This is the 9th part of my series on Susan Edwards Johnson’s diary of her travels on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. I found the diary last spring at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, Conn.
By the time that Susan Johnson finally reached Wilmington, N.C., on the 11th of January, 1801, her diary indicates that she had grown weary of being on the North Carolina coast.
She missed her three children She was homesick. She was lonely for the companionship of her closest friends and family back in Connecticut, though she wrote to them often.
Something about Wilmington had also shaken her.
“Wilmington… on sand hills which rise from the river”
As you’ll remember from my last post, Susan and her husband had arrived at Peter Mallett’s rice plantation at Peter Point on Jan. 9th, 1801. Two days later, on the 11th, Susan made the ferry crossing into Wilmington for the first time. She and Peter Mallett’s wife, Sarah, met a number of other ladies there and went shopping for cloth to make a gown.
They then returned to one of the ladies’ homes and made the gown.
That night, after going back across the river, Susan described the seaport in her diary.
She looked far less kindly at Wilmington than she had Edenton, New Bern or Fayetteville.
Wilmington is situated on sand hills which rise from the river[.] the houses in general make but a poor appearance. It has suffered very much from fire these few years past which seems to have discouraged the inhabitants from making improvements about their places—the streets in this town are the most intolerable to walk in of any I ever saw. They are one bed of sand which fills your shoes & if there is the least wind your eyes are filled & nose & mouth fare no better unless you protect them with your hand.
She less judgmentally also observed that the roughhewn little seaport was on its way to becoming the world’s largest exporter of turpentine, tar and other naval stores.
There is a great appearance of business here. The branches of the Cape Fear River reunite which brings to this town from the extensive back Country vast quantities of lumber & naval stores.
Susan must also have been astonished by the number of enslaved Africans and African Americans walking in the city’s streets, toiling in its workshops and laboring on its waterfront.
At that time, approximately 1,700 people resided in Wilmington. Two-thirds were enslaved.
A Land of Immigrants
In her diary, Susan also described a city of immigrants. While she was in Wilmington, her diary rarely mentioned anyone that had been born or raised in North Carolina or anywhere else in the southern states.
Judging from her diary, many of the seaport’s wealthiest planters and largest merchants had come from other countries.
In drawing rooms, at balls and at church, she socialized with people that had come from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England and France.
For instance, on Jan. 14, she went to a dance at a Frenchman’s house. Later in the month, she had tea with two young women from Scotland and another from the Isle of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France.
She also attended a gala ball at an English immigrant’s mansion– the residence that is now called the Burgwin-Wright House.
There was an elegant supper of a variety of meats, pastry, jellys, syllabub & cake very handsomely served…
At least as often, Susan and her husband socialized with members of the seaport’s upper crust that had come from southern New England– including several from her hometown, New Haven, Conn.
The most memorable was “a young man named Jocelin his family formerly of New Haven.” In her diary, Susan mentioned that she danced with him one evening.
Her dancing partner’s full name was Samuel Russell Jocelyn, Jr., and his father and mother had left New Haven in 1790. To this day, he is often mentioned on “ghost walks” in Wilmington. According to legend, he was buried alive in 1810, after he was wrongly believed to be dead.
The presence of so many people from New Haven and other seaports in southern New England is striking. In Susan’s diary, the upper classes of the two regions often seem like one and the same– it was a bond forged by marriages among the Eastern Seaboard’s elite, but also by the shipping trade, banking and finance, and frequently a mutual interest in plantations and slavery.
Susan saw all this when she was in Wilmington that winter of 1801, and she did not like it.
“Only for the purpose of acquiring property”
According to her diary, Susan dutifully attended winter dances and afternoon teas in Wilmington, and she presumably ate her share of “syllabub and cake handsome served.” Yet her diary reveals that inside she was feeling a kind of revulsion toward the seaport’s elite.
After four weeks of treating her diary’s entries on her stay in Wilmington largely as a chronicle of social events, she finally expressed what she was feeling in an entry on February 8th.
And now as I am about to take my leave of Wilmington it is proper I should express my sentiments of it & its inhabitants who are of all nations collected there only for the purpose of acquiring property & intend to stay no longer, than to make themselves independent.
By “property,” Susan of course meant land and slaves. And when she said “to make themselves independent,” she meant that those planters intended to be absentee owners and leave their “property” in the hands of managers. That way they could take their profits and go somewhere else.
This circumstance prevents all public spirits, which is so required particularly to improve their streets. I was told that the Church (tho’ very small & plain) was twenty years building [and] the Burying ground is without a fence….
She clearly believed that a large part of upper-class Wilmington still treated the Cape Fear like a colony—a place you exploit and profit from, but never treat like home and ultimately abandon.
I found this a great insight into the North Carolina coast’s history in 1801. But of course it was also ironic: Susan, after all, might have been talking about her own husband and, by implication, herself.
She and her husband, Samuel Johnson, were from “all nations”—if not another country, at least a distant land.
Samuel, at least, had only come to North Carolina “for the purpose of acquiring property and intend[ed] to stay no longer, than to make [him]self independent.”
Susan Johnson was no fool. I feel sure that she felt this irony, and keenly. I expect that it pained her. I suspect, in fact, that she was beginning to regret that she had ever left home.
I know I am going out on a limb here, but this is what I think:
When Susan got to Wilmington, she met its eager speculators and land barons, its absentee plantation lords and those obsessed only with profits and land and slaves. And I think she recoiled, afraid of what she and her husband had become, or were becoming.
Next time– Susan visits the African Meeting House in Wilmington