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Bertie’s early history attracts permanent marker

MERRY HILL – Holy Innocents’ Church at Avoca added another story to its remarkable history here December 14 when it became the site for a marker honoring the first known founder of the State of North Carolina.

The commemoration plaque is embedded in the ground and honors Nathaniel Batts (1620-1679). In 1654, Batts chose a peninsula at the western end of Albemarle Sound on Salmon Creek to build a trading post for commerce with Native Americans. It is believed that the original site is now under water off Avoca, which incorporates Batts’ original property.

The plaque was placed by the North Carolina Society of the Order of Founders and Patriots of America, led by Ray Maxson, Governor of North Carolina OFPA. The Order was founded in 1896 of associates who trace their ancestry back to the first colonists and have forefathers in the male ancestral line from the American Revolution. The website for the Order is www.founderspatriots.org.

Honored guests at the Batts ceremony included the Rev. Joseph Cooper of St. Thomas Parish, David Peele of Avoca Farms, local historian Harry Lewis Thompson, Robert and Janet Capehart and Clara Bond Bell.

In 1987, Michael Hill of the Research Branch and Mark Wilde-Ramsing of the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History completed a study of what is known as the Batts-Duckenfield-Capehart site, or Avoca.

According to that report, the tract of land between Salmon Creek and the mouth of Chowan River, facing Albemarle Sound, has been owned or inhabited since the mid-17th Century by some of the leaders in the state’s history.

William Duckenfield was a leading aristocratic Englishman of the Colony in the early 1700s and his great-nephew, Sir Nathaniel Duckenfield, was a prominent Loyalist in the Revolution. For most of the past two centuries the site was a working farm in the Capehart family.

Batts’ house and trading post came after decades of exploratory ventures launched from Virginia into the Albemarle region. King James of England issued a charter in 1606 to the Virginia Company and in 1607 a branch of the company, Virginia Company of London, established Jamestown, VA. as the first permanent colony in the new world.

Two years later the charter was amended to include all territory from today’s Philadelphia, PA, to the North Carolina-South Carolina line. In the next 50 years several surveys ventured into what is now northeastern North Carolina.

In 1655, a carpenter named Robert Bodnam was sent to build a house for Batts to live and use as a trading post. Records show it to be a 20-foot square structure with two rooms and a chimney. A 1657 map by London cartographer Nicholas Comberford shows Batts’ house between Roanoke River and Salmon Creek, then known as Fletts Creek.

More settlers moved to the area between 1658 and 1661. In 1676, the land between Salmon Creek and Roanoke River was designated as one of three ports of entry for Albemarle County.

Batts divided his time between Virginia, where he owned 900 acres, and the trading post. He married Mary Woodhouse in 1656.

The first recorded deed in today’s North Carolina was for Batts to purchase land from the king of the Yeopim Indians near the mouth of Yeopim River. He later purchased Heriots Island, which became Batts’ Island, located at the mouth of the river.

In 1672, a Quaker missionary named George Fox visited Batts at this trading post and noted that he “hath been a rude, desperate man.” It is believed that Batts moved to his island and died in 1679.

Holy Innocents’ Church

In 1879, Cadmus Capehart began a chapel at Elmwood Plantation for his family of seven children. The family attended services in at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Windsor and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edenton, but it was a strenuous journey for seven children.

After the sudden death of Capehart, his widow Mary and children moved to a family home at Scotch Hall. George Washington Capehart of Scotch Hall moved the foundations of the church to its present site at Avoca and completed the building in 1880. A small vestibule was added years later.

Construction costs were $500 and several ministers, including one who traveled by boat from Hertford and spent the weekend, held monthly or twice-monthly services. In 1962, the chapel was declared a parochial shrine and services stopped except for a few special occasions.

The walls, ceiling and pews of the church are made of natural wood that has darkened with age. A storm several years ago dropped a tree about 10 feet from the building and damaged the roof, but did not damage the church. The structure is currently owned and maintained by Avoca.