Camden County (1777)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Camden County, with a large amount of water and wetlands, is a popular attraction for North Carolinians and other vacationers.  Numerous boaters, swimmers, naturalists, and fishermen visit the county annually to enjoy the waters in Camden.  In addition, many outdoorsmen hunt in Camden, for the county has the largest turkey population in North Carolina.  One of Camden’s most renowned wetlands is the Great Dismal Swamp, a 175-square mile (100,000-acre) preservation located on the North Carolina and Virginia Border.

Geologists have speculated that the Great Dismal Swamp is one of the youngest wetlands on the North American continent.  The Moseley map indicates that colonists knew of the swamp as early as 1733. Because of the swamp’s mysterious allure, several literary figures have referenced the wetland in their works.  “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp”, Thomas Moore’s popular 1803 ghost ballad, sparked a tourist boom in the early nineteenth century.  In addition, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Dismal Swamp (1856) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” (1842) were both tales of slaves who had escaped to the Dismal Swamp before the Civil War.  The Dismal Swamp Canal, a vital trading route that connects the Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound, was constructed in the late 1700s.  The canal, now owned by the federal government, makes up a section of the Intracoastal Waterway. Presently, the Great Dismal Swamp is the most important sanctuary for black bears in the Eastern United States; moreover, its serves as a vital breeding ground for songbirds who return from their migrations to Central and South America.

The earliest Native Americans in the region, the Weapemeoc and Tuscarora, had much influence in present-day Camden County before Europeans arrived in great numbers in the mid-seventeenth century. The first colonists were Virginians and other northerners who journeyed down the Pasquotank River into Camden.  Most of the settlers noticed the rich soil and the potential for agriculture production, and several farmers took advantage of the natural irrigation.  The earliest farmers in Camden established farms around the Arenuse, Joy’s, Raymond’s, and Sawyer’s Creeks.  Presently, nearly a third of all land in the county is farmland, and some agricultural products include cotton, corn, barley, soybeans, and potatoes.

Camden County earned a valuable reputation during the Revolutionary War.  More than 400 soldiers were Camden residents, and many of the men who served in the war performed gallantly while others died during their exploits.  Isaac Gregory, a senator who represented Camden after the war, led his troops in the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. He was shot, bayoneted, and later captured by the British, but they released him because his injuries were considered fatal.  But he lived and became a politician after the war.  Additionally, Captain John Forbes, a leader of a Camden company, died during the defense of the Guilford Courthouse in 1781.  Other Camden men who served during the Revolution were Dempsey Burgess and Lemuel Sawyer.  These two men are also the only men from Camden County who have served in the U.S. Congress.

The Camden County courthouse, established in 1782, was not the first site to hold court.  Joseph Jones was ordered by the state legislature to arrange a site before the courthouse was authorized by the county council.  Jones designated a plot of land on his plantation to serve as a makeshift court location.  The present courthouse was originally built and established in 1847, and it is a historical site in Camden.  Another historic locale in the county includes Shiloh Baptist Church (1729), the oldest Baptist church in North Carolina. Additionally, the Sanderlin-Prichard House (1851) and Milford (ca. 1746) are historic houses in Camden, and many historians believe Milford to be the oldest two-story brick house in the state.

Two of the early colonial era’s most important churches were located in Camden County, Shiloh Baptist and McBride Church.  Reverend William Burgess (ca. 1703-1761), a native son of Camden, established Shiloh on his land in the late 1720s.  Burgess, an energetic and fervent pastor, won many converts as he started his church, and Shiloh Baptist became one of the largest congregations in the Albemarle colony.  The McBride Church, established in 1792 in the Pearceville area of Camden County, was originally an Anglican church in the 1730s.  However, after the Revolutionary War, the Anglicans lost much of their influence in the region, and it soon became a Methodist church.  In the late eighteenth century, two prominent bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, preached at the McBride Church.  The present church was constructed in 1837, and it remains a prominent church in the area.

Sir Charles Pratt, the first Earl of Camden was Chief Justice of Common Pleas in British Parliament during the American Revolution.  Pratt, a firm defendant of colonial independence, admired the bravery of the colonies as they stood against the British crown, and Camden County was named in his honor.  The original seat of government was known as Jonesborough, but in 1840 the city become known as Camden.  Other communities in the county include Belcross, South Mills, and Shiloh.