A Capital Affair, Pt. II

New Bern, the first colonial capital: 1766-1776

“Perhaps a greater villain than corrupt officials was the absence of a provincial capital or fixed courthouse during the early years” (Jones, 1966).

At its first few meetings in New Bern, the Assembly voted against the town becoming the permanent seat of government, despite Governor Gabriel Johnston’s efforts. Meanwhile, the public records continued to suffer.

“The Publick Records lye in a miserable condition one part of them at Edenton near the Virginia Line in a place without Lock or Key; a great part of them in the Secretarys House at Cape Fear above Two Hundred Miles Distance from the other Some few of ’em at the Clerk of the Council’s house at Newbern, so that in whatever part of the Colony a man happens to be, if he wants to consult any paper or record he must send some Hundred of Miles before he can come at it.” — Governor Gabriel Johnston to the Board of Trade, December 28, 1748 (Saunders, 1886)

Once Arthur Dobbs was appointed Governor in 1753, efforts to establish a state capital continued. Dobbs wrote to the Board of Trade several times, even requesting members of the Assembly visit several areas along the Neuse River to “fix upon a proper situation for the seat of government” (Session of September-October, 1756). A bill was later passed to build the capital at a site called “Tower Hill” (northeast of today’s Kinston), to be renamed “George City,” but those plans fell through when the bill was dropped soon after.

Several years later, William Tryon would take on the role of Governor and proclaim New Bern as the “properest place for carrying on public business” (Saunders, 1890) which marked the end of a long journey towards a fixed seat of government.

tryon palace

Plans showing the front elevation of Tryon Palace designed by John Hawks in 1767. The original plans are in the British Public Records Office. Courtesy of North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Not long after Tryon came into office, the Assembly passed “an act for erecting a convenient building within the town of New Bern for the residence of the governor” in 1766 and plans to build what is now known as Tryon Palace were in place. New Bern was now officially the first “permanent” capital.

During the period in which New Bern served as the state capital, the Legislature also met in several other places, including Edenton, Bath, Kinston, Halifax, Hillsborough, Smithfield, Wilmington, Salem (now Winston-Salem), Tarboro, and Fayetteville. The constant movement was mostly due to attempts to avoid attack from British troops during the Revolutionary War.

After about a decade, it was finally decided that New Bern give up its capital title, as it was no longer centrally located for all members of the Assembly.

More on North Carolina’s next chapter in establishing a state capital in the next few days, when we recount how Raleigh became the second (and final) seat of government.

A Capital Affair, Pt. I
A Capital Affair, Pt. III

Related Resources & Recommended Reading

Jones, H. G. (1966). For history’s sake: The preservation and publication of North Carolina history. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Powell, W. S. (1990). North Carolina through four centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Saunders, William L. (1886). The colonial records of North Carolina (Vol. IV). Raleigh, N.C.: E. M. Uzzell. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/colonialrecordso04nort.

Saunders, William L. (1890). The colonial records of North Carolina (Vol. VII). Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards and Broughton, printers. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/colonialrecordso07nort.

Legislative Documents Cited

“Lower House Papers: Simple Resolution, October 16, re site for capital.” (1756.) Session of September-October, 1756. GASR Colonial, Box 1. MARS ID Session Records. General Assembly Records. State Archives of North Carolina.

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