Is county’s future buried in Bath?

Published 11:54 am Sunday, August 22, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This begins a two-part series. The series concludes Tuesday.
Near Archbell Point on Bath Creek lie the buried remains of what may be Secotan — the best-documented, “prehistoric” Indian village in America, according to area historians, archaeologists and local lore.
The site is owned by phosphate-mining titan PotashCorp, but its rich provenance stretches back to the days of roving pirates, royally commissioned governors and, before them, America’s aboriginal population.
After being settled by the English, the land cradled the home of Charles Eden, a colonial governor of North Carolina.
Edward Teach, better known as the infamous pirate Blackbeard, was rumored to have visited the governor at his home, and it was written that this unlikely pair co-existed on friendly terms.
Later, the plantation along the creek, where Eden had presided, was owned by Edward Salter, a rich merchant who was believed to have been a member of Blackbeard’s crew.
Despite the tight concentration of known and unknown history within its borders, the privately owned site is used for agricultural purposes.
PotashCorp, the county’s largest industry in terms of employment, has taken steps to keep the public out. The grounds are fenced off and unauthorized access is prohibited.
The company owns approximately 420 acres in the immediate vicinity, tax records show. The acreage, including a house on one tract, has a tax value of over $7.3 million.
Judging by the prosperous waterfront subdivisions in the county, the land could have much greater value as a haven for retirees, but there is no sign PotashCorp wants to move in that direction — and even if it did, the artifacts deposited there could morph into obstacles to development.
“There are no plans to sell the property for development or any other purpose in the near future,” said Michelle Vaught, spokeswoman for PotashCorp’s Aurora facility.
Opening the lid
Pat Mansfield lives near the PotashCorp-owned land.
Shortly after she moved to Bath, Mansfield took a boat up to a dock and strolled onto the property, mistakenly thinking the lush, green expanse was a public park.
She was met by a man in a truck who asked her — in curt tones, she recalled — if she realized she was trespassing.
“He accompanied us down to our boat,” Mansfield said.
Later, around four years ago, Mansfield ferried a professor from East Carolina University and a Bath historic-site official over to the PotashCorp space for a scheduled visit.
Mansfield described the experience as “cryptic,” saying the visitors’ official escort, whose name she couldn’t immediately recall, told them he didn’t know what they expected to find.
Not a casual observer or a nosy neighbor, Mansfield is head of the Blackbeard Adventure Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to building a replica of Blackbeard’s sloop the Adventure.
One of the two experts who walked the property with Mansfield was Charles Ewen, an ECU professor of anthropology and director of the Phelps Archaeology Laboratory.
Contacted via e-mail, Ewen said his interest was primarily in the colonial parts of the site. He said he was unaware “that the prehistoric component was a candidate for Secotan.”
“In fact, I don’t recall that the prehistoric component was mentioned at all,” Ewen wrote.
Mansfield echoed a number of regional history buffs and experts in saying Beasley Point deserves further scrutiny for its potential connections to Secotan, and its colonial components.
“I think it should be investigated and have all of the top people that we can muster and have it thoroughly researched,” she said. “And it’s long overdue. I think the citizens of North Carolina deserve that.”
Noting that artifacts already have been unearthed at the site, Mansfield added, “I think we’ve just opened the lid of the treasure box and we’re finding out what the true treasure of this whole thing is.”
A known — and unknown — quantity
State officials, and at least a few of their local counterparts, have carried some of Beasley Point’s open secrets for years.
Today, a wide range of officials, state and local, acknowledge the land’s potential for fruitful archaeological survey.
But, in recent years, little to nothing has been done to document what happened at the point, and it isn’t known whether this waterfront property was Secotan, the capital of an Algonquian Indian nation, or only a colonial base of operations for Eden and his cohorts.
As Beaufort County struggles to reorient its economy and replace the thousands of manufacturing jobs it has lost since the late 1990s, Tom Thompson, the county’s chief economic developer, envisions the secluded point as a prospective tourist draw.
“The archaeologists we’re working with think that these specific sites are the most likely locations of the Secotan site,” said Thompson, who isn’t the only informed source asserting that Secotan must have been in the territory that came to be called Beaufort County.
Extracting the site’s potential depends on getting a place at the table with PotashCorp, Thompson implied.
Officials, including County Manager Paul Spruill, say PotashCorp is evaluating a county request that, it has been suggested, could — or should — lead to in-depth archaeological digs at Beasley Point.
Thompson is cobbling together a coalition of organizations interested in bringing Secotan back to life.
Among this coalition’s partners is the First Colony Foundation, a nonprofit entity dedicated to bringing early colonial history to light.
First Colony has made its mark through important excavations along the Outer Banks, and famed underwater archaeologist Gordon Watts is one of its board members.
Watts is best known as a discoverer of the remains of the USS Monitor, an ironclad ship that served the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.
Not satisfied with enlisting experts in isolation, Thompson, who is integral to the “Secotan project,” has been lobbying well-placed state leaders.
“I’ve heard that discussion a lot,” Gov. Beverly Perdue told the Daily News in an interview on Friday.
Perdue said she and state Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, had talked about unearthed Beasley Point artifacts that rest in the state’s hands.
“This county is replete with history and with natural resources,” the governor said. “I don’t want to get into an argument about private sector versus public sector. We don’t have condemnation power to go in and take something away from the private enterprise. But I would believe that the company would be willing to meet and discuss with local officials both from the public and private sector about what’s best for the community.”
Perdue said Williams has worked “aggressively” with the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources “to be sure that the artifacts really do remain where they were found.”
Locals on board
All seven Beaufort County commissioners “are aware of the opportunity” the PotashCorp-owned land presents, said Spruill, the county manager.
In a recent letter to William J. Doyle, president and chief executive officer of PotashCorp, commissioners’ Chairman Jerry Langley affirms that the commissioners support tapping into the site’s potential, whatever it may be.
“What we are requesting is simply the opportunity (to) discuss with you the possibility of continuing the archaeological excavation that was begun in 1985 and halted in 1986 in which the remains of Edward Salter were exhumed,” Langley wrote. “At that time, the State declared the site was possibly Secotan. A number of other sources have also identified it as the most likely site, perhaps the only site that could be Secotan due to its location on early maps.”
In a brief interview, Langley said he would have to see more information before committing county funds to the project.
As for the cultural-tourism prospects, “The possibilities are definitely there,” he said.
Responding to a request from the Daily News, Vaught, the PotashCorp spokeswoman, released this statement: “Regarding the letter sent to our corporate offices in Northbrook, Ill. regarding property the company owns near Archbell Point in Beaufort County, once we receive a copy of the letter here at the Aurora site, we will respond to the appropriate Beaufort County officials. We anticipate receiving a copy of the letter shortly and will then follow-up.”
Commissioner Robert Cayton sat in on a meeting of PotashCorp and county officials a couple of months ago. A pitch was made by county officials, along the lines of Langley’s letter, but that presentation has elicited no response from the company so far, Cayton confirmed.
Cayton indicated he was cautiously optimistic about the tourism benefits the site could produce.
“We’ve got to certainly realize the historical significance of it,” he said. “We have to work with the property owners to find out what their intentions are, and we have to also see what the potential historical significance is.”
Cayton stopped short of saying Secotan — if it’s there — could lift the county out of a long cycle of job losses deepened by struggling traditional businesses, dwindling industrial investment in the region and other factors.
“I would hesitate to use the word boom,” he said. “I think there is the potential for long-range planning that will cause economic growth. I’m not looking a boom as much as I’m looking for a slow, steady climb out of the situation that we’re in.”
Thompson is admittedly frustrated that so little has been done to draw public attention to the notion that the county’s future could lie in its past, buried beneath successive layers of soil in Bath.
Thompson points to the discovery of thousands of artifacts on the site when it was bulkheaded to prevent further erosion of the creek-adjacent land in the late 1980s.
The artifacts found there — thousands of pieces, reportedly — are still in the state’s custody.
“How can anybody find that many artifacts, know that Secotan was world-famous and not touch anything?” Thompson asked. “What happened? Why did they cover it up and leave?”