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Trade Patterns at Ocracoke Inlet in the Late Colonial Period

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Trade Patterns at Ocracoke Inlet in the Late Colonial Period

But what ports were they bound for?

For years, the main source of information about the contours of late colonial trade in North Carolina was Charles Christopher Crittenden’s Commerce of North Carolina, 1763-1789 (1936).52 Recent research in British customs returns records that Crittenden overlooked, however, has enabled a more nuanced understanding of the Atlantic trade systems in which North Carolina was becoming entangled by the end of the colonial period.53

Edwin Combs’s 2003 North Carolina Historical Review article “Trading in Lubberland” details trade routes and goods exchanged through each of North Carolina’s five ports of entry during the late colonial period. Because nearly all of the cargo brought into ports Roanoke, Beaufort, Bath, and Currituck had to enter through Ocracoke Inlet, this research gives a clear picture of the connections the residents of Portsmouth in that period must have had to the world beyond. Imports to Port Roanoke (Edenton), the largest and most active port, generally followed a pattern of coastwise trade in North America, with 29 percent of the tonnage arriving there between 1768 and 1772 coming from Massachusetts alone. One merchant, indeed, quipped that anyone hoping to develop a profitable trade in tobacco from this region needed to “become Bostanized or relinquish Dealing.”54 Meanwhile, another 27 percent of imports into Port Roanoke in the same period came from the West Indies, with smaller amounts from Great Britain and southern Europe. Similar import patterns prevailed at the port through 1774.55

Exports from Port Roanoke between 1786 and 1774, meanwhile, seem to have followed similar patterns, with approximately 35 percent headed for other North American coastal ports, primarily in Massachusetts, another third headed for Europe, and the remainder bound for the West Indies.56

The other major colonial port for which cargo transported through Ocracoke arrived was the Port of Bath. Combs’s research reveals that late colonial trade patterns there differed somewhat from those at Port Roanoke. A much greater percentage (62 percent) of imports arrived from North American ports, with half of those coming from New England, especially Massachusetts. Thirty percent of imports, meanwhile, came from the West Indies, while only a tiny percentage arrived from Great Britain. Forty-five percent of Bath’s exports, meanwhile, headed for the West Indies, with another 44 percent going to other North American ports (70 percent of that set for Massachusetts). A modest 7 percent of exports were destined for Great Britain.57

Trade patterns at the colony’s smallest port and the other port most relevant to Ocracoke, Port Currituck, followed similar lines, although they were even more constricted to the coastwise trade (source of 86 percent of imports here, the largest share of which came from the middle colonies). The bulk of the remaining imports arrived from the West Indies, while transatlantic imports were rare. A majority of exports were also bound for North America, primarily New York and Philadelphia, with most of the rest headed for the West Indies.58

What kinds of goods were coming and going through Ocracoke Inlet in this period? British textiles and manufactured household goods (“iron pots, frying pans, and skillets,” for instance) topped every merchant’s inventory list. Food items such as sugar, molasses, tea, rum, wine, salt, chocolate, and various spices were also prevalent. The colony’s exports varied from port to port, depending on the products that were most prominent near each port. Commonly exported products included timber products (tar, pitch, turpentine, lumber), deerskins, corn and livestock, and tobacco. The timber products and naval stores export trade, however, centered on Port Brunswick, whose exports did not flow through Ocracoke but instead went directly to the Atlantic. For the ports most closely tied to Ocracoke, major exports included tobacco, corn, cheese, fish, deerskins, lumber, and various other produce.59

The story of individual merchants in this period supports the general picture of trade. Rhode Island Jewish merchant Aaron Lopez, for instance, launched his ships on thirty-seven voyages to North Carolina between 1761 and 1775. His vessels, bound for New Bern, Edenton, or Wilmington – brought New England provisions including cranberries and rum, finished goods from London, and New England finished goods (such as Windsor Chairs) to North Carolina to exchange for naval stores to, in turn, exchange for English goods or pork, herring, or lumber products such as staves to trade in the West Indies. Lopez’s efforts, although not entirely successful, personified North Carolina’s entanglement in larger trade networks as the colonial period wound down.60

Imports through Ocracoke could also have included slaves, especially in the mid-1780s, when records show slaves coming in from Charleston, other American states, the West Indies, and Africa. An unusually large number of Africans and American slaves from Charleston were brought into Roanoke and Edenton to work with Josiah Collins’s Lake Company in constructing the canal from Lake Phelps to the Scuppernong River.61 Throughout the eighteenth century, most of the more than 3,000 slaves brought into North Carolina came in with mixed cargo imported by general merchants (rather than by specialized slave traders). Most of the slaves, furthermore, arrived aboard smaller ships from either other American colonies or states or the West Indies. In comparison with other American colonies, relatively few came directly from west Africa. The trade in slaves seems to have ended about 1790.62

Shipping traffic through Ocracoke Inlet, therefore, was quite vigorous in the late colonial period, and the little village of Portsmouth began to come into its own, although slowly. While it was chartered by the colonial assembly in 1753, surveyor Jonathan Price reported as late as 1795 that the town “does not appear to have ever been settled” and noted that no vestige then remained of the fort (Fort Granville) that had, after 1756, been constructed and garrisoned there from 1758 to 1764.63 Yet clearly by the time Price arrived, there was a town there, because the 1790 census had recorded 96 free white males, 92 free white females, 38 slaves, and three free African Americans residing there.64 It is likely that many of the residents – both black and white – were involved in the work of piloting, for their activities were significant (and sometimes contentious and unregulated) enough to attract the attention of both the colonial and state assemblies, which tried various tactics to regulate them, from the 1715 into the nineteenth century.65 Portsmouth residents also engaged in some fishing and limited shipbuilding in the immediate post-Revolutionary period, and the village boasted a tavern then as well.66

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