Kinston’s history didn’t start with the British.
Long before white settlers trickled down to Eastern North Carolina from Virginia, and long before the England’s King Charles II issued his 1663 charter granting nation-sized swatches of New World land to the Lord’s Proprietors, the region that is now Lenoir County was home for a lively and industrious population of Neusiok Indians, a part of the Tuscaroran Nation.
They were hunters and farmers, growing corn, tobacco and pumpkins. A dominant physical attribute of the region was the Neuse River and its tributaries, important as fishing grounds, transportation and as a communications conduit: Mother Nature’s telegraph line.
The Indians clearly left their mark: hunting, fishing and farming remain recreational and economic priorities for many Lenoir Countians. The contours of the area’s history is etched in the contours of plowed fields.
The first known written reference to the Kinston area came in a report authored by two English captains, Arthur Barlowe and Phillip Armadas, who were commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584 to explore the New World. They landed on North Carolina’s coast July 2, 1584 to commence their research. In their 1585 report to Raleigh, they wrote favorably of the Indian population in “…the country Neusiok, situated upon a goodly river called Neuse…”
At first, all was calm between the Indians and the growing band of English settlers which, by 1663, numbered approximately 1,000 in North Carolina. But then relations between the native people and the newcomers began to sour when the Indians concluded that white traders were taking advantage of their lack of formal education to trade defective tools for furs. Numerous Neusioks were forced into slavery and had their lands taken over by gun-carrying settlers. Whites also began over running the Indians’ favored hunting grounds.
Saying enough is enough, the Neusioks launched a savage revenge in 1711, killing settlers, burning their homes and slaughtering their livestock. One of the victims was John Lawson, co-founder of Kinston’s neighbor New Bern.
By the time of the Tuscaroran War (1711-1713), the trickle of white settlers had become a steady stream, attracted by the rich soils, moderate climate and the availability of water transportation. Defeated in armed combat, the Neusioks melted away over time, with many traveling to New York to join up with their distant cousins the Iroquois.
Peace with the Indians yielded the nearly 300-year platform upon which the rest of the region's history has been built: a history rich with other conflicts, namely the Revolutionary War (1776-1783), the Civil War (1861-1865), and later the World Wars and other deadly international conflicts which took the lives of many young Lenoir Countians. These events coincided with the coming of railroads, road building, schools, cotton, tobacco, textiles, prosperity, The Great Depression, floods, and hurricanes.
On Dec. 16, 1729, according to North Carolina records, Robert Atkins of Craven County was granted 640 acres of land by the Lords Proprietors…land which contained the present Kinston and Lenoir County. However, according to Oct. 1744 court documents, Atkins' lands were sold to satisfy a mortgage of 100 pounds to well known New Bern lawyer William Herritage who paid 399 pounds for the 640 acres. In 1769 when Herritage died, he left the property to his son John Herritage who lived for many years near Kinston at Harrow, a house he built near Woodington.
In 1759, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed an act to establish three tobacco inspection warehouses in what was then Dobbs County. It was at the site of one of these warehouses, located along the banks of the Neuse River, that “Kingston” was originally established, so named for King George III of England.
In 1772, Jesse Cobb and his wife Elizabeth Herritage Cobb built a home in new Kingston. That residence, now called Harmony Hall, the oldest 18th century residence left standing in Kinston. It is owned and maintained by the Lenoir County Historical Association as a house museum, open to the public.
In 1776, Cobb joined George Washington and the Continental Army to fight in the New York and New Jersey campaigns in the Revolutionary War.
Caswell, a Lenoir County resident who took office in Jan. 1777, felt New Bern was too vulnerable to British attack. Meetings of the Council of State, war planning board and other official gatherings were held at the Cobb home. The Cobbs, in the meantime, moved to Harrow, the home of Elizabeth Cobb’s brother John, son of William Herritage….who lived next door to Richard Caswell’s Woodington Plantation.
Richard Caswell remains one of the most distinguished citizens who have called Lenoir County home. By the time he became North Carolina’s first elected governor, he had already compiled a distinguished record of service as a military commander in the Revolutionary War and had represented the colony in the two Continental Congresses of 1774 and 1775.
He served three one-year terms as governor but was unable to run for a fourth term due to term limits in the new state constitution. He was elected State Controller, the job he held from 1780 to 1783. Then he became Speaker of the House of Commons, and then governor for three more terms, 1785-1787. Caswell was elected to go to Philadelphia to help write a new Federal Constitution in 1787 but was unable to attend due to ill health. Caswell collapsed while presiding over the State Senate in 1789, and was given an impressive funeral. His grave is contained in the North Carolina historic site for Caswell in Kinston.
On April 19, 1784, the General Assembly agreed to a request from Kingston people to take the “g” out of Kingston. The king of England was no longer considered a friend. In the same act, the legislature named new trustees for the town: Richard Caswell, Jesse Cobb, William Caswell, Isaac Wingate, Richard Caswell the younger, John Herritage and John Sheppard. Most of the new trustees were related, prompting some wags at the time to muse that the real reason the name was changed was due to the fact most were “kin.”
In 1883, Kinstonians successfully petitioned the legislature to re-name Kinston one more time, this time in honor of Richard Caswell. However, the new name never gained favor, and the name Kinston was restored a year later. An impressive memorial was approved for Caswell and it was unveiled Aug. 3, 1881…It stands on the Lenoir County Courthouse lawn today.
In 1791, Dobbs County was reorganized yielding a Lenoir County, named for Revolutionary War hero Gen. William Lenoir.
Kinston was incorporated by the General Assembly in 1826, naming six commissioners but not one of them took the time to qualify, leaving the new town with no government to speak of. That streak of independence ended when the 1849 legislature reincorporated Kinston, named six new commissioners, and ordered Sheriff Richard W. King call an election for town officers in 1850. On January 14 of that year, Moses Patterson was elected the first mayor. Dr. Thomas Woodley was elected town clerk, and King was elected town treasurer.
At the conclusion of Revolutionary War, North Carolina and Kinston began to grow in earnest. History since that period records the Civil War including two Battles of Kinston (1862 and 1865), the saga of the CSS Ram Neuse which was raised from the bottom of the Neuse River in 1963, and horrors of Reconstruction, the courthouse fire of Oct. 21,1878 which destroyed many old records; another fire in February 1880 took many of the records which survived the 1878 inferno, and the devastating fire of 1895 which took out a major portion of Queen Street, Kinston’s main street.
The 20th century brought its share of challenges and opportunities to Kinston and Lenoir County:
Among its firsts, Kinston claims the first registered elevator in the state, designated Elevator No. 1 by the State of North Carolina, housed in the 1924 Farmers and Merchants Bank Building.
Dr. W.T. (Tom) Parrott of Kinston built the first x-ray machine in the south after studying under Dr. W.K. Roentgen, inventor of the x-ray in Germany. Dr. Parrott was also a pioneer in malaria research and administered the first typhoid serum used in North Carolina. He later lost his left hand from overexposure to radiation from his newly created machine.
Throughout its nearly 300-year history, the Kinston-Lenoir County community has sent its children into the world, near and far, taking with them the accumulated experiences of generations of people who have known good times and challenging periods. Like the Neuse River, Kinston is a community which keeps moving.
Pride of Kinston • 327 North Queen Street • Kinston, NC 28501• (252)