This is the 2nd part of my look at the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson kept in coastal North Carolina in 1800 and 1801.
After leaving her home in Stratford, Conn., Susan Johnson arrived in Suffolk, Va., on the 22nd of November, 1800. The next morning, she re-boarded the stagecoach and headed south into North Carolina for the first time.
The road lay principally thro’ low ground & the swamp on both sides, in many places seemed almost impregnable. The road for several miles lay on the borders of the great dismal swamp…. The road was dreary mown & thin diversified, by a corn field. A barely decent house occupied by the owner of the plantation and some miserable log huts for the Negroes.
They rode until dark, and then stopped for the night at Richard Mitchell’s plantation at Warwick Creek, in Gates County.
In her diary, Johnson referred to Mitchell’s property as “a valuable plantation about 20 miles from Edenton.”
He was a decent clever man & keeps a good house. The buildings around his house are fourteen in number & all in good repair. Several of them were houses for his negroes, the remainder barns & other outhouses necessary for a plantation. …
That was Johnson’s first mention of African Americans in North Carolina. Unlike many first-time travelers in the American South, she expressed no surprise at seeing men, women or children enslaved, probably because her home state, Connecticut, was the largest slaveholding state in New England.
She had been raised in New Haven, Conn., where most of the city’s prominent white families owned at least an enslaved laborer or two in the mid-1700s.
At the time of the American Revolution, enslaved Africans represented 6 percent of the total population in Fairfield County, Conn., where Johnson lived after her marriage.
That was only a small fraction of the enslaved people she would see in coastal North Carolina, but it was still significant.
Connecticut’s lawmakers had passed a Gradual Abolition Act in 1784, but the act only freed those enslaved people born after March 1, 1784, and then only after they reached the age of 25.
The enslavement of African Americans was not new to Johnson in another way as well. As we will see below, she had a relative who had married into North Carolina’s largest slaveholding family.
The Town of Edenton
Johnson’s stagecoach arrived in the town of Edenton on the morning of November 24, 1800.
She and the other passengers breakfasted at “O’Maley’s Tavern,” and then she took a walk through the little seaport. She later wrote her impressions of the town in her diary.
I should imagine there are rising 200 house in it . . . . there is an Elegant Court house in this town, a large Academy which is provided with three good instructors, the building is handsome & in good repair (from the external appearance). I wish as much could be said of the Church. There is one in this town, large & handsome; but the . . . decay into which it has fallen cannot but make a melancholy impression of every reflecting beholder. There is scarcely a whole pain of glass remaining in large worked windows, the doors swing on the hinges & from the cupola which has never been finished were growing various wild shrubs which seemed to wave their heads in silent reproach to every beholder…..
The church to which she was referring is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at the corner of West Church and Broad Streets.
In her diary, Johnson often judged a town’s citizens by the way that they kept their churches, schools and other public buildings.
Susan Johnson did not linger long in Edenton. She soon took a ferry across the Albemarle Sound and arrived on the south shore, at Kendrick’s Creek in Washington County. She stayed “at an ill looking house kept by Mackey,” but she conceded that “they gave us a decent supper….”
She did not say so, but the community on the south shore in which she disembarked was known as Mackey’s Ferry, as it is today. The name of the community recognized William Mackey, who owned the ferry across the Albemarle from 1735 until his death in 1765.
“Mackey’s Ferry” was one of North Carolina’s longest-running ferries. A ferry crossed the Albemarle at that point from the 1730s to 1938, when the state built a steel bridge across the span.
“A small flourishing town on Tar River”
The next day, Nov. 25, Susan Johnson continued her journey. At that time, the regular stagecoach line ended at Edenton. However, a local planter ran a private coach service from the ferry to points south. Johnson arranged passage with him.
That day she rode 45 miles and arrived in the evening in Washington, a river port that we now most often call “Little Washington.”
She described it as “a small flourishing town on Tar River.” She stayed that night at a boardinghouse run by the Gibbs family– “a good house,” she called it.
“My cousin Mrs. Devereux”
The next morning she crossed the Tar. “We rode in the rain until noon…. It then cleared, & we had a pleasant ride to Newbern…,” she wrote in her diary that night.
She traveled 35 miles overland and then took another ferry, this time across the Neuse River. On the south side of the river, the town of New Bern sat at the point where the Neuse and Trent Rivers come together and flow east, intermingling with the waters of Pamlico Sound and the sea.
We were arrived in the most affectionate manner by my cousin Mrs. Devereux & her worthy husband. They live very handsomely & entertain their friends with the greatest hospitality.
“My cousin Mrs. Devereux” was Frances Pollock Devereux (1771-1849). She was Susan’s first cousin, a woman renowned for her intelligence and refinement and a legendary heiress.
Francis Devereux was the daughter of Susan’s aunt, Eunice Edwards Pollock Hunt. As was Susan’s father, she was one of the famous New England minister Jonathan Edwards’ children.
Francis’s Aunt Eunice married her first husband, Thomas Pollock III, in 1764. He was one of North Carolina’s largest slaveholders and wealthiest merchants and planters.
They met after he purchased what was at the very least a summer residence in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where she lived in her old brother’s home. (More on that in my next post.)
Thomas Pollock led brutal wars against the Chowanoke, Tuscarora and other native peoples, accumulated large numbers of African and Indian slaves and fought Quakers and other Dissidents on every side.
He was a merchant, planter and lawyer and acquired vast plantations along the Chowan, Roanoke, Trent and Neuse Rivers. Twice he served as the colony’s acting governor.
At his death, Thomas Pollock left many slaves and over 50,000 acres to his sons.
His descendants remained among North Carolina’s largest land and slave owners from the mid-1720s to the Civil War.
Susan Johnson’s cousin Frances– the woman who welcomed her to New Bern in 1800– eventually inherited a remarkable share of her family’s property. By the end of her life, she would inherit at least 8 of the Pollock family’s plantations, a fortune in Spanish gold coin and over 1,500 enslaved men, women and children.
Recollections of New Bern
Frances’ husband, John Devereux (1761-1844), also welcomed Susan Johnson to New Bern that late November day in 1800.
He was a prosperous shipping merchant originally from County Wexford, Ireland. When he first met Frances, he was a partner in a firm that owned a fleet of ships that traded among Charleston, S.C., New England and the West Indies.
In a volume of reminiscences called Recollections of New Bern 50 Years Ago, published in 1873, a former New Bern resident named Stephen F. Miller remembered John Devereux from his childhood.
Perhaps showing an excess of hometown pride, he wrote of Devereux that “in business circles his name was similar to that of Rochschild in Europe.”
Journal of a Secesh Lady
Of course Susan Johnson did not know it at the time, but she would eventually be related to John and Frances Devereux by marriage, as well as through her aunt Eunice.
Susan’s daughter, Catherine Ann Johnson, was only 4 years old in 1800, but she would grow up and marry John and Frances Devereux’s son, Thomas Pollock Devereux (1793-1869).
One of their daughters, by the way, is well known to historians of the Civil War Era.
Her name was Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston (1823-1875), and her war-time diary was published some years ago in a volume entitled Journal of a Secesh Lady: The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmonston, 1860-1866.
She and her husband were large planters in Halifax County, N.C. Like all the women in the Edwards family dating back at least as far as Jonathan Edwards’ wife, the Puritan mystic Sarah Pierpont Edwards, Catherine Ann was well educated, highly intelligent and strong willed.
By the Civil War, she had also become very much a Southerner.
On her mother’s side, Catherine Ann had family roots in New England well back into the 1600s.
Her grandmother, our diarist Susan Johnson, was a Connecticut resident all her life. Her mother was born and educated in Connecticut.
Yet at the time of the American Civil War, Catherine Ann was a staunch secessionist, a die-hard Rebel and, in her diary, deeply nostalgic about the Old South and plantation slavery.
One family, two extraordinary women, two remarkable diaries.
In my next post, I’ll get back Susan Johnson’s diary and look at her stay in New Bern, Fayetteville and other parts of coastal North Carolina.