Road names point to the Cape Fear region's plantation past

Claudia Stack

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Illustration published in Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, 1866 Oct. 20, p. 72. Subjects:
Rice culture on Cape Fear River, N.C. / from sketches by James E. Taylor. Library of Congress,
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. Call Number: Illus. in AP2.L52 Case Y[P&P]

This story is inspired by a road that is named for the Hermitage plantation, which was located eight miles north of Wilmington, NC. The Hermitage was one of several plantations owned by John Burgwin (1731-1803). A wealthy English merchant, Burgwin inherited the plantation from his first wife, Margaret Marsden Haynes, who was the granddaughter of English pastor Richard Marsden. Burgwin was one of the largest enslavers in the Cape Fear region. In 1790 alone, Burgwin is listed as enslaving 81 people, and the evidence suggests he took their work and loyalty for granted.

Europeans first laid claim to the Lower Cape Fear Region in 1664 with the unsuccessful Charles Towne settlement (Jack E. Fryar, Jr Charles Towne on the Cape Fear), which they abandoned in favor of South Carolina. However, Europeans returned in 1725 to the region to stay, led by Maurice Moore and Edward Moseley. By 1730, eight families were on their way to controlling more than ninety-one thousand acres in the region, killing or displacing Native Americans in the process (Bradford J. Wood, This Remote Part of the World). As noted in Chapter II of "A History of New Hanover County and the Lower Cape Fear Region" 1723-1800 (vol. 1, by Alfred Moore Waddell, 1909), dozens of plantations lined the banks of the Cape Fear River by the year 1800.

When we think of southern plantations, we often think of cotton or tobacco. Rice plantations also operated along the southern coasts. Some rice was cultivated in New Hanover County, NC. Growing rice was labor intensive work that required enslaved people to stand in marshy, snake and insect infested water. The largest and most profitable rice plantations were to the south of New Hanover County, beginning in Brunswick County, NC and extending down to South Carolina and Georgia.

However, instead of cotton, tobacco or rice, naval stores were the most significant export from Lower Cape Fear plantations before 1860. That included the tar, turpentine and pitch necessary for maintaining the wooden ships of the period. Producing these commodities required vast tracts of forest lands, and large numbers of enslaved workers.

“Though the Lower Cape Fear never developed a very significant rice-growing economy during the colonial period, naval stores and other forest industries combined with agricultural activities to bring much greater export profits to the Lower Cape Fear than to any other part of North Carolina...By the late colonial period, slaves made up the majority of the Lower Cape Fear’s still sparse population…”

Wood, Bradford J. “Politics and Authority in Colonial North Carolina: A Regional Perspective.” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 81, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1–37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23523311. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.

John Burgwin amassed significant wealth from his operations as a merchant. However, he was a loyalist who went back to England to seek medical treatment during the Revolutionary War. When Burgwin returned to North Carolina, he was able to reclaim his confiscated properties. In 1799, Burgwin sold his home in Wilmington to Joshua Grainger Wright and shifted his focus from mercantile activities to running his plantations.

“Two of the finest houses ever constructed in North Carolina were homes of John Burgwin. The Burgwin-Wright House was built in 1771 on the site of a former jail in Wilmington...As Burgwin shifted his principal business interests from mercantilism to planting, he spent more time at “The Hermitage,” his plantation on Prince George Creek. Originally a modest house built by Richard Marsden, “The Hermitage” was considerably enlarged by Burgwin, who also added a final English landscape garden.”

Essay for Historical Marker D-15 for the Burgwin-Wright House in Wilmington, NC, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, NCDNCR

In 1885, James G. Burr wrote in an article about the Hermitage that Burgwin had considered selling the plantation in 1797 (although he did not end up selling it), and wrote to a friend describing the property. It can be seen from this description that, even if the plantation began by producing naval stores, as most in the region did, by the end of the 18th century considerable labor had been expended to diversify what was produced there. Burr quotes what he says Burgwin wrote in the letter to his friend:

“The mansion - house is large , elegant , and commodious for a large family, with barn , stabling for twenty horses, cowhouses, pigeonhouse, and every other outhouse convenient or necessary. Near three thousand acres of land, all within a ring fence, double ditched and between a navigable river and creek, at the distance of eight miles from Wilmington. There are upwards of three hundred acres of rice land, near one hundred acres of which are clear, and under good dams and flood - gates, and there are upwards of three hundred acres of upland under tillage in corn, peas, potatoes, cotton, flax, etc .; my price is $ 25,000. I would sell also, at a fair valuation, one hundred head of horned cattle, fifty sheep, horses, and all farming utensils, and about one hundred negroes. "

Burr, James G. The Hermitage, of the Series Old Mansions of the Cape Fear, Wilmington, 1885 - reprinted in the The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries: Volume 16 Jan 1886 publisher W. Abbatt

Burr was effusive in his praise of the Hermitage. His article is quoted at length by Henry J. MacMillan in the February,1969 Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Inc. bulletin:

“The mansion house was beautifully located and presented a very imposing appearance It was about one hundred and twenty feet long the north front faced a sloping lawn extending about one hundred and fifty yards to Prince George’s Creek and the south front faced a large flower garden from which extended a broad avenue about half a mile long with a double row of elms on each side continued by a carriage way of more than a mile in length... The house contained seventeen rooms with a light well ventilated stone cellarage extending under the whole The building was of the most substantial character Instead of weather boarding the two wings were sided with cypress shingles... “

James G. Burr 1885 as quoted in “Colonial Plantations of the Lower Cape Fear” by Henry J. MacMillan, Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Inc. Bulletin, Vol XII Number 2, February 1969

MacMillan goes on to say that “it is stated by John Burgwin’s daughter that the work was done by her father’s own slaves.” There were many enslaved people in the Lower Cape Fear who developed specialized skills. Further, being hired out as skilled labor gave enslaved people in the Lower Cape Fear an unusual level of mobility. Bradford concludes that “Lower Cape Fear’s relative abundance of slaves led to a more skilled and specialized slave population” ( Bradford J. Wood, This Remote Part of the World , p. 214).

Enslaved people in the region worked as pilots on the waterways, coopers, blacksmiths, carpenters, seamstresses and other skilled craftsmen or women. In 1775, patriot Cornelius Harnett, who like Burgwin lived north of Wilmington, advertised seeking the return of an enslaved man named Cuffee who was a carpenter:

“RUN away from the subscriber about ten days ago, an old Negro man, named CUFFEE, a carpenter; he formerly belonged to the estate of Job Howe, senior, deceased, and is in general very well known. Whoever apprehends and delivers him to me, or the sheriff of New Hanover county, shall receive a reward of forty shillings currency, and a further reward of Forty shillings will be paid to any person who will give information of his being harboured by a Negro, and five pounds if by a white person upon conviction of the offender. CORNELIUS HARNETT.”

Wilmington, August 4, 1775.

Regarding the day to day experience of enslaved people working on larger plantations, Wood shows a correspondence between the size of the plantation and “the level of violence needed to sustain it. Significantly, Lower Cape Fear slaves seem to have been more likely to flee larger plantations.” ( Bradford J. Wood, This Remote Part of the World pp.165-166)

Both of these trends--that enslaved people of the Lower Cape Fear frequently became skilled workers, and that they also frequently tried to escape bondage-- seem to be borne out by the numerous runaway slave ads that John Burgwin published. In a 1797 ad seeking the return of an enslaved man named York who had fled, Burgwin says he “ran away...without the least provocation.” Further, the ad states that York is “extremely plausible and deceptious.” In these few words, Burgwin reveals that he doesn’t consider that being kept enslaved is a “provocation.” He also turns York’s verbal intelligence into a mark against his character, by saying that York’s plausible speech makes him deceptive.

“Twenty Dollars Reward Will be paid to any person who will apprehend and bring to me, at the Hermitage, in New Hanover county, a negro fellow named YORK, who ran away last Tuesday, without the least provocation. He is a likely able bodied negro, about five feet 9 or 10 inches high--he speaks plain, and is extremely plausible and deceptious. I am told he has been frequently harboured at the big Bridge, and it is supposed is now gone up towards Long creek or Black river. The said fellow is outlawed, and whoever harbours him will be prosecuted with the utmost rigour. JOHN BURGWIN.”

Hermitage, 4th February 1797

Eight days after he advertised about York’s escape, Burgwin revealed in another runaway slave ad that he suspects York’s escape was part of a larger plot involving a man who was recently whipped, and another man who presumably helped him escape:

“Forty Dollars Reward. Ran away from the Hermitage, last night, two Negroes. One of them named FRANK, a cooper, who formerly worked on my wharf in Wilmington--he is about five feet four inches high, has remarkable thick lips. He has been lately whipped for a felony he committed, and had an iron on one of his legs. The other named NED, who served his time with Messrs. Harris and Springs, blacksmiths, in Wilmington; and it is supposed has been persuaded to this elopment by Frank, for the purpose of filing off his iron clogg--Ned is a tall slender made boy, with a good countenance. A reward of Twenty Dollars each, will be paid to any person that will apprehend either of the said negroes, and deliver them or either of them to me at the Hermitage. And as I have reason from some recent circumstances, to believe, that my negro fellow York, (advertised in this paper) has been harboured by some evil disposed person, I will give a reward of Thirty Dollars to any person that will give me information of such harbouring, on conviction; and Thirty Dollars to any person who will deliver the said negro York, to the goaler of any safe goal, so that I may have him again. The said three fellows are outlawed, and may be shot, unless they return to me in ten days. JOHN BURGWIN.”

Hermitage, April 12. 1797

The considerable reward money may indicate the value of their skills, and in this second mention of York he increases the reward money offered for him. At the same time, the fact that Burgwin states “the three fellows are outlawed, and may be shot, unless they return to me in ten days” may indicate that Burgwin felt under pressure to respond more harshly after Frank and Ned’s escape. Although Burgwin stated in the April 4th ad that York was outlawed, and that he intended to prosecute anyone who harbored him, he did not state in that earlier ad that York could be shot.

In 1798, Burgwin speculates that family ties may have influenced a mother and her son to run away from his Castle Haynes plantation. He seems to think that if Nancy was lured away by her husband, it was an aberration to her normal loyalty to Burgwin. He offers to forgive her, and he also offers a reward for someone to bring her husband Cupid to the Hermitage, although Burgwin had no apparent legal claim on the man.

“RAN away from my Overseer, at Castle Haynes Plantation, an old Negro Woman named Nancy, & her son named Harry, about 18 years old. They are the wife & son of old Cupid, in Wilmington, by whom it is supposed they are harboured or secreted; or perhaps they may be about Old Town, harboured by some of Mr. Carson's negroes. Whoever takes up the said negroes and brings them to me, at the Hermitage, or secures them in the jail at Wilmington, so that I may have them, shall receive FIVE DOLLARS for the Woman, and TWENTY DOLLARS for Harry. If the said Negro Woman surrenders herself within a month--as an old, and before this elopement, faithful servant she will be forgiven. And as I am convinced in my own mind, that Cupid has been the cause of this elopement, I will give to any person Two Dollars, who will deliver the said negro Cupid to me at the Hermitage. JOHN BURGWIN. N.B. Nancy's face is marked with the small-pox, and she has thick lips, but speaks plain. Harry is smooth faced has a sluffish walk, but speaks plain and plausible.” April 26 1798.

Through these small glimpses into some of the happenings at the Hermitage and Castle Haynes plantations, we can see that the people enslaved by Burgwin (and his peers) were skilled and intelligent. In the face of insurmountable obstacles, and lacking any legal recourse, these enslaved people strove for liberation and to maintain family ties.

The Hermitage burned down in 1881. According to staff at the Burgwin-Wright House, the fire unfortunately destroyed records that would have given a more complete picture of the lives of hundreds of enslaved people whose labor built Burgwin’s wealth. A 1978 archeological study notes that:

“By 1797, the Hermitage was a large mansion house with beautiful gardens and several outbuildings. The plantation house was destroyed by fire in 1881. ...All that is left of the Hermitage are some deteriorating wall remnants. (Lee,Lawrence, "The Tower Cape Fear in Colonial Days. MacMillan, Henry J., "Colonial Plantation of the Lower Cape Fear.")”

Report on the New Hanover County Archeological Study, a CETA Project 1978 (p. 97)

In addition to his success as a merchant and plantation owner, Burgwin has been lionized for his honorable character. In particular, the story is told that he repaid his English creditors after the Revolutionary War, even though his return to North Carolina meant he could have avoided the debts. Burr writes:

“On his return to America , after the close of the Revolutionary War, he found himself greatly embarrassed by the debts which he owed in England, incurred before the war, while a great part of those which were due him in America could not be collected, owing to insolvencies and the Statute of Limitations...His English debts were barred by law, and wholly uncollectable, as his creditors well knew. Yet, notwithstanding his great losses on this side, which nearly sacrificed his whole estate, such was his high sense of honor and indomitable energy that he did not rest until he had paid off every dollar he owed, although the struggle continued through one - half of his remaining years.”

Burr, James G. The Hermitage, of the Series Old Mansions of the Cape Fear, Wilmington, 1885 - reprinted in the The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries: Volume 16 Jan 1886 publisher W. Abbatt

Upon reading about Burgwin’s sense of honor, and his determination to repay debts, one cannot help but wonder: Did he ever think about what he owed York, Frank, Ned, Nancy, Harry, and the hundreds of other people he enslaved during his lifetime?

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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