A History of Beaufort, North Carolina

Captain Otway Burns' Grave - With Cannon from His Privateer Snap Dragon

Know as "Fish Town" in the early 1700s when Blackbeard frequented the coast, "Beaufort Town" was established as a seaport with the right to collect customs in 1722. During the American Revolution, it was the third largest port in the state.

As in most of eastern North Carolina, early trade centered around lumber products. These were shipped from the rich Newport River area plantations to the West Indies in exchange for glassware, cloth, furniture, coffee, and rum.

Historically significant, the "Old Burying Ground" was deeded to the town in 1731. It contains graves of soldiers from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Captain Otway Burns' grave with the cannon from his privateer, is perhaps one of the best known.


The Coree Indians inhabited the area prior to and during the early stages of white settlement in the vicinity of Cape Lookout and present-day Beaufort. In 1713, acting Governor Thomas Pollock found it necessary to station a garrison of militiaman in the Core Sound area "to guard the people there from some few of the Cores that lurk thereabout." During the course of the bloody Tuscarora Wars, both the Machapungos and the Corees came very near to extinction. The few remaining Corees appear to have had little or no impact on the subsequent history and development of the area, but they lent their names permanently to Core Banks and Core Sound.

Although the Beaufort Inlet, Cape Lookout, and future Beaufort areas had long been known to seafaring men, permanent white settlement did not get underway until the early years of the eighteenth century. Among the earliest residents were whalers, who established camps and rudimentary shelters on Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout. As early as 1681, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina had attempted to encourage whaling activity along the coast by relinquishing the exclusive rights to whales, which had been granted them under the Fundamental Constitutions. However, Carolinians apparently took little advantage of this concession other than process the giant mammals which chanced to wash ashore.

Portion of the 1756 Mackay Chart of Cape Lookout in the 1720s, however, indicates that New England immigrants to the Beaufort area began to engage regularly in whaling activities. When Governor Arthur Dobbs visited Cape Lookout in 1755, he noted that "whale fishers from the Northward" were using Cape Lookout Bight as a base of operations, and that they perennially carried on there "a considerable fishery from Christmas to April."

During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, Beaufort was described as a "poor little Village at the upper End of the Harbor." Though initially laid out in 1713, the town was stillborn. It was not formally incorporated until 1722, and even then it attracted few residents. However, it was immediately named as the new county seat for the newly-created Carteret County.

From the beginning it was clear that the development of the town would be contingent upon its success as a center of trade, and upon the volume of maritime traffic entering and clearing through Topsail Inlet (present Beaufort Inlet). Although many inlets existed at various times along the coast of colonial North Carolina, Topsail Inlet was one of only three which achieved long-term commercial importance, the other two being the mouth of the Cape Fear to the south and Ocracoke Inlet to the north.

Topsail Inlet, historically the most stable of all the inlets on the northern banks of North Carolina, was open and relatively safe and deep when the first settlers arrived; and it has remained so to the present.

Notwithstanding the relative safety, stability, and depth of Topsail Inlet, the capriciousness of Beaufort Harbor, and its close proximity to the open sea, Beaufort's growth as a port town was severely hampered by its lack of adequate water or overland connections with the interior.

To reduce the remoteness of Beaufort and thereby spur its development, a plan was conceived, even before the Revolution, to construct a north-south canal through Clubfoot and Harlows creeks, in order to open an artery for water-borne commerce between Beaufort and New Bern.

Unfortunately the long-proposed canal was not finally constructed until the nineteenth century, and even then it did not prove profitable. Well before active consideration was given to the abortive canal scheme, the more favorably situated New Bern had begun the process of eclipsing Beaufort - increasingly so in the 1760s.

Lying in the fork of the Trent and Neuse Rivers, and on the major colonial highway running from north to south, New Bern enjoyed tremendous advantages over Beaufort as a center of trade. The selection of New Bern as North Carolina's capital in 1766 and the subsequent construction of Tryon's Palace, further accelerated the growth and prominence of New Bern and consigned Beaufort clearly to subordinance.

Portion of a 1777 Map of Old Topsail Inlet and the harbor of Beaufort indicate that the principal exports of Port Beaufort, like those of the other NorthCarolina ports during the colonial period, consisted overwhelmingly of naval stores (tar, pitch, and turpentine), sawn lumber, shingles, staves, and provisions, especially corn.

Vessels entering Port Beaufort and the other ports of colonial North Carolina came primarily from the northern colonies, the West Indies, and, to a lesser extent, directly from the British Isles. Many vessels trading with North Carolina were involved in a triangular pattern of commerce, sailing from a northern port to North Carolina, thence to the West Indies, and from there back again to their place of origin.

In the 1740s, Beaufort's normal maritime activity was interrupted or threatened on several occasions by the presence of Spanish privateers, whose vessels rendezvoused in the large natural harbor provided by Cape Lookout Bight. Their use of the bight and their associated activities apparently established a precedent for future generations of mariners and brought about continual agitation for an adequate fortification at Cape Lookout.

From their anchorage in Cape Lookout Bight, this band of Spanish privateers made their presence felt with keenness in the Beaufort area. On at least three occasions between June and September of 1747, it was necessary to muster local troops to resist the intruders. Several vessels were taken in the harbor at Beaufort; and on 26 August the privateers put a landing party ashore and actually took possession of the town. A force of local militiamen soon repulsed the privateers and shortly after they left the area.


Beaufort was granted a US Post Office on October 2, 1797, and its first Postmaster was Mr. David Hall. It has been in continuous operation ever since.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved