Southport NC – The song of river and sea

Southport is the sort of town you instantly fall in love with. It exudes character, charm, history and grace with a laid back vibe.

Southport is a place I have only visited sparingly yet it’s history in interwoven with my ancestry.  Southport used to be known as ‘Smithville.’  On my mother’s side I am related to the Smith and Moore families of Brunswick County’s colonial history onward to the burgeoning founding of a new U.S of America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  My great uncle up the line, Benjamin Smith owned land near Southport and Smith Island (Bald Head Island).  I admire Benjamin Smith as a man of great character and fortitude.  He served his county as a patriot in the Revolutionary War.  He served in the NC State Legislature and also as a Governor of North Carolina.  Benjamin Smith believed in community involvement, helping others, access to public education – for everyone.  He was left bankrupt, but always gave of his finances and self to help others and promote North Carolina public education and believed in invested in people.  I hope I have strains of his character within my own work on this earth.

Benjamin Smith’s mother, Sarah Moore was the daughter of Orton Plantation owner Roger Moore and Catherine Rhett; Catherine was the daughter of Colonel William Rhett – a famed pirate hunter who captured Stede Bonnet – the so-called Gentleman Pirate in the tongue of the Cape Fear River near Southport.

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Brief History of Southport:

Native populations have lived and frequented the area for thousands of years.  European exploration first stopped in Southport and the region in 1524 when Spanish Explorer (sailing for the French) Verranzano stopped in the area, but did not see the land as feasible for settlement.

Settlements in the region began in the late 1600s-early 1700s.  In 1718, the area witnessed on of the region’s most important historical events – The Battle of Cape Fear also known as the Battle of the Sandbars – this is when Colonel William Rhett and his crew captured notorious pirate Stede Bonnet in the tongue of the Cape Fear from the cape’s mouth into the Atlantic snaking up river towards Southport.  Stede Bonnet is an interesting figure.  He was born in Barbados to an affluent family before rebelling against his background and joining with Blackbeard and then forging a life of piracy on his own.

While North Carolina benefited from piracy (Beaufort NC welcomed Blackbeard with open arms and his horde of gold and other bartering goods), South Carolina’s port city of Charleston suffered immense financial losses from these thieves.  South Carolina demanded a ransom for Bonnet and when it was discovered the pirate was in the Cape Fear River area, without jurisdiction from NC, South Carolina went in for the capture.  You can read more about the battle here.  Rhett continues to be a proud founding member of Low Country heritage as a Pirate Hunter.  His daughter settled in the Cape Fear area when she married Roger Moore, a rice planter at Orton Plantation.  William Rhett’s grand-daughter Sarah Moore married Thomas Smith – their child Benjamin Smith owned land in Southport and many areas on the Cape are named after him.  So the legacy of Rhett, Moore, Smith – is imbued in the history…Rhett’s capture of Bonnet who as taken to Charleston and later hanged (this is another blog entry I will work towards – perhaps a Charleston rendezvous is in order) and the later capture and death of Blackbeard marked the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

During the 18th century the lack of fortifications on the the Cape and mainland left the Carolina coast around Southport susceptible to attack from Spanish attackers, pirates and other threats.  In response to these attacks NC Governor Gabriel Johnston in 1744 created a committee to select the best location to construct a fort for the defense of the Cape Fear River Region.  IT was determined present day Southport was an ideal spot for a fort.  In 1745 Fort Johnston was built.  The town developed around Fort Johnston.

In 1792, the town was incorporated as Smithville.  Joshua Potts under commission from the NC General Assembly formed a committee of five men to administer its founding.  It was named Smithville in honor of Benjamin Smith, a colonel in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and later governor of NC.  It grew as a fishing village and military community.  It served as the county seat of Brunswick County until 1887.  In an effort to promote the town as a major shipping port, Smithville was renamed Southport in 1887.

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Fort Johnston remained the epicenter of Southport life – in the Civil War it was a battleground as the Confederacy took over the fort, utilizing it to aide in blockade running.  This blockade running allowed the Confederacy to pipe supplies to the nucleus of operations.  When Fort Johnston and other neighboring forts fell – the Confederacy could no longer stand.  Fort Johnston is open to tours and the neighboring Southport Maritime Museum offers a wealth of information about the layers of history and culture in this vibrant sea side, river front community.

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We enjoyed the ideal weather ambling along the waterfront, the Cape Fear moving rapidly to its long journey’s end to the Atlantic Ocean.  Across the river, Battery Island is visible.  This is one of the most important bird migration spots in the Eastern US and the world!  The Audubon Society manages the preserve.  Thousands of birds nest and find retreat on the silvery sand beach embankment.

Southport has tons of fun eclectic shops and restaurants to whet any appetite along with cozy B&B’s and nice city parks – don’t take my word for it dive into Southport and see what it has to offer!

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Bald Head Island/Smith’s Island is distantly visible in the rising fog.  Ferries to the island leave from Southport.

The historic houses lining the city streets date anywhere from the late 1700s through 1900s.  Queen Anne, Colonial Revival Cottages (yes my architectural terminology) and Victorian grace their land..while the true beauty is the knotted, twisted grand age old guardians of the sound, river and sea – live oaks.

A curious beach cat, jumps near the pier before criss-crossing the street – what a glorious life for a cat.

With a gathering storm coming out of no where – masking the blue sky we stop for a latte at Wilmington based coffee chain Port City Java before making the drive back to Raleigh.  I already miss the beach..expect more blogs about NC beaches as I rediscover the magic and mystery in salt, sand and water.

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