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The Cape Fear River Saga: A History in Poetry

Page history last edited by Shamella Cromartie 14 years, 3 months ago





by Frances T. Butler




In narrative and myth, the river called

Cape Fear is tangled in the history

Of men who walked its shores; a water road

Of unexpected fame, the river is

Immortalized in films, which bear its name,

Acclaimed in articles and books and verse. 

Born in the confluence of lesser streams,

The Haw and Deep, the waters of the Cape

Fear River course southeastward toward the coast,

Along a twisting track, that ends as it

Begins, within North Carolina.

The mighty river falls through red clay hills

In Central Carolina and then cuts

A swath across the fertile fields and bleached,

White sand of Coastal Plains, carving, as 

It flows, a pathway to the sea.  Along

The way, the Cape Fear levies tribute, as

Its due, from waterways less bold: the Black,

The Little, and the Northeast branch, as well

As myriad small creeks. All swell its banks;

And yet, as major rivers go, the Cape

Fear is a concourse neither over-broad

Nor long, at most two hundred miles or so.

It is, however, deep, a river fit

For navigation; thus, despite its length

And modest size, it wends its way into

The lore of both a country and a state,

A silent witness to the deeds of those

Who lived and died along the riverbanks.




As ages passed and land and life forms changed,

The river was defined, became in time

The color of aged whisky or fine wine;

Its surface mirrored scenes along the shore:

Banks overhung by honeyed vines and briers

And tangled limbs; great oaks grown fat with age,

Replete, a moving feast beneath their feet;

And trees which wildly flowered every spring:

The redbuds, richly pink; the dogwoods, bright

And white against primeval green; tall groves

Of cypress standing with their knees exposed,

Chins bearded by long strands of graying moss. 

Though deeply beautiful, this river had

A darker side, reflected in its swift

And unchecked currents: when engorged by rain

Or passing hurricanes, they roiled, untamed,

Became quite savage when they overflowed

And flooded lowlands and small knolls, alike.

A river wild, known only to the men,

The native Indians, who lived within

The water’s reach, it was a river-road

They traveled for a thousand years or more.

Tall men with russet skin, black hair, they roamed

On foot along the river’s edge to hunt

And fish; or, in canoes, slipped silently

Between steep slopes and bars of sand; they farmed

The land, grew corn and sons, built villages

Of skins and bark.  Their dugouts drifted down

And up the stream, connecting settlements

On high, dry bluffs where arrowheads, still found,

Bear testament to hunts and times long gone. 

No records of their lives exist, except

In letters and in captains’ logs; and there, 

Few mentions of specific titles, tribes:

Assigned a name which ever linked them to

The river where they lived, the natives here

Became the Cape Fear Indians. They walked

The earth, then disappeared, as tides and times

Moved on.  Encroaching settlements, disease

And rum and wars— all took their toll; and as

The 1600’s ended, most were gone.

Absorbed into the river mist, they left

Few imprints in the sands of history,

No ripples in the surface of the stream.




For centuries, the scene was little changed;

Until, excited by discoveries

Of land, newfound, Europeans came

In shades of white and brown: both Spain and France,

Then England, sent great ships across the sea

Filled with adventurers, bold men who sought

To claim new ground for countries and for kings.

In 1523, the first arrived

With rivals close behind.  All sailed along

The coast in search of treasure and of gold;

Some found, instead, an inlet sheltered from

The waves and winds, a river deep enough

For ships; explored the nearby lands and woods;

Described a place where acorns fell so thick

They covered woodland floors; where wild grapes grew

Profusely in the trees, and wildlife thrived:

The white-tail deer; black bears, the fox, both red

And gray, and birds too numerous to count. 

The Rio Jordan was the name bestowed

Upon the stream by Spaniards seeing, in

Its bounty, promises of lands where milk

And honey flowed; the English, in their turn,

Surveyed the region where the river flowed,

Told pretty tales of waters which ran deep

And spoke of fertile soil; Cape Faire, they called

The area; and fair it was and is;

But beauty hid an ugly truth: the stream

Was dangerous, as well as kind.  This fact

Would soon be realized by sailors and

By those who sought to settle in its sphere.

As rumors of disasters spread, of ships

Which wrecked, of currents, strong and treacherous,

The river would acquire another name:

Cape Fear, the name it carries still.  Its mouth,

Voracious in its appetite for ships,

Was known to hide a tangled web of bars

And shoals, with names like Frying Pan, as well

As banks of shifting sand, a graveyard both

For vessels and for crews.  Early attempts

To colonize were also dangerous

And doomed, it seemed, to fail: ill-fated or

Ill-planned, no early Cape Fear colonies

Survived.  Men tried and died or left, moved on

To tamer climes, decried the river, blamed

Their failures on the land.  The obstacles,

In fact, were great: the Cape Fear River had

No open, ocean port; the Indians

Were fiercely jealous of their native land;

The summers could be perilous and filled

With high humidity and heat, with snakes

And biting bugs; the waterways, unsure:

The currents, swift; development of roads,

Discouraged by great swamps and bogs.  The mire

Of politics was just as bad or worse;

King Charles rewarded Lord Proprietors

With grants of Carolina land, a move

Which proved to be disastrous to the Cape

Fear region’s growth.  These English Lords were plagued

By problems of their own at home and were

Too busy or too arrogant to care 

About far, foreign holdings; rules they set,

For decades, stifled settlement. Despite

Political uncertainties, some came,

Lured by the dream of better lives and land.

In 1663, New Englanders

Sailed south and settled in the lower Cape

Fear area; they stayed two months or less,

Then left in haste, but took the time 

To post foul maledictions in the trees. 

Within a year, Barbados sent a group

Of stalwart, island families to claim

A place in Cape Fear history: well-fixed,

At first, with livestock and supplies,

The colony survived, appeared to thrive;

But three years later, it, too, died. In part,

Both settlement attempts were foiled because

The English Lords chose not to modify

A senseless system for allotting land,

Refused to guarantee the ownership

Of cultivated tracts.  Men chose to leave.

The 1600’s ended much as they

Began: no colonies, no towns, just sounds:

Cascading waters, birdsong, whispers in

The trees: a tranquil pause that soon would change.

White settlers, for the moment, had withdrawn; 

The Cape Fear Indians were almost gone:

One era, done; one, waiting to begin.




With little fanfare, settlers came at last

To stay along the river edge. Few names,

Few dates commemorate their pincer-like

Advance.  Almost two hundred years had passed

Since French and Spanish ships first sailed

The coast.  Though much delayed, development,

At last, was sure: Virginians drifted down

From northern towns; and from the south came waves

Of Carolinians.  In twos and threes,

With friends and kin, they staked their claims to land:

Survival seldom sure, conditions harsh,

They cleared small fields, raised crops and families;

Produced and sold supplies for ships, supplies

Called naval stores: tar, turpentine, and pitch;

Cut lumber from the longleaf pines which lined

The riverbanks; raised corn, then cotton and

Tobacco, crops which called for larger tracts

Of open land, more labor to assure

The yield.  Black men of African descent

Were marketed to work the fields, were bought

And sold in city squares.  With slavery,

Production rose; and traffic on the Cape

Fear River grew; large barges, flats—all kinds

Of vessels moved along the waterway,

Filled with supplies and merchandise and crops,

With products to be bought or sold: the trips

Up-river, arduous; stout men with poles

Propelled the boats; strong currents floated craft

Back down the stream.  Ferries, then, and in

Some places still, crisscrossed the river’s width, 

Providing portage, bank to bank.  Years passed,

Plantation homes, now for the most part gone,

Were built along the riverway, and towns,

With names reflective of events and times.

In 1773, Elizabethtown

Was named in honor of an English queen;

Yet, here, within eight years, a major clash

Occurred between dissenting forces: Whigs

Were Bladen County Patriots who sought

Their independence; Tories thought to stay

A royal colony. The parties fought

Along the Cape Fear River banks in what,

Henceforth, the locals called the “Tory Hole.”

Whigs won the Battle of Elizabethtown,

Went on, in time, to win the greater war.

Such stories of the Cape Fear River and

The Revolutionary War abound

Around the Bladen County area: 

The British General, Cornwallis, stopped,

Some say, near White Oak, rested overnight

At Harmony Plantation; there, he spoke

Of coming battles, plotted strategy.

His plans were overheard by patriots,

Relayed to General Washington, and foiled

By rebel troops.  Across the river to

The south, stood Owen Hill Plantation, high

Upon a Cape Fear bluff, the home of men

Of substance, men whose lives were intertwined

With the emergence of America.

A colonel, Thomas Owen was much more:

A nation-builder; gentleman with wealth

And land; Provincial Congress delegate;

And Bladen County legislator.  John,

His son, was born at Owen Hill and, like

His father, lived a life of service to

The Cape Fear region and the state, became

The governor in 1828. 

A planter who owned slaves, John Owen was

Famed locally not only for his roles

In politics, but also for Moreau,

A captured Arab prince, who chose to stay

At Owen Hill when freed; and when he died,

Moreau was buried with the family:

A tale, fantastic, true.  With freedom won,

Men once again resumed a lifestyle which,

In many ways, was little changed by war;

Small farms and great plantations, most survived,

Then grew, anew. The river’s role grew, too,

Becoming ever more important as

An inland road, a vital link between

The homes and towns now scattered on its banks. 




The early 1800’s were a time

Of peace and budding progress in the Cape

Fear River region.  War with England was

Long over; freedom had been won, and men

Looked forward to a better future; they

Embraced a changing world, technology:

The era of the railroads and of steam

Had finally arrived; from Wilmington

To Fayetteville, boats plied the waters of

The stream, stopped at the fifty docks or more

Between the upper Cape Fear and the coast.

Among the first propelled by steam was one

Called “Henrietta”; others followed in

Her wake and changed the river scene: the sound

Of sharp, shrill whistles or of mournful horns

Would herald their approach; as did the smoke

Which billowed from tall stacks and wafted above

The water.  Like the river, steam could be

Not only beautiful, but dangerous.

When boilers failed, explosions tore through decks;

Some steamers burned, while others sank: in one

Recorded incident, the entire crew

And eighteen passengers were killed when the

“Magnolia” blew apart near White Hall dock.  

Despite such tragedies, the steamboats, for

A century or more, were common sights.

These were exciting times: the Cape Fear was

A busy thoroughfare, a conduit

For commerce on which crops and other wares

Were moved to markets or to waiting ships.

Mid-century, another war, this one

Between the states, brought progress to a halt.

Reluctant to secede, but forced to pick

A side, North Carolina chose to fight

With sister southern states.  A “civil” war,

In name alone, this clash split families

And friends. Before its end, fine men were dead

Who once had lived and laughed within

The Cape Fear Region; forty thousand from

This state alone would die defending rights

And homes. Confederates, as they were known,

Fought well; but, basically, were doomed to fail:

They were out-manned, out-gunned, divided by

Conflicting loyalties to union and

To state.  The Cape Fear saw its share of strife:

The river as an inland road supplied 

The Rebel cause; it was a “lifeline” on

Which arms and men were moved.  To stop the flow

Of river traffic, Union forces tried

To blockade ports: all efforts, futile for

A while.  When Wilmington was taken and

The Cape Fear River closed, the Civil War

Was well-nigh lost.  Upriver, Sherman marched

His troops through Fayetteville, destroying homes,

Munitions, rails and ships, before he crossed

The Cape Fear as he headed north and home.

By 1865, the war was done:

A period of hardships, just begun:      

A population one-third black was free;

But freedom came with costs, for blacks

And whites alike. The Cape Fear region, with

A system based on slavery now gone,

Was devastated: economic base

Destroyed.  An era ended, rightly so;

But with it went a way of life along

The riverbanks, replaced by suffering,

Extremes of poverty, and politics

Which made recovery impossible

For decades, for a hundred years or more.

Postwar, some left the river basin to

Find jobs; most loved the land enough to stay,

To wait, again, for change: they struggled and

Endured, watched seasons pass, the splendid age

Of steamboats end.  The last was “Thelma”; old,

No longer used, she sank and lays, today,

On restless riverbed.  Quite fittingly,

Her final stop is near a famous spot:

The Tory Hole and Cape Fear River Bridge,

A place of ghosts, of glory gone, of docks,

Now still, and steamboat men.  The legend of

The “Human Elevator” is still told

Around these parts; for here, beneath the bridge,  

A black man, strong and stout of heart, for coins,

Would carry those too small, too delicate

To climb steep slopes, to ground atop the bluff,

A fascinating sight for those who watched

From dock or deck.  Scenes changed, and stories grew;

But, constant through it all, the river flowed:

Its beauty never dimmed by circumstance

Or conflict on its shores, the promise of

A better future in its steady flow.  




Each century, it seemed that progress stopped

And river commerce slowed because of wars:

The 1900’s were no different.

In World Wars I and II, the Cape Fear sent

Its share of men, this time to foreign shores,

And prayed for their return.  Great hardships were

The norm in homes along the riverbanks;

But then, inexorably, a new age dawned:

An age, mid-century, of social change

And economic engineering: rights

To vote were finally extended to

Black men and, then, to women.  Civil rights

Were claimed and granted by a multitude

Of laws.  Spurred hard by wars, technology

Advanced: the age of engines, driven not

By steam, but fossil fuels, arrived: planes took

To skies: man’s dreams of flight were realized;

Cars multiplied; and trains were modernized.

The modern age was ushered in on wheels

And wings. And, through it all, the river flowed,

But traffic on its surface slowed: dirt roads

Were paved, and lanes were widened, trucks replaced

The riverboats: most cargo moved on wheels

And rails, instead of water. Distance was

Cut short by speed.  The mighty Cape Fear, too,

Was touched by change, hemmed-in; a series of 

Three locks and dams were planned and built along

The Bladen County portion of the stream

To slow the river’s flow, control its rise

And fall; suspension bridges, wonders of

Their time, great metal roads, were built across

Its width at Tar Heel and Elizabethtown.

Without complaint, the river rolled along

Its course, unmoved by men’s ambitions or

Retreats.  When tamed by dams and bridged, its place

Usurped as favored inland water road,

The Cape Fear simply claimed another role:

One different, but central, still, in life

Along its banks.  For centuries, it slaked

The thirst of those within its sphere: of late,

As populations have increased, the Cape

Fear has assumed renewed importance as

A source of water, liquid gold.  The towns

And cities suckled at its breast, now grown,

Are prone to bicker tiresomely and seek

To siphon off its weathered wealth. All growth

Becomes a two-edged sword: great beauty in

The boon of jobs; great danger in the threats

To quality of life.  Today, a mix

Of toxins seep into the stream:

The waste from livestock operations and

The pesticides from farms, raw sewage from

Expanding towns and chemicals from plants.

In turn, each will pollute the stream.  Despite

Such woes, the river flows: still snakes its way

Through hills and sand, still seeks and finds the sea.

Untroubled by the ebb and flow of change, 

It finds new converts to the places where

The locals ever learned to love and swim:

Attracted by the beauty of high bluffs

And sunny days; white bars of sand, with names

Like “Sugarloaf”; and river beaches, coves

Which tuck into a river bend, men come

In search of respite from their busy lives.

A few will settle on its shores, but most

Just fish or ride the stream in pleasure craft

Or walk in parks along its banks where, now

As then, logs sometimes roll downstream to mills;

And loaded, cargo barges can be seen,

Reminding those who watch of golden days,

The heyday of a river and a time

When Cape Fear waterways were traffic-bound

And river docks were plentiful and bright 

And filled with people; expectations, high.

Those days and dreams are gone; the river is

Now old, controlled; its tributaries, damned

Into great lakes; its powers, checked.  Today,

The Cape Fear seldom floods; its era, done.

Yet, even now, when concrete cracks and rain

Gods roar, it is a river feared, revered;

A river dangerous, but always faire.


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