Forgotten Families of River Bridge

Throughout my years of Great Dismal Swamp research, one of my greatest goals has been to find my ancestor William Bass’ (b. 1755, a free man of color) homestead in Camden County, NC. I analyzed all his deeds and studied his community connections but failed to locate his land. He lived among several prominent families with property in multiple locations, and he sold all his land before the end of his life. This left my family landless for a generation and created the genealogical challenge of having to study those who bought his land to find his homestead.

Last December, while researching River Bridge (a frequent reference in my family’s history), I reached out to fellow researchers to learn more about the uninhabited island at the head of the Pasquotank River. I have always assumed it was vacant in the past as it is in the present. Through our discussion, I learned this manmade island was not only a missing piece of my story but the focal point. In this article, I will add geospatial clarity to several of the stories I have shared about River Bridge and the adjoining area known as River Swamp.

This satellite image shows River Bridge, River Swamp, and the surrounding community. Envision this space in the early 1700s, before the Dismal Swamp Canal, with just the Pasquotank River and Joy’s Creek.
LocationInfrastructure Investors & Major MerchantsContinued Development

Location

Place names give a glimpse of people’s evolving interaction with space over time. For those who lived in upper Pasquotank and Camden Counties throughout the 1700s, the Pasquotank River Bridge marked the regional shipping and trading center. Although I have written about River Bridge for years, I gained a new appreciation for the area with the opening of the Museum of the Albemarle’s “River Bridge: Sunken Secrets” exhibition in 2018. The researchers who created the collection through underwater archaeology (Philip Madre, Eddie Coddington, Martha Williams, and many others) emphasized that River Bridge was an economic center long before the Dismal Swamp Canal existed.

River Bridge: Sunken Secrets immerses visitors in this forgotten place, and I loved experiencing the world they reconstructed. As I searched the exhibition for a section on families (and did not find one), I realized that might be my story to tell. I have studied the people of River Bridge for YEARS, and countless details have coalesced through my new understanding of this powerful place. In its natural form before the canal, this site was connected to Camden County by land and Pasquotank County right across the water. Descendants of this nexus often have 3 counties (and 2 states) of records to search.

My family was first recorded at this site around the end of the Revolutionary War, and trade-related transformation was well underway. Ocean-going vessels moved imports and exports through the Pasquotank River, and newly constructed roads moved products inland. The Pasquotank River Bridge and Old Swamp Road were integral to the local transportation system, with many landings, stores, and warehouses built nearby. Over the years, I have studied each of these features to contextualize deed findings and connect people to precise places in the community.

Infrastructure Investors & Major Merchants

The exhibition names Joseph Jones (ca. 1730-1800) and Benjamin Jones (ca. 1757-1806) as some of the earliest merchants operating at River Bridge and Joseph Hewes (Declaration of Independence signer) as the owner of a 3.5-acre lot.

Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank : A Biographical History of Camden County” by Jesse Forbes Pugh brings some of River Bridge’s infrastructure investors and major merchants to life:

  • Joseph Jones’ (ca. 1730-1800) story is titled “The Formation of Camden County.” The North Carolina State Constitution was adopted on December 18, 1776, forming a bicameral legislature (with a Senate and House of Commons). Joseph Jones was elected as Pasquotank’s first senator, and he used his role to advocate for the creation of a new county on the northeast side of the river due to difficulty crossing the river for court and other civic duties. In addition to his political life, Joseph Jones was a wealthy merchant with significant investment in River Bridge.
  • Benjamin Jones’ (ca. 1757-1806) story is titled “The Dismal Swamp Canal.” It lays out the timeline of the canal’s approval in the Virginia Legislature in 1787, approval in the North Carolina Legislature in 1790, fundraising through a group of commissioners, formation of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, and digging (from the north and south ends inward) in 1793. Benjamin Jones was the only director from Camden County (out of 5) and was the County’s largest land and slave owner (with more than 12,000 acres and 36 slaves in 1790).
  • Arthur Old’s (ca. 1770-1820) story is titled “A Later Immigrant” and describes his attraction to the area as a businessman. Arthur and his brother Hollowel Old moved from Norfolk County, VA, to River Bridge in 1795—a period of significant influx, according to Pugh, driven by canal-related economic development. The Old brothers invested land in upper Camden County, NC, and warehouses, which were essential to import and export at River Bridge.

After years of my own research, there is little I can add to Pugh’s detailed descriptions of these early settlers—however, I can introduce and elaborate upon the lives of important people he missed. The Halls and Basses were free families of color who migrated from the Nansemond homestead at Deep Creek to River Bridge, following the same economic development the Olds followed. David Hall and William Bass were strategic landowners with waterfront property at River Bridge (on the Pasquotank/Camden County line) and Old Swamp Road (on the Camden/Currituck County line). These men and their descendants had close connections to the Joneses, Olds, and other prominent families in the area but they have been left out of narrative history.

[Part of the modern counties of Currituck, Camden, and Pasquotank, North Carolina]. This is a photograph of the 1780s map displayed at the River Bridge: Sunken Secrets exhibition. The full map is accessible here. David Hall and William Bass lived on the east bank of the Pasquotank River, where Jones, River Bridge, Riggs, Sawyer, and Gray Mill are noted.
1830 Federal Census Map (W.W. Forehand). David Hall and William Bass’ families remained through the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal (1793-1805) and the subsequent years of improvement. Their children and close relatives were recorded at River Bridge and River Swamp in the 1830 Federal Census.

River Bridge Households: Fanny Bass*, Lovey Bass*, Miles Brite, Salley Gregory, Allen B. Jones, James P. Marchant, Elizabeth McCoy, Jesse McCoy, Jaque Dunkin*, Timothy McPherson, Solley Nash, Devotion Overton, Griffith Overton, Jeremiah Sanderlin, Alex D. Sawyer, Dolly Sawyer, Edmund Sawyer, Thomas Sawyer, William Sawyer, William Sawyer, Sr., Archie Wilkins, Elizabeth Wilkins

River Swamp Households: John Chamberlin, Jesse Douglas, Jacob Gregory, Abram Hewit, Jane Kelley, Hester Sawyer, Willoughby Sammons*, Nancy Spence, Samuel Spence

*Free People of Color

Continued Development

Continued development transformed the region and affected families who lived near the Dismal Swamp Canal. In the 1840s, the Gilmerton Canal was dug to avoid Deep Creek, which had a history of causing significant delays in canal navigation. In the 1850s, Turner’s Cut was dug to avoid the “Moccasin Track,” bypassing 7 miles of Joy’s Creek known for similar delays.

The 1862 map “Plan of Battle of South Mills. Dismal Swamp Canal, N.C.” shows how early River Bridge and River Swamp homesteads like David Hall and William Bass’ were disconnected from the surrounding community by the New Cut Canal (another name for Turner’s Cut). At this time, there were still bridges on the Pasquotank and Camden County sides for people to travel back and forth.
Late 1800s – Early 1900s Photos of the old Canal Bridge (at the Bend on Present Bingham Road) Courtesy of Joyce and Durward Medlin. Many people remember families living on the island between the Pasquotank River and New Cut Canal / Turner’s Cut.
The 1892 map “Pasquotank River, N.C. Upper Portion of River Between the Ends of Turner’s Cut” shows a bridge on the Pasquotank County side and nothing on the Camden County side. There are early 1900s litigation records regarding responsibility for the drawbridge that was once there (see Hinton vs. Canal Co).

When I left the River Bridge: Sunken Secrets exhibition that day, I drove toward South Mills, turned down River Bridge Road, and continued around the curve in Bingham Road to one of my family’s old houses. It was my father and grandfather’s favorite place, full of memories and the setting of so many family photos. The site has always been meaningful to me for those reasons alone.

Returning to it, with clarity and countless records of my ancestors’ relationship with this specific site spanning more than 200 years, radically changed my perspective and will be reflected in my writing from here on. The stories of our ancestors are not lost. They are there—not dependent upon permanent structures, not dispersed across shifting county and state lines—but in the specific spaces, nurtured by our ancestors, waiting for us to return.

Bass’ Landing on Turner’s Cut (December 18, 2021). Descendants of the Riggs and Sawyer families describe Bass’ Landing at the end of the old Canal Road. There was a ferry there in the early 1900s when there was logging on the island.
View from Turner’s Cut Facing the Old River Bridge (December 18, 2021)
My uncle outside of his house on Turner’s Cut in the 1970s—less than a mile north of William Bass’ (b. 1755) nearly forgotten 125-acre homestead, on the Camden side of the Pasquotank River, opposite of Richardson’s Landing, purchased in spring of 1801 (Deed Book I, Page 148).

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