Donated trunk reveals trove of local history

Published 3:55 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2023

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By Clark Curtis for the Washington Daily News

In February of this year, the Brown Library received a very generous donation from a Washington resident for its history room. A small unassuming antique trunk. Which, of course, piqued the interest and curiosity of library historian, Stephen Farrell. The first thing he noticed were the initials DVB which were painted on the side of the trunk. “It appeared they had more than likely been whitewashed with some sort of a lime based white paint, which is significant as that was commonly done during the 1850s and 1860s,” said Farrell. “The handmade design around the sides was also quite elaborate and somewhat feminine looking.  On the top was a very worn and faded Wilmington and Welden Railroad sticker from the Southern Express Company in Tarboro, North Carolina. After consulting with some fellow historians, we determined the tag and the trunk had to be from the Civil War era.”

The mystery of who may have been the owner of this antique luggage began to unravel when Farrell opened the trunk and began to explore its contents. It was filled with newspapers from New York, Detroit, and elsewhere, dating from the 1850s to the 1890s. Two in particular caught his attention. One had “Mr. Bonner” written on it in pencil and another “Mr. Warren” written in pencil. “Seeing those names and knowing their history here in Washington, I felt we might be getting a bit closer to answering some of our questions,” said Farrell. “I started going through our genealogies about the Bonner and Warren families and discovered the name Deborah Virginia Bonner, the daughter of Col. Richard H. and Elizabeth Lee Bowen Bonner of Beaufort County, who was born in 1829. Her grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Bowen was one of the early leaders and founders of Methodism in North Carolina. I also learned that she married Edward Jenner Warren, a Beaufort County circuit court judge in 1849. From there all of the dots started connecting.”

In 1852, Deborah Warren purchased the Greenhill house, which still stands at 612 W. Main Street. There she and her husband Edward would reside and raise their son and daughter, Charles Frederick Warren and Lucy Warren Meyers. Charles, like his father, would go on to become a  successful lawyer in Beaufort County and become the second president of the North Carolina Bar Association. His son, Lyndsay Carter Warren, would go on to become a state representative, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Comptroller General of the United States, a presidential appointment. He would later become known as the “Lion of Beaufort County,” as penned by his son Lindsay Carter Warren, Jr. in his book by the same name about his father. “Coming across these artifacts of time and determining their significance to Washington is really exciting for me,” said Farrell. “Whether it’s a piece of furniture, an article of clothing, or a document, I’m driven to try and piece it all together correctly and preserve it. This was a very rare find from the civil war era. I can only imagine how many civil war era artifacts that may be tucked away in someones’ attic that have a special connection in some way to the City of Washington.” 

Farrell said people are more than welcome to schedule an appointment to explore many of the items that have been donated to the library history center. He is also more than willing to meet with those who may have something that could be of significance to Washingtons’ history and take a look at it. “We want to preserve as much of Washingtons’ heritage and culture and the history surrounding it as possible,” said Farrell. “Just the fact that we were able to identify that Deborah Virgina Bonner owned that piece of luggage, who she was married to, and that they lived on West Main Street here in Washington, makes my job worth it, and it is what makes it exciting to come into work every day.”