The Ice Trade

On our drive to Down East Maine a few days ago, we stopped and took a hike at the Lobster Cove Meadow Preserve in Boothbay Harbor. After walking a little ways down the trail through the lovely fall colors, we soon arrived at Appalachee Pond. To my surprise, there we got a glimpse at another historical connection between the Maine coast and the North Carolina coast: the ice trade.

“I am Omar ibn Said”

Last winter I visited the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, N.C., to see a rare and extraordinary group of historical manuscripts: a collection of four inscriptions written by Omar ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim scholar, teacher and trader from West Africa. He wrote them while he was being held captive on the North Carolina coast two centuries ago.

The Oyster Shell Road

Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900.  Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.

The African Church at the Corner of Second & Walnut

On January 24, 1801, Susan Johnson's diary describes a visit to a Methodist church in Wilmington, N.C., that was a strange new experience for her: enslaved Africans and African Americans made up the large majority of the congregation. In addition, she may have been sitting near a young boy who would grow up and become one of the most important voices for freedom and justice in American history.

The Road to the Cape Fear– Susan Johnson’s Diary, Part 8

Susan Johnson arrived at “Mr. Mallett’s rice plantation opposite Wilmington” on the 9th of January 1801. Here her diary’s entries began to give me a dark, foreboding feeling like that in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as Susan entered a part of the North Carolina coast where most of the people were enslaved and her route followed what was called “Negro Head Road.”

The Birth of a Plantation Empire: New Bern in 1800– Susan Johnson’s Diary, part 6

This is part 6 of my series on the diary that Susan Edwards Johnson wrote on the North Carolina coast in 1800 and 1801. At this point in her story, she's spending time at her cousin Frances Pollock Devereux's home in New Bern while her husband is overseeing the construction of gristmills and lumber mills on Peter Mallet's lands on the Black River. 

Susan Johnson’s Diary– “On the Borders of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Last spring I visited the Connecticut Historical Society when I passed through Hartford, Conn. I was headed to my niece’s home in New Haven, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few hours: the Society’s holdings include an extraordinary collection of early American historical manuscripts and I wanted to see if any of them might shed new light on coastal North Carolina.... I was only there for a day, but I found a real treasure that I would love to share here— a remarkable diary that was kept by a Connecticut woman when she stayed in coastal North Carolina in the very first decades after the American Revolution.

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 7– “Looking for a better day”

Before young Arthur Miller left Wilmington in November 1941 and returned to the Library of Congress, he did one last group of’ recordings. At the town’s African American Odd Fellows Hall, he visited with a large group of African American women who were in the midst of a lengthy strike at the Southland Manufacturing Company, a textile plant that made men’s dress shirts.

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 4– “Worse than Hoover time”

This is the 4th post in a 7-part series on the great American playwright Arthur Miller's sojourn in Wilmington, N.C. during the Second World War. When they were in Wilmington in 1941, Arthur Miller and his audio specialist, Johnny Langenegger, also just drove around the city looking for scenes and moments and stories that captured the … Continue reading Arthur Miller’s War, Part 4– “Worse than Hoover time”

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 2– “A shipyard has risen like a bony giant”

“The scene is a row of trailers,” Arthur Miller intoned in the first words of the field recordings. When I first turned on the old reel-to-reel recorder at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I found the young playwright standing in a vast trailer camp that had been built in a maddening rush only a few months earlier.

Arthur Miller’s War, Part 1- “Get Wilmington, North Carolina, into that Sound Truck!”

Today I am remembering a visit to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The center is located on a quiet hallway a floor below the great library’s main reading room and contains vast collections of oral histories, music and other audio recordings. You can hear Mississippi sharecroppers singing the blues there. You can hear Polish immigrants playing polkas. You can hear Navajo sacred songs. I was there to listen to audio recordings that the playwright Arthur Miller made on the North Carolina coast in the fall of 1941. 

On Albemarle Sound– Runaway Slaves and the Sea

Welcome back to the Belle of Washington. We left Elizabeth City early this morning and came down the lovely waters of the Pasquotank River. Now we're passing the Little River and, up on its northern shore, the little hamlet of Nixonton. I’ll say more about Nixonton’s history in a second, but first I think this is a good time and place to talk about runaway slave advertisements because there are some especially interesting ones that refer to Nixonton.

The Navassa Guano Company

This is a photograph of the Navassa Guano Company’s factory circa 1905. The landmark fertilizer company was located 5 miles north of Wilmington, N.C., on the northwest branch of the Cape Fear River. The sprawling complex included, left to right, the main line of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which crossed the Brunswick River by the plant, a sulfuric acid factory and, behind it, the fertilizer factory proper.

Pitch Pines and Tar Burners: A 1792 Account

I recently found an historical account that I think might be the best description of tar making in North Carolina that I have ever read. An English merchant named Holles Bull Way wrote it in his travel diary when he visited coastal North Carolina in 1792. He did not publish those excerpts from his diary until 1809, though, when the article that I found appeared in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Great Britain's first monthly scientific journal.

A Story from the Jewish Museum in New York City

When my wife and I visited New York City a few weeks ago, we stayed at a hotel next to the Jewish Museum. I had never been to the museum, and on the morning before my wife gave a lecture at Mt. Sinai Hospital (the reason for our trip), we visited the museum. The Jewish Museum's collections cover 4,000 years of history and include 30,000 objects of art, Judaica and antiquities from around the world. But I, of course, Iooked through the museum’s collections for anything related to the history of the North Carolina coast.

The Slave Conspiracy of 1821

I can’t tell from Benjamin Labaree’s journal with total confidence, but the incident of the runaway slave and the miller in Trenton that I discussed in my last post may have been part of the white panic that spread across the North Carolina coast in the summer of 1821. Historian Guion Griffis Johnson discussed the panic in her classic book, Ante-bellum North Carolina: A Social History. 

The Turpentine State

When I was using the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), I also did several general searches to see how the British press covered my home state of North Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was interested in what the British public saw when they looked across the Atlantic at us.

The Wilmington Jubilee Singers

I discovered the Wilmington Jubilee Singers while I was exploring old newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). The BNA is an invaluable on-line resource that is making available (for a small fee) digital copies of the historical newspapers preserved at the British Library in London. The British Library holds the largest collection of British newspapers … Continue reading The Wilmington Jubilee Singers

Wilmington in 1898: A Diary

At the Newberry Library in Chicago, I also found Edward Price Bell’s diaries from Wilmington in 1898. They are different than his reporter's notebooks that I wrote about a few days ago. Bell used his notebooks to record bits and pieces of interviews. Sometimes he also sketched passages of writing that he later used in dispatches to his newspaper, the Chicago Record. The diaries are of a more personal nature.