Brunswick Town Once Bustling Port, Home of Governors and Site of Spanish Raid

by May 8, 2018Across the Cape Fear, Brunswick County, North Brunswick

Brunswick Town had the distinction of being the first permanent European settlement in the lower Cape Fear region. It was situated on the west bank of the Cape Fear 20 miles north of the mouth of the river. Founded in 1725, it was the seat of New Hanover precinct, a port of entry, and later the county seat of Brunswick County when it was created from New Hanover and Bladen counties in 1764.  Although little remains of the settlement, it is steeped in history and has many tales to tell of colonial life.

The town was laid out to include 360 acres made up of over 300 half-acre lots and common land.  By 1730 Brunswick Town could boast of a dozen houses.  Local commodities such as tobacco, rice, wheat, lumber, pitch and tar were shipped from her shores to England and the Caribbean. However, Spain declared a monopoly in island trade and harassed the American colonies to help illustrate her position.

In 1748, the Spanish ships Fortuna and Loretta along with a captured vessel made their way up the Cape Fear River towards Brunswick and landed several men south of the town who laid siege upon it. Surprised citizens fled, leaving their homes and businesses to be looted by their Spanish attackers.

The militia, some 1,000 strong, rallied under Captain John Swann and headed back to fight off the invaders and in doing so captured 30 Spaniards who were sold into slavery.  When firing upon the ship Fortuna, still anchored in the Cape Fear River, the vessel exploded and quickly sank.  Town’s folk were able to reclaim much of their property and the remains of the ship were plundered.  An oil painting retrieved from the wreckage now hangs in St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington.  In 1986 a cannon thought to be from the Fortuna was recovered from the river and is now on display.

Construction of St. Phillips Church was undertaken in 1754, but because of financial setbacks, Brunswick’s isolation and a fierce hurricane in 1761 the building was not finished until 1768.  Upon completion, it was one of the finest churches in the American colonies. Its brick walls were 3 feet thick, 25 foot high and measured 76 by 55 feet. The remains of St. Phillip’s Church, which show scars from various assaults upon Brunswick Town, are the greatest symbol remaining of the history of this early North Carolina port town.

Also visible at the site of Brunswick are the remains of Russellborough, begun in 1751 by Captain John Russell, who was stationed on HMS Scorpion while on duty patrolling the river. Russell sold the unfinished structure and 55 acres to Governor Arthur Dobbs who completed the home and lived there with his young bride Justina.  It was later purchased by Governor William Tryon who lived at Russellborough while his elegant home at New Bern was under construction.

Map of Brunswick Town 18th century – courtesy Library of Congress

Russellborough was a two-story house with four rooms on each floor, surrounded by wide covered porches to take in the breezes from the river.  The remains of Russellborough’s foundations are still visible, along with those of several outbuildings such as a kitchen, stable, and coach house.

A remarkable archaeological discovery at Russellborough is a brick tunnel, which led from the house to the river and functioned as an early garbage and sewer system. In this tunnel, hundreds of period artifacts have been discovered including ceramic and bottle fragments.

Due to several factors, Brunswick Town never really had the chance to flourish. The rise of the city of Wilmington along with the completion of William Tryon’s Palace at New Bern in 1770 led to its demise.  By the time British troops came ashore in the spring of 1776, few people continued to reside in what had been one of the busiest ports in the state.  Much of what remained was burned.

During the Civil War, Confederate troops used the site of old Brunswick Town as a lookout on the Cape Fear River to aid in the defense of Wilmington– an important southern port needed to get supplies to Richmond. Troops constructed an earthen fort, which they called Fort Anderson. The Union Army took control of the region in 1865 and seized the fort causing the Confederates to abandon it.

The site of Brunswick Town, just off NC 133 between US 17 and Southport, is now part of the North Carolina Historic Sites system administered by the Office of Archives and History.  Visitors can take a self-guided tour on the trails that meander throughout the site. Outdoor exhibit panels along the way interpret both the colonial period, and the construction and occupation of Fort Anderson.  Larger groups may request a guided tour.

A visitor center features exhibits, a short AV program, and an intriguing gift shop with books, T-shirts, games and items relating to colonial and Civil War history.  Picnic tables are scattered throughout the site, so consider packing a meal and taking advantage of the setting. Brunswick Town State Historic Site is open from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday.  Admission is free.

For more information visit North Carolina Historic Sites- Brunswick Town.

To read more about the history of Belville, read our article here.

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