Not all towns in North Carolina can say they carved their living out of the land and sea while fighting off hurricanes and pirates. Beaufort, however, can. From its colonial formation to fighting off the English in the Revolutionary War, from becoming a port town to the Civil War, Beaufort’s early history offers many perspectives on the average life during those times. As a historical, coastal town in North Carolina, Beaufort’s formation, extensive involvement with multiple wars of this nation, then its subsequent demeanor during time of peace combine to create one of the richest histories of any town in North Carolina.
Farnival Greene, Robert Turner, Richard Rustull, and Nathan Taylor organized Beaufort in 1709 with the help and support of the Lords Proprietors in England (Paul 23). The hope was to establish another colonial foothold in the new world that would eventually produce dividends for the British. Beaufort started off as a very small fishing village (Paul 23). Located at the crossroads of a creek, sound, and the ocean, Beaufort’s survival depended on fishing. The town only supported its small population, so commercial fishing had not developed yet. To the French traveler Charles Paul, Beaufort was a “small village not above 12 houses, the inhabitants seem miserable, they are very lazy and indolent, they live mostly on fish and oisters, which they have in great plenty” (History of Beaufort par. 5). Obviously, the “small village” did not have much to boast. But a change in the tides approached the town through an official decree about the status of its port.
After its appointment to official port status in 1722, the town began to export, import, and collect taxes on lumber products and shipping products. This shift in the economy did little to bring in more investors to the area, even though the town became incorporated in 1723 (History of Beaufort par. 3). It wasn’t until the 1770s that Beaufort began to have substantial growth in its size and population (Herrman 48). As goods flowed in and out of its port, other areas of work began to take shape. With all the vessels coming in, ship repairs became a lucrative business (Herrman 63). Commercial fishing began to form in order to feed the sailors and the slowly growing population. The specialization of labor that branched into the shipping business and the associated businesses best signaled the shift in Beaufort’s economy from basic survival to gaining profit. The town experienced an increase in profits as the Revolutionary War approached its onset.
The Revolutionary War left life mostly intact in the growing fishing town. Business improved with the major increase in boat traffic shipping in goods needed to support the fledgling country’s soldiers. Beaufort was also able to capitalize on the salt industry and produce enough for the town’s inhabitants with enough left over to turn a profit (Herrman 117). The only self-defense precautions the town took consisted of building an artillery batter in case of a British attack. The little fishing village remained relatively unnoticed throughout the war despite a small skirmish with the British in 1781, but could not stay unscathed through the War of 1812. The British navy frequented the seas off of the Outer Banks and made trips into the inlet on a regular basis in hopes of obtaining supplies. Privateers were the only defense of the North Carolina coast, and the most famous privateer came from none other than the little village of Beaufort.
One of the heroes of Beaufort and the surrounding area fought off enemies in his ship the Snap Dragon during the War of 1812. This hero was Otway Burns. Born down the coast from Beaufort in 1775, Otway sailed out of Beaufort, Swansboro, and New Bern before the war (Carroll 85). He voluntarily submitted his boat to serve in the war where he captained it and captured enemy ships and cargo. Though many officials looked down upon his “profession,” privateers helped win the War of 1812. Only engaging in attacks on smaller ships, Otway cut off supplies to the British army and gained needed goods for his country’s soldiers. His sailors never questioned his abilities as a captain which he proved numerous times by outrunning larger British war ships. After winning his fame throughout the war, Otway Burns settled down in Beaufort where he dabbled in various businesses (Carroll 88). Even after winning the War of 1812 for his state, Otway kept contributing to its people. He built the first steamboat, Prometheus, in North Carolina.
The last major war incidents died with the end of the War of 1812. Beaufort remained peaceful for the period between 1812 and the Civil War. The town prospered through shipping and its supporting businesses. The economy still depended on fishing, but the locals branched out into other areas, creating a more rounded society. By no means was Beaufort a booming town with great wealth, but it was able to support the locals and the more elite who came down to vacation during the summer (About Beaufort NC par. 10). Life remained mediocre for the Beaufort locals until politics began heating up in the nation. As the North and South started disagreeing and secession became imminent, Beaufort geared up for another war.
The Civil War caused massive damage throughout the entire South. Beaufort managed to escape this fate through luck and a subpar town militia. In April, 1862, Beaufort was invaded and the Union forces took over the town as a head quarters. Although slightly embarrassing, Beaufort’s location isolated itself from the rest of North Carolina so support and even news of the takeover were slow to reach important towns in the state. Good did come from being occupied early in the war; little damage befell the predominantly wooden buildings and underhanded forms of aid popped up. Beaufort acted as a beacon for scattered Confederate soldiers in the area on the run because of the Union hold of the coast. Espionage became a popular occupation for the women of Beaufort. Emeline Pigott, Beaufort’s most famous Civil War spy, smuggled relief items, such as mail, food, extra clothing, and boots, to the Confederate soldiers using inventive techniques such as hiding them under her large hoop skirt (Carroll 103). While Ms. Pigott supported the Confederates, freed black men used Beaufort as a halfway camp of sorts. The Union’s hold on the town created a safe harbor for freed slaves in the South that provided an easier location to attain instead of the distant North states (Carroll 62). This created a unique dynamic for Beaufort during and after the war as the country finally came to peace. Once peace was established, Beaufort returned to its usual way of life: living off the sea, supporting tourism, and surviving the coastal North Carolina elements one day at a time.
Through diversity and adversity, Beaufort has persevered to become one of the most interesting towns in North Carolina. The locals embrace its history and culture with a passion and continue to observe where they came from by revisiting their past every time they walk down Front Street and see where their forefathers sailed and made a living. Around every corner in the town lies a house or place that has seen centuries of amazing history. This history also fuels the major tourism business that keeps the town afloat with the historical houses and the Old Burying Ground. Every summer, thousands of tourists flock to Beaufort to take in the sights, watch reenactments, and experience the classic coastal lifestyle. Beaufort’s example of embracing its history should be praised and observed by all towns in America. Ultimately, the question becomes not only being well versed in the history, but also supporting it and being proud of it. Why is it worth knowing your history if you don’t observe it?
Carroll, Rick, and Marcie Carroll. Beaufort-by-the-Sea : Journey Back in Time : The Illustrated Heritage Guide to Beaufort, N.C. Beaufort, NC: Fish Towne P, c2006. Print.
Paul, Charles Livingston. Beaufort, North Carolina: Its Development as a Colonial Town. Beaufort, NC: Fish Towne P, 1970.
Herrman, Margaret Edgar. Beaufort, North Carolina, 1800-1830. 1970.
About Beaufort NC: Beaufort North Carolina, History of Beaufort NC, A Short Summary. Beaufort NC North Carolina Tours, Things to Do, Activities, Lodging, Real Estate. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.
Beaufort Historic Association. History of Beaufort: Town of Beaufort NC. Town of Beaufort NC. Web. 9 Mar. 2011.
About the Author
Jordan Barham is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She plans on majoring in anything that makes her happy.