By Maury York
Legislation enacted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provides evidence of how state leaders viewed the economic value of the Tar River and its tributaries. In addition to ferries and gristmills, which were subject to government regulation, fishing and transportation improvements drew the attention of public officials.
In 1766 the General Assembly ratified a law to prevent the "unreasonable destruction" of fish in the Neuse and Tar Rivers as well as in Fishing Creek and other tributaries. "Avaritious" individuals had been extending seines, nets, "hedges," or dams across these waterways. The obstructions were viewed as unfair to the inhabitants of the upper regions of the rivers and streams, who considered fishing a "natural right." The act made it unlawful to create such barriers between February 10 and May 10 each year below the "main forks" of the Tar River or across Great Fishing Creek below Bute County (divided in 1779 into Franklin and Warren). The law required those who pursued this activity to leave an opening of at least thirty feet in the middle of a waterway. Violators were subject to a fine of £20 proclamation money. Lawmakers exempted mill dams from the legislation.
During the eighteenth century, farmers in North Carolina depended heavily on rivers and streams to get their produce to market. The lack of good roads made it especially important to keep waterways open to small boats. In 1784 legislators passed a law requiring the county courts of Edgecombe, Halifax, and Pitt Counties to oversee the clearing of the Tar River from the dividing line between Pitt and Beaufort Counties into Edgecombe County. A portion of Fishing Creek was to be cleared as well. Men living near these waterways were required to engage in this work six days a year. Persons found guilty by a justice of the peace of obstructing navigation by felling a tree, making a hedge, or some other activity were to be fined £5. Negro slaves found guilty of these acts were to receive "thirty-nine lashes well laid on his or her bare back..."
North Carolina's poor economy during the first decades of the nineteenth century led visionaries like Archibald Debow Murphey to advocate a variety of transportation improvements. One such initiative involved an attempt to improve the navigability of the Tar River. The General Assembly in 1816 incorporated the Tar River Navigation Company. Amending the law two years later, legislators appointed James Hill, William Moore, John J. Inge, John D. Hawkins, and Nathan Patterson commissioners to seek an investment of $75,000 in this endeavor. Commissioners were directed to meet in Louisburg in June of 1819 to determine if the required minimum investment of $30,000 had been subscribed. Investors ultimately agreed to purchase stock valued at $56,000, and the state contributed additional funds. Joel King of Louisburg served as treasurer of the company. Owing to a failure of subscribers to meet their obligations, however, the company soon became defunct. The goal of making the Upper Tar River navigable remained elusive.
Published in The Franklin Times on January 9, 2014.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Portion of John Collet's A Compleat Map of North-Carolina (1770) courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.