Historic Halifax

Written By North Carolina History Project

The Roanoke River Valley of northeastern North Carolina was settled in the early 1700s by colonists who found the valley’s fertile bottomlands ideal for large-scale farming. By the late 18th-ccentury, that plantation system had grown so that a society of merchants, craftsmen, wealthy planters, small farmers, freedmen, and enslaved people had been created.

The town of Halifax was founded on the south bank of the Roanoke River in 1760 and quickly became a nucleus for the entire valley. Halifax was a river port, county seat, crossroads, and social center. A farmer’s market operated here and inns and taverns did a brisk business. By 1769, Halifax had nearly 60 houses and public buildings.

During the American Revolution, the town was the scene of important political events: North Carolina’s Fourth Provincial Congress met in Halifax in the spring of 1776. On April 12 that body unanimously adopted a document later called the "Halifax Resolves," which was the first official action by an entire colony recommending independence from England.

 The Fifth Provincial Congress assembled in the town late in the fall of that year, drafting and approving North Carolina’s first state constitution and appointing Richard Caswell the first governor. British General Cornwallis briefly occupied the town in May 1781 on his northward march toward Virginia and eventual surrender to George Washingon at Yorktown, the last battle of the American Revolution.

After the Revolution, Halifax and the Roanoke River Valley entered a golden age. Wealth, power, and influence were concentrated here, the society was among the most cultured in the state, and planters and merchants built fine homes here. Halifax remained prosperous until the late 1830s, when its political power was diminished and the new railroad bypassed the town.

The first 85 years of the town’s life are highlighted in the preservation of Historic Halifax. The Owens House with its gambrel roof is the oldest building, dating from about 1760. It is furnished as the home of a prosperous Halifax merchant. Two other buildings within the historic district also are also thought to date back to the 18th-century: Eagle Tavern, which was moved and converted into a residence during the 1840s, and the Tap Room, a smaller tavern built sometime between 1760 and 1810.

The prosperity of the Roanoke River Valley is reflected in the many Federal-style plantation dwellings built here between the 1790s and the 1820s. The Sally-Billy House is an elegant example; the tripartite house was constructed about 1808. The Burgess Law Office probably dates from the same period, although the roof line and other features of the structure follow the older Georgian style. Thomas Burgess owned the building in the early 1800s, and it is furnished as his law office and town house.

The two public buildings within the historic district were built by the same contractor. Both are fashioned of brick and are fireproof. The Clerk’s Office, built in 1832 and 1833, served as a storage place for valuable court records. One of its rooms is furnished as a court official’s office and another as a printer’s office, complete with a working press.

The jail was built in 1838: two earlier jails at the same location were burned to the ground by escaping prisoners.

Other site features reflect everyday life in Halifax: Magazine Spring, long a source of water for townspeople; the cemetery; Market Square, which served as the town park, pasture, and marketplace; and the river outlook, near an early ferry landing site.

The Historic Halifax Visitor Center offers an audiovisual presentation, exhibits, and displays on the history of the town. Guided tours originate here, and visitors are urged to make the center their first stop. In addition to the historic structures, the Montfort Archaeological Exhibit is available for public viewing. Constructed over the excavation of Joseph Montfort’s house, the building–through exhibits and walkways over foundations exposed by the scholar’s spade and trowel–portrays the life style of this wealthy resident of early Halifax. A spacious picnic area is nearby.