One thing I’ve learned about historic sites is that the smaller and more obscure places often end up being the most interesting ones. Not that Gettysburg and Mount Vernon and Independence Hall aren’t interesting – they are. But when one visits the “big” sites, one often enters with preconceived notions. On the other hand, when one visits a place barely known, then the tablet is clean, and one is free to learn about the place without the voice of one’s high school history teacher echoing through one’s head.
I did have knowledge of Brunswick. After all, I taught one year of North Carolina history to fourth graders. But in an elementary school study of our state, the story of Brunswick was just a footnote. And now I know that the importance of the site is worth more than a passing nod. And I bet that children in Eastern North Carolina get a better look at Brunswick, just as students in the western part of the state are more likely to study about Thomas Wolfe and the Cherokee Nation.
I’m not going to try to tell the entire story of Brunswick here, because my point is actually more generic. In a time when travel is risky, seek out the out of the way places, off the main tourist trail. Brunswick Town State Historic Site is only twenty-two miles from Wilmington, but it’s a bit off the beaten path. The only people there were the few people who sought it out. That made for a great experience both inside the museum and the grounds of the village.
But calling it a village is not really accurate. To see the town of Brunswick you would have to go back in time to around 1770. Today, all that’s left are the excavated foundations of some of the sixty-odd homes that were there in the eighteenth century, plus the walls of St. Philip’s Church. What was once a thriving port on the Cape Fear River was done in by a British attack in 1776. The town was once the winter quarters of the royal governors, and one, Governor Dobbs is buried under the ruined church.
Brunswick was still a thriving port when in 1765 the local merchants staged a revolt against the Stamp Act. Why do students not learn about that in history? It’s always Boston, Boston, Boston!
But upriver Wilmington was gaining in importance, and in 1770, royal governor Tryon moved his quarters to a new “palace” in New Bern. The decline of little Brunswick was sealed when the British burned it in 1776.
The site was abandoned until the Civil War. The port of Wilmington needed protecting, so an earthen fort, Fort Anderson, was built on the bank of the Cape Fear River. It did not fall to the Union until February, 1865. That led to the fall of Wilmington several days later. With its capture, the last important port of the Confederacy was closed.
Today the earthen banks of the fort are still there. It’s easy to see from the position just how important this obscure fort was for the survival of the Confederacy. Between this fort and several others along the river, Wilmington was well protected.
The trail that circles the site of Brunswick and Fort Anderson also includes a bit of a walk by the river and a small adjacent swamp. There’s a sign, “Caution, Be aware of wildlife.” In case you didn’t realize, there are alligators in this part of North Carolina.
And we were lucky to see two babies in the swamp. Look closely! I was just glad that their mama was nowhere around at the time.
Our visit to Brunswick encourages me to see more of out state historic sites. I have a few already in mind. Brunswick was hard hit, first from Hurricane Florence, and then from the coronavirus shutdown. When visiting these small sites, visit the gift shop and spend a few dollars to help out. Books are always a favorite with me.
I felt like the museum could do a better job of telling the story of all of the inhabitants of Brunswick. There are practically no mention of the women, and the people enslaved there were mentioned mainly as being “stolen” during a Spanish raid (seen in the mosaic above} and as workers at Fort Anderson. Of course, this is how history has been interpreted for the past millennia, but let’s hope that money will become available that will allow public funded sites to do a better job of including the stories of all people.