How Do You Say Goodbye to a Garden?

Our Southern Garden Gave Us Rich Memories

It was high dusk on a gray November day. We had countless plants we’d collected on the fly from our thirty-five-year-old garden tightly wedged into the back seat of the car. There was no looking back as we drove off to our new home in New Hampshire. We had already brushed vestiges of mud from our clothes.

The mud had not come, as you would suspect, from a wistful farewell ramble through garden beds we would never see again. The leavetaking was much too hectic for such leisure. It came from the mundane – and muddy — task of trying to read a drowned water meter. This was a final, futile favor to a county water department that had occasionally been generous to us when we left our hoses running through a summer night.

Now, the paths, the steps, the open space, the beds and borders, the woodlands, and all creatures who lived among them would be cast behind to awaken only in memories and old photos, some reproduced here in slide shows.

The Garden We Were Leaving


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Faithful Ranger, not the garden, got the last formal goodbye. After three decades of reliable service, we were giving our ’92 Ford truck to our magician-mechanic in hopes that he would find a good home for it. Now, during this last stop, we were turning the title over to him. We gave him one last hug, and with a quick pat to Ranger’s fender we took leave.

Ranger had hauled peanut hulls, cotton dirt, manure, mulch, sand, bricks, landscape ties, fence posts, shingles, lumber and garden trash, and he had plucked stubborn, storm-damaged plants from garden beds with the pulling power of his six-cylinder engine. There probably wouldn’t have been a garden without Ranger.

There Will Never Be Another Ranger


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Our garden had grown into a bunch of rambunctious, wayward, tumbling rowdies, always threatening to spin out of control. Each year, I vowed would be the year the garden would shape up. That never happened, of course, as plants have a way of growing out of bounds in southern summers.

So we settled into rationalizing that the garden was a work in progress that bugs and people liked, one grand experiment. Bob called it The Jungle.

Mind you, I was forever transplanting and re-organizing, rescuing the timid from thugs, removing innocents caught in the way of my current new wave (a touch of idiocy?), and taming upstarts that hadn’t read the books. But that wistful eye for just another new plant, like wondering what’s around the bend in the road, kept me in a pickle pail full of delightful discoveries, including, outrageously, a Dawn Redwood that eventually shared the skies with oak and maple.

So spirea nudged azalea. kerria tangled with sinocalycanthus. Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’ lounged on ‘Fashion’ azaleas. The tendrils of sweet autumn clematis tried mightily to reach out and embrace the entire garden. Summer natives danced out of bounds. Grasses kissed the sun. And we took pleasure in the tangle.

Lovely Rowdies


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During the final rolling weeks of packing, plants had become the last things on my mind. Earlier, they had been first priority. So many had been propagated here, they were like a second family. I dug up whatever I thought would survive the move North and, graciously, Steven and Susan transported and cared for my potted addictions (except for last-minute smuggles noted above).

There were not as many as I thought. I’d spent years of hankering after one of those perfect New England gardens featured in glossy magazines only to find that the plants inevitably succumbed to southern heat, humidity and mucky soil. Finally, I had learned the limits of my space and I grew to love the lush growth and lavish parade of bloom that came with these southerly tough/tender plants.

Now that we were moving North, I was saying goodbye to plants I would not soon meet again: camellias, Florida anise, abelias, southern azaleas, and most of my hydrangeas. And especially that grand watermelon crepe myrtle strung with Spanish moss that transformed our modest front lawn into a cliched but gracious southern landscape.

Southern Plants I am Missing Already

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It wasn’t just plants I was saying good bye to. Years back I came to gardening with a scrubbed face and shining eyes and lots of book-knowledge. I thought I knew it all. Yessiree, I would build beds and borders just right, perfect, with plants that behaved. I had the ultimate Grand Plan.

Then people started giving me plants. I was touched and delighted. But, horrors, their plants were not part of my Grand Plan. Oh dear! Where do I put a plant that is not part of the Grand Plan?

I needn’t have worried. In those first years we had no idea of how to garden in gray clay that dried to pottery shards, so most of my Grand Plans fizzled. I welcomed gifts from knowledgeable gardeners. As I watched the plants grow and bloom, they evoked sweet memories of good friends.

I learned that a garden is a tapestry tight-wove of plants and people and remembrance of good times past. Like the lingering sweet smells of blossoms on a moonlit summer night, memories of people who loved plants, walks and talks with them, visits from Master Gardeners, plant sale days, faux barbecues on the gazebo, even making quince jam, gifts given and received, would fill my spirit as I brushed by familiar plants.

And I will never forget the peace that wrapped itself around one and all as we roamed the paths or relaxed in the gazebo. I can still hear the quiet swish of breezes and wavelets off Albemarle Sound that once lulled us into golden hours, remote from the clutter of everyday life.

Now the memories belong to me, but the plants belong to others.

People in the Garden


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I had never set out to create a garden for butterflies, or birds, or other animals. I simply collected lots of plants that I liked, and tossed them together into a smorgasbord with woodlands. And life came out of the shadows and into my garden. Swamp red bay (already on the property) and spice bush (purchased as sprigs) attracted swallowtails.

Blue mist flower was a siren that drew every sipping insect with wings, and slender black wasps loved clethra. Wild honeybees gossiped in abelia grandiflora until mites invaded hives and silenced the happy spring buzz. Argioppe spiders, relatives of wise Charlotte who crafted messages in her web, crafted their own messages to lure end-of-summer prey.

As to the unwanted, chiggers and ticks and mosquitos, well, we managed, occasionally having the garden sprayed professionally with garlic and essential oils. There might be holes in some leaves, but mostly the garden remained healthy, possibly because we were faithful about adding compost that nourished plants and erratic about using chemical fertilizers. Camellia tea scale was the only insect we treated with oil spray once or twice a year.

The Small Critters We Loved


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Come warm sunny days in February I’d be poking around, impatient for new life. If plants weren’t risen and happy I would fret. But with the February sun came the first tentative warblings of newly awakened birds and my spirit would quicken. Territorial stake-outs and mating would lead to summer adventures.

Mockingbirds claimed exclusive rights to elderberries. Baby titmice prattled in baskets of ferns. Cardinals fought their reflections in windows. Woodpeckers woke us, banging on metal drain gutters.

Carolina wrens regularly invaded our garage scouting for nesting niches. Hummingbirds buzzed indignantly when the feeder was empty. During a droughty year a woodcock visited our sparsely watered garden to seek worms nearer the surface than in the dry woods. And, through dusky woodlands, a wood thrush would send us a summer aria.

One year a cowbird deposited her eggs in the nest of a prothonatary warbler. How disappointing to see baby cowbirds instead of baby warblers!

One spring a black snake took up residence in the bluebird box just as the babes were ready to fledge, traumatic for us and the family, and for the local bird population who flew in to – well, we are not sure why. Watch the action? Express outrage? Render vocal support? Get first dibs on an empty birdhouse?

Bob turned the box upside down and banged it until the stubborn snake apparently got addled. As it tried to slither away, he caught it and took it to a distant patch of woods while the birds were reunited. Amazingly, all but one nestling fledged.

Osprey keened when the amelanchier bloomed. And the great blue heron would stop by in summer for fishing and loafing, along with the turtles. One year, when we were cleaning the pond, he skulked behind shrubs and trees, homing in on vulnerable fish. We were on to his tricks but he knew when we were watching and he figured out how to win.

Winter, plants stripped of frippery, would reveal the housekeeping of summer’s smaller tenants: messy, casual, accomplished. Then February would come round again and we’d see the lone pied billed grebe cavorting in our slip and hear the first warblings that heralded a new spring.

Heron and Friends

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Sometimes, when I puttered during quiet summer evenings, potting or transplanting, a young squirrel, or a solo rabbit would follow me around, so close behind I would have to watch where I stepped. These young critters, recently graduated from cozy nests, seemed to want company, any company. I enjoyed their presence and would murmur nothing-phrases to them as I moved through the garden, though I was happy when they grew into independence.

One summer a frisky fawn latched on to me, one of twins introduced to us on a sunny afternoon by the doe herself. He’d watch me while I gardened, waiting for me to chase him. When I turned round to scold, the game began. One day I found him devouring an entire vine, tendrils dripping deliciously from his mouth. I stood quietly until he finally noticed me. One long moment of indecision, then, with great reluctance, he dropped the vine and took off before I could scold him.

Creatures came and went. There was a part of the property we rarely visited, left it to wildlife. A pair of coyotes camped out for a couple of years, skinny, almost gaunt. I know because I came face to face with one as we crossed paths. I took a silent breath. We stood motionless, both vulnerable, sizing each other up. I dared not turn my back. The coyote, braver, finally turned away and loped off.

Then there was the blind raccoon who hung around for a few weeks and scared a young possum away by accidentally bumping his nose. And the semi-tame rabbit from two properties down who wandered to our place regularly, following us as we worked. And the otters who played on our dock one summer. And the beaver who must have had delusions of grandeur thinking he could gnaw down a forest of mighty sweet gum trees.

The crayfish that were always building castles in clay undermined our paths, but we never managed to spot one. For a while a groundhog was resident, but during a rainy year he left after his underground digs turned muddy. We had tried to catch him but only snagged a baby raccoon, whose mother, distraught, left the grounds permanently, trust broken, even after we freed her youngster.

There was always a frog singing in the pond. One summer we swore he sang to us, since he was quiet until we came round and spoke. Occasionally a fox showed up but we never found a den. And once there was bobcat scat in a planter box, but we never saw the bobcat.

The Bigger Critters


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If Ranger was the workhorse on wheels, Bob was the builder who quietly did what needed to be done outside, and that is probably my fondest memory of all. Bob gave the garden its structure: gazebo, shed, decks, dock, steps, fences, brick edging for beds, crooked paths with steps, an automatic watering system, and the courtyard off the garage. Sometimes he worked solo; sometimes friends joined him.

Any bright new idea I had he was willing to tackle, transferring my sketchy thoughts with deliberation and a Number Two pencil onto graph paper, until he converted ideas into reality. Our first project, a challenge, was laying brick for a sinuous wall under our large south-facing den windows.

Most years there was damage from storms and Bob would be out lopping and pruning and sawing, sometimes felling entire trees while I held my breath. These were probably his favorite projects. A man and his chain saw. . .

And his chipper-shredder. We would rake and he would shred leaves and branches to make instant mulch, some of which eventually became velvet soil. As trees grew taller, we’d be ankle-deep in leaves. But those leaves were clay-busters. After years of mulching, our soil finally became diggable.

Far less dramatic were my numerous requests to plant and transplant, so Bob made himself a distinctive Master Digger badge to wear during garden tours and plant sales. As he dug, he sent each plant on with a proviso: Don’t get too comfortable, he’d say, because you will probably get moved—again.

Oh, and Bob was good friends with Ranger.

Mr. Bob

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Three decades of my memories are seamed to the garden with a lock stitch that cannot unravel. Having tossed the rigid Grand Plans and planting for joy instead, I began collecting spectacular (to me) trophies with a sense of adventure and the zeal of a religious convert, haphazardly, from anywhere – weedy fields, abandoned gardens, rural mom-and-pop roadside offerings. If nobody was home we dropped our money in an honor box.

Often I tooled around country roads with a good friend scouring ditches and vacant fields we’d scouted previously (trespassing?) to gather samples of all sorts of interesting plants (weeds? No, natives.), always watching our backs for the muzzle of a shot gun as we dug.

Rose’s Department Store and the old K Mart had interesting plants, too, for practically pennies. . The crab apple in front of our house came from K Mart and was the first tree we planted that lived. It cost $8. It bloomed the first year.

Once we found dogwood saplings for a dollar a piece, but you had to buy ten to get the bargain. Ten dollars! Too much for our thrifty plant pocketbooks! So we divided them between us, and split the bill, and five dollars didn’t seem so outrageous. And yes, most of them lived!

Plants-by-mail were cheap, postage nickels and dimes. As we explored the coast, from Florida to Maine, I inveigled plants from specialty nurseries, motel managers, garden caretakers. Verges along country roads gave up some gems, too. The challenge was in the chase.

I confess today to owning a large wooden box dedicated to certain garden keepsakes: plant labels and price tags (which also remind me of how many I lost along the way).

But, oh my, when I learned how to propagate plants from tiny cuttings, that was the ultimate in plants for pennies. From a couple of purchased George Tabor azaleas I grew great swathes of blooming plants. Roadside plants contributed specimens, as did friends’ gardens, and other nameless gardens. Large carry-alls hid evidence of twig-rescues for a good cause. Each cutting that lived created a special memory.

So the garden grew from cuttings and clippings, and I began giving away plants until I noticed people avoiding me when I had a potted plant in hand. That was when we began holding annual plant sales and donating funds to environmental education.

Many of my trophies perished along the way. But many lived on, too, and those ragamuffin early days of plant hunting hooked me, even as plant prices rose and plants were often strait-jacketed in pots with pretty pictures.

In the beginning, I believed I was the guiding light in the process. But chastened by experience, my focus shifted from collecting to looking, really looking at my garden, absorbing the joys and disappointments as they came along.

On grand scale I rejoiced in a fairyland of dancing lights and shadows over the water on summer afternoons when the sun came in from the west. Then we would sadly clean up the mess when storms struck down the fairyland. On smaller scale, I took delight in blossoms lit by stray sunbeams that tarried after sunset. These picture-memories of fleeting visions I hold close.

Early Gardens and Plant Hunting and Propagation

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Each spring, we declared, was the best ever! Were we honing our gardening skills? Learning to grow better plants? Coping with clay? Had we become sorcerers? (Such preening!) No, the joie de vivre came not from us but from the timeless rhythms of nature. We were only her stewards seeking pleasure in her handiwork.

By mid-summer, the garden could look tired, with no relief from hot days and hot nights. Fall was a resurrection of sorts, as new blooms and berries and golden leaves shined up the garden. Snow in winter was a treat, though wet winters could send mud up to your ankles.

But spring was special because plants were just beginning to stretch out, not yet encroaching on each other. We could enjoy order and leisure and color in a fresh, dewy garden. Weeding and pruning and watering would come later. We could cheer the splendid parade beginning with camellias and on to magnolias, azaleas, clematis, flowering trees and hydrangeas.

Those Glorious Springs

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The woods were a dark backdrop to the garden during those first few years. Only the trees around the house were cleared. Which goes to show what suburban slickers we were. In hurricane-prone country it is not a good idea to have trees hugging your house.

We built our house with more windows than walls, the better to see the garden and the woods year round, also trees coming down during storms. Our garden in the woods might never have tripled in size if Hurricane Isabel hadn’t taken away some 150 trees and brought us light for growing azaleas and daffodils, which then made way for a new generation of trees.

A third of the trees were doomed immediately, twisted and thrown by embedded tornados or pummeled savagely by winds up to 100 mph until they toppled. Others, seemingly unscathed, were damaged internally, susceptible to insects and disease. They succumbed over time.

Isabel also taught us that trees change, light changes, even soil changes over time. The garden that once was can never come back without persistent masterminding.

Above all, she taught us that trees rule. Thirty-five years ago they were bumptious teenagers, leafy, skinny, and expectant. But our woodland trees were tough and patient. They scrabbled, they elbowed, their roots tangled, embroidering a complex network of self-support. They created their own soil and they inched up to 80-foot towers without our really noticing.

They gave us cool shade and they whispered to us on breezy days, and we used their leaves for mulch. But trees are takers. There is no contest between trees and alien plantings. And no compassion. Trees win unless the gardener is attentive and patient and willing to lose some struggles. We did not know this when we began our journey.

These trees were not picture-book quality. Some appeared to be girdled and half rotten at the base, yet they carried on. One was hunchback. Many had lost big limbs, so they were scarred and misshapen.

The Grandfather Pine that overlooked the north edge of the property spent a couple of years dying before, too late, we noticed that its upper branches looked like pins in a pin cushion on a pole. Bark beetles had clogged its arteries.  A few years after we took it down, termites were working on the remains, turning it to dust and returning it to the forest.

Would we have given up our trees? Given up those afternoon shafts of sunlight sliding among their trunks, washing them with crayola-crayon earthtones? Given up our glimpse into the lives of birds among their branches? Given up following the lives of our trees as they flourished or became vulnerable and declined? You, dear reader, can guess the answer.

Instead, we cleaned up messes from storms and soldiered on to create our Garden in the Woods. Despite some spectacular disappointments, we learned patience and wisdom and acceptance and how to get along with the trees that had become family.

A Garden in the Woods

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I left a part of my heart in that North Carolina garden. Mostly I miss the light whispering through trees, kissing leaves, dropping diamonds on wavelets. One afternoon a visitor told me that he felt like he was in a fairyland, and that vision will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A clear resin suncatcher with memories pressed from our fall garden, gift from a talented neighbor, sparkles in the morning light that streams into my new kitchen. It makes me smile.

I wonder about the garden. Will the new owners be patient with the trees and the tangle? Will they be patient enough to wait for the ‘Near East’ crepe myrtle whip we planted in an oversized box of landscape timbers to rise and bloom? We renamed the tree Hope.

I guess the best way to say goodbye to a garden is to begin work on a new one. But please, allow me a few more memories of our thirty-five years in our eastern North Carolina landscape.

Some Final Memories

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Celebrating the Roots of our North Carolina Garden

A Lesson in Patience

I’ve had a quietly satisfying epiphany! After listening to gardeners across the country I began to see how place — geography, environment, climate, soil — defines the character of a garden — and sets the limits.

I’m not always the culprit when things die. Or malinger. Or grow so out of bounds that guests have to machete their way to the front door by midsummer. Blame it on the elements, I say. Not on me.

Where there had been empty spaces and shrubs that behaved, by July there is a jungle in front of the house

My eureka moment probably sounds pretty ho hum to you. Isn’t it obvious that desert plants won’t grow in bogs and reindeer moss won’t grow in the tropics? Yes, but I’ve learned that there are fine-tuned elements that make growing shasta daisies, for instance, easy to grow in one garden but impossible in another, and rarely do we understand why.

Special shasta daisies from friends bloomed for a season, then disappeared

My absolution has been years in coming. It probably began sub rosa during warrior days as an environmental steward advocating for clean water in eastern North Carolina — and delighting in the special dance between land and water here.

Exploring canoe trails and byways, wildlife refuges and historic sites put me in closer touch with how this dance shaped life throughout centuries. These were quiet times spent paddling creeks and ambling trails and moseying main streets of small towns. (Note: Good ice cream cones in these small towns around Albemarle Sound.)

A quiet afternoon on a creek that flows into the Alligator River

You meet a lot of people during all this advocating and meandering. Some were living in old family homes with a long history. These modern tillers of the soil had deep and abiding love for the land that nurtured generations. Rough treatment by the elements some years, and maybe famine. Or cornucopias of crops other years. It didn’t seem to matter. Their reverence for the land was rooted in faith and acceptance.

The 1786 Pendleton House in Pasquotank County surrounded by a cotton crop. Photo by Melissa Dawn

They accepted the unexpected and the unwanted. I had not encountered this depth of contentment-in-place anywhere else, and it touched me, and I began to delve deeper, even develop roots here.

Not the deep tap roots of time and family, but thready, wandery roots that pulled me into exploring past dynamics of this special place.

For me, it was a voyage through time and change on a landscape governed by wind and water.

Not so long ago, mighty trees once grew here in rich lowlands bathed by clear, tannin-stained black-water creeks and rivers that supported abundant wildlife.

The upper Chowan River calls to mind the bottomlands that once covered much of northeast North Carolina

Our garden is not founded on rich bottomlands that once nourished farms. Instead, it is rooted in another typical eastern Carolina soil: gray clay. Our garden sits where quiet waters once lapped a shore, surrendering fine suspended sediments, laying them down in beds eons ago.

An example of gray clay in wetlands

Clay doesn’t tame easily, I learned. Even today, after modifications, it asserts itself. In the beginning, even weeds would not grow. I am responsible for the weeds. I brought in truckloads of topsoil that was supposed to bury the clay. The weeds were hitchhikers.

So I began to look at the garden through a set of long lenses that took me back through centuries-old time capsules of drought and flood, storm, and sea level rise and fall.

I began to understand that what was happening in my garden was a reflection in miniature of a greater landscape. Weather and climate toy with my plants just as they destroyed or nurtured corn crops of yesteryear, dispensing famine or feast on a whim of the wind.

Camellia shoa noa saki thrived for twenty-five years but finally succumbed after several rainy seasons super-saturated its moorings

I don’t have to worry about famine, but storms have torn trees from their moorings. During droughty years, ferns droop and plants shrivel and the clay cracks. Rainy years may bring great blooms in spring, but as summer slides away, plants tire of struggling in saturated soil. Or they are cut down by prolonged seasonal dry spells. Or, if I am lucky, during a good summer they thrive.

Hurricanes can erase a garden. View of our back yard after Isabel. The storm did not stop the hummingbirds

It took us a long time to gracefully, or not so gracefully, accept that today’s conditions would not necessarily apply to tomorrow’s seasons, that fickle clay was beholden to weather, morphing from muck to concrete as rains soaked or sun dried.

That compost lovingly laid down disappears in clay that floats to the surface after torrential rains. That it is pointless to wrestle shovels in muck that sucks all things into its maw. That we can neither depend on nor predict what the sky above will bring us.

We learned patience. Dynamic, living systems are not built in a month or a year or a decade. They are the results of millennia of change. (Yet they can be destroyed in a bulldozer-moment.) We are only ciphers in time on the land.

A prime example of patience! Here is a bald cypress, almost three thousand years old, among several growing in the Three Sisters Swamp of the Black River in southeastern  North Carolina. They are the oldest living trees east of the Rocky Mountains. The swamp is protected by The Nature Conservancy. istock photo by Earle Liason

Our property was a dark hole when we bought it, a runty mob of pines smothered by catbrier, vine and pine battling for light. An odd-looking skeleton lay on soft pine needles, a few scattered bones permeated by drifts of sea fragrance from a midden of mussel shells tossed by otters. (Lots of chiggers, too, we would discover.)

Not a particularly inviting canvas for a garden, but we were up for challenges we didn’t expect.

Dark woods were the backdrop for our first gardens, until storms toppled trees and brought light

It would take time to understand the singular contributions of earth, sky and water to this place and learn to play off them to grow a garden.

And even more time to accept that our land will never grow those shasta daisies, gifts multiple times over from good friends, divisions freely shared from their gardens growing on a river bank only a few miles away. But we can have fun with hydrangeas — and camellias and azaleas!

Two ‘Ayesha’ hydrangeas back ‘Lemon Zest’ not yet in bloom

And so I learned to celebrate the special gifts from our patch of land. I came to understand all this and write it down a month or so before we left the garden for good.

Posted in Climate Change, Creating a Garden, Environment, Northeast North Carolina, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

To Spray Or Not to Spray

The Unvarnished, Untold Story of our Pleasure Garden

Many of you commented on my recent posts about the wonderful spring we had here: a lovely blend of copious rainfall, balmy temperatures and sunny days that produced boundless garden bouquets.

Now I must confess the rest of the seamy story.

The underbelly of our garden is an iniquitous den of bloodthirsty despicables. This year they took advantage of moist growing conditions to multiply and gear up and gang up. They specialize in guerilla tactics and sneak attacks and they have taken over our garden like the thugs they are. We are being held hostage inside our house.

Beneath this tumultuous landscape lurks a hidden horde of ne’er do wells waiting to pounce on a trespasser

What’s a gardener to do? We mounted a blitzkrieg on the bugs.

After all, we have our reputation as gardeners to consider, which is not particularly sterling when it comes to controlling unruly guests. Summer visitors often come away from our gardens with souvenirs they didn’t count on.

Worse, we are probably the culprits in dispersing armies of villains by grinding litter from some beds and returning same, homogenized, to other beds. Fortunately, friends and relatives have been good-natured, but there are limits.

We clear the garden beds and the critters obligingly came along

As you may have guessed, the despicables are ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos.

So we called Jess, maestro of the blitzkrieg. She’s experienced. She’s on target. She’s a bugs-in-common friend.

Back in 2013, when our reputation was at a low point, I asked Jess, who had recently picked up a franchise for spraying despicables, if she could treat our garden with only natural ammunition, no synthetic chemicals. It would be an experiment. We’d take our chances on success.

Her parent company agreed with the plan. Jess sprayed only with garlic. The despicables were routed. We became her first customers to go “all natural,” and now most of her spraying is done with natural oils.

Essential oils are best purchased and stored in tinted bottles and should not be adulterated with other ingredients


This year Jess sprayed with a combination of garlic – lots and lots of garlic—and essential oils from a variety of plants: tea tree (an Australian native), cedarwood, lemon grass, citronella, rosemary, geranium, and chrysanthemum.

(Helpful Tip: Jess recommends a mix-it-yourself tea tree oil spray to repel ticks when you are outside: 8 or 10 drops to one cup of water in a spray bottle. Tea tree oil is readily available on-line or in drug stores.)

Since the garlic in the spray can be irritating, Tess wears safety glasses and a respirator, (standard Personal Protective Equipment or PPE) and dresses in layers with a hoodie. We stay in the house. She uses a gas-powered blower and carries a pack that weighs 68 pounds.

Jess geared up and ready to spray

You can smell the garlic for a few hours, but bees, butterflies and birds don’t seem to mind. They were out and about shortly after the fog dissipated.

Dragonflies were active, too, but I worry that they will go to bed hungry tonight. They can reach flying speeds of 30 miles an hour, twisting and turning to scoop up mosquitos and other fliers, but the mosquitos don’t seem to be flying now!

Some other animals may go hungry for a while. We may be dinner for chiggers, but chiggers are dinner for ants, beetles, centipedes, spiders and birds. And ticks are dinner for chickens, frogs, possums, ants, and probably some others. They all fit into a food web that we civilized people mostly try to ignore.

Well, I can’t worry about the world all the time. Spraying with essential oils, which are the volatile aromatics that plants produce to protect themselves from becoming some animal’s meal, sure beats using Sevin ready-to-use with carbaryl.

It is such a joy to garden without a nest of baby chiggers under foot ready to scale the heights of my torso, stopped only by bands on clothes. I know these tiny, almost microsocopic, larvae of the red bug or harvest mite are just trying to make a living but I’m not crazy about their dissolving my skin cells with their saliva for a feast. These relatives of spiders do not burrow, by the way, a common misconception.

A 1790 lithograph of a chigger. PBS

Itchy bumps are caused by your body breaking down the feeding tube chiggers leave behind after they fall off or are brushed off. They are best treated with anti-itch cream and calamine lotion. Teenagers (nymphs) and adults are pretty benign, feeding on decaying matter and soil insects.

The best thing about chiggers is: They do not carry disease, at least not here in the United States. They do carry a disease called scrub typhus in a wide swath of Asia and Australia, and most recently in Chile.

The redbug, or adult version of the chigger. Note the 8 legs which makes it a relative of the spider.

Ticks, also kin to spiders, are another story. They can carry serious diseases like lyme disease and spotted fever that need immediate treatment. Lone star ticks, recognizable by the prominent white blotch on their backs, can cause alpha gal syndrome and allergy to red meat that can be life-threatening.

Size comparison of ticks, from larvae to adult. CDC diagram

Ticks are blood suckers from the time they hatch as six-legged larvae, then grow to eight-legged nymphs, and finally to adulthood. They only need one meal per stage, but if you happen to be dinner during one of these stages, that’s one meal too many. The good news is, they die if they don’t eat during each stage. Most of them die, thank goodness.

How do they latch on? They have a behavior that is, quaintly, called questing. For me, it brings up images of knights in shining armor on their quests in the old days (though I was never quite sure of what their quests were – the hand of Guinevere maybe?)

Female lone star tick, identified by bright white spot on back, is questing, or extending front legs hoping it can hook onto a hapless animal passing by.

Snakes don’t quest. Rabbits don’t quest, but ticks do. They perch on foliage near the ground with their two front legs extended, hoping to snag a passerby. If they succeed, they will explore this new (involuntary) host till they find the right spot, tender and. perversely, just beyond easy reach.

They are alerted by an animal’s breath, body odor, body temperature, moisture and vibrations. (And here you thought that morning shower made you invincible.)

Greatly enlarged, this group of larval ticks is cluster questing; they are hooked to one another and will automatically tag along when the first tick attaches to an animal. Photo by Brenda Leal, Entomology Today

As they bite, ticks may transfer some saliva into their host. If the tick’s saliva is carrying pathogens, it can cause disease. On the other hand, if the involuntary host is diseased, the tick will drink blood that will infect a new host the next time it feeds.

Proper suiting-up before gardening and a thorough check afterwards will prevent most insect trespass. Detailed information on ticks, chiggers and mosquitos is available on a variety of government and medical sites.

We are once again the Grand Pooh-bahs of our garden, (more realistically. the lowly caretakers.) Now there is no excuse for not putting the summer rioters and the invading vines and those galloping shrubs back in their places.

Crepe myrtles are next to be groomed, but they are such a welcome part of the July landscape, we can put this off for a while

If you live in northeastern North Carolina and want to contact Jess, email her at

Jess, out from behind her PPE

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through Centuries XI

Rising Seas and Sinking Land

Nathaniel Batts may have been a recluse when he died in 1679, but he was a virtuoso wheeler-dealer in his younger days as fur trader, land owner, pardoned murderer, serial debtor, swindler, explorer who discovered an inlet, and friend of people in high places. (A prenuptial agreement forbade him to use his wife’s fortune to satisfy his debts; he found forgiveness elsewhere.)

Section of a 1775 map showing Batts Grave south of today’s Yeopim River

Batt’s colorful life surely deserves a ten-part mini-series, but for now we are more interested in his grave as an expression of what has been lost to rising seas and sinking land.

The North Carolina Gazetteer says that in 1749 the island called Batts Grave was 40 acres in area and had houses and orchards on it; by 1756 it had been reduced to 27 acres.

By mid-twentieth century Batts Grave was reduced to a fly-speck on a map. Today it is gone.

Rising seas, hurricanes and nor’easters ate at the island.  Sinking land played a small but inexorable role that continues today and makes the Albemarle even more vulnerable. Below is a map showing the big picture.

The Albemarle area today showing the coastal plain vulnerable to sea level rise, the old Suffolk Shoreline at 25 to 50 feet above sea level, and the Fall Line (in black) where the rolling hills of the Piedmont begin. NC Land of Water

Blame glaciers for sinking, or subsidence. Tons of ice crush the land beneath. In response, unglaciated land south of the glacier eases upward. (Like a slow-motion see saw.)

As glaciers melt, compressed land begins to rise. Land to the south reacts by sinking. Now there are puddles and flooded streets after storms, worrisome to anyone living in a vintage family home where water now encroaches on the front porch.

Worrisome as it may be, this is only a micro-snapshot in time.

Let’s puts some boots on and rest for a moment at the edge of a melting glacier, say 15,000 years ago. Seas then are about 400 feet below today’s seas. A barrier beach might have been some fifty miles east of today’s Outer Banks.

The land is tundra-like, but warmer than you might expect because of the Gulf Stream that slides along the periphery. As climate warms, lush marshes and swamps will grow up, wonderful habitat for ice age mammals and birds — and early man.

Tundra on the continental shelf miles off today’s shore line? As climate warms, marsh and swamp will develop over thousands of years, then migrate west as sea level rises. NOAA

As the earth warms and sea level rises, the shore line is pushed westward. Marshes are flooded and die and are born anew, replacing swamp forests whose trees have drowned but scattered seeds that will take hold on dryer land. It is an inexorable migration of life.

How far out on the continental shelf did early man live? The Albemarle area holds a plethora of  fluted points and artifacts, including a dugout canoe from about 6000 BP (Before Present). The artifacts of those first Paleo-Indians, however, are drowned in open seas today, so we can only imagine the extent of their occupation..

These early Indians were hunter-gatherers who followed the food supply. They did not have vested interests in real estate and infrastructure, so they managed migration with skill. They accepted what the land had to offer, and moved on when necessary. You could say they were resilient.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy ride. There were great storms and droughts, and floods and freezes and forest fires, even a mini-ice age that lasted almost 1500 years.

Fossils of plants and animals and micro fossils of pollen tell stories.  By analyzing and carbon dating the kinds of life found in core samples of strata, scientists can read the ancient waves of climate change.

Coring on Roanoke Island by the NC Coastal Geology Cooperative reveals a combined rate of subsidence and rise in sea level as follows: 3 inches prior to the 19th century; 7 inches by the end of the 19th century; 16 inches by the end of the 20th century.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it, but remember Batts Grave. Our own casual observations of water levels on our bulkhead tell the same story: about 6 to 8 inches rise in thirty-five  years.

Photo of our boardwalk circa 1988. Note mini-dock we had for disembarking canoes and horizontal timber visible to the right. Today these  are totally submerged  except on rare occasions when the wind blows steady out of the north and water is pushed to the south.

It’s not unusual for a storm to cause water to rise to the top of the bulkhead these days. After most storms some parts of our woodlands flood.

Albemarle lands are among the most threatened in the country by a combination of subsidence and rising seas.

Would you like to go back to the past and see a piece of the future?

Where the sea has been and where it is going, Stan Riggs History of Sea Level Rise. NC Division of Coastal Mgmt.

Take a minute to study the map above. The gray area represents an abrupt 20 to 25 foot rise from the lowlands of the coastal plain. It is called the Suffolk Scarp, or Suffolk Shoreline, and is apparent today on the west shore of the Chowan River.

This photo by geologist Stan Riggs pictures a terrace that adjoins the Suffolk Scarp along the Chowan River which flows into western Albemarle Sound

The Suffolk Scarp is the remains of a shoreline that existed 80,000 to 125,000 years ago during a warm period when sea level was 25 feet higher than it is today.

At that time the Albemarle area was below water, a shallow continental shelf. The barrier islands that we know today did not exist.

Rising seas are expected to reach the Suffolk Scarp in the next 100 to 500 years.

What Do We Do?

Where scientists could not persuade, hurricanes, flooding, loss of low areas and the appearance of ghost forests are turning skeptics into believers in sea level rise.

As sea level rises, salt water, from overwash of hurricanes, for instance, can kill plants that are not salt tolerant. These ghost forests are occurring on the Albemarle/Pamlico peninsula today. Mark Hibbs, South Wing SCRO

How will communities respond to threats to their way of life?

We are beginning to realize that we can no longer do battle with rising water and storms. Past knee-jerk reaction has been to harden structures — create seawalls, build jetties, erect bulkheads, pile on the rocks, or the  sandbags — to keep that water in its place.

Sand bags scattered on the barrier beach after a storm. Not working too well, judging from the flooding. NC Coastal Federation

Such efforts cannot be maintained in a dynamic environment where change is coin of a watery realm. Water will always win.

Tuning in to the natural world, and working with it, is the best way to preserve our well-being.

All that we have done to the land — ditching, draining, clear cutting the magnificent forests, building dams, laying down pavement — all this  speeds up and re-routes the natural flow of water and makes the land — and its people — more vulnerable to the forces of climate.

Spongy wetlands allow water to seep ever so slowly through the landscape. Mighty trees in acres of forests have vast networks of roots that drink copious quantities of water. Once removed, there is erosion and puddles and muck. Ugliness, too.

This former farm has been converted to wetlands. Rainfall once took only two minutes to drain into nearby waters. Now it takes more than two months. NC Coastal Federation

New ideas must bubble up through collaboration with scientists, government officials and communities. Money is needed to experiment and implement. Like paleo-Indians we need to develop resilience, a concept that has been adopted by many planners.

Resilience to storms: Are we just mopping up after storms, or are we making decisions that will reduce future damage?

Managing flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Almost one and a half billion dollars has been spent to clean up after Matthew and Florence alone. Photo by Leticia Samuels, USCG

Communities need technical and financial assistance in planning, developing shovel-ready projects that can put fixes in place immediately after a government call for proposals. We should be working with climate, not against it, treating land as an asset to be managed wisely.

Resilience to rising sea level. Close kin of resilience to storms. We need to accept that we can’t prevent sea level rise, but we can develop long-term strategies tailored to sites and community needs.

Even small projects like planting a rain garden will help. NC Coastal Federation

Some examples that emphasize natural solutions:

  • moving homes to higher ground
  • planting trees whose roots are efficient at absorbing  water
  • removing impervious pavement
  • removing ditches to promote more natural flow of water
  • making the ground more spongy so rainwater percolates

Wide swales on the side of a road diffuse runoff of rainwater and sediment, further helped by woodlands that transpire moisture. On grand scale, this is a technique that would mitigate runoff from miles of impervious roads, driveways and parking lots. NC Dept of Transportation

The mills of government grind slowly. Rising seas care not.

As we already know, it is up to people brainstorming and barnstorming to find solutions that will protect the environment and take care of human needs.

With political will and public-private partnerships, the dedication of non-profit groups and a broad base of support from communities, we can tackle the tasks before us and make sensible plans that will take us into the future.

We can’t know all the answers because we can’t predict the curve balls to come, but with close observation, a thoughtful approach, and cooperative efforts we can develop the resilience that grounded those Paleo-Indians long long ago.

They will thank us. Photo of baby otters by Meekins USFWS

We thank the many career professionals and dedicated volunteers who are helping to protect the Sound, its land and rivers, and its wildlife.

I consulted many on-line sources to frame this Voyage through Centuries: in particular, historian David Cecelski whose blog with its wonderful old photographs gives insights to  fisheries and everyday life; coastal and marine geologist Stan’s Riggs who tirelessly advocates for a realistic understanding of coastal dynamics and the opportunities they present; and Todd Miller, who founded The NC Coastal Federation, a powerful watcher of coastal land and water issues and publisher of Coastal Review Online.

This Voyage grew exponentially out of a grant the Albemarle Environmental Association received from the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study thirty years ago to produce a series of Profiles of Albemarle Sound and its rivers. The original versions can be found on the website AEA on the Web.

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage through Centuries X


Some of the counties surrounding Albemarle Sound are among the poorest and least populated in the state. They are also the most vulnerable to rising seas, as we shall see in the final chapter.

Poverty and isolation are not particularly evident to a casual observer because families and communities are close knit. But the resources here, and the land, have been attractive to outside interests who would upset the precarious balance between rural life and land for a moment of greed.

Keeping memories alive that show how the Albemarle sustained people who worked and fished here is one way of forging strong conservation goals and pride of stewardship to counter centuries of exploitation.  State, counties, non-profit and community groups are working together to bring an enduring identity to the Albemarle that will carry it into the future.

To fully appreciate the 180-degree-turn that this twenty-first century voyage takes, we must take a look at the recent past.

Seeking Environmental Justice

There was a time, maybe three decades ago, mostly forgotten now, when the wetlands south of Albemarle Sound were considered ideal for a hazardous waste incinerator. After all, when you fly over this land, what can you see? A few clusters of houses, a lot of farmland with manmade ditches, maybe some ducks or geese, tangles of swamp that defy GPS, just a bunch-a-nuthin.

Imagine these wetlands that are historically prone to hurricanes and floods housing an incinerator whose innards would, we are assured, never belch any but fine clean air (or at least cleaner than the dross that goes in) to drift over farms. Imagine the roads that would be needed to carry the massive, rumbling, trucks with their poisons. And, God forbid, imagine a spill of the worst sort of poisons that would infiltrate networks of ditches that flow to native waters.

This state-of-the-art incinerator opened in Arkansas in 2016.With rotary kiln, spray dryers, scrubbers and filters it promises relatively clean emissions. Thirty years ago the technology was not as sophisticated

Residents fought this injustice. How they fought it! Through public education and public meetings, and presentations to county commissioners who saw the incinerator as a plus, a way to bring jobs to a community that desperately needed them.

The people prevailed. Once they were given the details and understood what they would lose, they rose up with the tenacity of their lineage, the lineage they had inherited from their ancestors who had the grit to survive here. No, thank you, they did not want the menial, and perhaps dangerous, jobs that came with this intrusive behemoth.

There was a time, two decades ago, when the United States Navy eyed this good-fer-nuthin place with a few people and a lot of birds as a practice landing field, called an OLF, for a new line of fighter jets housed at its Oceana base in Virginia Beach. Recently settled residents in Virginia objected to noisy take-offs and landings at nearby Fentress Outlying Landing Field (OLF).

Exporting the deafening noise to this nowhere land around Albemarle Sound seemed like a good idea to the Navy, who wanted to avoid clamor from local residents. Five sites were selected, each of which would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement required by law.

F-i8 flying over farmland that seems empty in Washington County. Photo by Drew
Wilson. Virginian Pilot

Residents here, who are serenaded by choruses of crickets and katydids on summer evenings, were appalled by the idea of noisy jets flying back and forth from Virginia to North Carolina to practice excruciatingly noisy, repetitive practice runs in this land of black bear, snow geese and tundra swans.

This was a David-and-Goliath battle without the romance of a quick victory. It was automatically assumed we could not prevail. It became an eight-year battle, and then another five-year battle.

Residents lived on tenterhooks. They set aside their lives, met in private to plan strategy, held rallies and pig pickins, organized post-card-writing campaigns, all the while haunted by the sacrifices people would be compelled to make — for example, forced sale of home and farm that had nurtured generations of  families in exchange for relocation (where?) — and the losses to community life in exchange for the bones the Navy was prepared to throw into the pot.

Crowds of snow geese, tundra swan and ducks inhabit the area in winter. During a demonstration flight flocks of birds rose up amid the planes and shaken pilots refused to continue flying. Photo from Visit Elizabeth City

After eight years, the Navy lost its case in court and the voluminous environmental statements that had been prepared by a firm in upper New York State were declared flawed. Another round began with another five choices, this time three in Virginia and two in the Albemarle. Finally, after thirteen long years, the Navy quietly went away and residents could listen to the katydids in peace.

During all those years of campaigning and lobbying lawmakers, activists conducted themselves with grace and dignity. There were no arrests for disorderly conduct or property damage. There was simply respectful patience and determination.

Both the incinerator and the outlying landing field were prime examples of environmental injustice.

A hazardous waste incinerator is never located near an affluent community.

Nor is an OLF. A 1990 socio-economic comparison of  Virginia Beach and Washington County (Navy’s final choice on Albemarle Sound) is in order. Virginia Beach: median income $45,000, 13% of children below poverty level, 20% African American population. Washington County: median income $28,000, 29% of children below poverty level and 49% African American population.

Identity Change Develops Momentum

We’ve come a long way since those decades when wetlands were nuisances, and the coastal plain was prime ground for exploitation.

Perquimans County shoreline. Photo by Lauren King. Virginian Pilot

There is a highway along the south shore of the Sound that used to be considered a tedious miles-long pass-through for vacationers hurrying to a sparkling ocean and a lively Outer Banks (OBX) tourist scene worth a billion dollars annually.

Today, people are stopping along that highway south of the Sound and other highways along the north shore of the Sound.

The Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City tells the story of the Albemarle with photos and artifacts, including a historic shad boat. NCDNC

The Albemarle area is developing its own identity; it is becoming known as the Inner Banks (IBX). It’s a special place where vacationers can slow down and discover a venerable part of the country that has been — well — forgotten by the outside world.

Canoeing on Salmon Creek, a newly opened recreation area in Bertie County fostered by the non-profit group Tall Glass of Water

Communities in northeast North Carolina are capitalizing on their history and their roots. Towns have visitor centers,  friendly museums or nature centers, galleries and arts centers featuring local craftsmen, boardwalks, river views, walking tours or tram rides, even tree houses for rent. Ice cream cones, too.

Port o’ Plymouth museum on the Roanoke River explores the history of the area and the Civil War. Pictured is a replica of the CSS Albemarle Ram

Here you can find an intimate step back into the history and environment of the earliest pioneers in the country.

The Newbold-White House sits on land high above the Perquimans River, a reminder of some  of the earliest settlements in the Albemarle

The Albemarle is not glitzy. There are no fern bars. It’s inviting and comfortable and unhurried. And there is good fishing.

Otter catching a prize. Two-legged anglers enjoy fishing in these waters, also. Photo by Meekins USFWS

Natural areas — a network of wildlife refuges, state game lands, state parks, community parks offer visitors a place to have a picnic and photograph wildlife, or a chance to linger along a creek or hike a trail, or join a guided tour for hands-on experiences.

A group studying water quality and biota of the marsh. SeaGrant

These collective invitations to explore the Albemarle come from loose consortiums of public and private agencies.

Non-profit groups like The Nature Conservancy and North Carolina Coastal Land Trusts acquire and broker land for conservation.

Land along the Salmon Creek was acquired by the NC Coastal Land Trust, then folded into conserved county, state and federal lands. Portfolio Coastal Land Trust

NC Land of Water, Roanoke River Partners, and Bertie Water Crescent promote eco-tourism.

Boardwalk and camping platforms in the wilds of the Roanoke River flood plain. Roanoke River Partners

Coastal Wildlife Society, NC Coastal Reserve, and the Red Wolf Coalition are among many that work to conserve eco-systems.

Support comes from federal and state initiatives. Recent rollback of protection for streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act has been reversed.

More streams (18%) and wetlands (51%) will be protected under re-instated directives of The Clean Water Act. US File Photo

Oysters. once a staple of life in Albemarle waters but now struggling, partly because of changes in salinity and water quality, are being given helping hands. Oystermen are helping with initiatives, and, in the process, helping to promotethe industry.

Cultch planting, that is, dropping shells and stones into coastal waters creates a reef of sorts for oyster spat to attach to and grow. NC Coastal Federation

Funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, matched by partners in North Carolina, will conserve habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds.

The elusive king rail will be protected under acreage added to Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS

The state is generously appropriating money for parks and recreation and clean water trust funds. Town and county governments are seeking funding and working with non-profits to promote eco-tourism.

The town of Windsor conceived of and received matching funding for constructing treehouses and raised boardwalks for campers along the Cashie River, part of the Roanoke River system

Seeking Green Industry

But to preserve society here, the soft tread of ecotourism and eco-education needs to be augmented by green industry. Renewable energy featuring wind farms and solar arrays are punctuating the landscape, bringing income to farmers and the community.

Offshore wind farms, not offshore oil-drilling platforms, make sense to most. Technology has brought the costs of solar and wind power into competitive range, and the environmental and human losses created by, for instance, the BP catrastophe in the Gulf of Mexico would become sad memories, not future threats in hurricane-prone seas.

Yes, you can farm crops on a wind farm. Continuous blinking lights on blades warn birds during night flights

To move forward, there must be political will that overcomes regressive political and industrial moves. For instance, as of June 2021 the NC legislature is considering a bill that would force communities to make connections to piped-in natural gas instead of choosing cleaner electricity in new construction. It is blandly titled Assuring Choice of Energy Service but would, in effect, limit communities’ freedom of choice.

Additionally, a bill to Study Emerging Energy Generation, crafted by Duke Energy in conference with lawmakers, is on track in the legislature. It calls for replacing six coal-fired plants with three fracked-gas facilities and seeking permits for small nuclear facilities at ratepayers’ expense. These regressive proposals fall far short of the Governor’s climate change and clean energy plans that would make North Carolina a leader in renewable energy.

There is much progress to be proud of, but we face an un settled future.

The future is of little concern to this alligator loafing on the water with friends in Merchants Millpond State Park. Photo by Chuck Richardson

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through Centuries IX

The Mighty Herring Fisheries

When the shadbush bloomed in spring, the hard work and celebrations began. Schools of shad and river herring teemed in from the ocean through inlets and into the Sound and up rivers, bound for their birth places to spawn a new generation.

Alewives, one species of river herring. Jerry Prezioso NOAA

At a time when people lived off the land, these silver fish brought great joy and the promise of full cupboards, a fine reason for exuberant annual celebrations.

Buckets, baskets, nets, poles. Families scooped up fish that would feed them throughout a long winter.  Shad had to be kept on ice to stay fresh, so it was eaten immediately, but the oily flesh of herring lent itself to salting, pickling and drying that would preserve it for a year or more.

(Well into the twentieth century you could find community celebrations of herring runs — and barrels of corned herring in country kitchens.)

Fishermen cast their net baskets off a bridge in Martin County late 19th century

Around the end of the 19th century, herring could be purchased on river banks in spring for as little as one dollar a thousand, though the average price was $2.50. A dollar a month, wrote one Chowan County native, would procure for a person the most usual diet of much of the population — herring, cornbread (corn was 40 cents a bushel) and tea brewed from native yaupon holly.

From the 1760s on, commercial fisheries were operating on Albemarle rivers, catching fish in cunning, labyrinthine weirs of poles and reeds. Pickled herring were shipped up the coast to Baltimore, New York and Boston; west to the Great Plains; and south to the West Indies. By sail. By steamer. By rail.

Salted herring packed in wooden bins for shipping. Smithsonian Institution Archives

A century later, about the same time shad boats were first skimming waters, the pound net was introduced, while huge seine nets were catching vast numbers of fish  with breathtaking efficiency.

The Seahawk herring boat piled high with fish, on Albemarle Sound

Every plantation had a shoreline of smooth sand where fish were landed and processed. Capstans, or windlasses for hauling seines in, salting houses, processing sheds, and offices created a mini fishing town.

Fishing flats Avoca

During fish hauls, two ten-oared boats would carry a seine more than two miles long and several feet deep off shore. Boatmen would row in opposite directions extending the seine, which had a line of corks on top to keep it afloat and a line of lead weights on the bottom to sink it. The seine would be strung out in a direction to block the herring as they swam upstream to spawn.

In 1861 Harper’s Weekly published a moment-by-moment rapid-fire account of hauling in a catch. Here is an excerpt. It begins after the fish have been caught in the seine and the seine is attached to capstans.

Capstans could be turned by men, mules, or eventually, by steam in order to tighten the seine

In this instance, mules are used to turn the capstans to tighten the seine until the fish are crowded and surrounded by net on shore.

Fifty stalwart men rush into the water, waist-deep. The captains shout and swear, the gulls and eagles scream, and dashing into the melee, audaciously snatch their share of the spoil.

A few minutes of heavy dragging and the flashing, wriggling mass is rolled upon the beach; a line of wide planks is hastily staked up behind, the net withdrawn, and the boatmen again put off cheerily to repeat the haul.

Hauling the catch, engraving from Harper’s Weekly i879

The women and boys now rush knee-deep into the gasping heap. The shad are first counted into baskets and carried to the packing-house; while the herring are headed, cleaned, and thrown into tubs, ready for the salters—all of which is transacted with merciless coolness and the most wonderful celerity.

It requires from five to seven hours to complete a haul ; and as there is no respite by day or night, three and four hauls are made within the twenty-four hours. The only time allowed for eating and sleeping is during the odd hours snatched by the different classes of workers when their especial branch of service is suspended. When the hauls are not heavy the cleaners and salters have an easy time between landings. The boatmen sleep while the mules wind in the net; the mules browse and bray while the boats are out.

Black women waiting to sort, gut. head, salt and pack fish. By the time they finish one haul, another will come in. A seine is piled on a fishing flat in the background. Smithsonian Institution archives

A first-class fishery employs from eighty to a hundred bipeds, and a dozen or twenty quadrupeds, and the labor during an active season of six weeks or two months is equal to that of a brisk military campaign in face of an enemy.

Of all the striking views of this exciting and picturesque business the night-haul is pre-eminent in interest. Here the lively scenes of the day are reenacted amidst the glare of pine torches, which exhibits the wild figures of the fishermen and the death-struggles of the finny captives in the most dramatic light possible.

Fishing at night was common during herring runs. Torches kept boats from losing their way. Fishermen’s night songs, hymns. chanteys, or old slave songs could be heard from across the water, “nothing more stirring than those crews singing on a moonlit night” recalled Col Capehart, owner of the fishery. Engraving from Harper’s Weekly

Besides needing captains and crews, cleaners and packers, skilled seine menders were valued for keeping the seines, which had to be tarred, in top shape. Holes in a net meant lost profits. Coopers made barrels for storage. A manager attended to details on shore and sold to customers on the beach.

Even children who were hanging around would be put to work where needed; their pay would be a bucket of fish for supper. Regular workers were paid a share of the profits.

Salting the herring for dinner at the fishery. Much larger troughs are used when salting for shipping. Smithsonian Institution Archives

It was not uncommon to take a hundred thousand river herring in a haul, though most hauls were smaller, five thousand up to thirty thousand. Since it cost between five and ten thousand dollars to establish a fishery, only wealthy planters could afford the upfront costs. The vast majority of farmers gathered their fish for personal consumption in dip nets or bow nets.

Every river had its haul of fish, though uniqueness of terrain and flow created differences in the personalities of rivers.

By the end of the 19th century the herring and herring roe of Albemarle Sound had won widespread fame. In a world where herring fisheries ruled, Albemarle fisheries were king.

Extracting shad roe 1877 at the Capehart fishery on Albemarle Sound. Smithsonian Institution archives

In a curious twist, settlers here  — laboring mightily in an inhospitable but richly endowed land, living on the edge, isolated,  self-reliant, insular — grew to have standing on the world map. Markets in New England, Europe, the Caribbean, even Russia eagerly sought their fish, their naval stores, their cotton and produce, their lumber.

We are fortunate today to have a rich photographic record of this era. During the 1870s the U.S Fish Commission sent scientists into the field to document fisheries nationwide. They produced a multi-volume report; the photographic collection is housed in Smithsonian Institution archives.

The North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh also houses archival photographs. Historian David Cecelski has reproduced many of these photographs in his blog posts about the herring fisheries. He tells an insider’s tale of coastal North Carolina life and fishing traditions.

At least thirty men heave thousands of fish onto the beach at Avoca in Bertie County 1877. Smithsonian Institution Archives

And Then the Fish Stopped Coming

As far back as the 1840s, a few prescient people sensed that the fishery could not last under such colossal landings. But it did not occur to most people that there could ever be an end to this bonanza. They simply assumed they could count on these fish to arrive on time each year, in the millions, as expected, forever.

Even the eminent scientist, Thomas Huxley, president of the Royal Society in England, saw no reason for concern. I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery…and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible…(1883)

By 1896 0ver 1100 pound nets in Sound and rivers had replaced the labor-intensive haul seines, and fishermen were landing over 20 million pounds annually.

So many pound nets blocked passage of river herring that the state enacted the Vann Law in 1905 that required fishermen to leave a channel in the Sound to allow fish to migrate to their natal waters for spawning.

Still, the fishery continued to decline in the twentieth century. During the 1950s total catches were about 11 to 12 million annually. By the 1970s they had dropped to about 8 million, and in 1993 came the crash, down to one million.

Northeast North Carolina was not the only area that suffered losses. In 1965 the entire range of Atlantic states harvested over 64 million pounds. Forty years later total harvest for the combined area was under 100,000 pounds, almost a 99 percent decrease.

The fishery had died. In 2006 a moratorium on commercial fishing was declared in North Carolina. Three New England states, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, joined the moratorium, but other coastal states did not. The fish did not come back.

Fishermen once unloaded boat loads of herring at fish houses like Perry Wynn’s on the Chowan River. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Oct 2007

The demise of the river herring fishery has vast implications for life in the sea. It is, for instance, probably responsible for the weakening of the cod fisheries in New England and Canada.

The river herring, after all, is low man on the food chain. It is born to be eaten. Half of a herring’s year is spent out in the Atlantic Ocean, anywhere from Canada to South Carolina or Florida, being eaten by the big fish that count on the silvery slivers swimming in massive schools.

For eons the silver slivers have been dinner and dessert for big creatures of the ocean like cod. Without them and their cousins the food chain collapses and nobody gets dessert.

In the Albemarle river herring are the preferred food for the rockfish, or striped bass, another great Albemarle fishery whose story most appropriately belongs to the Roanoke River. Can you imagine the turmoil, the frenzy, the catching and losing, as river herring and striped bass jostle in that race of millions to find their particular spawning grounds?

Striped bass, or rockfish, are the tigers of the Sound. In the days of big herring catches, landings of rockfish could weigh thousands of pounds. It was not unusual for a single rockfish to weigh a hundred pounds. Wikipedia

Let us return for a moment to the first American settlements when tools were few and simple, and survival depended on the wit, skill, and hardiness of those early men and women.

The environment provided everything they needed if they learned its ways. And if the rains failed one season, or a drought or a flood came along, well, they would have to work harder, and they might lose anyway.

They were conservationists by default because they could tame the environment with only their sinew, and maybe a mule to help them along. They could not claim control over the land.

Giant tupelo and cypress trees in Merchants Millpond State Park in the flood plain of the Chowan River are suggestive of the swamps the settlers encountered.

Then we developed bigger, more efficient tools, and the search for ease of living and profits replaced survival with two hands. (Can you blame us?)

We pursued technology that would control the environment and meet our needs and expectations. (Can you blame us?)

We thought our rational approach would solve problems, so we substituted that for an intimate understanding of wild ways, a knowledge that is only gradually acquired, with patience, a knowledge that doesn’t lend itself to committee meetings and graphing.

We set no boundaries. There was great good, but there was greed…

We lost touch with the ways of the land, and we did not know what we were losing. Not just here in the Albemarle but all over the country.

Progressive loss of touch and delight in progress undergird the loss of the river herring fishery–and many more losses.

When losses became too great, we woke up. We studied. Lots of studies. One is of particular interest because its scale had local and national focus.

Urged by a generation of activists who came along after the first Earth Day in 1970, farsighted congressmen took note of declines in fisheries across the country. In the 1980s they sponsored legislation that would fund major studies of estuaries.

The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study (APES) was born. Scientists, government officials and private citizens cooperated to explore reasons — and seek solutions — for declining catches.

The study area, the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System. EPA and US Geological Service

Turns out these little ten-inch-long fish that weigh half a pound have had the book thrown at them.

Here is how we messed up and how we are trying to reconcile the damage:

Decades of overfishing.

  • In times past there was a balance between juveniles and older fish in schools of river herring.
  • Juveniles need to wait three or four years before they can spawn, and their first year of spawning is usually only a warm-up.
  • Older females become  more and more productive with age and can release up to 100,000 eggs annually. However, they are exhausted after spawning and vulnerable to predators. They return to the ocean to recover and refuel.
  • If you decimate either class, you lose the future. Hence the moratorium on commercial fishing for herring in 2oo6. It is still in place.

Spawning herring. Milt from the male turns water milky, while females lay eggs on the substrate. Alaska Fish & Game

Activity in the Atlantic Ocean.

  • During the late 1960s and early 1970s fleets of foreign trawlers with mammoth nets were intercepting herring out in the Atlantic Ocean on their way to the Sound, 24 million pounds caught in 1969 alone.
  • In 1977 the Magnuson-Stevens Act forbade fishing within the 200-mile band of waters called the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States.

Bluebacks and alewives, collectively called river herring, are anadromous fish. They spend much of the year in the North Atlantic, then migrate south to the brackish water of the Sound to spawn. Their lives outside the Sound are a mystery, except  that they are eaten by big fish and sea birds. NC Wildlife Resources Oct 2007

Barricades block fish migration

  • Nets once reached across rivers until regulated.
  • Dams alter river flow.
  • Streams are forced into culverts as roads are built across them.
  • Today, where possible, bridges replace culverts and dam-flow is altered to aid spawning (with mixed results in the Roanoke River)

Water exiting a culvert at a road crossing. Fish do not like the turbulence inside this giant tin can, nor do they like brushing against cold steel instead of soft sand

Loss of Habitat

  • Wetlands ditched. Woodlands clear cut. Pavement laid down. Development favored.
  • Streams rerouted. Riverbanks reworked.
  • Rainwater that once seeped lazily into streams pulses unchecked into waterways that become an open fire hose flushing larvae and young fish.
  • Today, permits are necessary for work done near water courses that are protected under the Clean Water Act. Not all of them are protected and permitting can be sketchy.

Wetland that has been ditched on North River Farms. NC Coastal Federation photo

Pollution from Agriculture

  • Sediment that runs off farms and construction sites clogs gills and buries larvae.
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer runoff  cause algae to bloom. When algae die, they break down, robbing water of oxygen, causing fish kills. (A particular problem in the Chowan River).
  • Best Management Practices (BMPs) used on farms and forests reduce runoff, minimize erosion.
  • Integrated Pest Management on crops encourages farmers to use less pesticide (and saves them money, too.Algal blooms on the Chowan River

Pollution from Municipalities and industry

  • Toxic organics, heavy metals, and oil from roads and parking lots.
  • Nutrients, bacteria, heavy metals,  and chemicals from the sewers of industries and cities.
  • Updated treatment plants treat waste water from municipalities and industry. (Fortunately, minimal urban sprawl and industry here has limited pollutants.


Street-side swale and pervious concrete sidewalk that allow rain water to seep into the soil are ways to control urban run-off. Wikimedia

The great herring catches are shadows now.  We are trying to mend damages from two hundred years or more. We have removed too much critical habitat for the great fisheries to be reclaimed, but we have shifted toward conservation.

Wildlife refuges, state and county parks, and game lands protect land and provide habitat for wildlife and outdoor experiences for people.

Kayaking in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

People must feel that they have a stake in protecting the vitality of land and water, their land, their water. Public education must focus on developing an understanding of natural cycles and how we can live in harmony with them.

The Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP) is  doing just that as today’s successor to the original estuarine study (APES).

As its name implies, it partners with a variety of groups to support research, restoration and public education. It is a comprehensive approach to protecting our land and water.

Monitoring water quality, Daniel Zapf

This coastal plain where the rivers meet the sea is still compelling, still beautiful, still a respite for many. With care, it can continue to be so.

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage Through Centuries: VIII

A War that Wasn’t Wanted and the Expedition Hurricane

North Carolina did not want a fight.

South Carolina must have been itching for one because she seceded in 1860, before President Lincoln took office. She commandeered federal forts in the state, then dared Lincoln to provision the troops at an unfinished Fort Sumter by firing on it.

North Carolina was enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

Her economy was booming. Wealthy planters did not want to lose their investments or their power. Small farmers were doing well and weren’t interested in fighting to support planters’ interests. Lincoln didn’t seem so threatening, though he hadn’t even been on the ballot in North Carolina. And, generally, people liked living under the protection of the federal government.

Debate over secession could be acrimonious, but as late as February, 1861 the vote by the legislature in Raleigh (the new capital) was overwhelmingly pro-Union.

A month after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and Lincoln’s immediate proclamation to stop the rebellion, North Carolina became the 11th and last state to vote to secede.

She had no choice. She would have been at war with her neighbors, fighting her Sister States. The vote was unanimous. 

Pro-Union sentiment was strongest in the eastern and western parts of the state. Many pro-union planters, fearful of ruin,  moved family and slaves to the central part of the state; others aligned with the Confederacy.

One of the finest painters of the Civil War was Conrad Wise Chapman, who actually fought as a Confederate soldier, Here is  a rendering of The 59th Brigade, also called Wise’s Brigade, that fought in Virginia and Carolina

North Carolina had nothing to gain and everything to lose by seceding. And lose she did. 

She sent 130,000 of her young men into the war. She lost 40,000, half to disease. More than any other confederate state on both counts.

Confederate soldiers, from The Civil War, by Ken Burns

Albemarle counties raised volunteer units, many of whom saw the full brunt of the war, including the fateful Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. Captain Benjamin Skinner wrote of the constant whistle of the musical minnie… above our heads.

There was no standing army but each county had its own militia. It was not unusual for troops to be furnished with firearms purchased from private citizens. Sometimes daily rations amounted to as little as a few crackers and a quarter pound of meat, and men might go for a month without a change of clothes.

Photo of Confederate volunteers

Wrote the same Captain, Sufferings, privations & hardships have been endured such as no modern armies of their countrys have ever been called upon to undergo…but the… greater our sufferings now the more glorious will be our greater triumph…

Within a year, General Ambrose Burnside’s Expedition had captured towns in the east and established a blockade.

The Great Expedition under way, the Union armada to establish a blockade, sketched in October 1861

Control of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds was firmly in Union hands in a bid to cut off General Lee’s southern supply routes to Virginia.

Hatteras had fallen. Roanoke Island was falling.

Artist’s engraving of Union troops going ashore on Roanoke Island to battle Confederate troops

Union troops and a fledgling Navy easily outmaneuvered seven small Confederate boats they called The Mosquito Fleet to capture the Island. On land volunteers tangled with Burnside’s men but were no match for the larger forces.

They were captured and three weeks later they were paroled. They then set about forming a new company with others and joined another regiment.

Confederate Prisoners by Winslow Homer, who had toured the South and sketched military and civilian life there during the war

Apparently the release of captives was common in the early years of the war. Prisoners of war would be held for a while, then freed, sometimes after taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. Whether they re-enlisted was an individual decision.

Life in Albemarle counties was overturned. Sound and rivers became thoroughfares for gunboats. Towns were shelled in skirmishes to maintain the Union blockade.

Confederate Steamship Eolus patrolled Albemarle Sound and rivers

To counter Union action the state authorized counties to form guerilla bands called Rangers to harass Union forces. Rangers in the Albemarle were most effective, since their members were so familiar with its forbidding terrain. They also prevented slaves from crossing Union lines and terrorized Union sympathizers.

Stating that they were virtually bandits, an angry Union commander threatened serious reprisals. Locals, too, were not happy with the depredations and the secretive nature of these bands.

Meanwhile, Albemarle residents had been smuggling supplies for Lee’s army. Provisions would be shipped from Norfolk Virginia through the Dismal Swamp Canal into northeast North Carolina.

From there they were ferried  west through swamp and river, then back up north to Lee’s army in Petersburg, or further north to Richmond, Virginia. The hand-off of supplies was probably done relay-style, from crew to crew.

To stop the smuggling, federal forays destroyed bridges and roads but the supply stream continued.  The Union then organized Negro troops to intervene, a move that was bound to incite citizens, particularly in light of reputed atrocities. It worked. Citizens were kept in a state of fear and panic.

A truce of sorts was arranged. The Union would remove Negro troops if citizens stopped smuggling and the Rangers were disbanded.  A jittery peace was restored, though it a Union captain acknowledged later that this circuitous supply route through northern North Carolina remained effective during the War.

Exports of cotton, lumber, ships stores and fishery products that were expected to pay the bills were halted by the blockade. Imports of necessary goods were blocked. Basics became luxuries.

From 1862 to 1865 prices soared because of profiteering by smugglers: a barrel of flour went from $18 to $500; corn, a staple, went from $1 a bushel to $30. Parched corn was used to make coffee, and sorghum was grown and processed instead of purchasing sugar.

Wrote one resident, Sure this War is meant to check the profusion in which we have lived & to teach the rising generation economy & the employment of their resources.

Many southerners could not believe that slaves would want to escape bondage. They were quite sure that slaves felt such a strong attachment to their masters they would never leave, that they were being driven or enticed to federal camps. When slaves took advantage of the Emancipation Proclamation, planters felt betrayed.

There were, however, blacks who remained loyal to the Confederacy

Yet as soon as Union troops arrived in an area slaves would follow their camps. Slaves that did not flee often piloted Union ships and revealed the location of Rangers.

If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find safe haven.

Roanoke Island became a refuge for escaped and freed slaves. Protected by the Union army, over 3500 refugees would settle there in a camp called the Freedman’s Colony where community life flourished: families could live as families, children could attend schools, gardens could grow and going to church was central to life.

Photograph of housing in the Freedman’s Village

Some freedmen from Roanoke Island and other camps in eastern Carolina offered their skills to Union forces, or became spies, guides and scouts, built forts and bridges and served in four Union regiments.

Blacksmith working in the Freedman’s village. There were at least two other similar villages in the east

After the war the land was returned to the original owners and colony members became refugees again. Reports of depredations by some of these refugees and others caused counties to establish militia to maintain control.

It wasn’t all rosy for Union ships on Burnside’s Expedition. Bad weather plagued them in turbulent seas. In November, 1861, the Expedition Hurricane scattered a Union fleet of 75 ships off Cape Hatteras. Two vessels sank, and others were wrecked by Confederate forces. Storm surge was so high it  inundated Hatteras Island.

Words from one sailor: Wind continued to rise till at 11 pm it blew almost a gale…The scene was fearful but magnificent. The ship was tossing and pitching…The waves were rolling at least 20 feet high.

Words from another: Last night was the worst I ever saw. I could not sleep for I had as much as I could do to hold myself in my bunk. Reynolds got thrown out of his…8 am Window in stern got stove in the night…water was three or four inches deep. Shoes, guns, knapsacks…floating round in fine style.

Rescue of a battalion of 485 Marines from the foundering SS Governor. Seven men were lost trying to jump toward the rescue ship USS Sabine

Then, on a stormy New Years Eve in 1862 the ironclad warship, the Monitor, sank in 300 feet of water almost 200 miles off Cape Hatteras, losing 16 of her crew. She had performed extraordinarily well in service.

The Monitor, foreground, sinking offshore. In addition to a revolving turret, many unique features had been included in her hull

The first ever duel between ironclad warships took place near the mouth of the James River when the smaller Monitor clashed with the formerly wooden frigate Virginia. The Virginia had previously sunk, then was raised and re-outfitted as an ironclad and rechristened the Merrimack.

Battle between the Merrimack and the Monitor. The Merrimack looks like the roof of a barn; the Monitor sits low in the water, only 18 inches exposed

The Confederacy hoped to use the Merrimack to break the Union blockade, and before the Monitor arrived, she had already destroyed two wooden Union ships.

The battle ended inconclusively; the blockade remained. But the clash between two ironclads marked a major turning point in the history of naval warfare, and the two ships are memorialized in the names of Hampton Roads tunnels.

The Union and Confederacy had both developed steam-powered ironclads because ships built from wood could no longer withstand fire power from late-model heavy artillery.  European countries took note of this battle and immediately stopped construction of wooden ships.

The Monitor’s location is a watery historic site, and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA tells the story of that time through exhibits and artifacts.

The Monitor in its national marine sanctuary.

Only a few months before the Monitor sank, the Merrimack was blown up by her Confederate commanders as Union troops approached Norfolk to tighten the blockade. She was heavily salvaged, so few remnants remain as relics.

There was only one major battle fought on Albemarle Sound, a year before the end of the war. Three confederate warships, including the Albemarle Ram, an ironclad built in a cornfield, and eight Union gunboats faced each other. The battle ended indecisively at sunset.

Battle of the Albemarle May 1864. Three Confederate warships, including an ironclad ram in foreground and sidewheeler in background engaged eight Union gun boats until sunset, when both sides retired. Weapons and Warfare

(During the Civil War, much action in the Albemarle centered on the rivers and towns north of the Sound. These details will be available as we post the profiles of these rivers.)


Left with a shattered economy and a broken society  — devalued land, bearish cotton prices, a crumbled plantation system, destroyed homes and businesses — citizens began to find ways down new paths.

The social fabric of the community had been frayed. Soldiers came back wounded, or they didn’t come back at all. Families were broken by death and disease. Livelihoods were cobbled together by every member of the family.

Going to school would not put food on the table. Money was so tight that the personal surety bond, a sign of trust that was used regularly before the war, was replaced by the mortgage.

The country store and gristmill, many now in disrepair, had offered antebellum farmers more than essential goods and services. Along with churches, they had been the  nucleus of community life. Rural folk, whether landowner or tenant, free black or white, converged to purchase supplies, have their corn ground, or simply visit with neighbors and friends.

A Grand Opening in Plymouth, on the south side of the Sound, 1865

The structure of county government changed. Instead of Justices being appointed to manage affairs, county commissioners were elected to govern, a more democratic process that allowed for participation by blacks, who now voted and began to hold county offices.

Heavily in debt, Albemarle’s county governments struggled to provide aid to the poor, repair bridges, roads and ferries and restore public schools that had been closed early in the war.

Loss of labor, unstable race relations, and an uncertain political future reduced the wealthy to poverty. The Capeharts of Scotch Hall whose plantation had been bringing in $100,000 a year were left with $1200. Still, that was a tidy sum compared to assets of most people.

Freed slaves, now refugees, looking for a new home. Harpers Weekly, 1863

Class and color remained strong points of division throughout the century. Planters had trouble accepting the new equality enjoyed by blacks, and especially the idea of blacks holding public office. Blacks aligned with republicans, putting democrats in the minority.

The Perquimans Record opined in 1892 that the white element in the Republican party is the best class of our people, wealthy, Intelligent and refined. 

Democrats  worked very hard to gain the majority, presupposing that once in power they could reduce the Negro to his former subservience. The rise of Populism that attracted many farmers, slowed them down, but by the 1900’s they were firmly entrenched with a racist agenda.

Cotton and corn crops were good that first year after the war. They fetched high prices. People were optimistic. But rains brought poor cotton crops the next couple of years, and there was barely enough corn for bread.

Spring plowing, the beginning of a new season of hope

The 1870 census revealed devaluation of farm acreage, livestock and crop yields. Cash value of farms dropped by half or more.

Freed slaves and poor whites lacked the money to purchase even devalued farmland and supplies to start them on a new life. Planters  were so deeply in debt that they could not pay workers up front, so they divided up their property and worked out a system of sharecropping or tenancy.

Tenant farmers rented the house and the land they tilled. They had control over what  crops they grew and how they were sold. Out of the cash they received they paid the planter and any merchants the money due for rent and supplies and kept the rest.

Picking cotton on a tenant farm

Sharecroppers seldom owned anything. They rented the land and the house they lived in, along with all supplies needed for farming. They were told what to plant and had no control over sales. After harvest the planter took what was owed to him and paid what was left to the sharecropper.

Most bought supplies from local merchants on credit with the hope that they could pay off their debts after harvest. For many it was an endless cycle of debt and  poverty, reminiscent of the miner in the country-western song, Sixteen Tons, who owed his soul to the company store.


Sharecroppers in the 1890s

Sharecropped farms occupied about 35 percent of farmland north of Albemarle Sound, much less in counties along the south shore. Easing the penury were gifts from Sound and rivers, the dependable, annual running of herring and shad that could be freely taken.

The prosperity of antebellum years never returned to the Albemarle. Post-war industrialization elsewhere in the country did not reach here and farmers still planted their crops and watched the weather.

Those swamps, managed to keep the world away. A low population and lack of an industrial base protected the environment from smokestacks and warehouses. This watery oasis was not seen as a destination for building a bustling metropolis.

Even inroads wrought by Union armies could be and were repaired. Future threats  would come along and would-be moguls would try to exploit the environmental wealth, but they did not succeed with any permanence, even in the twentieth century.

This lack of commerce and industry created some of the poorest counties in the state. Yet there was not a vast exodus of African Americans from the Albemarle  during either wave of the Great Migration during the  twentieth century.

They chose to stay

Families with long lineage here, black and white, close-knit and close-by, have given support and comfort to each other through centuries, and a relatively benign climate eases life.

Lack of heavy commerce maintained a relaxed pace of life that allowed for neighborliness, deferential respect, and time-honored values of God, family and country. In fine weather or flood, people count on each other for help.

Shoreline along the Albemarle Sound, one example of the appeal of the region

Whatever hurt remained from the war, every spring communities could look forward to those heady days when the fish swam up rivers. And they knew that life in the Albemarle would be sustained for yet another year.

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My Garden is a Madhouse

And I am the Mad Keeper of the Madness

I think it is safe to say the inmates have escaped and are now at large and in charge.

Weather created this garden asylum. You have to believe me. This was none of my doing, I can assure you. (Except maybe setting plants a tad too close, but that’s because they looked lost in a saner garden. . .who could guess they would take over like an army.)

All these plants had been pruned before spring. I know that because I made a garden resolution to keep the pruners busy this year

During two weeks in May and June we had ten inches of rain. A couple of days later I stepped outside and, aha, I surprised the inmates in their crack-brained insanity.

It was years before we were able to grow much in the soggy soil in this bed, though three hydrangeas grew big enough to fill it — until they wilted so after the crabapple that gave them shade was removed, so they had to go

Oh, the gleeful high fives that never came down. The poking and the pushing and the jockeying for prime positions, then the lolling when they got drunk on all those nutrients in the compost we so lovingly applied.

Rudbeckia laciniata, variety ‘Jack’s Beanstalk’. Usually the basal leaves make a beautiful ground cover and the flowers grow to about six feet. More like 12 feet this year

I freely admit that I am grinning. Many of these plants have taken years to look happy.

No doubt the spring that dripped blossoms (my last garden post), the spring we assumed would drown the garden but instead managed to crown it with blooms was an early perpetrator.

Another major battle in the bed, this between distilium, a rangy evergreen that should stand alone to be appreciated, and dwarf burford holly. excised twice but can’t take a hint. Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ and clethra ‘Hummingbird complete the picture. All pruned heavily in spring. I should take pictures of the truckloads of prunings we gather up in late winter/spring

But here’s the rub. Late April and most of May we hardly saw a drop of  rain with blasts of hot sun that shriveled tender new growth. A few plants even got sunstroke and died. We had to dicker with sprinklers and coddle the water hogs.


This hydrangea looks lovely after buckets of water and 10 inches of rain but it is perhaps the neediest plant in the garden. Maybe I should give it some slack. Greedy dwarf burford holly and Leonard Messel magnolia are neighbors. When it becomes a rag doll in August and I can’t stand the way it looks, I prune it hard, which makes it come back bigger which sets up the watering cycle next year

(Sprinkling is my least favorite garden task, way below weeding briar and thistle, because I have to be alert at all times to avoid getting soaked. At least the birds get to preen and play.)

A lovely Japanese iris, the queen trying to manage her unruly subjects. Usually they stay fairly vertical until July when I cut them back for a second surge of growth but no flowers

After a month or so of these dry sunny days, there was talk of drought.

Drought? Drought? That’s what casual friends in Montana have every summer. They tell about watching the sky and seeing rain evaporate before it hits the ground. And still they try. And still they are optimistic when that mail order stuff doesn’t grow properly, or doesn’t grow at all. I would take up beading.

Trumpet creeper ‘Orange UFO’ (If Beatles can do Yellow Submarine…)Doesn’t need rain, will grow to great heights, birds love to nest in its tangle,  and my, how it spreads through a garden

Note the slits in the blossoms. Hummingbirds love the nectar, which is at the base of the bloom and almost inaccessible. I’ve read that birds tear the slits to find the nectar. Not sure. Stay tuned

Drought is what’s going on out west for years now, isn’t it? Drought caused the Dust Bowl, didn’t it?’ Drought finished off civilizations. So quitchyerbellyachin’  over a month or so without rain, I tell myself as I finesse the aim of a sprinkler one more time and a truant breeze splats the spray in my face.

Stokes aster, a perennial that grows in sun or shade, is a reasonably drought tolerant, native. Here, a Palomedes Swallowtail sips nectar, having grown up on the swamp redbay that grows wild in our garden

It took me a while living in east-coast crop country to understand that drought is relative. When farmers look to the sky, what they want to know is if they will have a crop this year to pay the bills and cover the loans. So drought is measured here in inches below normal, not decades dry as hard tack in a mess kit.

A signpost commemorating Hurricane Isabel. Note the small, opportunistic wisteria growing up the post. Susan and I dug some up from a vacant lot years ago (witnessed by a friend driving by, darn) and it was ten years before it climbed a tree. This year it is surprising us as it hops around the garden. The ground cover is a tame rudbeckia laciniata

Drought is not only relative, it’s spotty here. Last I looked, the climate map said our area was dry. Our garden tells us we are not. Are we under unique and repeating bands of rainstorms?

Tuff Stuff hydrangea, fast grower, hardy hardy hardy, this plant from a cutting two years ago. As of this writing, the blooms have turned a rich purple with rosy, sterile-flower petals

It goes the other way, too. A decade or more ago, the rest of the area was well watered, but we were watching the sky and waiting for rain. The squalls came but they stopped less than a mile from us.

That pattern lasted a couple of years.

Clematis jackmanii, such a reliable old friend, has to compete with aggressive cross vine, sweet autumn clematis and trumpet vine and still she comes through and improves with age

Oh, how the ground cracked and the plants struggled. I couldn’t grow a lenten rose or a decent daylily. Established shrubs held on but they were not full and happy. We had forgotten what rainy days and mud puddles looked like.

Proof positive that we pruned this year, this double reeves spirea was taken down by half. For a spring picture see the full blown white flowers in my spring post .

Same plant a month later with Joe Pye Weed native behind it. If you don’t want a tall Joe Pye, you can cut it back a couple of times for a nicely shaped shrubby plant that will bloom well. To the right,  out of range, is New York ironweed, thrilled to be back in the limelight after being sidelined by the spirea, racing with Joe Pye to see who can hit the sky first

So I am not complaining about that month of dry weather. I know what it is like to watch the sky — and I am not growing food needed for the table or crops to pay the rent.

And I know that next year I may be watching the sky. I wish I could share this year’s gifts, but it doesn’t work that way.

An unknown species of local swamp dogwood, here 20 feet tall and wide, barely three feet in the wild. But it doesn’t berry the way it should.It and the hosta below are saving a sasanqua camellia in a wet bed

Not as flashy as some, but oh such a steady grower, Antioch hosta and the dogwood above are drinking up the puddles in the bed. Without their busy roots the camellia would be swamped

The sun is out but the air is dripping on me. This will be a good time to sneak inside and reread that lovely sixty-year-old book, The Plant Sitter, about a little boy who was babysitting plants that got out of hand. Maybe I will get some plant tips (no pun intended).

The happiest canna. I dug a piece of it a couple of years ago from someone’s pile of garden trash (with permission) and it has taken hold, with no bug bites this year — yet

Another five inches fell last night and this morning is threatening. Can I justify leaving the inmates to their madcap frolics and delay the clipping and staking to bring them to order?

Planted ten years ago, this hydrangea is finally exploding this year

You bet I can!

Old hydrangeas by the edge of the woods. Between compost and mulch which tend to be acid, and our naturally neutral soil, their colors are variable. They change as the season progresses and each year is a surprise

And finally, the lovely crepe-papery pomegranate bloom, from a cutting several years ago  recently planted. The old flowering pomegranate is gone now; I can’t remember why it left us, but I’m glad it gave us heirs. It’s a precarious life in this garden, and I must confess I would miss the merry madcaps of the carousers.

Punicum granatum ‘Plena’ does not fruit

Posted in Garden Humor, garden maintenance, Garden Memories, Hydrangeas, summer bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Albemarle Sound: Voyage through the Centuries VII

Antebellum Albemarle

America was riding its destiny. She had defeated the most powerful navy in the world, not once but twice. Cotton crops were thriving. Northern cotton mills were humming. Settlers were going west. Fish hauls came in as fast as you could bring ’em on land. Canals were opening. Ports were bustling and commercial ships crowded the waters.  It was called the Era of Good Feelings.

Independence Day celebration in Boston 1817 depicted in a painting by John Lewis Krimmer is infused with the optimism of the country

In the Albemarle and across the South, gifts from land and water, still largely unspent, were full of promise and ready to be plucked by freemen for profit and slaves for masters.

The Albemarle was still a rural backwater. Travel over land was tricky and lack of a deep-water port prevented large vessels from trading directly. But livin’ was easy, as Ella Fitzgerald sang in Summertime.  Of course, how easy depended on your place in society: planter or merchant; yeoman farmer; slave.

Planters and Merchants

Planters were the elite minority. Many could trace their ancestry to aristocratic families in England. They owned the best land. With connections and credit they had acquired large tracts, anywhere from 500 to 1000 acres with discounts if they brought in indentured servants or slaves. Isolated because of  large holdings, plantations were prosperous and as self-sufficient as small towns.

Scotch Hall Plantation in Bertie County was built in 1838 on 8,000 acres of land, worked by almost 300 slaves with an income of over $100,000. This was the Capehart family home. Much of the land is now a waterfront community on Albemarle Sound. Watercolor by Judson Newbern whose wife is a descendant of the Capeharts.

Plantation life was a clubby, closed-circle capitalistic operation. Rich soil and long summers with mild winters were good for growing cash crops that needed special care, like cotton, rice,  and tobacco. When rice and tobacco languished in the Albemarle, cotton became the cash crop, especially after the invention of the cotton gin (cotton engine) that speeded separation of fibers from seeds. Slaves provided the power and the profits.

Planters became powerful members of state government, as much to maintain order in the state as to feather their own beds. Owning land was a requirement for serving in the legislature; at one point 85 percent of its members were planters, more than any other southern state.

No blossom represents the perceived romance of the south more than the evergreen magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) that graced fine homes and plantations. Painting Shadow Dancer by Lorraine Ulen

This was a gay time for planters and their families, when even the humdrum took on a luster of romance. A tutor for the Capehart family wrote of afternoon visiting, fine dining, fishing and hunting, fetching mail at the post office, holiday festivities, and summer vacations on the beach in Nags Head.

Merchants were the other powerful class of people, and they usually lived in the finest houses in the community. They ran maritime empires that stretched from New England to the West Indies and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Here’s a small sampling of items offered by mercantile businesses: shoes, coffee, sugar, tobacco, horse powder, calico, jeans, soap, medicine, cheese, candles, salt, molasses, and bags of shot. Other profitable enterprises: credit to locals and shipping for commercial farmers.

If you were wealthy, you and your friends had special privileges. You could become part of the summer social scene in Raleigh to escape disease-carrying mosquitos that swarmed on the coastal plain.

Or you could retreat to the barrier beaches, where fresh sea breezes swept the pests away; where chartered packets brought in fresh produce twice a week; and where you could enjoy swimming, fishing, afternoon naps, and in the evenings, dancing to music at the hotel.

Dancing the night away. This romantic image is available in counted cross stitch and other needlework kits


The Working Middle Class

Most people had no connections to aristocracy nor the wherewithal to form shipping empires or take vacations by the sea. Nor did they own the sizeable tracts of land that would allow them to have a voice in state government.

In 1837 The Fayetteville Observer wrote: The great mass of our population is composed of people who cultivate their own soil, owe no debt, and live within their means. 

Yeoman farmers and free blacks lived on small farms, around a hundred acres or so.  They did not grow cash crops. They grew corn and raised livestock  and hunted to feed their families.

Deer were native and wild boar had been introduced in the 1500s  by the English as a reliable source of food. Most livestock roamed freely, fattening on abundant mast from native trees, so little care was needed, except for keeping them away from the cornfield.  Planters and yeomen alike dined on free-range beef and pork.

Early ears of corn were small but American Indians and settlers bred plants to produce larger ears. Pictured here is Flint, or Indian corn, which can be ground to produce a coarse corn meal. Picking corn was labor intensive, as was shucking. WikimediaCommons

In spring families caught enough fish to salt for the winter. They sold excess produce or a bale of cotton, picked up odd jobs to meet the tax bill and purchase necessaries or an occasional luxury. 

Some time during the mid-19th century and into the twentieth century, the mule became a fixture on southern farms and in fisheries. They withstood the heat of summer, their small size fitted nicely into cotton fields, and they ate a lot less than a horse. 

African-American young man riding mule turning cotton press, ca. 1890. General Negative Collection, North Carolina State Archives

An ambitious entrepreneur could add income by specializing in light industry: tanning hides; milling (75 to 80 cents to turn a bushel of corn into meal); fulling (cleaning and shrinking wool fibers); weaving cloth; cutting shingles and staves; and building boats.

Illiteracy remained high, because children were needed on farms. Still, a large majority of voters approved legislation to establish a public school system in 1839. Academies, forerunners of today’s high schools were founded at this time as finishing schools or college prep schools. Between 1789 and 1860 more than 300 were chartered in the state. Quality of instruction varied by instructor.

It was a peaceable life, called dull and even monotonous by one writer, punctuated by parties during the Christmas season, weddings, and eagerly awaited travelling circuses or musical revues brought by steamboats. Sale of liquor was overseen by the state, but merchants wholesaled it anyway and yeomen farmers produced liberal quantities in their private stills.

Christmas was a festive time on plantations and in farmers’ homes, and for slaves, too. Artist’s interpretation of a southern Christmas

Still, people who lived on the edge and depended on gifts from land and sea could come into tough times if the environment dealt a bad hand. This was the case in 1828 after Currituck Inlet, the last of several inlets along the northerly barrier beaches, shoaled in.

Without regular exchange of ocean and sound waters, salinity decreased. Oysters and other shellfish that families depended on for food could not adapt to the change and disappeared. Mosquitos multiplied, and Malarial diseases. . . were much more general and more malignant.

The importance of oysters to early diets  cannot be over-emphasized. By filtering water as they feed, like clams, oysters are valuable for keeping water clean.

Petitions to the federal government for relief from shellfish losses and disease made no headway. Dredging to reopen the inlet would have been futile in restless waters. The story of how survivors coped is not recorded.

Yellow fever and malaria were still common in coastal areas. Those who fell ill were treated in their own home by someone they knew, a family member or a neighbor, rarely a doctor. Sometimes patent medicines would be purchased from a storekeeper. Many housewives kept recipe books that included everything from baking an apple pie to making soap to remedies for croup.

The sick child, oil painting ca, 1850 by Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen


Slaves: Power Without Destiny

Few people who saw Gone with the Wind ever thought much about how a plantation functioned. The grand entrance and broad staircase, the canopied bed and velvet curtains, the crested silver and globe chandeliers were delicious distractions.

Behind the elegance and the romance  of a plantation were hundreds of slaves, invisible.

Planting and harvesting crops; or clearing land; or digging ditches that drained the land; or digging canals that enabled shipment of produce to market; or preparing naval stores for export — these backbreaking tasks brought in the cash that made the romance possible.

Picking cotton, photo after the Civil War. NC State Archives

But there were also carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers, cobblers,  plasterers, harness makers, brick masons, butchers, tanners, teamsters, couriers, bodyguards, nurses (midwives, too), seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, cleaners, hunters, fishermen, trail guides, boatmen, river pilots, lockmasters (for canals on rice plantations).

And The Nanny who was the comfortable face of slavery to the world.

Collectively, slaves powered life on the plantation. But they owned none of it.

They were valuable commodities to the planter, each with a price on his or her head, each a number on the planter’s balance sheet when the time came to figure assets and taxes. Yes, each slave had a tax value, and the balance sheet determined whether the planter retained or sold a slave.

Slaves Waiting for Sale, dressed up for buyers who would dicker for them. Oil painting by Eyre Crowe, 1861, from a scene in 1851 witnessed by the artist

Slave women were valued for their ability to beget new slaves. (The Marquis de Lafayette, respected military leader in both French and American Revolutions, on a cross-country tour in 1824 at President Monroe’s invitation, remarked casually on the change in the complexion of slaves from fifty years prior.)

A later painting by Eyre Crowe depicts the transport of slaves from Richmond to Ridgeway, North Carolina and points south. While, geographically, this is not directly related to the Albemarle, we include it because these two paintings strongly influenced anti-slavery attitudes in England and America.

After the Sale, Slaves Going South from Richmond to destinations in the Upper and Lower South. Here they are being loaded onto railroad cars. Oil painting by Eyre Crowe 1854

How was humanity stolen from slaves?

In the early 1700s, the Albemarle was  a patchwork of wilderness settlements. Slaves in the North Carolina colony, still limited to the coastal plain and rolling Piedmont, numbered about 800. It was not unusual for a settler to own one or two slaves for domestic or field work.

A modern photo of the Great Dismal Swamp by Andrew Woods mirrors the thick growth of woods and swamps in the 1700,s, only the trees were larger.

The owner-slave divide may have been firmly etched, but it was focused more on grubbing existence from a strange land than on amassing profits. Often bondsmen (euphemism for slaves) lived in the household, sharing their culture with the family and interweaving lifestyles in a cooperative venture for survival.

For example, it is possible that eastern Carolina’s vinegar-and-pepper barbecue grew out of culinary customs in the West Indies and Africa, where  cooks used lime juice and hot peppers to season meat. It’s a short step to experimenting with vinegar, more readily available than limes, for a new twist that’s become a staple today on the coastal plain of the Carolinas.

Within several decades, the owner-slave divide had deepened: the Revolutionary era became a watershed for slavery in the Albemarle. Lack of a port city precluded slave trade here, except among private individuals, so slave owners purchased slaves in Virginia and transported them to North Carolina.

Examples of newspaper ads in Virginia.

This inconvenience did not slow the vast increase in slave numbers in less than a century. Slave population at the time of the Revolution:  100,000. Plantations were rising and fortunes were growing. Owning slaves became a path to wealth and would remain so until the Civil War. The relationship between master and slave was now and would continue to be based on exploitation. All men are created equal did not apply.

A moving but romantic impression of The Cotton Pickers by Winslow Homer. In the absence of clear-eyed photography, artists can dim reality

From a slave’s perspective, this oratory about freedom and the rights of man was simply hollow chatter, though many participated in the war, on either side, hoping for freedom from bondage somehow.

But talk of liberty stirred souls and a restlessness grew among many who were in bondage, stirrings that would lead to constant turmoil during this Era of Good Feelings and beyond.

Most slaves lived on plantations (though Albemarle plantations never reached the size of the vast plantations of the Deep South). But they also worked as domestic servants, skilled artisans, and field laborers on small farms and in towns and cities.

Treatment  of slaves depended on the owner. As one traveler observed, The keep of a negro…does not come to a great figure, since the daily ration is but a quart of maize and rarely a little meat or salted fish.

Most owners realized that the value of their property could not be maintained on a poor diet, and there was always the whip to spur action. Daily allotments were supplemented with produce from slave gardens, which in turn saved money for the planter.

There was once an oft-repeated myth of the happy slave. Records of laziness, theft, arson, desertion, and murder bury that myth along with layers of passive aggression and outright anger. Newspapers frequently ran ads with descriptions of runaways.


Slave Hunt in the Dismal Swamp Canal, by Thomas Moran 1862, accurately depicts the jungly growth in this area of Virginia and northeast North Carolina

Some sardonic observers commented that malingering slaves were only mimicking the behavior of their owners.

Planters disciplined minor transgressions; the courts meted out punishment for more severe crimes that might result in the loss of the right ear and fifty lashes. Troublesome slaves were conspicuously branded. Jittery communities felt they could keep slave society under control, but they were ignoring a deeper reality.

Religious fervor would unexpectedly become part of the stirrings. Around the turn of the century, religious revival meetings swept through the country. The movement came to be known as the Second Great Awakening, one of four great awakenings that would boost Protestantism and religious fervor over the course of three centuries.


Methodist Camp Meeting, 1819 hand colored engraving

There had never been anything like it. Here’s a meeting of 3,000 people out in a field, blacks and whites together, listening to a preacher who says, “Here in my message is a new life for you, here’s a new chance for you. Here’s a God who had your interest at heart. Here’s a God who may deliver you.” – David Blight, historian.

Many slaves who had clung to former religions were moved to abandon them and gladly accepted these new messages of spiritual equality before God. Methodists and Baptists especially welcomed converts from the black and white working population.

The Lord is my Shepherd by Eastman Johnson illustrates the deep belief of many slaves in a kinder, gentler God

But numbers of slaves tripled from 1800 to 1860 and embracing a kinder religion would not contain discontent. Slave populations in Albemarle counties were about 35 to 45 percent of total population. Further west, in some counties along the Roanoke River, numbers rose to 60 per cent.

Although North Carolina never experienced a major rebellion, revolts were happening in other states. Wave after wave of reports  and rumors led citizens to increase control over slaves. In 1775, for instance, whites in Wilmington disarmed all blacks, imposed a curfew, and mandated an oath of allegiance.

(Author’s Note: If you recall from my piece on the Revolution, the last British governor of North Carolina, the amiable Josiah Martin, was discovered in a plot to arm slaves against the colonists. There are no records of how many slaves paid a price for his failed coup.)

Panic based on suspicion of slave conspiracies arose in several Albemarle counties around the turn of the century. Nineteen slaves were executed, not counting those killed by militia and vigilantes. Many more were severely punished for alleged plots. Later investigations showed little or no evidence to support accusations. Much testimony had been extracted by torture.

Planters were reimbursed by the county for the loss of a slave by execution. Conversely, if unclaimed runaway slaves came into the hands of a county, proceeds from sales would revert to the county.

The state of North Carolina passed several laws to protect the rights of slave owners and restrict the rights of slaves. Slave patrols were initiated, though it was difficult to round up willing participants. They were, after all, securing planters’ property, not necessarily their own.

A Visit from the Old Mistress by Winslow Homer. Was she counting numbers? trying to catch a thief? or . . .?

The restrictions on slaves spilled over to freed blacks. They lost their right to vote, along with other personal freedoms. However skilled as artisans, they were considered inferior to white craftsmen and were paid and treated accordingly. General harassment and loss of dignity caused many to migrate north or west or sail for Africa and a new life.

From the time of the American Revolution to the beginning of the Civil War white fear of losing domination over slaves invaded thinking and actions at all junctures in society.

Scene on a southern plantation, from an 1862 print

Historians calculate that by 1860, four million slaves in the country were its greatest single economic asset, more valuable than land, railroads or manufacturing, worth more than $1 billion (almost $26 billion in today’s currency).

The Panic of 1819

As euphoria faded, unrest exploded in 1819.  Factories closed.  Unemployment rose. Banks failed. Mortgages foreclosed. Cotton prices plummeted. Investment in land collapsed. Deflation followed soaring inflation. Debt hung over the country from the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812.

Some historians  call it the first Great Depression. Like a whirlwind, it seemed to have spun itself out by 1823, but damages to the fabric of society had yet to be repaired. Low crop prices and depressed land values hit eastern North Carolina hard, and many slave owners sold their slaves and farmers abandoned their land and headed west for virgin land and a new start.

Detail from an 1819 painting by John Lewis Krimmer, Village Politics. Some Albemarle residents stood to lose because of plummeting cotton prices

Resentment was building in the middle class against banks and corporations. They saw these institutions as privileged monopolies, and conflict between creditor and debtor was splintering the economy.

The Era of Good Feelings would never return, but there were still profits to be made from the land.

Cashing in on Natural Resources

Gifts from land and water were still largely unspent before the Revolution. The environment was full of promise and ready to be plucked by capitalists for profit and slaves for masters.

Colonial settlers had used natural resources sustainably. This was not by philosophical inclination. Even the wealthy did not yet have the manpower nor the tools to make large-scale inroads on the environment.

A 2600-year-old cypress still standing in a North Carolina swamp gives some idea of the magnitude of  natural resources of the area

Remember the motto of the Lords Proprietors, the first governors of the colony back in the 1660s: The Taming Makes the Land. That idea was ingrained. After the Revolution the southeast would became the purveyor of natural resources to the world for the next two centuries.

Not until an army of slave power came on, could the land be tamed.

Fortunately, technology was not yet so efficient that wholesale destruction of resources took place during the nineteenth century. That would happen in the next century.

Logging the Forests

Shipyards from New England to Philadelphia and across the Atlantic were eager to expand their fleets. Virgin stands of North Carolina cedar, cypress, oak and pine were fed, board by board, into their ships.

Tar, pitch, and turpentine (naval stores) along with masts, staves and shingles: eastern North Carolina led the world in producing and exporting these for over a hundred years, until the great forests gave out and second-growth saplings took their place.

Counties on the south side of Albemarle Sound, where pine trees were thick, produced enormous quantities of naval stores

Pine trees were tapped for oleoresin that exuded from multiple cuts and was processed into turpentine. By 1840 eastern North Carolina produced almost all naval stores used in the United States. By 1861, 4,000,000 barrels of turpentine, worth $40,000,000 when distilled, were being processed annually by almost 5,000 laborers and 150 stills.

Barrels of pine resin being loaded on a German ship at the port of Wilmington in the early 1870s. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

Slave labor was crucial to profits. Collecting and distilling the resin was long and arduous. It was solitary work done in winter. Conditions were particularly harsh and workers would run away or set fire to the forest to avoid the punishing drudgery

(Of interest: Tarheel is a moniker from this period that has stuck to the North Carolina mariner. It may have originated from workers in tar yards who often got tar on the soles of shoes.)

North Carolina turpentine distillery, 1884. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

Farming On Grand Scale

Once cleared and drained, this was good land, wrote a colonist in 1654, with a most fertile, gallant rich soil, flourishing in all the abundance of nature…

This land would become the bedrock of fine plantations, but there were limitations to what the soils could give.

Cotton workers on the Avoca Plantation (pictured below), one of the largest in
Bertie County. NC Archives

Cotton was a small-time crop until 1793. It would take one farm hand 100 days to separate seed from crop in a single cotton bale. Said Moses Brown, owner of the first powered spinning mill in Rhode Island, The unripe, short, and dusty part. . . so spoils the whole as to discourage the use of southern cotton in the machines.”

Small jenny mills run by hand, mules or oxen produced crude yarn for homespun cloth, no match for the fine cotton imported from the West Indies.  (Pre-revolutionary colonists wove and wore this rough cloth as a symbol of their patriotism, sacrificing the comfort and looks of the good stuff to avoid paying unfair taxes to England.)

Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (cotton engine) changed the game. It did the work of ten men and it removed the dust that clogged milling machines. By 1840 cotton was a leading cash crop for North Carolina farmers.

A simple but clever machine operated by two men that did the work of ten

Cotton grown in the Albemarle  was hauled overland and on river boats to Columbia on the Sound’s south shore or to Elizabeth City on the Pasquotank River. From there it was shipped north to New England textile mills.

Bales of cotton prpcessed and waiting to be shipped north. SourceofWealth

Steamer Shiloh laden with cotton. NC archives

Eventually, to keep profits on home turf, cotton mills  would open in  the South. Edenton and Elizabeth City operated cotton mills in the Albemarle.

Edenton cotton mill in 1910

Cotton was saving the South. The world couldn’t get enough of it.

But cotton is a heavy feeder. Soil here is rich when first lumbered and replenished by regular flooding of rivers. But the environment was being altered by logging and ditching.

Let’s look beyond the grand entrance to the plantation house and focus on the fields. At any one time, only about a third of a plantation was planted in cotton. The rest was a mosaic of woodlands and disturbed patches, recently cut over, vegetable gardens and facilities for repairing harnesses or building carts or plows.

To a northern farmer who was used to tidy rows, southern farms seemed helter-skelter. This mosaic was a primitive form of crop rotation. Untidy cut-over fields would eventually be cleared for planting cotton, and the spent field would lie fallow, possibly planted with wheat or cover crop.

While the Albemarle held its own, the growth of King Cotton throughout the South came from continually opening new land to cultivation.

Cotton production increased steadily until well into the twentieth century, though the boll weevil took a toll. By then, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were on their way. By 1925, North Carolina was producing 1,102,000 bales of cotton, including farms on the coastal plain and the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the west.

Modern mechanical cotton harvester in the 21st century

Returning to Antebellum decades, records show that in 1850 Avoca Plantation, situated on a peninsula flanked by the Chowan River and Salmon Creek in western Albemarle Sound, owned about 5,000 acres valued at $49,000, and 203 slaves. The farm produced 8,500 bushels of corn and 200 bales of ginned cotton that year, with livestock worth $4,000 and profitable fisheries off Bachelor’s Bay in Albemarle Sound.

East side of the Capehart family’s Avoca plantation house in Bertie County, circa 1877-1881. Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Avoca Farms today is a multi-million-dollar company specializing in botanical and medicinal products.

Fields of clary sage used in botanicals, brighten roadsides in Bertie County with their rosy blooms.


The Era of Good Feelings ended ominously. As class conflict sharpened, a crisis over slavery erupted like a firebell in the night, wrote Thomas Jefferson. He was referring to Missouri’s application for statehood and its implications for slavery in western territories.

Though the Missouri Compromise dampened angry spirits for the moment, John Quincy Adams predicted that it was only the title page to a great tragic volume.

Next: A War that Wasn’t Wanted and the Expedition Hurricane

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Albemarle Sound: Voyage through the Centuries: Part VI

Navigating the Sound

It was the greatest real estate hoax in history. Come to the New World and you will find a better life, glowing reports implied. If you took the bait, you spent months  on a ship, in a wagon or a cart or on foot, only to land in uncompromising wilderness. And then you discovered you had to build a boat to survive. The Albemarle was not horse-and-buggy country.

Albemarle settlers were isolated by swamps, streams and muck. Overland travel was treacherous. Rivers and creeks became roads, and boats became trucks. Boats carried buckets of fish or oysters for the family dinner, or they took families to church, or they were poled to trade farm produce. If you needed a doctor, he came by boat.

Algonquian tribes were the first sailors of the Sound, skimming its unpredictable waters in sturdy canoes hollowed out from regal old-growth white cedar boles that towered in forests. 

“The manner of making their boates” by Theodor de Bry after a John White watercolor. 1590. John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Historians tell us these boats were crude, but creating a seaworthy hollowed-out canoe from a tree was a marvel of patient engineering that few of us could figure out today. Fire and scraping with oyster shell brought down a tall, straight hardwood tree weighing several tons. Fire  and scraping with oyster shell sized and shaped the craft so it handled properly in the water. Animal grease waterproofed it.

Colonists learned quickly. They borrowed techniques from Algonquians and from French Huguenot immigrants who constructed split log canoes.

Everybody became a builder of boats, adding flourishes to improve function and handling. No two boats were built alike, and the art of boat-building became part of life in the Albemarle, skills passed down from father to son. Today, the Carolina boat, product of generations of skilled boatbuilders is considered one of the finest for charter fishing and pleasure boating.

Modern Carolina Classic boat, noted for its ability to run in heavy seas and its sharp, deep V-hull at the bow of the boat that transitions to shallower hull aft.

We are jumping ahead. One of the earliest boats on the Sound was the kunner (colloquial for canoe). It was the colonial workboat from the 1600s to the Civil War. Sturdy, small, about 15 feet long,  simple to build with hand tools and patience, the kunner could be poled or paddled or rigged with a sail.

Reproduction of a dugout or kunner used by English explorers on Albemarle Sound before colonization. ncmaritime

The kunner was a split-log canoe hollowed out of white cedar, a wood that is prized for its light weight and ability to resist rot. After the log was shaped, it was split down the length, and a separate wooden keel was inserted between the two shells, binding them together.

Model of a kunner by Mike Alford showing two halves joined by a keel. From David Cecelski’s blog

Of all the tools used in building a boat — the axe, the saw and the adze, the adze was the go-to tool for smoothing or carving rough-cut wood. It was also used for squaring up
logs or hollowing out timber.

An example of a modern adze. Heads of  ancient adzes were bound to hafts by sinew

Some craftsmen could make that adze sing until wood was trim and smooth and right pretty. From the 18th century on, skilled workmen, and their heirs, would become specialists in boat building, as the economy moved from subsistence to specialization based on marketable skills.

Shallow-draft vessels like kunners and skiffs ( small, V-bottomed boats), and flatboats could push far up rivers. Farmers and planters could ship directly from private docks. Wide rivers and bays provided good landings for larger ships, and towns would grow up around them.

Shallow-draft schooners such as this pictured here plied the Sound along with steamboats and small craft

Creating Roads

Trails used by Native Americans became paths for colonists. But even after almost a century of settlement there were few decent roads and no bridges.

Tricky business, this making roads through swamps. The lay of swampy land, the willingness of an owner to give up land, and the needs of the community all figured in. How much cropland would a farmer be willing to lose so his neighbors could travel more conveniently? And how much should he be re-imbursed?

Colonial justices approved or rejected requests for new roads but a jury of citizens would determine routes. In retrospect, this sounds like pretty democratic county planning.

Building and maintaining roads wasn’t easy. Road companies did the best they could, but swampy terrain, and negligent overseers and unhappy property owners could slow progress. It could take a year to lay a road. Still, by the decade of the Revolution rudimentary highways and bridal paths eased travel.

Most people rode horses, though poor people walked. Simple horse carts or ox carts were transportation for most. By the end of the century, specially made pleasure carriages were a badge of social distinction for the gentry.

Ferries and the Railroad

Ferries became links to settlements. In fact free ferries were established in some counties. They were simple flat boats that were poled across waterways, or, less commonly,  pulled by ropes or cables that were faster and more efficient.

Hannah’s Ferry on the Yadkin River in western North Carolina is an example of a cable ferry ca. 1900. North Carolina Office of Archives and History

Ferries were normally large enough to hold a team of horses and a carriage or a wagon. Two cable ferries are still operating in the Albemarle area: Parker’s Ferry across the Meherrin River and Sans Souci Ferry across the Cashie River. Typically, these ferries carry two cars. To summon the ferry from the other side of the river you blow your horn. The shore-to-shore ride takes only a few minutes.

Parker’s ferry in more modern times. Murfreesboro Historical Association

By 1730 ferry service linked the north and south shores of the Sound,  a run of about five miles that must have seemed like a carnival ride on windy days. A passenger paid 15 shillings for a one-way ride; if he had a horse, he paid 30 shillings.

Colonial justices set regulations for ferries, as they did for roads. They dealt with petitions from ferrymen and complaints from passengers. Ferrymen wanted to increase fees. Passengers wanted better service.   In 1758  magistrates ordered ferrymen to keep more boats to give better attendance for carrying over passengers.

Sail, steam, and finally diesel vessels that could haul mighty railroad cars gradually replaced the original flatboat ferries. A sign along NC 32 at NC 308 north of Roper commemorates this piece of history.

Historic marker on the south side of the Sound, one of several in the area commemorating historical events

By 1883 the Norfolk Southern Railroad linked Norfolk, Virginia with towns in North Carolina, through Elizabeth City to Edenton.  In 1910 the Railroad built a wooden trestle across the Sound bridging the five miles south from Edenton to Mackeys Ferry and Plymouth. It operated through the middle of the century.

Norfolk Southern Railroad train crosses Albemarle Sound in 1918. Wikipedia

The trestle was eventually demolished in favor of a bridge across the Sound.

An aerial view of the bridge across Albemarle Sound, one of the prettiest five-mile rides over water. Photo by Frogs View


Steamboats and Showboat

Ferries were not the only vessels on the water. During the 1800s the Sound was a busy thoroughfare. Coasters (small sailing vessels) carried cargo up and down rivers and between colonies. Larger craft bound for the West Indies loaded salt herring, lumber, tobacco, and corn in exchange for rum, spices, silk, and sugar on the return trip.

The harbor at Beaufort, in southeastern North Carolina, is an example of what Albemarle waters could have looked like in the sailing days of 1890. Note varieties of sailing ships, drying racks for nets, net storage house to the left, and shad boat in foreground. State Archives of North Carolina from David Cecelski’s blog

For almost a century, from the 1830s on, steamboats linked small towns to the world beyond. Bi-weekly trips from Norfolk to Albemarle towns dispatched mail, passengers, produce and circuses.

With shallow draft, as little as 15 inches, and a 5 mph speed they were a grand replacement for flatboats that were poled — laboriously — far up river where masted ships with deeper draft would founder. Plantations had their own landings, where steamers were flagged from the shore by day with white handkerchiefs and by night with torches, lanterns, or fires on the bank.

This drawing of a steamboat along the Cape Fear River gives a general idea of steamboating in Albemarle waters. North Carolina State Archives

Even so, navigating rivers that wound through swamps could be tricky, and at times the cumbersome vessels had to be poled to avoid foundering. To assure unrestricted passage, state law prohibited felling trees into rivers.

Steamers regularly brought circuses and side shows to small towns for almost a hundred years beginning in the 1830’s. Big-time entertainment came to eastern Carolina and the Chesapeake in 1913 with the arrival of the massive, 128-foot-long, two-story, shallow-draft James Adams Show Boat.

The James Adams Show Boat. NC Historical Site

Residents would eagerly line the docks to watch the floating theater secure its moorings, then race on board to offer help in exchange for tickets to shows. Otherwise, they would pay ten cents to enjoy melodramas, singing, dancing, juggling and vaudeville routines in an elegantly appointed gold and blue 500-seat theatre.

Scene from a melodrama played by a husband wife team, hero and heroine, who also played villains

Showboat entertainment delighted audiences for more than twenty years until attendance began to fall off. Movies, then in their infancy, enthralled patrons and became a regular substitute for the occasional showboat visit. Upkeep and repairs on the floating theater were constant. And the depression squeezed pennies.

The life and times of the floating theater was immortalized in Edna Ferber’s novel, Showboat,  which was made into a Broadway musical and two movies.

Although the novel takes place on the Mississippi River,  her intimate knowledge of showboat life came from living on the James Adams Show Boat and joining its crew for four days in 1925, until it docked in Elizabeth City, on the Pasquotank River in the Albemarle area.

It was, she wrote, the most leisurely and dreamlike of journeys.

The Beloved Shad Boat

And then the shad boat sailed in like cavalry to rescue an economy shattered by the Civil War.

Shad boats were built only for fifty years, from 1880 to 1930. They operated only in eastern North Carolina. Yet no sailing craft speaks of eastern North Carolina more eloquently than the shad boat. In 1987  the shad boat was designated the official state historical boat of North Carolina.

Out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon? ca 1900. Courtesy Earl Willis Jr

Watermen called the shad boat “smart”. It was fast and  easy to handle, a thing of grace  and beauty, with sleek curves and a shallow draft. It could maneuver treacherous shoals with confidence. It was powered by three sails–a main sail, a jib and a topsail.

Shad boats quickly became the choice for fishing and ferrying, and progging, vernacular for doing anything from loafing on the water to hauling fish and fowl and farm produce.

It happened that the shad boat made its debut when fishing was becoming more efficient. Mighty seine nets, pound nets, gill nets were laid down to round up herring and shad that swam into the Sound and up rivers by the millions to spawn each spring.

An example of a gill net that could stretch across a creek and trap large catches

It was a time of the great Albemarle fisheries, when fishermen worked day and night to land catches that would be exported to a nation clamoring for more and more fish, and still there would be plenty left to process for keeping people fed throughout the rest of the year.

And so the shad boat,  sturdy and durable, was named for the fish it hauled. An 8-foot beam gave it stability, especially when handling heavy pound nets. The round bottom and the deep V-shaped bow could take on steep, choppy waves even when heavily loaded.

Smaller boats, like kunners and skiffs could not have handled enough volume to make the fisheries profitable.

Shad boat and crew after a catch 1900. Note the low line of the rear of the boat to ease handling of nets. NC State Archives

Typically, a two-man crew, the captain who steered and manned the sails and his mate who bailed or adjusted ballast, kept the boat square in the water. Ballast consisted of dozens of fifty-pound sandbags stitched by women back home.

As the hold was piled with the day’s catch and sand bags (wet and heavy now) were no longer needed, they would be stacked on narrow side decks. (This was cardio in the days before gyms.)

Now we shall meet the original creator of the shad boat, George Washington Creef, or Uncle Wash, as he was affectionately called, gentle and sociable, tall, with large, graceful hands and a flowing gray beard.

Photo of George Washington Creef Sr, early 1900s. NC Maritime Museum

He was a fisherman and a boat builder, and he was loyal to the Union during the Civil War. In his words, I was employed by the U.S. Navy freighting coal in my own vessel. 

After the Civil War, Creef had an idea for creating a stronger, larger boat, 24 feet long, that could haul large catches and handle well in unpredictable Sound waters.

George Washington Creef and his shad boats, which he usually built in pairs, ca 1900. NC Dept. of Natural and Cultural Resources

His plan was to overlay the split-log construction of the kunner with planking and add interior struts for strength.

Extensive restoration of a 1904 shad boat built by Alvirah Wright, a logger, decoy maker and boat builder. The restoration showing interior struts is now complete and on display at the Museum of the Albemarle. Photo by Michael Halminski from his blog

Monumental effort went into building those first shad boats. And imagination, too, rooted in a deep knowledge of local waters. Creef and crew used basic hand tools, a hand saw, an axe, and an adze, to fell and prepare the cedar and cut and plane the planking, all held together with copper nails.

Then the hunt would begin for just the right cypress knees that would become curved ribs, or braces, for the interior of the boat.  It could take days trekking through swamps to find a cypress stump that would yield a proper curved rib, or maybe two.

The search for cypress knees to determine which ones could be used, would be followed by digging and cutting from stumps.

This diagram gives some idea of how cypress knee (C), along with root (B) and stump (D), cut away from the tree in one piece, could be used as a strut. Treasurecoastnatives

The hunt for cypress knees could mean working knee-deep in water in early spring to beat bugs and snakes, hoping that one tool or another — a six-foot crosscut saw, an axe, an adze, wedges and a maul  — doesn’t fall into the swamp during use. Once extracted, the spurs were taken to a sawmill for finishing.

Bow view of the shad boat Ella View, built by George Washington Creef in 1883, in for maintenance, usually housed at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum in Manteo. Photo by Tom  Earnhardt

Local builders began to replicate the original shad boat in great numbers, though after the cedar forests were cut down, construction was modified to plank on frame.

Shad boats became an extension of a waterman’s life well into the 1930s and beyond. When engines replaced sails, around 1910, they became even more versatile in shallow waters.

The shad boat was the pick-up truck of its day, but its design elements live on in modern pleasure craft that enjoy smooth and seaworthy travel in Albemarle waters and beyond.

You can find original shad boats on display at the George Washington Creef Boathouse in Manteo and the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in the town of Plymouth.

Shad boat flying its goose wing on Albemarle Sound around 1900.  State Archives of North Carolina. Photo by Ralph Munroe,


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