Gates County, North Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)



Major General Horatio Gates


Legislative Act Creating County

First Settled / By

County Evolution by Decade

Official County Website

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1690s / Virginians

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American Revolution

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Airports in Gates County

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A History of Gates County

Merchants Millpond State Park - Gates County, North Carolina

The Act of establishing Gates County provided that commissioners be appointed to select a site centrally located for the erection of a court house, etc., and to have the building constructed. In 1781, an Act was passed to levy and additional tax for the completion of the public buildings. The Legislature of 1830-1831 passed an Act which said that the place then known as Gates Court House, in the county of Gates, shall in the future be known and described by the name of Gatesville. The county seat has been in Gatesville ever since.
Located in northeastern North Carolina just south of Suffolk, Virginia, the Nottoway, Meherrin, and Nansemond Indians found what is present-day Gates County an ideal place, furnishing them with all the natural resources needed for a good life.

On the east side is the Great Dismal Swamp, one of the largest nature preserves in the country, where bear, deer, turkey, and all kinds of game and fowl flourish. On the west side the Chowan River, proclaimed the world's most beautiful river, Bennetts Creek provides water sport enthusiasts a paradise in which to play.

Along these swamps, pocosins, and creeks, the rich farm land is capable of producing large crops of peanuts, corn, soybeans, and cotton.

In the early 1700s, Norfleets Millpond was built on Bennetts Creek to provide a means of processing and marketing regional produce. Gristmills, a sawmill, a farm supply store, and other enterprises made the area the center of trade in Gates County. Thus, the pond became known as Merchants Millpond.

Shortly before World War II, operations around the millpond came to a halt and millers sold the land to developers. In the 1960s, A. B. Coleman of Moyock, NC purchased the property and later donated 919 acres, including the millpond, to the state. Coleman, a canoeist and lover of nature, thought the area too beautiful for development. His generous donation led to the establishment of Merchants Millpond Sate Park in 1973. In the same year, the Nature Conservancy contributed an additional 925 acres of woodlands to the park that now encompasses more than 3,246 acres.

Merchants Millpond State Park, one of North Carolina's rarest ecological communities, is a unique mingling of coastal pond and southern swamp forest. A wide variety of plant and animal life offer an excellent natural experience. Towering bald cypress with massive trunks, tupelo gum trees draped in luxuriant Spanish moss, and Resurrection ferns dominate the 760-acre millpond. At its upper end lies Lassiter Swamp, an ecological wonderland containing remnants of an ancient bald cypress swamp, and the eerie "enchanted forest" of tupelo gum whose trunks and branches have been distorted into fantastic shapes by mistletoe.

Most of the land within the present boundaries of Gates County was considered to be Nansemond County, VA, until 1728, when William Byrd had surveyed the "dividing line" between Virginia and North Carolina. The area was in controversy between the two states until then, and both granted land to applicants. It was Chowan County, and a narrow strip of Perquimans, until 1759, when all the area west of Bennett's Creek was cut off to Hertford County.

Before the settlement of this area by the Europeans, the Nansemond, Chesapeake, Chowanoc/Chowanoke, Meherrin, and the Nottoway Indians made their homes here. They were a peaceful people, but once the settlers made their way into the area, unfortunately their days were numbered. After 1711, few Native Americans were found in the county, although there is a large population of Meherrins living in Hertford, Bertie, Gates, and Northhampton counties. It is not uncommon to find traces of these gentle people left behind in the fields of the county. Arrowheads and pottery shards are often found in open fields and along riverbanks.

In the early years of settlement, pioneers had to try to make a living off of land that was riddled with swamps and sandy soil that would not produce. The landscape made many pass through present day Gates County to settle in areas further south where land was richer, and had fewer wetlands. Those who stayed behind were a strong and resourceful lot.

The descendants of many of those persevering and strong-willed settlers still reside here today. In spite of the difficult life, those who passed through knew them as friendly and hospitable people. Many of the surnames represented in the county today originated from some of the earliest pioneers. Names like Brinkley, Eure, Riddick, Benton, Lane, Cowper, Cross, and Norfleet, among many others, were the same names that George Washington and other notable Americans were familiar with when they passed through the area in the early days of this area's history.

From 1728 through 1780, the area grew from a thick-wooded and inhospitable land to an agrarian community with many of the same resources that many surrounding areas had. However, the physical characteristics made it difficult to grow into a prosperous urban center, because there were few navigable waterways. The main commerce was in hogs sold in Nansemond County, Virginia, tar (pine pitch) made from the pine forests of the county, and timber from the thick virgin forests.

In 1779, the area between the Chowan River to the west and southwest, south of the county of Nansemond, Virginia, west of the Dismal Swamp and north of Catherine Creek and Warwick Creek was separated into a county all its own. The physical land barriers of swamps or rivers made it difficult for residents of this area to travel to government seats in bad weather, and it was for this reason, among others that Gates County became an entity of its own.

In 1780, a court house, prison and stocks were built in Gatesville, at that time known as Gates Court House.

Gates County was named for Major General Horatio Gates, a Revolutionary War hero. As commanding general at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, he delivered one of the most damaging blows yet felt by British forces in the war. However, in 1780, his failure at the disastrous Battle of Camden in South Carolina transformed him from one of the Revolution's most esteemed soldiers into one of its most controversial.

In 1830-31, the Legislature passed an Act, which changed the name of the county seat from Gates Court House to Gatesville. In 1836, the Federal style court house was built, which now houses the Gates County Public Library and Gates County Historical Society.

William P. Roberts, who at age twenty was the Confederate's youngest Brigadier General, was born in Gates County July 11, 1841. He commanded the NC Cavalry, 12th NC Battalion, Georgia Battalion, Gen W.H.F. Lee's Division, and Hampton's Cavalry Corps Army of Northern Virginia. In 1875, he represented Gates County at the constitutional convention, and the following year he was elected to the state legislature. In 1880, he became a state auditor and served in that capacity until 1888. Roberts died in Norfolk, Virginia, on March 28, 1910, and was buried in the Gatesville Cemetery.

In the last quarter of the ninteenth century, the railroad opened Gates County to new opportunity. Shipment by rail was more efficient and allowed logging operations to move timber cheaply to markets, and farmers to ship produce more readily and small towns to burgeon into prosperous communities. It remained this way until the railroads stopped running through the county in 1979, after highways made truck shipment cheaper than the rails.

Gates County has remained close to the same since it was formed in 1779. Other than obvious changes in technology, Gates still relies on the agriculture and timber industry more than any other commercial enterprise. Six of the nine largest manufacturers in the county all rely on the timber businesses, while the majority of jobs are in agriculture.

Many things haven't changed much since the late eighteenth century. The county's population hasn't even doubled in over 200 years. In 1790, there were 5,372 people living here as compared to the 10,720 of the year 2002. That only adds to the small town feeling of this tight-knit community, and the hospitality of the early pioneers is still present in the current residents, as is the resilience and perseverance of their forebears.

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