Martin County, North Carolina
         
   

   

Year Established

County Seat

Population (2010)

1774

Williamston

24,505
 

First Settled

First Settled By

Significance of County Name

1720s

Settlers from Halifax & Tyrrell Counties

Governor Alexander Martin
 

Other Significant Towns:

Robersonville

Bear Grass

Everetts

Jamesville

Hassell

Hamilton

Oak City

See History Below

Click Here - To see how Martin County evolved each decade - includes all the known towns and villages.

A History of Martin County

 

Darden Hotel - Hamilton, North Carolina

The act of establishing the county made no provision for the courthouse, prison, or stocks. However, a law was passed making provision for levying special taxes for the county seat, without specifying its location. In 1779, Williamston, first called Squhawky, was laid out on the land of Thomas Hunter, and it has been the county seat of Martin County ever since.


Old Martin County Courthouse - 1885

Tuscarora Indians lived in this area until English settlers pushed them south and north. Martin County was created when Halifax and Tyrrell counties decided they were too large. People had to travel too far to get to their county seats and transportation networks were poor. The new county was formed from parts of those two counties in 1774 and originally named for Josiah Martin, the last Royal Governor of North Carolina.

After the Revolutionary War, the people were about to change the name because of bitterness toward Royal Governor Josiah Martin. However, they decided to keep the name in honor of Alexander Martin, a state representative to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. He was also Governor of North Carolina from 1782 to 1784 and from 1789 to 1792.

The county seat, Williamston, was known to the Indians as "Squhawky" but it was called "Tar Landing" by the newcomers, as it gradually became the principal shipping point for the tar, pitch, turpentine, and other forest products and meat produced in the area.

Williamston prospered and was designated the county seat when it was chartered in March 1774. A little more than five years later, during the Revolutionary War, it became the first incorporated town in the county and was named "Williamston" in the charter granted at a session of the General Assembly held in Halifax during October and November 1779.

One of twelve courthouses built in the state between 1860 and 1900 is the Old Martin County Courthouse, shown above. It is an excellent example of an ecclectic blend of Italian and Victorian elements. The building was vacated in 1983, and has since been under restoration by the Friends of the Old Martin County Courthouse.


Incorporated February 1870, Robersonville - located directly on the railroad’s route between Tarboro and Williamston - is the first town in the county dependent on the railroad, rather than the Roanoke River, as its chief commercial and communication link with the world beyond Martin County.

Although the Seaboard and Raleigh Railway Company would not be incorporated until late 1873, town founders envisioned it as a prominent trading center and market for western Martin County. Growing slowly during its first decade, the town quickly fulfilled its destined fate after the railroad’s completion in October 1882 and boasted having eleven general stores, two physicians, and a number of industries by 1884. The town’s population had increased in twelve years to 400 residents with farm families and ambitious young men moving there because of its various entrepreneurial, educational, and social opportunities.

As site of the county’s first tobacco market in August 1900, Robersonville embarked on a second, more expansive era of prosperity, civic progress, and development with a population that surged up to 1,200 during the early 1900s. The growth of new industries brought new residential areas which opened to provide homes for the town’s increased population - most notably “New Town,” a residential neighborhood that would become one of eastern North Carolina’s most cohesive and civic-minded early twentieth century African-American communities.

The newly acquired prosperity, improved educational opportunities, and modern municipal services fostered a lively cultural and social life in town where entertaining diversions and several cultural, civic, and social groups flourished. Even during the Great Depression economic expansion slowed drastically in Robersonville, but its citizens benefited from state and federal relief programs. Inexpensive sports and popular social pastimes, such as baseball and bridge, also eased the hardships for many during those rough years.

Though the railroad has been replaced by the new US 64 Bypass as the town’s main link to the outside world, Robersonville continues to thrive providing needed services, industry and entertainment to local and out-of-town residents alike. It is the home of St. James Place Museum, a restored 1910 Primitive Baptist Church, and East Carolina Motor Speedway.


The name Bear Grass, a type of yucca prolific in the area, has been in use at least since 1761 when it was given to the area’s major swamp in a land grant. The early settlers were farmers, with many engaged in the production of turpentine, tar, and shingles from the area’s abundant forests.

Though the congregation of the Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church organized in 1828, the Bear Grass community did not emerge until after the Civil War. A public school started by the late 1860s, and Reuben H. Rogerson opened a general mercantile store in 1880. The community’s development was hindered by it not being located along a navigable stream or on either of the railroad lines traversing Martin County. A post office was established in 1885, although it was closed less than two years later.

Records are limited, complicated by the fact that Bear Grass businesses were listed in directories with Williamston addresses because that was the nearest post office. But by the turn of the century, the community consisted of several legal distilleries, cotton gins, sawmills, grist mills, and blacksmith shops. Reuben H. Rogerson’s two-story, steam-powered sawmill and cotton gin was one of the area’s largest before being destroyed by fire in November 1908.

The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed considerable growth in the community. The town was officially incorporated on Feb. 16, 1909. An unusual physical feature of the town is that, when incorporated, the boundary was a circle with a radius of 500 yards from a white oak “near a well at the stores of Rogers Brothers and Cowing [sic] Brothers.” These limits remain today, making Bear Grass one of the few towns in the state laid out in this manner.

Because residents had more pressing concerns during the Great Depression, town government became dormant in 1934 and was not reactivated until June 21, 1961.

Today, you can still see the circa 1925 Bear Grass School, the 1830s-1840s Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church, the circa 1935 Yucca House (former Bear Grass Teacherage) which sits across the road from the school, the Bear Grass Presbyterian Church. Three frame stores built between 1895 and 1915 comprise Bear Grass’s small but historic commercial district.


The town of Everetts was incorporated in February 1891, and was a thriving trading center situated along the railroad between Robersonville and Williamston. It began more than twenty years earlier as a small rural crossroads named for its principal landowner, Simon Peter Everett. In 1869, he deeded some of his land to the Williamston and Tarboro Railroad Company for the construction of the railroad.

After October 1882, when the Seaboard and Raleigh Railroad, the successor to the Williamston and Tarboro, finally completed the rail line, the Everetts community began to develop as a market for agricultural products such as cotton, corn, grapes, potatoes, and eventually peanuts. It grew into a trading center for much of Cross Roads and Poplar Point townships for farm and household supplies. The railroad, with its mail, passenger, and freight services and telegraph line, was the lifeline of the community.

The second impetus for growth was the incorporation in May 1890 of the Martin County Lumber Company by investors from Philadelphia, PA. In addition to a steam-powered mill, the company erected an office, commissary, two stores, and between ten and twenty houses on a site north of the railroad at the western edge of the community. Local tradition holds that the mill supplied the lumber for the first boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ.

In 1898, one of the investors who also served as plant superintendent, George P. McNaughton, bought out the founders, and with Simon F. Everett, John Fraley, and Samuel B. Wynn, founded the Everetts Lumber Company. The company operated until 1909 when it was forced to close because the supply of nearby timber had been depleted.

Today, visitors can see the landmark J. T. Barnhill building along US Business 64/13, which still serves as a general store and has a painted billboard on its outside wall. There is also the former Champion Automobile Building, which anchors Everetts block-long commercial section. The building was erected in 1919, and sold Champion, Star, Essex, Durrsant, Hudson, and Pan-American automobiles before going out of business in 1930. And the post office, first established in 1884, maintains operations today.


The second oldest town in Martin County, Jamesville was incorporated in 1785 as James Town, with its name changing in 1797 to Jamestown and finally, on Feb. 10, 1855, to Jamesville.

Situated directly on the Roanoke River, Jamesville residents depended on the shipment of agricultural and forest products, supplying local farmers with merchandise, and taking advantage of the early springtime fishing season that was centered here.

Jamesville thrived prior to the Civil War with the formation of a large sawmill operation headed by Dennis Simmons. The construction of the Astoria Mill about a mile upriver gave the county its largest antebellum industry.

During the Civil War, Jamesville’s placement between Union headquarters at Plymouth, downriver to the east, and Williamston, Hamilton and Fort Branch, upriver to the west, put the town in constant peril. The town’s unenviable position placed it, as one local historian described, in “no man’s land” between opposing Union and Confederate interests. The once-prosperous town was virtually destroyed during the course of the war. As a result, the only surviving antebellum residence in town is the ca. 1810 Burras House on West Main Street.

Post war redevelopment followed improved transportation and continued exploitation of the vast forests in the region. While Simmons’ mill suffered devastating losses during the Civil War, it recovered nicely, rebuilt on a larger scale and operated until 1919. In 1889, it was touted as the largest manufacturer of wood shingles in North Carolina, producing about 25,000 a day.

Even more important was the incorporation in 1869 of the Jamesville and Washington Railroad (J&W) and Lumber Company. By 1870, the first segment of a narrow-gauge railroad extended into the company’s vast stands of timber south and east of Jamesville. Facetiously known as the “Jolt and Wiggle” for its uneven ride, the J&W made possible the expansion of large-scale timbering and small-scale farming into heretofore hinterlands in Jamesville and Griffins townships.

Furthermore, the county’s important fishing industry – including the famous “fishing machines” – was centered here, particularly in the spring when runs of herring brought hundreds to the Roanoke River to obtain a supply of fish to salt and preserve. The C.C. Fleming Fishery on Stewart Street was the most successful, and stands today as the only important structure associated with the fishing industry in Martin County. Jamesville currently has the only riverfront restaurants in Martin County. The Cypress Grill is open seasonally when the herring run (usually January through April). The other restaurant is River’s Edge.

The advantageous location of the original commercial district along Water Street near the river was lessened as travel relocated to the highways, and old commercial buildings were abandoned for new ones along what became US 64. In fact, only one survives on site— the 1914 (former) US Post Office The ca. 1900 general store of Henry Gray Griffin, located across the street from the old post office building, was demolished in 2003.


The location where the railroad crossed the Williamston-to-Tarboro road (now NC 142) proved a logical place for the development of a trading and marketing center. Named to honor Elder Sylvester Hassell, a noted Primitive Baptist preacher, historian, author, and educator, this community did not begin its main growth until after the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad extended its line through western Martin County in 1890. In preparation a post office was established January 1890, but Hassell was incorporated much later by the General Assembly in February 1903.

Laid out in a grid plan, the town had steady but unspectacular growth during its early years. The commercial and industrial enterprises consisted primarily of supplying the needs of area farmers. The re-establishment of a Christian congregation occurred in 1907.

The 1920 census records a population of 135 people, with graded schools for both races in or near town. Today, Hassell’s importance as a mercantile center is restricted to providing basic foodstuffs and supplies to a limited trading area, but it continues to actively function as a municipality.


Hamilton, incorporated in 1804 and located on the Roanoke River, long prospered as a bustling commercial port. Shallow-draft steamboats, the cotton gin, and a burgeoning textile trade here and abroad brought river traffic to its peak during the years preceding the Civil War.

The small but thriving town might have been even more prosperous before the Civil War if any of several efforts to improve land travel had been successful. Proposals in 1832 to establish a railroad from Hamilton to Tarboro, and in the 1850s to build plank roads to Tarboro and Murfreesboro were each abandoned in the discussion stage.

Many of Hamilton’s fine old homes were built during this period (1830-1850) and are found today in the town’s National Register Historic District. The district includes some of the finest antebellum homes assembled in the county. It also includes the circa-1881 St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a remarkably unaltered and sophisticated example of the Gothic Revival frame church from the early post Civil War period. It is one of the most outstanding examples of frame Victorian Gothic architecture in eastern North Carolina.

Conoho Masonic Lodge, organized in 1850, provided social pursuits. The Lodge building still stands today and is architecturally significant as a temple form building, few of which remain in North Carolina. The nearby location of the fairgrounds of the Martin County Agricultural Society made the town the focus of the county’s farmers and citizens during annual autumn fairs held from 1853 to 1860, which added considerably to the town’s activities and importance. A self-guided walking tour of homes and other buildings in Historic Hamilton is available from the Hamilton Town Hall.

Hamilton did not escape the ravages of the Civil War and there were frequent skirmishes along the Roanoke River and nearby at the Confederate Fort Branch. It is believed that many antebellum buildings in Hamilton were burned during Union occupation of the town. The most serious Union visit occurred in December 1864 when an unsuccessful assault was made on Fort Branch.

After the Civil War, tobacco and peanuts replaced cotton as the area’s major commodity and another era of prosperity brought new steamers and barges to keep passengers, produce, and merchandise moving up and down the east coast. In Hamilton, residents were building the lovely Queen Anne homes and Gothic coastal cottages and churches that you see on a walk about town.

Today, the river is a prime recreational resource, with a NC Wildlife Boat Ramp and parking area located at the foot of Main Street just down from Town Hall off NC 125. This wharf area was a hubbub of activity during the nineteenth century, Hamilton’s heyday as a commercial port.


With the establishment of the “Goose Nest” post office in 1888, this community - which began in the early 1880s as a small, rural trading center around a collection of farmhouses - received its first official name. In 1905, the town’s name was changed to Oak City because a town citizen visiting Raleigh saw “Oak City Laundry” on a delivery wagon and liked the name enough to urge the General Assembly to effect the change.

With farmers and traders attracted by the new Wilmington and Weldon Railroad service, Oak City enjoyed dramatic and steady growth during the early twentieth century. By 1910, the population had more than doubled to 251 residents, and the town’s educational and religious offerings expanded to meet the growing needs of this area. While commercial activity included a number of general stores and boarding houses, the industrial activity consisted of saw and planing mills, as well as a grist mill.

The proliferation of the automobile after the 1910s, accompanied by improvements in the county’s roads, brought significant changes to Oak City. Residents were now able to visit larger towns, so merchants gradually reduced their offerings to cover the basic needs of locals. The end of passenger rail service in 1939 brought about an end to that chapter of town history. Today, the town remains a strong community in northwestern Martin County, with NC 125, NC 11 and NC 42 converging to bring visitors through town. St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1883 as the 1st church for African-Americans in Goose Nest Township,



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