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In 1776, on a small hillside just beyond the Roanoke River in Halifax County, North Carolina made the loudest declaration yet heard in the history of the 13 colonies. There,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

In 1776, on a small hillside just beyond the Roanoke River in Halifax County, North Carolina made the loudest declaration yet heard in the history of the 13 colonies. There,

Halifax Resolves

Mural of Halifax Resolves in downtown Halifax

In 1776, on a small hillside just beyond the Roanoke River in Halifax County, North Carolina made the loudest declaration yet heard in the history of the 13 colonies. There, the state’s Fourth Provincial Congress — made up of colonial heavy hitters with last names like Harnett, Ashe, Caswell, Person, and Haywood — met in the 18th-century metropolis of Halifax on April 12.

While Halifax is small by today’s standards, it was, at that time, one of the colony’s larger destinations. In the 1770s, the town was home to 900 residents, several taverns, and the last major port inland.

The congressmen likely gathered in the town’s first courthouse, a T-shaped structure next to a jail that held British prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge earlier that year. The North Carolinians put quill to scroll and resolved to recommend that the 13 colonies seek independence from “the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America.”

From left, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and John Penn. photograph by State Archives of North Carolina

Three months later, in July, three North Carolina delegates — William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and John Penn — signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. The moment marked North Carolina’s transformation into a free state.

Nearly 250 years later, archaeologists gathered on that same hillside to learn more about this place and time that defined our state and country. They carefully shoveled and sifted through dirt, looking for clues to the past: bent screws, broken glass, shards of cracked dishes.

Archaeologists have been studying this area since the 1960s, but they didn’t know the exact location of the courthouse until 2022, when ground-penetrating radar found lines of packed soil in the shape of a capital “T.” The spot matched the building’s location on old maps commissioned by Gov. William Tryon.

Today, small piles of broken artifacts sit on an observation table near the excavation site: bits of blue and green pottery, the foot of a piece of stemware, a thick piece of olive green glass identified as the bottom of a wine bottle. Put these pieces together, and an image of a celebration begins to form — an image of a young North Carolina government toasting to a promising future.

More to Explore: Discover historic Halifax via our video travel guide to the area at ourstate.com/halifaxcountyvideo.

Children play in the fountains at John Chavis Memorial Park

The historical marker at John Chavis Memorial Park, installed in 1938, was the first in the state to recognize African American history. photograph by Art Howard, Courtesy of Surface 678 (landscape architect)

A Noble Namesake

Children ride ornate horses on the carousel that’s been the centerpiece of John Chavis Memorial Park since it opened in Raleigh in 1937. Born in Granville County in 1763, Chavis came to Halifax as an indentured servant. As a free man, he joined the Revolution, fighting for American independence. After the war, he became the first Black man in the country to receive a college education. In the early 1800s, he moved to Raleigh and opened a school, where he taught white students during the day and Black students at night. Chavis was forced to close his school in the early 1830s, after the General Assembly made public teaching and preaching illegal for people of color — a law he fought against until he died in 1838. Almost a century later, the park was dedicated to Chavis, honoring his legacy of education and equality for all.

John Chavis Memorial Park
505 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
Raleigh, NC 27601

Costumed reenactors in Halifax on the Fourth of July

Independence Day reenactors inspire the streets of downtown Halifax with revolutionary flair, plus a few modern twists.  Photography courtesy of Visit Halifax

Let Freedom Ring

On July 4, a crowd in Halifax will watch reenactors fire muskets and hear an interactive reading of the Declaration of Independence. Nearly 250 years ago, on August 1, 1776, American founding father and Wilmington politician Cornelius Harnett stood before a similar crowd gathered on King Street in Halifax to hear the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in North Carolina. As Harnett concluded the reading, cannons were fired, and the crowd of free Americans cheered. Though things have changed since those days — fireworks have replaced cannons, and the muskets fire blanks — we’ll never stop celebrating.

To learn more, visit historicsites.nc.gov/all-sites/historic-halifax.

This story was published on Jun 12, 2024

Katie Kane

Katie Kane is the assistant editor at Our State.