Harrellsville – Part III

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 29, 2004

This is my third and final column from &uot; The History of Harrellsville&uot; by the late Dr. Thomas C. Parramore, a book newly published through efforts of Harrellsville Historic Association.

Early settlers in this area used land for a few years until the soil was depleted and then cleared more forests for more planting. By the mid-1800s, farmers had discovered the benefits of manure and other additives to enrich the soil. Hertford County land that sold for $3-$5 brought $20-$25 per acre. As naval stores were being depleted from forests, farming grew until one traveling pastor wrote in 1859, &uot;I have never seen such fields of corn anywhere.&uot; (That same statement can be made about Harrellsville fields today, but price of land sure has changed.)

The beginning of the Civil War had little direct consequence with life in Harrellsville except that its men were recruited for the Confederate Army. The first company of men formed in 1861 and was led by Capt. Thomas H. Sharpe. Cicero F. Lyon, who died near Petersburg, VA, in 1862, was a lieutenant in the second company raised. Other companies were raised by Capt. Jesse J. Yeates and Capt. Norman L. Shaw. The county militia was under command of Col. Starkey Sharpe and was turned over to Col. James P. Howell in 1863.

Some of these companies were sent to forts at Hatteras and Ocracoke on the Outer Banks. When federal forces took the Banks, many of the captured men were sent to a New York prison and the loss opened waterways to federal gunboats. Eight federal gunboats came up the Chowan River in1862 and burned Winton (wasn’t Winton the first town burned in the war?) and Colerain wharf. One month later federal troops seized Norfolk, VA, and the region east of Chowan River came under Union control. Much of Harrellsville’s trade was lost and Union gunboats floated the river regularly.

Harrellsville was helpless because most able-bodied men had been called elsewhere. One Georgia cavalry regiment was sent to guard the west bank of the Chowan, but had little effect in covering such a large area. Frequent Union raids in the county in 1864-1865 captured or destroyed Confederate supplies at commissary depots, several in the Harrellsville and Pitch Landing area. In 1864 the Union sent two gunboats and 300 men up the Chowan to break up the commissary activity. Federals invaded Harrellsville and were resisted by one company under Capt. Langley Tayloe of St. Johns and one under Capt. Hillary Taylor of Mill Neck. Both companies claimed to be the one that ran Union soldiers away from Harrellsville.

Federal raiders attacked Pitch Landing in December 1864 and took $30,000 in commissary funds, cotton and other property of merchant John O. Askew (and remember that in 1864 that was a lot of money). Another threat came from men known as buffaloes, who were deserters and fugitives from both sides. Buffaloes formed outlaw bands to prey upon civilians and steal from smokehouses and pig pens, take household valuables and anything else of value.

Economic and social bases had been established in Harrellsville before the war began and since few people in the area owned slaves, effects of the war were not as great as in other places. An 1864 fire claimed much of the town, but by 1874 Harrellsville again claimed four stores owned by E. D. Scull, D. W. Reed, Norman F. Shaw and J. D. Scull.

Around 1878, 13 northerners bought land around Harrellsville. Fear that they might be Republicans led Hertford County to annex a strip of Bertie land six miles deep and 20 miles long, guaranteeing Hertford a Democratic majority. Mastermind of the annexation was Murfreesboro’s B. B. Winborne, who used the annexation to end the voting majority of the black population, which was unanimously Republican. (Statistics today show that most African Americans are Democrats, but at that time, the party of choice was Republican.)

The area’s most famous African-American of the day was Parker David Robbins, born of black and Chowan Indian ancestry in 1834 between Colerain and Harrellsville. He was a free man who owned 102 acres near Powellsville in 1860. During the Civil War Robbins went to Norfolk and enlisted in a black Calvary unit, where he rose to rank of sergeant-major. After the war ended, Robbins came home and was elected to the state legislature in 1868. He moved to Harrellsville in 1873 and was made postmaster. Robbins was the second North Carolina black granted a patent. The 1874 patent was for a new type of cotton cultivator and another patent was issued to Robbins three years later for a saw-sharpening machine.

Robbins divorced his wife, Elizabeth Collins Robbins of Pleasant Plains, and moved to Duplin County, where he lived the rest of his life. There he built a portable sawmill, a cotton gin and several houses. In 1888 Robbins built a steamboat to move naval stores and cotton from Duplin County to Wilmington. He wed Elizabeth Jones of Duplin and she bore his only child, a son named Leo F. Robbins. (Robbins’ work is so highly coveted that anything Robbins built is greatly valued today).

Harrellsville has produced more than its share of leaders and legislators, too many to declare here, but any history of Harrellsville must mention Walter Reed, who lived at Harrellsville Methodist Parsonage with his family as a small boy. Reed discovered that the bite of mosquitoes causes yellow fever.

History shows that Harrellsville was a law-abiding village with a one-room jail that went unused 25 years. When a prisoner was sent to jail, it was discovered that the front door was blocked by an elm tree six inches in diameter.

Few towns in northeastern North Carolina have a more interesting history than Harrellsville and no population has worked harder to ensure the future of its people. The town has never received the acclaim due for its role in the settlement of our nation or for the extensive settlement of native Americans. This book has told us that Englishmen from the first Roanoke Island colony came up the Chowan in 1586 and landed near the mouth of Wiccacon Creek. No where in history has an explanation been found of how a small band of men captured Chowanoke Indian Chief Menatonon from his own village at the mouth of the Wiccacon. Dr. Parramore believed it was because the chief’s wife came from the Croatan Indians of Hatteras Island.

By 1586 Englishmen had already taken the Indian Manteo on a round trip to England. Manteo, who came from the same Croatan tribe, knew rudimental English and his presence would have calmed fears of the Chowanokes.

&uot;The History of Harrellsville&uot; is a good foundation for people in this friendly little Hertford County town to have their lands and ancestors recognized as major forces in the settlement of this eastern part of our nation.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these three columns about Harrellsville. You can purchase this book from any member of the Historic Association or at Tar Landing Grill and Grocery on Main Street.