A historical look at Onslow County
New Bern, NC – Frequently, you hear features on the history and culture of eastern North Carolina. This week, we visit the Onslow County Museum. The Southeastern North Carolina County has a rich, cultural history beginning with colonial settlers that moved into the area almost 300 years ago, and that influx from people all over the world to Onslow County continues today.
But first, we'll start at the beginning at least the beginning of what we know how eastern North Carolina looked 65 million years ago. Archeologist say the shoreline was much further inland, around Raleigh. Long before humans inhabited the area, prehistoric creatures roamed the waters. Executive Director of the Onslow County Museum Lisa Whitman-Grice says it's not hard for archeologist and residents in eastern North Carolina to find evidence of large, ocean dwelling creatures.
"There were incredible, cool maritime creatures like carcharodon megalodon who was a 40 to 80 foot prehistoric giant white shark. And everybody knows they love to walk along our coast line and find a sharks tooth. So this shows them the beginnings of what it must have been like millions of years ago."
The Onslow County Museum has an exhibit on display called, the "Water and the Wood," which tells the story of Onslow County from prehistoric to the not-so-distant past. Today, fossils are being uncovered and documented to give us an idea on what our land looked like before people existed. In the late 1990's, the scattered remains of a whale-like creature that lived about 44 million years ago were found in New Hanover County.
The landscape of eastern North Carolina changed from being a sea floor to a large ice mass during the Ice Age, when massive creatures like the wooly mammoth roamed the area.
"Then we move forward through time as the Ice Age ends and those megafauna creatures like the mammoth become extinct and then what Onslow County began to look like as it looks today, with our waterways, the White Oak River, the New River, Stump Sound, all the tributaries, and of course the aquafier that provides our fresh water drinking supply."
As the ice melts and land starts to appear, an environment suitable for humans starts to emerge. That's when Whitman-Grice says Native Americans start to move into the area, approximately 14,000 years ago. According to the North Carolina Museum of History, the earliest people in North Carolina, the Paleo-Indians, lived a nomadic life, traveling in groups to hunt large animals and gather edible plants. It's likely that this people group were the first humans to live in Onslow County.
"We talk about the Paleo-Indian, the Archaic-Indian, and the Woodland-Indian, and how we know about these people by looking at the tools that they've left behind and how they made and changed and shaped the landscape that's here, how they utilize the natural resources that are here."
Many of the natural resources that were available to coastal Native Americans thousands of years ago are still available today, like fertile soil, the abundance of lumber, and the ocean. Whitman-Grice says the Native Americans used these elements to thrive in Onslow County for thousands of years.
"They lived in longhouses, which were constructed of little saplings covered with grass mats. They lived along the waterways, they fished, they hunted. But here in Onslow County, what we know their favorite food were from the archeological records is shellfish, particularly oysters and clams."
The Native Americans used trees to make dugout canoes as a way of transportation around the White Oak and New Rivers. The centerpiece of the Water and the Wood exhibit is a 38 foot canoe hand carved from a cypress tree.
"Archeologist tell us that it could have held about 20 passengers and it was found in the New River about 40 years ago. So it's been radiocarbon dated at plus or minus 50 years on 750. So it's about 750 to 800 years old. And that would have been a time where there was defiantly a large Native American population in our area. "
From dugout canoes to arrow heads, evidence of Native Americans can be found throughout Onslow County. However, it's not clear which tribes the coastal Native Americans were from. According to archeological data, Whitman-Grice says they were most likely Siouan, Iroquoian, or Algonquian.
"We can't specifically say this is the "x" tribe or the "y" tribe. We really talk in terms of more generalities in terms of language groups and burial practices and pottery styles."
In 1713, almost three hundred years ago, the first settlers in Onslow County start to appear. Many of the same reasons that brought Native Americans to Onslow County also attracted settlers. Good hunting and fishing, rich soil and plentiful natural resources. While most of the early settlers were from Massachusetts and other established colonies, Onslow County became a melting pot for different cultures around the world.
"They also came from what we think of as traditional colonist coming from the British Isles England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We think about those who came from France, the French Huguenots who immigrated to this area. The German immigrants who came here, and of course those West African peoples who were brought here against their will as slaves, and bringing together all of those cultures to Onslow County."
Probably the most valuable natural resource in Onslow County was the longleaf pine forests. In the nineteenth century, workers would harvest sap from the trees and turn it into useful products like waterproofing for ships, paint thinners, and medicines.
"This is really the crop which serves as the foundation for Onslow County's growth. There again, one of the largest plantations known as the Richlands was a naval stores operation."
In 1861, the American Civil War began when the South seceded from the Union. An often forgotten battle took place in Jacksonville in November of 1862 called the Battle of New River.
Lt. William Barker Cushing who was the young and dashing commander of a Union vessel of the Ellis that came up the New River and then his exploits for about a three-day period when he was here in Onslow County.
Cushing sought to take over or destroy trading vessels along the New River. After capturing a load of mail bound for Wilmington, his ship ran aground trying to escape and Confederate soldiers launched their attack. Cushing and his artillery gauntlet narrowly escaped aboard a captured vessel, which fled to a Union naval station in Beaufort. Cushing was also known for devising the successful plan to overtake the Confederate ironclad USS Albemarle during the Battle of Plymouth.
After the Civil War, Onslow County along with the rest of the nation entered the Reconstruction Period. That's when the social, economic, and political climate of the community began to shift. Whitman-Grice says one of the biggest changes during Reconstruction is to agricultural practices in Onslow County.
"Certainly naval stores start to decline, cotton is no longer produced in the same significant amounts and there is a rise in the 1890s of a new crop, and that's tobacco. And for many families, that was going to mean the promise of prosperity after the war. And families began to cultivate tobacco but in the really short 60 years between the end of the war and the beginning early twentieth century then you have the great depression and the promise of that prosperity kind of falls away."
Shortly after the Great Depression came another offer of prosperity to Onslow County, the location of Marine Corp Base New River, which would later become the largest amphibious training base in the world, Camp Lejeune. For generations, most of the people living in Onslow County were direct descendants of the original families who came to the area nearly 300 years ago. Similar to when the county started, people from all over the world began coming to Onslow County again.
"In 1941, the population booms, the community booms, different cultural traditions come here and this is really a turning point in modern day Onslow County."
To this day, the county remains a melting pot of people from different cultures and religions and backgrounds. There are currently about 180-thousand people living in Onslow County today.
The Water and the Wood is a permanent exhibit at the Onslow County Museum in Jacksonville. Also on display until November is a children's discovery gallery called the "Night Sky." All active duty military and up to five family members can view the exhibits for free. Water and the Wood and Night Sky will be on display during business hours, Tuesday thru Friday 10 to 4:30, and Saturday 10 to 4. For Public Radio East, I'm Jared Brumbaugh.