‘Rural sprawl’ led to Hertford County’s birth
Published 4:37 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023
Before there was urban sprawl, there was rural expansion.
In today’s world, life in the big city often leads to a yearning for nature’s broad expanses, not to mention a desire to return to some measure of peace of quiet.
That’s why areas in northeastern North Carolina are so attractive to those seeking such amenities.
While some may say we are in the middle of nowhere, we’re actually in the middle of everywhere. Drive two hours, or less in most cases, in any direction from Hertford County – the centerpiece of the Roanoke-Chowan area – and one will find themselves on the famed Outer Banks of North Carolina, the metro areas of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the capital of the Tarheel State (Raleigh) or the growing cities of Rocky Mount and Greenville.
Looking at the history of the founding of Hertford County, which next year (2024) will celebrate its 265th anniversary, one will find that its formation came as a natural result of the growth of population beyond the Chowan River into the big precinct of Bertie. Thusly, “rural sprawl” existed over two and one-half centuries ago.
Bertie’s formation in 1722 signaled a migration westward. Within 10 years of its founding, Bertie was the most populated in the colony of North Carolina.
In 1742, Northampton County was formed, comprising the western reaches of the Bertie Precinct. Northampton then included the area of the Meherrin River that was later to become the Maney’s Neck section of Hertford County.
Fifteen years later, North Carolina had grown into a large colony, with its Piedmont area becoming heavily populated with settlers moving down from Pennsylvania. During this period of growth, a struggle developed between the newly-grown Piedmont and the older eastern counties. Westerners claimed they were not getting representation in the colonial assembly. When that representation was granted, often the eastern-dominated Assembly would form a new county in the east, thus assuring continued representation in favor of the east in the legislative group.
Was this the reason that Hertford County was carved out from three existing counties: Bertie, Northampton and Chowan (founded in 1668)?
For the record, Hertford was born due to the difficulty of travel to the Bertie, Northampton or Chowan County seat, thus causing a great number of people in those areas to want a new county with a more convenient court site.
At that time, the Bertie court site was located in Saint Johns (today in Hertford County); the Northampton court was held in Jackson (still the county seat there) while Chowan County held court in Edenton, which also remains as their county seat.
Thus it was the inhabitants of the areas farthest from the three court centers that petitioned the General Assembly in 1758 for a new county.
John Campbell, a member of the Assembly from Bertie, presented the petition in the House of Commons on Dec. 12, 1758. That petition included names of people from the upper corner of Chowan County (now Gates County), many from along the Meherrin River in Northampton County and some from the area around soon-to-be Winton.
Despite the presence of another petition, signed by an equal number of people, was presented to the Assembly in opposition of the formation of a new county, the bill to set-up Hertford was introduced. Bertie Assemblyman Benjamin Wynns, a member of a family that had been in the local area since the early years of the 18th century, introduced the formal legislation.
On Dec. 18, 1759, the bill was approved by the Commons and was forwarded to the Governor’s Council. One day later, that Council endorsed the bill and sent it to the Upper House of the Colonial Assembly. On Dec. 29, 1759 it became law.
Twenty years later, Hertford County lost a portion of its land across the Chowan River with the formation of Gates County in 1779. Gates was formed from that part of Hertford County as well as a large part of Chowan County.
Meanwhile, there was some dispute over the boundary lines between Hertford and Northampton and Hertford and Bertie.
In the case of the Hertford-Northampton line, questions arose of the boundary between the two counties at the Meherrin River. In 1764, the Assembly ordered the boundary lines between the two to be better defined due to the fact that in the original order establishing Hertford County, the dividing line with Northampton used several tributaries as the boundary and there were some questions in regards to which stream was which.
To rectify that problem, the Assembly slightly altered the boundary according to the following:
“To wit, Beginning on Kirby’s Creek, where the Dividing Line joins said Creek, running thence up the Creek to the fork thereof; then up Turkey Creek to Maple Fork; thence by direct south course til it intersects the present dividing line.”
It is noted that William Murfree, a Commissioner of Hertford County, was responsible for establishing that new boundary between the two counties. Murfree, who is the namesake of present-day Murfreesboro, later became the “High Sheriff” of Hertford County.
The Bertie boundary also gave some trouble. In 1877, a small portion of Bertie was allowed to be annexed – an area just east of the present-day Powellsville. The boundary was finally settled in 1907 by a legislative act which described the Bertie-Hertford boundary.
Originally a part of the British Empire and known as the Parish of Saint Barnabas, Hertford County was named in honor of a British nobleman, Francis Seymour Conway, the Marquis of Hertford.
It became an area popular for its fertile soil long before it became known as Hertford County. Folklore of that time stated that the soil here was capable of producing two crops annually.
Located on the Chowan River, Winton was incorporated as a town in 1766. It replaced Cotton’s Ferry as the county seat and where the first court had been held.
One more bit of history about the current county seat. It was originally known as Wynntown, in honor of Assemblyman Benjamin Wynns who donated 50 acres for use as the town common.
Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.