A southern coastal county of North Carolina, Onslow County has a deep history. In 1524, the first European explorers encountered Native Americans on the coast of what is now present-day Onslow County. Giovanni de Verrazzano, a French sailor and explorer, arrived off the coast of North Carolina, somewhere between the Bogue and New River Inlets. An exploratory party of sailors was sent to find drinkable water, and as the party neared the beach Indians emerged from the forest.
After the Tuscarora War (1711-1714) European settlers began to inhabit the southern coastal frontier of North Carolina. The area was originally part of Bath County and the Craven Precinct, but in 1734 the General Assembly established Onslow from the Carteret and New Hanover Counties. The county is named in honor of Sir Arthur Onslow, Speaker of the British House of Commons from 1728 until 1761.
In 1741 the town of Johnston, named in honor of Governor Gabriel Johnston, was designated the seat of government, and a courthouse was soon erected. However, an arsonist set the building ablaze in 1744, and in September 1752, a destructive hurricane destroyed the rebuilt courthouse; many citizens subsequently left Johnston. After the evacuation of Johnston, city leaders moved the seat to a more central location, and in 1755 Wantland’s Ferry on New River became the county seat. Wantland’s Ferry was eventually renamed Jacksonville after President Andrew Jackson and incorporated in 1842.
Several events distinguish Onslow’s history from surrounding counties. During the Revolution year of 1776, several militiamen from Duplin, Brunswick, and Onslow gathered to quell a Tory uprising in Wilmington. The event was short-lived because the Loyalists and Cape Fear militias were hesitant to start a battle. In the 1820s, as rumors of slave rebellions spread throughout the state, eighty runaway slaves absconded into the swamps of Onslow. For twenty-six days, Colonel William L. Hill and two militia detachments unsuccessfully searched for the slaves. In mid-September of 1821, the crisis had dissipated.
During the colonial period, Onslow’s economy centered around agriculture, forest products, and fishing. Indian corn and peas were the principal crops of the county, and many raised livestock; wealthy citizens of the county such as Samuel Johnston Jr., dallied with indigo. Gristmills and less numerous sawmills constituted Onslow’s beginning manufacturing industry. Shipbuilding was prevalent throughout the Revolution and the War of 1812. Otway Burns, the captain of the Snap Dragon during the War of 1812, provided the funds for construction of the Prometheus, the first steamboat built in North Carolina. Constructed in 1818 in Swansboro, the Prometheus was the tour boat of President James Monroe, who cruised the Wilmington harbor and North Carolina coast in 1819. In the 1920s Onslow farmers grew corn, tobacco, and cotton while a lumber boom occurred throughout the county.
After World War II, Camp Davis and Camp Lejeune, two military installations built within Onslow County, transformed the economy and demographics of Jacksonville and the surrounding area. Camp Davis, an anti-aircraft training outpost, was operated for only a few years from 1941 to 1944. Camp Lejeune was opened in 1941 and it quickly became the most refined Marine Corps training installation in the world.
Edward Bishop Dudley, the first popularly elected governor of North Carolina, was an Onslow resident. Dudley was a county representative from 1811 until 1813 and he served as a senator in 1814. He eventually became a U.S. congressman after he had moved to Wilmington, and he is credited as a founder of the North Carolina Whig Party. Dudley was elected as North Carolina’s governor in 1836.
Besides the county seat of Jacksonville, Onslow has several other towns in its borders. Holly Ridge, Richlands, Swansboro, North Topsail Beach, and Sneads Ferry. Also, the U.S. Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, spans across 150,000 acres of the county. Palo Alto, the largest plantation in antebellum Onslow County, is located on White Oak River, and Rich Lands is another plantation in the region.
“A Brief History of Onslow County.” Onslow County Museum website. http://www.onslowcountync.gov/museum/right.aspx?id=3902.
The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina. Milton Ready. (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, SC 2005).
North Carolina Through Four Centuries. William S. Powell. (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 1989).
Onslow County: A Brief History. Alan D. Watson. (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, NC 1995).