Living in Wilmington, NC

History of Wilmington

By: Ryan McCombs

 Living at the coast in a state that was one of the thirteen colonies, we all know there is a quite a bit of history due to the obvious fact that the settlers came in on ships. While the European settlers were not the first people on the land, that is where the story of our city begins.

 Colonial Wilmington

It is recorded that a man by the name of Giovanni da Verrazano observed the area in the 16th century, but the first settlers did not show up until the 1720s.  They began to build around the Cape Fear River due to the easy access for importing and exporting goods.

The name of the town changed a few times starting out as New Carthage, changing to New Liverpool, New Town, Newton until 1739 when Governor Gabriel Johnston changed the name to Wilmington. This was in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington in Great Britain.

Settlers from other colonies began to move into Wilmington from South Carolina, Virginia, and even from as far as the West Indies. Much of early Wilmington’s population was indentured servants of European origin. Within thirty years the slave population accounted for more than fifty percent of Wilmington.

The local economy was based around naval stores and lumber during this time period and many of the slaves worked in port as laborers.


Wilmington: Major player in Revolutionary War

Wilmington being a major port played a key role in helping the thirteen colonies rallies against the British and was the home of political leaders who were not afraid to cause uproar over the slightest provocation brought on by the British.  When the British attempted to impose the infamous Stamp Act in 1765, Wilmington settlers held a demonstration against it. They had a symbolic funeral of “Liberty” on October 31, 1765, but it was found that “Liberty” was still alive and well, so they celebrated instead.

November 18, 1765, Governor William Tryon attempted to placate the crowds and pled his case to the prominent settlers, but they would not hear anything that had to do with stripping them of their rights. The stamps arrived ten days later on the H.M. Sloop Diligence; they were not unloaded at the order of Tryon. All shipping on the Cape Fear ceased, as did those of the court.

Tryon arrived in Wilmington on a barge from the Diligence and was met with firing of the New Hanover County regiment of militia. This unexpected “welcoming” also turned into a dispute between Captain Constantine Phipps—Diligence Captain—and the other captains over the colors he was flying. Tryon lectured the crowd for their disrespectful behavior over what seemed to be a petty issue in his eyes and was met with more disruptive behavior, which made him move his seat of government to New Bern.

The Stamp Act only lasted a few more months when it all culminated into a mob of more than one thousand Wilmington residents, including the mayor and aldermen, marching into Brunswick to confront the governor. The mob threatened royal customs officers and public officials, warning them against issuance of stamped paper.

Antebellum and Civil War Era

In the 19th century railroads were like the veins of our young nation making transportation as well as import/export throughout the country easier. By 1840 Wilmington was the starting point of the longest single line of railroad track in the world. The track, which was originally set to end in Raleigh, was changed to Weldon, NC. Wilmington Gas Light Company started in 1854 and brought streetlights that were gas powered, quickly replacing oil lamps. The following year they broke ground for the new City Hall and that same year Thalian Hall was established right next to it. In 1857 the first public school, “Union Free School,” was opened on 6th street between Nun and Church streets.

The Civil War was another era that the Port City became important. The port was the busiest base for the Confederate Army and for blockade-runners delivering supplies from England. In February 1865, the Battle of Wilmington ensued and the Union forces won. This was obviously a major victory for the Union and played an integral role in bringing the nation back together and ending slavery.

Post Civil War to 20th Century

            Even thirty years after the war the nation was struggling to unite and Wilmington was no exception. The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898—race riot—took place due to the extreme racial tensions within the community and the endless political conflicts in post-war south. There was a call for white supremacy and the battle began between the races leaving nearly one hundred African Americans dead and another 2000 left the city. The residents continued their reign of white supremacy throughout the early 20th century until the passing of the Civil Rights act of the mid-1960s guaranteeing equal rights regardless of race and enforcing laws to protect those who had previously been discriminated against.

Wilmington did its part in WWII, it was the home of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company and is credited with the building of 243 ships in its five year life span.  There were also three prisoner of war camps from 1944-1946. One of these being on Bluethenthal Army Air Base or as we now know it, Wilmington International Airport (ILM).

Every city has its story, some parts good, some bad, and some that we will never know the full story behind. By living here you have become part of Wilmington’s history and its future, so enjoy this wonderful city and everything it has to offer.



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