Research: The Colonial Period

With the release of Whispers on the River, I want to include glimpses into my research here. The colonial period in America (pre-1776) has so much to intrigue and to deplore. Often, the same person could be a hero and a hypocrite.

When writing this book, I discovered that my adopted state, North Carolina, had unique attributes that required targeted research. Although there were similarities with the other Southern colonies, North Carolina “went its own way” in its treatment of women and slaves, its laws, its beliefs about religion and government, and its disregard for authority. For any information that I uncovered about Southern colonies, I felt compelled to confirm with research specific to North Carolina. Fortunately, this state has great online resources for its history.

Some of the research is highlighted below. Although I used multiple sources, I mainly reference here, since it is a good, single source for most topics. I hope that you enjoy learning about the unique history of North Carolina during the colonial period.


New Bern as a provincial capital

In 1663, King Charles II gave an immense expanse of American land, the province of Carolina, to eight Lord Proprietors. In 1719, South Carolina became a separate royal colony. By 1729, all but one of the remaining lord proprietorships in North Carolina had been paid off by King George II. It wasn’t until 1774 that the citizens of North Carolina began to take steps toward changing from a royal to a state form of government, ending in December 1776 with the first state constitution and elected governor.

North Carolina had several cities that served as the seat of government, including Charleston, Edenton, Bath, and Wilmington. New Bern served as the capital (mostly) from 1747 until 1794, when the capital was moved to Raleigh.

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Slavery and African-Americans in colonial North Carolina

The Spread of Slavery

In 1729, when the Carolina province divided, South Carolina had 32,000 slaves and North Carolina, 6000. By the 1770s, the population of enslaved Africans had exploded to 100,000. While NC’s  economic system and geography provided some barriers to slavery, it did not, sadly, prevent it. The local government–often at the urging of the Quaker and Moravian communities–went through a cycle of bans and repeals on the importation of slaves. Still, by the beginning of the American Civil War, North Carolina had approximately 270,000 enslaved Africans and 30,000 Free Negros.

Free Negros in New Bern

In Whispers on the River, the character of Charlotte Browne is loosely based on Amelia Green, a real person. Green was born a slave who bought her freedom in the 1790s. She earned her living in New Bern as a weaver, eventually saving enough to buy the freedom of all of her children. Her grandson-in-law, John Carruthers Stanly, became a prominent figure in New Bern’s Free Negro community as he gained great wealth and property. He was recognized by his white father, educated, and purchased his freedom at the age of 21. Late in life, Stanly lost most of his fortune by guaranteeing a loan for his white half-brother. When the brother defaulted, Stanly had to liquidate his assets to pay off the debt. 

Voting Rights

Property owners in provincial North Carolina were allowed to vote. The Free Negro property owners in NC were eligible to vote and did exercise that right.

My daughter says that she was taught in NC History classes that female property owners could also vote, but I cannot find any resource to back up that claim.


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Smuggling in North Carolina

There are not many primary sources about smuggling in the American colonies. Smugglers had little motivation to write down information that could be used against them. Some of the best resources are the laws that were passed to prevent smuggling–as well as the court proceedings and evidence used to convict smugglers.

England passed many laws and trade acts that generally required the colonials to trade with it or its provinces, such as the British West Indies. North Carolina didn’t produce many goods that lent themselves to smuggling. We did produce tobacco–which we often smuggled into other colonies. Our naval stores (tar, pitch, and turpentine) and lumber were required to be exported to England. Hog farming was beginning to increase and, while the British West Indies didn’t have much interest, the Dutch West Indies did wish to import pork and other food provisions.

In December 1770, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed several acts to govern their province. One in particular was “An Act to prevent the Exportation of Unmerchantable Commodities.” Chapter VII was a detailed attempt in impose an inspection system on farmers and merchants, to establish standards for size of containers and volume/weight of goods. Coopers were to mark their barrels with unique symbols. Inspectors were to inspect barrels and packed goods, then issue official documents that were to accompany the containers from supplier to consumer. This act was in effect at the time of Whispers on the River. Generally, improperly inspected goods were punished by forfeiture of those goods. But, as Nathaniel Eton mentions in Whispers on the River, for anyone who knowingly shipped uninspected goods, the penalties could include forfeiture of the cargo and ship–as well as 39 lashes and imprisonment. He would have, by far, suffered the greatest consequences had he been caught. 

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