James M. Cox
THE PAMLICO-TAR RIVER AND ITS ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA.
(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, July 1989.
This short history of the Pamlico-Tar River is not meant to be the definitive last word on a subject with such a long and important place in history. It is meant to focus attention on a geographical feature that for more than two centuries was the single most important factor in the settlement and economic growth of its region. Certainly this placid, slow moving river, jealously hidden behind the angry ocean waters of Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks, has not been as important to the nation as the Mississippi River. Nor does it retain as much of its importance as the Mississippi retains of its traditional importance. Yet the point should be made and the fact acknowledged that this stumpfilled, log-choked, shallow stream served the local region in exactly the same way as the mighty Mississippi has served and continues to serve its greater region. The Pamlico-Tar offered an avenue of exploration, of settlement, of trade and communication. It created jobs, whole occupations; industries and lifestyles were centered on the river. Even in war the river proved its importance. Just as control of the Mississippi River proved the key to successful invasion of the South during the Civil War, so the Pamlico-Tar and sister rivers proved the key to successful invasion of eastern North Carolina. And after the War, one of the absolutely essential ingredients to rebuilding the economy of the Pamlico region proved to be the river. For that reason there is an entire chapter devoted to the work of the United States Army Corps of Engineers and their strenuous efforts to improve the navigability of the stream from the upper reaches of the Pamlico to the limits of feasibility beyond Tarboro. This is followed by an account of shipbuilding and shipping along the Pamlico in the latter part of the nineteenth century. There are also numerous references to the lumber industry along the river. Again, this is not meant to be a full and complete rendering of the industry throughout the region. This study is designed with two purposes in mind. First, to provide some insight into the importance of the industry to this part of the South. Contrary to popular belief this region was not the legendary "land of cotton." In terms of traditional, historic, and economic importance, lumber and other forest products played a more significant role than either cotton or tobacco. Second, the key to moving those millions of tons of lumber and forest products was the obscure and unsung Pamlico-Tar River.
Consider the region the river served: a great swampy lowland full of marsh and nearly impenetrable forests. Consider the difficulties imposed by terrain, climate, and economy on the primitive road-building technology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then imagine this entire region without the drainage of the Pamlico-Tar, and it immediately becomes clear that the region would have been as uninhabitable as the Florida Everglades or the deepest Louisiana bayous. Without the river, the entire region would have been as unreachable as the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp still is to this day.
This is an introduction from the beginnings of English colonial history in the Pamlico region to the early twentieth century. It deserves the historian's study and the public's appreciation.