Tyrrell County (1729)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Formerly part of the Bertie, Chowan, Pasquotank, and Currituck Counties, Tyrrell was annexed into a separate entity in 1729 so that wetland residents might have easier access and a less arduous journey to court.  The colonial legislature established the Tyrrell Precinct for the proper construction of a court, jail, and other government buildings.  The county received its name in homage of Sir John Tyrrell (1685-1729), one of the earliest Lord Proprietors of North Carolina.  During that time, however, King George II purchased the colony from the proprietors.

Located on the “South Shore” of the Albemarle Sound, Tyrrell’s landscape consists of various marshlands, swamps, and bodies of water. The county has been one of the least populated counties in North Carolina because the wet environment has always been a hindered transportation and prevented widespread home construction.  Elizabeth Town, founded in 1793, was the county’s original seat of government, yet in 1801 the city was renamed Columbia.  In addition to the county seat, Tyrrell has other communities and townships: Kilkenny, Frying Pan Landing, Gum Neck, Fort Landing, Newfoundland, and Woodley.

The Native American tribes of the Secota and Tuscarora originally inhabited Tyrell County.  (For more on the Tuscarora and their war with settlers click here).  Archeologists have discovered Indian artifacts such as pots, weapons, and other utensils that show evidence of an active Native American population before the colonial era.  The villages of Mecopen and Tramaskecoc, two Secotan communities in present-day Tyrrell, seemingly thrived in the 1400s and 1500s.  By the time of the creation of Bath County in the late seventeenth century European settlers started driving away the Indians from the Albemarle Sound region and present-day Tyrrell.  Virginia settlers made their way down Roanoke and other coastal rivers into the North Carolina colony in the early 1700s.  However, Tyrrell County was slow to develop because of the numerous bogs and swamps in the region.

Before Tyrrell was established by the General Assembly, the first settlement in the county started at Fort Landing in 1700.  The Alligator and Scuppernong River, the Albemarle shoreline, as well as a number of creeks and swamplands in Tyrrell made travel and colonization an arduous process.  However, several families settled on the edge of these rivers and water sources and constructed modest farms where the economy centered on subsistence farming.  From the eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, fishing and farming were the two main factors in the Tyrrell economy.  Several families constructed plantations in Tyrrell before the Civil War, and one of these families was the Buncombe family.  Joseph Buncombe, born in the West Indies, brought his family and wealth to Tyrrell (now part of Washington County) and established Buncombe Hall in the mid-1700s.  In addition to the Buncombe plantation, Dr. Godfrey Spruill traveled with his family to Tyrrell and constructed the Round About Plantation in the eighteenth century.  Despite the prominence of these plantations in Tyrrell’s early economy, the structures of these plantations have not survived to the present day.

Several cultural centers and a prominent wildlife refuge are located in Tyrrell County.  The Columbia Theater Cultural Resources Center, the Columbia Historic District, and the Pocosin Arts Center assert the importance of Tyrrell’s heritage through its forestry, farming, and fishing economies.  The Pocosin Arts Center, one of the premier art galleries in North Carolina, renders some of the best pieces of art in addition to an art school.  Established in 1990 and headquartered in Columbia, the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, a 110,000 acre conservation, is one of the largest ecosystems for black bears on the United States east coast.

One prominent citizen from Tyrrell County was Edward Warren (1828-1893).  Warren was the son of an Edenton physician, and his parents cultivated within him a love for education and for medicine.  During the Civil War, Warren served as medical officer for the Confederate Navy only later to become the Surgeon General of North Carolina from 1862 until 1865.  In 1875, Warren moved to Egypt to become the personal doctor for an Egyptian khedive (a governor of a province).  After performing many surgeries for the Egyptian prince, Warren contracted an infection in his eyes, so he traveled to Paris, France for treatment.  While there, he established a practice. He never recovered from his eye sickness, however.  The Tyrell County native died in the City of Light on September 16, 1893.