A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_179921" align="alignright" width="300"] The former site of the Bath AME Zion Church is on Carteret Street.[/caption] The bells of Bath ring at noon, and their sounding out is general

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_179921" align="alignright" width="300"] The former site of the Bath AME Zion Church is on Carteret Street.[/caption] The bells of Bath ring at noon, and their sounding out is general

A Town Called Bath

Bath, NC, located along the Pamlico River, and St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
Marker for the former site of the Bath AME Zion Church

The former site of the Bath AME Zion Church is on Carteret Street. photograph by Chris Rogers

The bells of Bath ring at noon, and their sounding out is general across the broad peninsula where lies the oldest North Carolina town. Once these chimes are done, only the occasional screeching of gulls and scrawking of great blue herons break the silence lying over the old port. The town sits 10 feet above the water, and a rise near the foot of King Street holds many a soul buried in the former churchyard of the Bath AME Zion Church, now honored by a large marble slab.

A buoyancy, a lightness is in the air here, perhaps because the original village is a village still, just a scant square mile in Bath’s easily walkable historic area, not far from its Native American precursor, Secotan. Large pines and towering pecan trees leave an open understory, where clapboard houses and a few churches are set comfortably far apart. Most of the way from Bath Creek to Back Creek, one can see plum through these grounds.

Bonner's Point and the Pamlico River in Bath, NC

At Bonner’s Point, visitors can take in breathtaking views of Bath Creek as it makes its way to the Pamlico River. photograph by Chris Rogers

John Lawson, the cofounder of Bath, NC

John Lawson, a cofounder of Bath Town.  photograph by East Carolina University Digital Collections, State Archives of NC

A walker on Bath’s streets in remembrance of times past may well see right into those old times, too. At the waterside corner of Main and Front streets, Bonner’s Point, there is a clear view, after the fog and mist of a morning lift, of the Pamlico River, from which hundreds of ships once came into Bath and went back out.

One would be standing now exactly where Bath Town cofounder John Lawson lived after surveying and laying out 71 lots in 1705. He chose lots 5 and 6 for himself; his common-law wife, Hannah Smith; and their future daughter, Isabella. A rather fine view for the 30-year-old explorer-surveyor and his family, a riverine vantage for him to sit and envision his writing of one of the earliest and most important pieces of natural-world reportage in North Carolina’s literary history, A New Voyage to Carolina.

So let the bells ring and carol out, and let the long-dead speak.

• • •

As the earliest North Carolina town, Bath holds several other firsts:

  • The first church. St. Thomas Episcopal Church, an Anglican parish established shortly after Bath County was founded in 1696, though a church building was not erected until nearly 30 years later.
  • The first library. More than 150 books were sent from England by clergyman Thomas Bray before there was anywhere in Bath to house them. Soon scattered, only one volume remains, and it is now in the possession of the Diocese of East Carolina.
  • The first official port of entry. Bath’s customs regulatory area covered an enormous area by British maritime decree: “everything north and east of Cape Fear.”
  • The first shipyard. Deputy Gov. Thomas Cary ordered a 46-foot sloop from shipbuilder Thomas Harding in 1710.

Bath’s first decade alone comprised an astonishing and challenging set of early times for the new town: a civil war in the colony called Cary’s Rebellion, a rivalry between Gov. Edward Hyde and Deputy Governor Cary, and between Anglicans and Quakers; an attack of an arbovirus called yellow fever that would fell the unfortunate Governor Hyde; and the September 1711 attacks across the Neuse and Pamlico area by the Tuscarora Indians and their allies. The Indians were so furious at John Lawson and Baron von Graffenried’s 1710 importation of Swiss and Palatine refugees from England to the state’s second European colonial town, New Bern (the Tuscaroran town Chattoka), that they captured and tortured Lawson, made him the first victim of their war, and swelled Bath’s population with widows and orphans.

Illustration of Blackbeard who terrorized residents in Bath, NC

Blackbeard, Bath’s most notorious former resident. illustration by North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo

Five years after the Tuscarora’s defeat in 1713 came the pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. After blockading Charleston, he showed up in Bath, secured the King’s Pardon for pirates, took a teenage wife, and set up riotous residence on Plum Point. When the buccaneer sailed again for the high seas — salvaging, so he said, deserted vessels that he found and bringing plunder back to Bath — its merchant-shippers sought relief. The British Royal Navy’s Lt. Robert Maynard sailed two sloops down from Virginia and battled Blackbeard off Springer’s Point on Ocracoke, killing and beheading him on November 22, 1718. Then Maynard cruised across Pamlico Sound, showing the people of Bath his bowsprit’s decor: Blackbeard’s bloody head.

As if devilish pirates were not enough, there also seems to have been a long-running problem with preachers in the Port of Bath. This was due, perhaps, to too many early years without the benefit of clergy, or perhaps from the nature of the clergy who did, from time to time, show up. The malcontent Rev. John Urmston of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel laid this dismal observation upon the new village of Bath on September 22, 1714, three years after the start of the Tuscarora War: “We expect to hear that famous city of Bath consisting of 9 houses or rather cottages once stiled the Metropolis & seat of Government will be totally deserted …”

The Bonner House in Bath, NC.

The Bonner House sits on land that John Lawson once owned. photograph by Chris Hannant

Yet that did not happen. Instead, in 1734, the lovely Flemish-bonded brick St. Thomas Church took shape, as the Rev. John Garzia was signing on as Bath’s Anglican spiritual leader. Garzia, presumed Spanish, spoke poor English and was hardly well paid; he finally sued the church for his years-overdue salary. The miserable minister lamented the sin in the Bath parish, writing that “adultery, Incest, Blasphemy and all kinds of profaneness has got such deep root.” At last, he was set free from it all, falling from his horse to his death in 1744.

By the late 1730s, bombastic Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield, his voice purported to have a mile-long range, had stopped in Bath for the first of several visits, going about soul-saving in what he called “the ungospelized wilds” of North Carolina. Legend has it that Whitefield became so enraged by Bath antagonists wanting him out of their freewheeling town that he left after standing on his wagon, waving his shoe, and shouting like a conjurer before God and everybody: “If a place won’t listen to the Word, you shake the dust of the town off your feet, and the town shall be cursed. I have put a curse on this town for a hundred years!”

• • •

So who were these folk who cast themselves into the Carolina wilderness to seek their fortunes in this early settlement? Some were thrown there by others, no fortune intended for them — like the enslaved woman Dido, already at work in earliest Bath by the time John Lawson showed up. Some were first-generation, new to the New World — well-off, ambitious young men with ties to family back in the old country. Of these leading folk, the privileged, a few illustrate the pattern:

  • Lawson, son of a well-connected London doctor with family in Yorkshire, ached from early on to excel in a science, possibly hoping to get into England’s Royal Society. Urged to explore the Carolinas and offered a free sail to Charleston, off he went. Connecting with London apothecary James Petiver to do New World plant collecting for him, Lawson’s path was set.
  • Christopher Gale

    Christopher Gale. illustration by Outer Banks History Center

    Christopher Gale, eldest of four brothers from a wealthy Yorkshire family, arrived in Carolina in about 1700. He married Sarah Harvey, widow of the late Gov. Thomas Harvey, and moved quickly to the top. Gale set himself up in coastwise trade north to New England and Indian trade west to the Cherokee Nation, living at Kirby Grange just outside of Bath and serving for years as North Carolina’s colonial chief justice — often in conflict with whoever was the current colonial governor.

  • Charles Eden of County Durham, England, became governor in 1714, receiving 1,000 acres from the Lords Proprietors to sweeten his deal. Eden’s home, “Thistleworth,” lay upon the west bank of Bath Creek, though implications of collusion with neighbor Blackbeard may have driven him in 1719 to his Eden House plantation in Bertie County, where, at the Chowan River’s mouth, he died in 1722.
  • Capt. Michael Coutanche, French mariner and merchant from the Isle of Jersey, sailed in about 1739 from Boston to Bath, where a few years hence he built, at the corner of Carteret and Main streets, a large, wooden, double-chimneyed domicile and mercantile building. Of a later owner of the place, Robert Palmer, the 1760s Royal Gov. William Tryon (namesake of the palace in New Bern) wrote: “He had a very excellent House and Plantation at Bath which I often resided in with my family being Hospitably entertained by him.”
Boats docked at the Bath Harbor Marina in Bath, NC

Bath’s early appeal as a port destination left a lasting legacy, as the town’s location on the Pamlico River continues to draw boaters to the eastern shore of Bath Creek. photograph by Chris Rogers

Bath’s hospitality was hardly restricted to private homes, nor offered only by men. Of three sailors’ shebangs open in 1756, one of the tavernkeepers was a woman named Mourning Blinn. And of two in 1761, the top keg-tapper and drinks-dispenser of one of them was likewise a woman, one Mary Smith.

These folks were just a few residents of the busy Port of Bath. Clearly, those who arrived with capital and advantage from back in the Old World were free to improve their lots here in the new one. They gathered up lands, positions, and trade in no small part through the displacement of Indigenous communities and the unrewarded efforts of their laboring bondsmen.

If there were an 18th-century heyday in Bath, it was fairly short-lived, for North Carolina’s maritime trade — the concept of which the town had helped prove out — would be moving on upriver to Washington and shared by other interior coastal ports of entry (Beaufort, Brunswick, Currituck, Roanoke) even before the American Revolution. But none of this takes anything away from Bath, a modest riverport with its small ships, wharves, inns, taverns, and riverine manufactories, nor from Bath’s early folk, who showed a scattered back-country people how to engage with the watery world.

• • •

Out on Ocracoke last fall, Hyde County historian and marine-life naturalist Gene Ballance remarked that folks were nowadays catching speckled trout up Bath Creek. “Those trout like a little salt,” he said. The presence of new fish in the waters of old Bath is a harbinger of change — salt as a bringer of trout and, no less, a causer of coastal ghost forests, too — in the advancing 21st century.

Yet we can still sense some of the old world of three centuries past here — that of ships and shipping, of our need only to stroll slowly down Bath’s old lanes below Carteret Street, past St. Thomas Churchyard and on to Bonner’s Point. And imagine here, through the mists of time, those 71 lots being laid out by Lawson, the 30-year-old who first wrote of and spoke to us about the Carolina territories to the west. He’s suddenly there before us in the spectral air, a young man too busy at his task of lining out the small peninsula to stop and talk, too engaged in squaring up all the pieces of this very first place in our colonial province just big and brave enough to call itself a town.

Bath Today

Palmer-Marsh House in Bath, NC

Palmer-Marsh House. photograph by Chris Rogers

On a recent Halloweentide morning, a small pirate ship sat in a yard on Bath’s Craven Street, pointed east, with three skeletons at halyards and helm. A block away, Blackbeard’s ghost, as it were, was operating a drinking and dining establishment at the corner of Carteret and Main, near the bridge over Bath Creek: Blackbeard’s Tavern.

In the old Bath High School at the corner of Carteret and King streets resides the Historic Bath Exhibit Center, which leads visitors through many stages of this locale’s natural and human heritage, from its Native American origins to the current moment. Most days, a wonderworld of ropes, kegs, and barrels, potsherds, and photographs tells the small town’s involved and impressive maritime tale.

A block away from the Exhibit Center is the Palmer-Marsh House, the big two-story wooden home and mercantile building built by Capt. Michael Coutanche around 1751, making it one of the oldest houses standing in our state. Coutanche, whose name lives on as a major Greenville thoroughfare — Cotanche Street — now lies in the small graveyard beneath overarching pecan trees on the home’s grand east side yard.

As far more than a mere nod to its port-of-entry past, the North Carolina State Dock at the Bath Creek bridge is a tying-up facility for modern mariners that’s free for up to 72 hours. The long dock, an easy walk from the village, offers no amenities beyond cleats, and thus is perhaps much like what ship captains in the early 1700s found awaiting them.

This story was published on Feb 26, 2024

Bland Simpson

Bland Simpson is the author of The Coasts of Carolina: Seaside to Sound Country, Into the Sound Country, The Inner Islands, and North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky. A longtime member of the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers, he regularly appears on UNC-TV’s “Our State.” He is Kenan Distinguished professor of English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.