A History of Clarendon, North Carolina

Soon after Brunswick County, North Carolina began to be settled in earnest in the mid-1720s, many "plantations" were established along the western bank of the Cape Fear River as well as along the banks of the many streams and creeks that feed into the Cape Fear. "Gentlemen Farmers" was not a cliche in the eighteenth century - it was a preferred way of life for many with "real money" or at least the luck to acquire large tracts of land in the area and to turn that luck into "real money" and sometimes even political fortune.

With scant records available, one such plantation, Clarendon, in northeastern Brunswick County, North Carolina eventually (and maybe) grew into a small village of people. Sometime before 1760, the Clarendon Plantation was established just a few miles north of Town Creek along the western bank of the Cape Fear River - roughly ten miles southwest of the port of Wilmington on the other side of the river in New Hanover County, and roughly fifteen miles north of Brunswick Town, the County Seat. It is not known to this Author who the original owner of Clarendon Plantation was, but others might well know. One 1799 map of North Carolina has a dot for Clarendon indicating that perhaps a small village sprang up around this plantation - at least it was sizeable enough to warrant adding to the map - perhaps there never was a town or a village. Apparently this village never amounted to much because it never obtained a US Post Office and it soon disappeared from all maps.

More typical of the plantation homes, however, would have been that of Clarendon, described in 1834 as being “a comfortable dwelling house,” probably of wood as most of the Cape Fear plantation houses were. Clarendon contained “Negro quarters, capable of containing 100 hands, well built of brick and covered with Dutch pantile,” and “a comfortable house for the overseer.

With the permanent settlement of the Lower Cape Fear in the mid-1720s by a group of wealthy South Carolina planters, a new agricultural staple was introduced into North Carolina—rice. Rice by this time had proved to be the “golden grain” of South Carolina as tobacco had earlier become Virginia’s “golden leaf.” These planters, from the St. James Goose Creek Parish about twenty miles up the Cooper River from Charles Town, brought numerous slaves with them to the Cape Fear and acquired extensive holdings along the main river (about thirty miles in length) and for some distance up both the Northeast and Northwest branches of the Cape Fear River. While much of this land was retained by the planters for their own development, a sizable portion of it was cut up into smaller sections and sold, and a number of plantations were developed shortly along both sides of the river. Thus was the Cape Fear settlement a land of large plantations from the beginning—the very opposite of most colonial settlements—an extension of the South Carolina plantation system and in a larger sense that of the West Indies, especially Barbados.

Naval stores—tar, pitch, and turpentine—brought the planters to the Cape Fear and remained their principal economic interest throughout the colonial period because of the enormous immediate returns these commodities brought on the planters’ investment. Rice, however, seems to have occupied a strong secondary position in the economy there from the beginning. Travelers in the area reported seeing rice growing as early as 1731; in the same year the colonial General Assembly established it as one of the official “commodities” of the colony, indicating its having reached some status as a crop. Marshlands suitable for rice culture—those of “a wet, deep, miry Soil; such as is generally to be found in Cypress Swamps; or a black greasy Mould with a Clay Foundation”—abounded along the Cape Fear river and its branches for a considerable distance inland.

No plantation records—planters’ journals, business papers, or correspondence with overseer or factor—have survived to shed any light on individual experiences or profits among the rice planters on the Lower Cape Fear. Only a few scattered bits of information give any idea as to the facilities on any of the plantations. It is known that Orton Plantation, southernmost of the plantations and historic home of “King” Roger Moore before his death in 1750 and later home of Governor Benjamin Smith in the early 1800s, located in Brunswick County about midway between Wilmington and the mouth of the river, had a water-powered “rice machine” and mill as early as 1825. Clarendon Plantation, five miles below Wilmington in Brunswick, was advertised in 1834 as having a “brick barn with a framed mill house attached and two [water-powered] threshing mills.” Belvedere Plantation, immediately west of Wilmington in Brunswick and home of two governors, Benjamin Smith in the late eighteenth century before his purchase of Orton in 1796 and Daniel L. Russell in the late nineteenth century, had by 1831 “a threshing machine and other machinery” in “a barn, 110 feet long, 40 feet wide,... of brick, put up in the most substantial manner.”

The American Civil War caused no disruption of rice planting on the Lower Cape Fear River. Except for deteriorating facilities and badly worn or broken tools and implements, the rice crops continued to be produced as usual. The end of the war, however, brought almost total chaos to the rice industry there for the immediate moment. The rice planters found themselves suddenly dispossessed of several thousand slaves, and some even of their land. Orton, Kendall, Lilliput, and Pleasant Oaks, the four southernmost plantations and collectively making up a stretch of more than five miles along the river, were wrested from their owners by the Union military command in Wilmington and “set apart for the use of freedmen, and the destitute and refugee colored people,” a situation which continued from April until September of 1865, when a decree from President Andrew Johnson returned the plantations to their original owners. Undoubtedly the invading army had taken from the rice plantations what it needed in the way of livestock and supplies; however, it seems to have inflicted no sizable destruction on them as had occurred on some of those in South Carolina and Georgia.

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