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Architecture


RUSSELLBOROUGH”: TWO ROYAL GOVERNORS’ MANSION AT BRUNSWICK TOWN

BY STANLEY A. SOUTH*

[Vol. 44 (1967), 361-372]

Early in September, 1748, Spanish ships sailed twelve miles into the Cape Fear River and attacked the little town of Brunswick, taking possession of all of the vessels in the harbor and plundering the town for three days before being driven away by townspeople under the leadership of William Dry. During the rout of the invaders from the town, the Spanish ship “Fortuna” blew up and sank in the harbor, killing Captain Vincent Lopez, all of his officers, and most of the crew.1

By 1751, probably as a result of that dramatic incident at Port Brunswick, His Majesty’s Sloop “Scorpion” was stationed there under the command of Captain John Russell. On October 31 of that year William Moore of Orton Plantation sold to Captain Russell fifty-five acres of land adjoining the northern boundary of Brunswick Town for one pound per acre.2 It was on this land that Russell began to build his home. Russell died in December, 1752, however, and by an instrument dated April 16, 1753, his widow acknowledged a bonded indebtedness of £700 proclamation money to Richard Quince, a prominent Brunswick Town merchant, and appointed Quince as her attorney to dispose of “a certain plantation or Tract of fifty-five acres of Land situate near Brunswick in New Hanover County whereon a new house is lately erected and not as yet finished,” along with the Negro slaves and other goods and chattels “at the highest price he...can get for same.”3 By November 18, 1754, when William Moore made his last will and testament, the property was once again in his possession and he directed that it be sold as soon as convenient. It was then known as “Russefllborough,”4 though being just the shell of a house,5 it was not likely to have ever been occupied by Russell.

During those years there was no fixed seat of government in the colony, the records and assemblymen moving from place to place as each town competed to become the center of political activity. The executors of William Moore’s estate were interested in further development of Brunswick Town, not only as an official port of entry, but as the seat of government of North Carolina. With this in mind, they approached Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs, who was living in New Bern at the time, and offered him the fifty-five acres of “Russellborough” with its unfinished house for the sum of five shillings and one peppercorn, the latter to be delivered at the end of one year of residence on the property.6The arrangement with the peppercorn was apparently an attempt on the part of the executors to retain some degree of control over the property for one year and in doing so to insure that Brunswick Town would be the seat of government for at least that period of time and, hopefully, longer.

Governor Dobbs was approached at an opportune time by the gentlemen from Brunswick. His health was bad, and he attributed that to the “aguish” climate of New Bern. He wished for a healthier climate. Dobbs was also concerned over the high rent he was paying, so the offer of fifty-five acres plus the shell of a fine house at Brunswick looked good to him; consequently, he moved to “Russellborough” in 1758.7 Although New Bern and Brunswick were both coastal towns, equally subject to fevers and “ague,” Dobbs felt that the move helped his health. And indeed it must have, for in 1762 when he was seventy-three years old, he married Justina Davis, a fifteen-year-old Brunswick maiden.8

With the move of Dobbs to “Russellborough,” the building was completed and several outbuildings were added. This house was to be the residence of two royal governors for the next twelve years, which created a great increase in the political activity for the little town of Brunswick. During the years that Dobbs and his teen-age bride lived at Brunswick their residence was known as “Castle Dobbs,” as was the Governor’s ancestral home in Carrickfergus, Ireland.9

Just before embarking for England in March, 1765, Dobbs died, and “Castle Dobbs” devolved to his son, Edward Brice Dobbs, who sold it two years later to Royal Governor William Tryon for £300 sterling—a substantial increase over the five shillings and one peppercorn paid by Dobbs for the property.10

Tryon had already arranged to lease the governor’s house, and within a month following Dobbs’ death the new governor moved into “Castle Dobbs,” later changing its name to “Bellfont.”11 During the first days of their occupancy the Governor and Mrs. Tryon concentrated on renovating the house that was to be their home for the next five years. Tryon wrote to a friend, telling of his new situation and giving a description of his home, the only such description of a Brunswick Town house known to exist:

As you are acquainted with Mrs Tryons Neatness you will not wonder that we have been pestered with scouring of Chambers White Washing of Cielings [sic], Plaisterers Work, and Painting the House inside and out. Such is the Sickness and indolence of the Workmen in this Hot Climate that I shall not I am persuaded get rid of these nuisances this month. This House which has so many assistances is of an oblong Square Built of Wood. It measures on the out Side Faces forty five feet by thirty five feet, and is Divided into two Stories, exclusive of the Cellars the Parlour Floor is about five feet above the Surface of the Earth. Each Story has four Rooms and three light Closets. The Parlour below & the drawing Room are 20 x 15 feet each; Ceilings low. There is a Piaza Runs Round the House both Stories of ten feet Wide with a Ballustrade of four feet high, which is a great Security for my little girl. There is a good Stable and Coach Houses and some other Out Houses. if I continue in this House, which will depend on Capt. Dobbs” Resolution in the manner he disposes of his Effects here, I shall & must build a good Kitchen, which I can do for forty Pounds Sterling of 30f x 40f—The garden has nothing to Boast of except Fruit Trees. Peaches, Nectrs Figgs and Plumbs are in perfection and of good Sorts. I cut a Musk Melon this week which weighed 17½ Pounds....12

In November, 1765, and again in 1766 the Lower Cape Fear area was the scene of violence as citizens arose in arms to protest the Stamp Act. Tryon’s home was surrounded by five hundred “inhabitants in arms,” as he called them, and he was placed under virtual house arrest. These incidents were among the first in which armed resistance was used against the officers of the King by American colonists.13

In April, 1769, C. J. Sauthier drew a detailed map of Brunswick Town showing “His Excellency Governor Tryon’s House and Plantation.” This map shows the main house at “Russellborough” and reveals that in 1769 there were eleven outbuildings associated with it. These buildings included the stable and coach houses mentioned by Tryon in his description and the kitchen he planned to build. The garden with walks and the position of individual trees are shown; to the south of the house a flag is flying on a flagpole. The map indicates that the low marsh area between the house and the river was extensively cut with canals to enable the growing of rice. Sauthier’s map will continue to be a valuable aid in the interpretation of this site.14

In 1770 William Tryon moved into the controversial “Tryon’s Palace” at New Bern,15 and in January, 1771, he sold his Brunswick Town house to William Dry for £600.16

William Dry, the port collector of customs for Brunswick, was a man of some means.17 He continued to call the house “Bellfont”18 and entertained such men as Josiah Quincy, who said that Colonel Dry’s mansion is justly called “the house of universal hospitality.”19Although Dry was employed in the King’s business, his politics was such that one visitor, after listening to Dry’s views, said: “He [Richard Quince] is deeply engaged in the new system of politicks, in which they are all more or less, tho’ Mr Dry, the collector of customs, is the most zealous and talks treason by the hour.”20 His views eventually resulted in his being removed from his official duties for the King; thereafter he continued to devote his energies to the cause of the Revolution.21

On April 5, 1776, the Virginia Gazette reported:

Captain Collett has lately committed divers acts of piracy and robbery. Amongst others he set fire to the elegant house of Col. Dry...destroying therein all the valuable furniture, liquors, etc....22

With the burning of the house, its eighteen-year period of occupation was sealed in the earth and, fortunately, the site was never again occupied. This ruin, along with those of the town of Brunswick, was sold to the owner of Orton Plantation by the state of North Carolina in 184223 for $4.25.

During the Civil War earthworks were built at Fort Anderson nearby, but the area of the ruin of “Russellborough” was not disturbed. By the late nineteenth century the fields to the west of the area of the ruins of “Russellborough” were known as the &“old palace fields,” but the site of the house had been lost in a dense jungle-like overgrowth. James Sprunt, owner of Orton Plantation and historian of the Cape Fear area, in the 1890’s inquired of a Negro who had formerly been a slave as to the location of the home of Governor Dobbs or Governor Tryon. The old gentleman answered that he did not know of those governors but that he did know the location of the ruin of the house of “governor palace,” and the old slave took Sprunt to the site of “Russellborough.”24

Through the interest of Sprunt and the North Carolina Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the site of “Russellborough” was marked in 1909 by a monument faced with small yellow Dutch bricks dug from one of the cellar floors of the ruin. An access road was constructed to the monument across two corners of the ruin. A laborer involved in that work remembered seeing the mouth of a tunnel and he said that some of the workmen wanted to dig into it to look for treasure, but Sprunt ordered that the tunnel be covered. Sprnnt explained that someday someone might want to uncover the ruin to learn about the governors who had once lived there—this admirable attitude of the historian undoubtedly saved “Russellborough” from damage. Fifty years later the laborer predicted to the author that a brick tunnel would be found when the excavation was carried out at the site of “Russellborough.”

When the excavation of “Russellborough” began in May, 1966, a number of pits dug by treasure and relic hunters could be seen, indicating that some disturbance of the context of the ruin could be expected. As excavation progressed, however, it became apparent that the holes seldom reached sufficient depth to disturb the cellar floors or the plaster layer covering them.

Removal of the brick and stone rubble from the area revealed a stone foundation wall two feet thick, measuring 36 by 44 feet with a central stone wall paralleling the long axis of the house. The two halves were bisected by a partition wall of yellow Dutch brick on one side and the charcoal remains of a wooden partition wall on the other. The partitions divided the ruin into four rooms. Ten feet from the central ruin and extending around it was a brick wall with engaged footings for columns, obviously the support for the “piaza” mentioned by Governor Tryon. With this porch foundation, the ruin measured 56 by 65 feet.

Excavation of the area between the porch wall and the foundation wall of the house yielded no artifacts of any kind, except along the north side where thousands of fragments of wine bottles revealed the apparent location of the wine storage area beneath this part of the porch. In the deposit were 158 bottle seals impressed with “W Dry Cape Fear 1766,” providing dramatic evidence for the report in the Virginia Gazette of April 5, 1776, which bemoaned the loss by fire of “the elegant house of Col. Dry … destroying therein all the valuable ... liquors, etc....” By weighing a whole bottle and dividing this figure into the weight of all the fragments recovered from the deposit, it was determined that at least three hundred bottles were stored in this area of the cellar when the house was burned.

The floor of the northeast room of the cellar was found eighteen inches below the surface of the ground and it was paved with yellow Dutch bricks placed on edge. Extending into the room three feet from the north wall were two brick arms sixteen feet apart, probably representing supports for a wooden framework for the storage of barrels lying on their sides. The arms of a central chimney extended into the room from the south wall, in front of which were found the fragments of a very large storage jar that had been sitting beside the fireplace when the burning house fell. This jar has been restored, revealing the letters “I F” in a relief seal on opposite sides of the vessel. Similar jars have been recovered in Williamsburg, are known in the West Indies, and it is assumed that they are Iberian in origin. Also found beside this fireplace was an amphora-shaped bottle, another rare type at Brunswick Town. The presence of a fireplace would indicate that this cellar room was once probably used as a servants’ quarters, although at the time of the fire it was not likely used for that purpose.

The adjoining room to the south also had a Dutch brick floor over most of its area. Many of the artifacts recovered from this room were in the layer of plaster from the walls that covered the floor in a thick white deposit. The fragments of a marble mantelpiece were lying with a flintlock musket and bayonet on the hearth in front of the arms of the fireplace. The bricks which formed the back of the fireplace were laid in a herringbone pattern, providing a clue to the quality of workmanship that went into the construction of the house.

Lying on the floor where they had fallen were a mass of wine bottle fragments, indicating that wine was stored there also. Lying together were two William Dry bottles, a pair of brass dividers, broken medicine bottles, one still containing medicine whose primary ingredient was lead, a whole porcelain teacup, and several straight razors. With these objects were cabinet hinges and door locks, indicating that they had been stored together in some type of enclosed cabinet. Nearby was a copper teakettle and the remains of four fire-damaged grindstones. This room, too, had apparently been designed originally as servants’ quarters and may have been used as such at the time of the burning of the house.

The adjoining room to the west was floored with sand and also had two brick arms extending into the room, as did the northeast room, probably for the support of barrels of rum or wine placed on a wooden platform between the arms. Between the brick supports, the charcoal remains of what may have been a platform was found. In the northwest corner of the room a number of crucibles of varying sizes were unearthed. Each will nest inside the other to make a set. Crucibles of this type were used by silversmiths for melting metals, and just why William Dry would have so many of these little vessels stored in his home provides food for conjecture. Also found here was a flintlock pistol.

The fourth room was of particular interest because it was covered with a plaster floor whose surface was quite irregular. Several whole wine bottles were recovered there. Two feet from the north central part of a room a brick well was found, which proved to be five feet deep with a two-foot stand of water. Inside the well an iron ring slightly smaller than the well was discovered. Hooks were mounted around the ring at regular intervals—obviously this was a device for suspending objects inside the well for cooling. The presence of wine bottles at the bottom of the well might indicate that wine was one of the items being cooled there. In the corner of the room barrel bands of iron were found lying one inside the other, indicating that barrels were present there also. This room at one time was probably connected through an opening in the stone foundation wall to the wine storage area beneath the porch, but the opening was later sealed with small stones mixed with a mortar of clay instead of cement. This room probably served also as the dairy for “Russellborough.”

As the northeast corner of the brick foundation for the porch support was being excavated, an arched row of bricks was seen forming part of the foundation wall. As more of the arch was revealed the mouth of a tunnel was seen. Immediately in front of the tunnel opening was an object made of tabby,25 twenty inches square at one end with a round, tapering hole throughout its eighteen-inch length. Just what this object was used for is unknown, though its function may have been in connection with a water closet associated with the tunnel and the porch.

The area in front of the mouth of the tunnel had been disturbed to a depth of the bottom of the mouth of the tunnel and was filled with bricks and sections of the brick wall support for the porch. A fragment of modern red glass indicated that the mouth of the tunnel must have been exposed at sometime during the twentieth century but was recovered. This fact correlated with the information provided by the laborer, as reported earlier. The tunnel mouth was located directly beneath the access road to the 1909 monument. This fact indicated that in order to construct the road over the edge of the ruin, parts of the brick wall had to be leveled to make way for the road, which would account for the disturbance near the tunnel mouth.

As excavation of the tunnel was carried out, it was determined that the lower half was filled with quantities of artifacts such as wine glasses, plates, teacups, saucers, bottles, and an unbroken earthenware, olla-shaped jar. The tunnel proved to be thirty feet long, sloping downhill toward the river and resolving into an open brick-sided ditch at its opposite end. The floor of the tunnel was bricked and unmortared, whereas the arched overhead was constructed with lime-mortared bricks. Obviously this tunnel constituted some sort of drainage system from the cellar to the river, most likely a sewer.

Forty feet north of the ruin of “Russellborough” a stone foundation wall could be seen standing two feet above the surface of the ground. Excavation of this ruin revealed a foundation of a building 32 by 52 feet constructed of stone and brick with an ell on the south end. This building was shown on the 1769 Sauthier map of Brunswick Town and may represent the kitchen Governor Tryon said he planned to build sometime after 1765. Its interpretation as a kitchen is based on the fact that a foundation for a bake oven was found attached to a seven-foot wide fireplace. An interesting feature of this fireplace was a bricked storage box at the left side which contained soot and ashes, apparently having fallen to the ground from the level of the hearth itself, some distance above the excavation level. The function of this separate “soot box” is not known. The kitchen was divided into three rooms, the central room having a small hearth, likely for supplying heat for the servants, whose quarters were probably located there. The northernmost room, with a brick foundation was perhaps a storage room for supplies for the kitchen. A small section of Dutch brick flooring was found in the “servants’ quarters” room of this building.

Few artifacts were found in the area of the ruin itself, but directly to the east, on the downhill slope of the bank, a round pit outline was seen when the topsoil was removed from the area. This pit was only three feet across and one foot deep, but it contained an incredible amount of broken dishes and bottles. Fragments of broken china were so tightly packed into the pit that sand had not been able to sift in, leaving hollow spaces between the fragments. A total of 2,320 fragments of china were recovered, from which over 40 ceramic vessels were completely restored, including teacups, saucers, sauceboats, chamber pots, bowls, plates, platters, pitchers, and jugs. Besides this unusual collection of objects there were two William Dry bottle seals, nine Pyrmont water bottle seals,26 and 163 pounds of bottle fragments. Using a whole bottle weight of one and one-half pounds, the total number of bottles in this pit would be 108. This compared favorably with the count of 103 bottle necks and 112 bottle bases determined from fragments of these parts counted.

Of the ceramic types recovered from the pit 59 percent were of white salt-glazed stoneware, 20 percent were of creamware, and 7 percent were of Oriental porcelain. A surprising fact is that there were no fragments of mottled-glaze creamware present, as one might have expected from a pit of this date. From the presence of the 1766 bottle seals and the historic proof that the site was sealed in 1776, it is known that this group of artifacts dates during the ten-year period from 1766 to 1776. The fact that the objects were closely packed into the pit in a solid mass of fragments would tend to indicate that this deposit was the result of disposal of a mass breakage of china and bottles which occurred at one moment in time during the occupation of the site. One restored teacup was of blue transfer-printed ware with the “C” mark of the Worcester pottery, the earliest transfer-printed ware yet found at Brunswick Town.

The contents of this pit, along with the artifacts recovered from the tunnel and the ruin of the house and kitchen at “Russellborough,” are still being cataloged, processed, and restored. The continuing interpretation of this excavation should prove of considerable value to archaeologists and historians interested in the most significant ruin yet revealed at Brunswick Town.

With completion of the excavation at “Russellborough,” the 1896 prediction of James Sprunt has been realized. At that time he said, “A careful excavation of this ruin would doubtless reveal some interesting and possibly valuable relics of Governor Tryon’s household.”27 The continued interest of the Sprunt family made possible the establishment of Brunswick Town as a State Historic Site, leading to discoveries of inestimable historic worth, such as those at “Russell-borough.”


Footnotes

*Mr. South is archaeologist with the State Department of Archives and History. This paper was read at the seventh annual Conference on Historic Site Archaeology held at Avery Island, Louisiana, November 3, 1966.

1 South Carolina Gazette (Charleston), October 31, 1748.

2 New Hanover County Registry Records, New Hanover County Courthouse, Wilmington, Book C, 302, hereinafter cited as New Hanover Records. A microfilm copy of these records is on file in the State Archives, Raleigh.

3 New Hanover Records, Book D, 79-80. In this instrument, which was executed by Alice Russell, “widow and relict” of the late John Russell, on April 16, 1753, it is stated that Russell’s will was published on “the thirteenth day of December last past,” which would indicate that he had died a few days earlier.

4 In his will, William Moore mentioned “my house Russellborough,” and he named as his executors his wife, Mary Davis Moore, her father, John Davis, Sr., and George Moore. New Hanover Records, Book D, 134-135. In a deed to Arthur Dobbs executed March 1, 1762, the executors of Moore’s estate also made reference to “Russellborough.” New Hanover Records, Book D, 326-327.

5 In a report to the Board of Trade, August 3, 1760, Governor Dobbs said: “It is also notoriously evident that the unhealthy situation of the Town of Newbern deprives it of the least claim to such an advantage, as appears by the unanimous vote of the Assembly now upon their Journals, to wit, that the Town of Newbern upon account of its being an unhealthy situation was improper for the seat of Government. Besides this unanswerable objection I myself was under a necessity of leaving it, for exclusive of the want of every necessary convenience, I was apprehended to be dying upon account of the unhealthiness of the place and as the shell of a very good house situate on a healthy soil near Brunswick on Cape Fear River was offered me I removed thither where under God my health is re-established.” William L. Saunders (ed.), The Colonial Records of North Carolina (Raleigh: State of North Carolina, 10 volumes, 1886-1890), VI, 300, hereinafter cited as Saunders, Colonial Records.

6 New Hanover Records, Book D, 326-329.

7 Desmond Clarke, Arthur Dobbs, Esquire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 152, hereinafter referred to as Clarke, Dobbs.

8 Clarke, Dobbs, 186-187.

9 Walter Clark (ed.), The State Records of North Carolina (Winston, Goldsboro, and Raleigh: State of North Carolina, 16 volumes and 4-volume index [compiled by Stephen B. Weeks for both Colonial Records and State Records], 1895-1914), XXII, 301.

10 New Hanover Records, Book E, 309.

11 In a letter to the Earl of Halifax, October 15, 1764, Tryon said, “Among my lesser disappointments is the want of a house, as the Governor has declined letting me his villa till his departure....” Colonial Records, VI, 1053. For the change of the name of the house to “Bellfont,” see Lawrence Lee, The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 189; also see Collet’s “A Compleat Map of North-Carolina from an actual Survey,” in William P. Cumming, North Carolina in Maps (Raleigh: State Department of Archives and History, 1966), Plate VII. This map, which was made in 1770, bears the notation “Govr. H. Bellefont” outside Brunswick.

12 Copy of a letter from Governor Tryon to Sewallis Shirley, July 26, 1765, in the Bruce Cotten Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, given to Brunswick Town State Historic Site by Miss Gertrude Carraway of New Bern. A published copy of this letter will be found in William S. Powell (ed.), “Tryon’s ‘Book’ on North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review, XXXIV (July, 1957), 406-415. One of the Governor’s house guests referred to the residence as “Castle Tryon.” Saunders, Colonial Records, VII, 161.

13 R. D. W. Connor, Cornelius Harnett (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1909), 35-36.

14 C. J. Sauthier, “Plan of the Town and Port of Brunswick, in Brunswick County, North Carolina, surveyed and drawn in April, 1769,” copy on file in State Archives.

15 Alonzo Thomas Dill, Governor Tryon and His Palace (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 117.

16 Brunswick County Registry Records, Brunswick County Courthouse, Southport, Book D, 85. A microfilm copy of these records is on file in the State Archives.

17 For a brief biographical sketch of William Dry, see Evangeline Walker Andrews (ed.), with the collaboration of Charles McLean Andrews, Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the years 1774 to 1776, by Janet Schaw (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923), 314-315, hereinafter cited as Andrews, Journal of a Lady of Quality.

18 When Frederick J. Hill, the owner of Orton Plantation, acquired “Russellborough” in 1842, the grant from the Secretary of State cited the “Bell Font” line as one of the surveyor’s calls. The grant was entered April 27, 1842, and recorded April 28, 1845, when Hill paid for the property. See Land Grant Records of North Carolina, Office of the Secretary of State, Raleigh, Land Grant Book 150, 303, File No. 1566, hereinafter cited as Land Grant Book.

19 Andrews, Journal of a Lady of Quality, 315.

20 Andrews, Journal of a Lady in Quality, 145.

21 Saunders, Colonial Records, X, 101.

22 Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), April 5, 1776.

23 Land Grant Book 150, 303. See n. 18.

24 James Sprunt, Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear, 1661-1896 (Wilmington: LeGwin Brothers, Printers, 1896), 70, hereinafter cited as Sprunt, Tales of the Lower Cape Fear.

25 Tabby is a cement made of lime, sand or gravel, and oyster shells, which was commonly used for the construction of houses on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

26 In the eighteenth century mineral waters from the spa at Pyrmont (Piermont), the capital of Waldeck, Germany, were popular in England, and bottles carrying this water have been found in Virginia as well as in this pit at “Russellborough.” Ivor Noël Hume, “The Glass Wine Bottle in Colonial Virginia,” Journal of Glass Studies (Corning, N.Y.: Corning Museum of Glass, 1961), Volume III, 109.

27 Sprunt, Tales of the Lower Cape Fear, 71.



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