North Carolina Office of Archives & History Department of Cultural Resources
Historical Publications Section The Colonial Records Project
Jan-Michael Poff, Editor
Historical Publications Section
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Last Updated 11/14/01

Colonial Homes in North Carolina

Colonial North Carolina Seen from the Air—Old Maps of the State and of Colonial Towns

We begin our study from the air. First, like an astronaut high in his rocket ship, we will look down on colonial maps of North Carolina and survey the whole 500-mile sweep of the land from mountains in the west to meandering sea coast in the east. Next, as if in an airplane, we will look at maps of colonial towns. Then, coming closer to the earth, as in a helicopter, we will hover over a single home with its several outbuildings and see what it is like. From this point on, with our feet on the ground, we will look at buildings close-up.


There are quite a number of old maps of North Carolina. Some are small-the size of a piece of typing paper; others are huge-assemblages of several large sheets of paper. Early maps, not very accurate in detail, show a few settlements. Later maps are more accurate and show the new towns as they were established.

Back of a colonial map stands a surveyor who travelled over the land making careful drawings. He made the map [2] for the King or other official of government, for mariners or merchants, or for people like ourselves who are curious about life on the land. These maps suggest the life of the colonists, and their architecture, as will be seen.

The study of North Carolina maps has been facilitated by a recent book, The Southeast in Early Maps, by William P. Cumming. Mr. Cumming, a professor at Davidson College, spent many years searching for maps in the libraries of our country and Europe. Much of the information and inspiration for this booklet comes from his work.

One point before we begin looking at maps-words are often “misspelled.” This happens because some words (as Indian names) were new and spelling had to be invented for them. There are other reasons, the most appealing one being that eighteenth-century writers enjoyed a freedom about spelling.

Figure 1, “A New & Accurate Map of North ... Carolina ...” is a detail from a map of southeastern North America, “drawn from late Surveys ... by Eman. Bowen.” This map was included in a geography book which Bowen published in London in 1747. The scale of our illustration is slightly smaller than that of the original map.

The map gives a grand and sober image of the New World. In the west are the great “Charokee Mountains.” Individual peaks are shaded on one side, making them seem massive and solid as they thrust up forcibly from the land. At the eastern side of the range are little trees, delicate signs of green timber growth. Big letters tell us that “Virginia” is at the north, “North Carolina” is in the middle area, and “South” indicates the beginning of South Carolina, below. A meandering, dotted line bounds North Carolina, which was not considered as extensive then, as it is today.

In the middle and upper part of the map many rivers [4] begin their courses to the sea. Six or seven of them may be counted. They fan out as they flow onward, the upper ones moving to the east, the lower ones more to the south. Fatter and wider they become, finally creating Albemarle Sound, “Pamticoe” Sound, and other features of the intricate shore line. The sounds and wide river mouths provided good places for small ships to land and for towns to be established. Light vessels could push far up some of the rivers, and farmers and planters along the banks could ship from their own private docks.

This seaboard area is densely labeled with names of places, an indication of the extensive settlement of the region. Follow down the coast, and one finds Edenton, Bath Town, New Bern, Beaufort Town, and farther to the south are Wilmington and Brunswick Town. All these places were founded well within the first half of the 18th century. Those who spend vacations at Topsail Beach, Hatteras, Ocracoke, and other Carolina beaches, will be surprised at the number of such places which had already been given their names, by 1747. To the west of our map are unfamiliar Indian names of forts and settlements. Others have English-sounding names. This map of 1747 does not show towns like Hillsboro and Halifax, founded in the 1750's, nor towns farther west, like Salem, Salisbury, and Charlotte, founded in the 1760's. In studying early maps like this, one can feel the westward growth of North Carolina in colonial times.

Since the map is rather small, it does not show all of the settlements which did exist at its time, 1747. For example, Campbell Town, which later became part of Fayetteville, is not shown. Our mapmaker, Mr. Bowen, was too high in the air, so to speak, to note this place and hundreds of individual farms. To see in greater detail the richness of life on the land below, we will descend lower in our next map. [6] Figure 2, the Albemarle Sound region, is a detail from a famous map of North and South Carolina by Henry Mouzon, Jr., made in 1775. Like the previous map, it was printed in England and is also reproduced in slightly smaller size than the original. Mr. Cumming states that it may be called the Revolutionary War map of North and South Carolina, because it was used by American, British and French forces. So, in looking at the fragment, reproduced here, a person might imagine that he is a Revolutionary War general, studying the little towns, the ports, and roads that wander through the country, and try to understand why a town is where it is, what military importance it has, or how it might be protected or destroyed.

Through Albemarle Sound runs a dotted line indicating the course for ships. It may be seen where they could escape to or enter from the Atlantic through the narrow, hazardous Roanoke Inlet. At the left, near where the Chowan River empties into the Sound, is the town of Edenton. Several roads came together here, and the little black rectangles suggest buildings. There is a church in the town, with a tower and steeple in front. Other churches shown elsewhere on the map have exactly the same form as the one at Edenton, so one realizes that this form is not meant to show what a specific church looked like, but is a standard symbol for a church. Incidentally, notice how churches or chapels stand alone at various places in the countryside.

Courthouses, like churches, are shown in towns, and here and there in the country. They are indicted by a symbol which could be described as a letter “U” which is squared rather than rounded. The courthouse at Edenton is hard to identify; one can not be sure about it.

To the northeast of Edenton, on the Perquimans River, is [7] the town of Hartford, now called Hertford. Farther to the east is Nixonton, its houses lying along both sides of a single road. Follow the road to the south and see the farms which lie along Little River. Each farm is marked by a spot representing the house, and carries the name of the owner- the names Morris, Evans, Ancoup, and so on, can be read. In the north, above this area, is the Great Dismal Swamp, looking very great and dismal indeed. Vivid as this map proves to be, we have not seen individual towns very clearly. To get sharper ideas about them, we descend lower to the earth and look at maps of individual towns.


A map of a town shows streets and broad avenues crossing and interlacing in some pattern, wide or narrow lots in rows along streets, and buildings which are placed at the front or deep within the lots. Such matters make one section of a town look different from another and are part of the design or the plan of a town.

Lewis Mumford, a man who has a great interest in cities and towns and who has written a number of books on them, considers a town as a work of art. He believes that just as a picture is a work of art, and a house is a work of art, so is a town. The design of a town-the arrangement of streets and lots-expresses the ideas of the people about the right framework in which a good life can be lived. For our study of colonial towns we are fortunate in having beautiful maps of ten North Carolina towns, all made by the surveyor Claude Joseph Sauthier. The Hillsboro map, figure 3, is one of these drawings. Sauthier traveled over North Carolina between 1768 and 1770, surveyed and made maps of Bath, Beaufort, Brunswick, Edenton. Cross Creek (now [9] Fayetteville, Halifax, Hillsboro, New Bern, Salisbury, and Wilmington. The drawings were commissioned by Governor Tryon; most of them have found their way to the great British Museum, in London.

The majority of the buildings shown on the maps have disappeared. The maps thus enable us to see-what otherwise we could never see-North Carolina towns as they once were. Sauthier did make occasional mistakes; and some details (for example, the design of a flower garden) are not to be read as literal fact; but for the most part the drawings may be studied as aerial photographs. By great good fortune they were made at the right time for us, and have survived.

To get some general ideas about colonial towns, we will look at the map of Hillsboro. Our remarks about this map reflect observations of Dr. Mary Claire Engstrom, scholar of 18th-century subjects, and a vice-president of the Hillsboro Historical Society. The Sauthier map of Hillsboro, dated October 1768, was made after the spring uprising of the Regulators in that town and immediately following Governor Tryon' s arrival there in September. From this it may be suspected that, in commissioning the map, Governor Tryon had military thoughts in mind. Hillsboro-the danger spot- was the first map in Sauthier's series of ten maps. The others were made as he travelled with Governor Tryon.

The little town is shown on the Eno River in the wooded land of Orange County. The big star at upper left shows north, south, east, and west, and one notes that the town seems to be laid out “properly” on these directions. Roads leading to neighboring towns are carefully marked. There are the Roads from Salisbury . . . to Virginia . . . to Halifax ... to New Bern . . to the Quaker Settlement . o . to Cross Creek. At lower left is “Oakaneetche Mountain,” a great [10] hump of earth overlooking Hillsboro. Another of the Occoneechee mountains is seen at the edge of the map. The Occoneechee Indians were one of several Indian tribes in the area. Today, boy scouts in this part of Orange County belong to the Occoneechee Council. They sometimes have camporees at the Hillsboro race ground, not far from the “Race Ground” marked on our map. This Race Ground lies neatly within a bend in the Eno River, as though the river wanted to mark out this area of flat land for such special use. Scattered here and there outside the town are farms. The rectangular plots of farm land are clearly marked, and the farm houses and secondary buildings are placed at corners convenient to the road.

For a better view of the actual town itself we look at an enlarged section of the map, Figure 4. Buildings are indicated by small rectangles which have heavy outlines on two sides- the right side and the lower side. These two heavy lines may be regarded as a shadow cast by the bulk of the building. They are a convention used by Sauthier to show bulk or mass. The various rectangles which are shown within gardens also employ this same thick-thin line convention, suggesting a mass of green foliage rising above the surrounding paths.

The buildings marked “A,” ... “B,” ... “C” and so on, are identified under corresponding letters listed under “Reference” at the upper right of the total map. “A, Church” is toward the northern part of the town, removed from the business area below. In assigning to the Church the “A” (number one) position on his list, Sauthier pays respect to the idea of the primacy of the spiritual order over civil law. At “A” is a rectangle containing a number of crosses. This seems to suggest a fenced-off cemetery. One does not find an actual church building, but a church did exist on this ground shortly after Sauthier's visit.

[12] “B, Court House” is located close to the crossing of two wide streets-those two main streets from which roads lead off to the other towns of the Colony. The courthouse was a “plain, barn-like structure.” The present and very famous Old Courthouse, dating from near the mid-l9th century, stands near this site.

“C” marks the jail. The word jail used to be spelled gaol, but Sauthier spells it goal. It is shown within a small rectangle, perhaps indicating a fenced-in yard. The jail may possibly have been a new structure, for Dr. Engstrom has discovered that about six months before Sauthier's visit a former jail, at another location down town, was sold to a private individual to use for business purposes. The new jail was probably not an impressive building, perhaps only a log cabin, but Sauthier thought it important to note that the town had this institution to take care of wayward people. Incidentally, the jail seems a little wayward itself, having strayed into the otherwise clear, wide street. When the jail was built that street was perhaps just a well worn path, and the jail may have been erected hastily without careful checking of stakes for the street. In other colonial towns (for example, in the placement of the church at Bath) it sometimes seems as though buildings are incorrectly placed. The Hillsboro jail, for many years in the general position shown, has recently been moved back to a less assertive site.

“D, Market House,” directly at the main intersection and adjacent to the courthouse, is shown as square. The "X" inscribed within this square perhaps indicates that the market had a pyramidal, four-sided roof. The building may have had open sides, like markets in certain other colonial towns. The open market building is an idea brought from Europe. Other buildings around this main intersection were stores or warehouses. At the southwest corner was Johnston and [13] Thackston's store where Edmund Fanning, the Clerk of Court and a Tory leader, took refuge from the Regulators in 1770.

At “E, Mills” there are curious parallel straight lines which can be read as canals. The mills, probably with water wheels, are built over the canals. Where the river widens out at the left there may have been a dam to hold back the flow of water in the river, and force it through the canals. The curious marks on the canals could be gates.

The mills are the last structures identified on the map. Sauthier does not mention the Commons, a field set aside for pasturing of the cattle owned by people in a colonial town. On some of his other maps he identifies such places as Tann Yard, ... School House, ... Tobacco Store, ... Windmill.

The homes shown in the map are all built near the street. Behind are fields or gardens divided into orderly plots. Most of the buildings are simple rectangles in shape. Occasionally a building has an irregular shape, perhaps meaning that an original rectangular structure was given an addition. Similarly, lots with irregular shape may indicate additions or subdivision of an original tract. By way of contrast to the Hillsboro town plan, Figure 5 is a drawing of Grenoble, a medieval French city. This drawing is reproduced from The Culture of Cities, by Lewis Mum-ford. The winding streets are natural paths that have become fixed as streets. Some curving streets mark the location of early town walls, removed as the town grew and as larger encircling walls were erected. Mr. Mumford speaks of this kind of town as having a natural circular plan, with irregular blocks dictated by topography and the original circular wall.

When American colonial towns like Hillsboro were founded, the streets and lots were laid out in advance. The [15] uniform rectangular lots were easy to measure and ideal for fixing sale prices and for the assessment of taxes. Later expansion of the town could also be orderly. The idea of the colonial gridiron town speaks of “modern” men and their institutions, as oPi)osc(l to medieval men. Figures 6, 7, and 8 suggest planning ideas found in early North Carolina towns. Figure 6, recalling Hillsboro, could he called a plan for an inland town. In our diagram two slightly wider streets mark a crossing at the center of the town. The dot in the center of the crossing is to indicate the placement of the courthouse. Such placement is not what we saw at Hillsboro, but is shown on several of the Sauthier maps of North Carolina towns (for example, Salisbury and Wilmington). This was a good arrangement, for the courthouse, symbol of the civil law and order of the area, might be seen from a long way off as the town was approached from various directions. However, the early towns which began with the courthouse astride the main crossing generally found later that this location impeded the flow of traffic. Consequently, some courthouses have been moved from their original sites, allowing traffic to flow across the intersection. Pittsboro, however-although a relatively late colonial town, having been laid out in 1785—still has its courthouse in the central position.

Figure 7, to suggest the plan of a port town, seems like half of the inland plan, above. A principal street of the town runs along or near the water. It might be called Water Street, as at Bath. Figure 8 indicates an idea found at Salem, laid out in 1765, and elsewhere in the American colonies. A central square is left open and principal town buildings are built around it. At Raleigh, laid out in 1792, the square is very large, and contains the State Capitol. A central green be[17]longing to the people, a place in which they might gather, is still a pleasant reminder of community life and order in those towns which possess them.

Since colonial (lays our old towns have changed much. In the 19th century mills and warehouses dwarfed the original buildings. The railroad, that glamorous invention of the industrial revolution, appeared in the towns, bisecting them. Especially in the 20th century, faster change and “progress” have all but obliterated the charm of old towns. Downtoxvn streets become impossibly congested. Old residential areas are invaded by filling stations and supermarkets. In a free country a man can buy a beautiful old home, blast it out of existence, and erect an unsightly factory over its ruins. Such “progress” has blighted and disfigured many towns. But townspeople are becoming horrified by this, and now there are citizen committees which bring about zoning laws under which the plans for the use of land and for new buildings must be approved. Some towns have Planning Boards, with a Planning Director in charge, who think not only of the present but also of the far future. At the University of North Carolina there is a Department of City and Regional Planning; it trains young men and women for positions in planning.

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