"North Carolina’s First Town"
by Bea Latham
Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian. Spring 2006.
Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History 
In 1618 the headright system  was introduced as a way to solve the labor shortage in the North American Colonies. A headright was a fifty-acre tract of land. Colonists already living in Virginia were granted two headrights. New settlers, who paid their own passage to Virginia and later to other areas, were allowed one headright. Families were encouraged to immigrate together; each person in the group meant an additional fifty acres. This system helped the population grow faster, because colonists who moved as families were more likely to stay and produce offspring in America. Wealthy individuals could accumulate headrights by paying passage for the poor—who, in turn, became their indentured servants. As the population of southeastern Virginia grew, a government was established to the south and called Albemarle . Settlers began to move to the area that eventually became northeastern North Carolina in search of more productive and fertile soil, referred to as “good bottom land.” They found life profitable in this shore and creek area, but as word of the opportunities spread, migration occurred, the population grew, and soon it became necessary for some people to move even farther south through forests and swamps to the fertile soil associated with the Pamlico River region.
The early settlers of the Pamlico River area came from all classes of society and all walks of life. Some individuals were more accustomed to life in a new colony, since they had come south from Virginia. People arriving by ship from England and other European countries found life in the desolate region a difficult adjustment. Only a few of the early settlers had considerable wealth. Others had enough to live comfortably, but the greatest number had little more than the bare necessities. Homes were often of one or two rooms, and the floors most likely of dirt. Furniture was usually homemade and may have included only beds, a few chairs, and a table. Survival depended on work by all family members. Colonists learned skills such as weaving and farming at a young age.
Documents show settlers scattered throughout the Pamlico River region as early as 1690. In December 1700 English explorer and botanist John Lawson  began his journey from Charleston, in present-day South Carolina, northward in search of land suitable for a settlement. He ended his quest in February 1701, when he sighted the high-banked land nestled in a quiet cove just off the Pamlico River. Word spread quickly of this desirable area that offered many advantages, such as water access, plentiful game, abundant pine and cypress forests, and rich farmland. A town with seventy-one lots was surveyed and named Bath in honor of Englishman John Granville, Earl of Bath. With the ability to purchase lots, residents migrated to the new settlement from the northern areas, and to a lesser extent, from Europe. This growth led to legislation  passed on March 8, 1705, that made Bath the first incorporated town in Carolina.
As the first named town, Bath quickly became an area of importance. Government officials conducted business and established their homes there. Port Bath, the first official port of North Carolina, was so named in 1715. Ships brought not only settlers but goods for those living in the area. Those ships would leave the wharves lining the shore along Bath Creek filled with the valuable tar, turpentine, and pitch—or naval stores—collected from the longleaf pine trees and sought back in the homeland.
Some of our earliest descriptions of Bath and its people can be found in letters from missionaries sent by the Church of England  to deliver the word of God. In 1709 the Reverend William Gordon reported that Bath consisted “of about twelve houses” but had not built a church. He went on to write that the “Pamlico area in all probability will be the center of trade since it has the advantage of a better inlet for shipping and is surrounded with pleasant savannas for cattle.” In addition to growing numbers of English immigrants, Bath’s early settlers included French Huguenots , who began moving from Mannakin Town on the James River in 1705. Some of their surnames are still found in Bath.
Economic growth and decline have been experienced in Bath over the years because of outside forces, such as the move of county government activities to Washington, North Carolina, in 1785, and the Civil War (1861–1865). At the end of the 1800s, Bath again flourished as steam mills appeared along the waterfront. Farming and fishing were lucrative professions, and families were often quite large, as it took many hands to succeed.
Bath as the small hometown in the early to mid-1900s is a much different place now. In that earlier time, the land and water were sources of income, and several generations often lived in the same household, resulting in the town’s population having reached 600 at times. As transportation advanced, more children began to attend college, and in seeking a more urban lifestyle, to migrate to the cities. Today, the quiet hamlet is home to about 280 residents. As our forefathers, whether fifty or 250 years ago, migrated to other areas looking for a better life, Bath’s residents today are mostly retirees who have migrated there from the quicker pace of large cities, seeking the quieter, more relaxed pace of the waterfront town—and maybe an atmosphere that matches their childhood memories.
At the time of the publication of this article, Bea Latham serves as historic interpreter at Historic Bath State Historic Site. As part of Bath’s three hundredth anniversary celebration, in 2005 she and Tricia Samford helped update a new version of Alan D. Watson’s book Bath: The First Town in North Carolina. To learn more about Bath, visit http://www.nchistoricsites.org/bath/bath.htm .
Virtual tours of Historic Bath are available on the Historic Sites Web site at: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/bath/bathvt/bathvirtualtourV.htm .
References and additional resources:
"Historic Bath." NC Historic Sites. Accessed 10/15/2010. http://www.nchistoricsites.org/bath/bath.htm 
"Bath Tricentennial Digital Exhibit." Eastern North Carolina Digital History Exhibits. Accessed 10/15/2010. http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/exhibits/bath/htm/index.htm 
1 January 2006 | Latham, Bea