What is the story of Washington?

Published 7:28 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In the past generations the locals in our town were clear: Washington needed no adjectives. But after the founding of our nation’s capital, the “other” Washington became known as “Washington City.” So why is Washington, North Carolina, now referred to as “Original Washington” or “Little Washington?” Our Washington was born during the turmoil of the Revolutionary War.
The settlement came together as a trading port before it was a town. It was the farthest point inland that ocean-going ships could reach. Ships came here primarily for lumber and naval stores but also for farm products, most of which were floated in on barges from the interior.

A trading hub is a place of vitality. The settlement became part of the Royal English colony. Her wharves vibrated with dock workers’ footsteps, those of mariners from the West Indies and beyond, of white planters and enslaved African-American watermen from remote rural areas and of local shipping merchants of vision eager to cash in on potential profit.

It was James Bonner’s town, a town he laid out across 30 acres fronting the Pamlico River, part of a larger plantation given to him by his fabulously land wealthy father. Bonner, a creative businessman, devised a plan to erect a town from the growing settlement, to divide the parcel into lots and sell them off. The place was known as “Forks of the Tar.”

When North Carolina’s capital was moved to New Bern from Bath in 1766, Royal Governor Tryon began taxing the people to fund the building of his palace. Its opulence became a focus for the colonists’ complaints about taxation and mismanagement by the king’s officials, although local leaders remained loyal to the monarchy. In 1771, when James Bonner petitioned the governor and Royal Assembly for permission to found a town, royal affairs were in disarray. Governor Tryon had hanged the leaders of a protest group known as the Regulators and then left town. The next governor lasted only a month, and Robert Palmer, an ardent and able royalist from Bath, had just moved to New Bern to work in the Royal Council for the new Governor Martin. Bonner’s petition was therefore ignored amid the turmoil and the gathering storms of revolt.
When the Boston Tea Party erupted in 1773 and the British blockaded the port of Boston, Jacob Blount stocked a ship with food from farms in Pitt and Beaufort counties and managed to slip in and assist the people of Boston who were near starvation (per the John Gray Blount papers and oral history). James Bonner’s town was, by then, morphing in spirit from the settlement at “Forks of the Tar” to “General George Washington’s town,” a town dependent on shipping, whose leaders gave their hearts early to the American Revolution (in contrast with the politics of some neighboring towns). Bonner’s port settlement would soon change in more ways than in name, yet Bonner remained unable to obtain official recognition of the town’s existence.

Billie-Jean E. Mallison is a member of the Historic Port of Washington Project. Learn more at www.hpow.org or on Facebook at “Historic Port of Washington Museum” for additional information about Washington’s past.