migrating north to their old homeland on the Pamlico. They left behind two small villages, one near the Straits of Core Sound, and the other on the west side of Newport River.

Since the Coree had migrated north of the Neuse River, during the Tuscarora War (1711-15) the few scattered settlers in the Core Sound area were relatively safe in their isolation. The circumstances of the time, however, were not conducive to more settlement. “Within seven months after the power of the Tuscarora had been broken in March 1713, a town was laid out on the southwest corner of the tract of land which Farnifold Green had obtained in 1707.” (Paul, Colonial Beaufort)

It’s hard to imagine the uninhabited seaside wilderness when the town was first laid out and named—October 2, 1713, by official permission from the Lords Proprietors. Streets were named; allotments were provided for a church, a town-house, and a market place; and lots were offered for sale. Though minor alterations were made throughout the Colonial period, the main characteristics of the plan of the town never changed.

One account of Colonial Beaufort was given by a French traveler who visited in 1765. After arriving at Cape Lookout, the Frenchman walked down the beach to a whalers’ camp and persuaded some of the whalers to take him over to Beaufort. He described the town as “a Small vilage not above twelve houses, the inhabitants seem miserable, they are very lazy and Indolent, they live mostly on fish and oisters, which they have in great plenty.” Spanish visitor Francisco de Miranda described the small village in his 1783 diary, “Beaufort is located on a sandy beach that, except for some sandbanks, which act as a barrier against the sea and form the sound, is quite unsheltered. It has about eighty inhabitants.”

“The years before the Revolutionary War brought a period of substantial settlement in Beaufort. In 1762, ferries were put into operation across Newport and North Rivers. By 1765, Caleb Davis operated an ordinary on Cape Lookout Bay. About 1771, Samuel Guthrie operated a ferry to Cape Lookout fishing camps and dwellings. In the six years from 1765 to 1770, at least 37 lots or pieces of lots exchanged hands. At least nine of these lots had buildings erected on them during that period. During this time, buildings were first erected on many of the waterfront lots on the west end of town.” (Paul) By 1812, there were about 600 residents and some 75 houses.

“Since the inland waterways which led to Topsail Inlet did not extend into the interior or make convenient connections with rivers, the services of Port Beaufort were restricted to a small area lying along the south and east sides of Carteret Precinct. Core Sound was shallow and inconvenient; however, it was the most important inland waterway to the life of Colonial Beaufort in that it provided a water connection with Pamlico Sound and, hence, with the towns of New Bern, Bath and Edenton. Thus, Beaufort’s growth as a port and a township was negatively impacted by its lack of adequate water or overland connections with the interior. Economic factors also played a decisive role in determining Beaufort’s smallness as a Colonial town. The residents of Beaufort made use of and benefited from the natural resources in the area.

“The production of seafood for commercial purposes became an item in the economy very soon after the first settlers arrived…by 1715, whalers started entering the colony. The industry increased and continued through the Colonial period. Forest industries were probably as important to the economy of Colonial Beaufort as was the fishing or the whaling industry.” (Paul)

Many of the houses built in the late 18th and 19th centuries still stand today, and a dozen or so are featured on the annual Beaufort Old Homes and Gardens tour in June. For more on colonial and post-colonial history visit the Beaufort Historic Site. For maritime history visit the N.C. Maritime Museum.

White De-Bry Map of Raleigh’s Virginia, c. 1590
< South • North >

Yellow: Beaufort, labeled “Cwarioc”
Orange: Cape Lookout Bight
Green: Ocracoke Inlet, labeled “Wokoton”
Blue: Cape Hatteras, labeled “Hatorase”

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Old Beaufort Map