Northeast Creek is a tributary of New Hope Creek, a tributary of the Haw River. The Haw River and the Deep River join to form the Cape Fear River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean southeast of present-day Wilmington, NC.
The Northeast Creek basin seems not to have been suitable for large settlements in its prehistory. Human occupation of this area began no earlier than 9000 BC, a time of rapid climate change as glaciers of the Ice Age receded from the Northeast and Great Lakes area. Areas south of the furthest extent of the glaciers changed from boreal forests of fir and spruce to hardwood forests of oak, hickory, beech, birch, and elm. Most likely small groups of nomadic people subsisting on seeds, nuts, small mammals, and an occasional large mammal, such as a white-tail deer or a bear moved across the landscape.
By 8000 BC, these groups had specialized in a local area and become familiar with the environment and had more regular cycles of gathering hickory nuts and acorns and hunting white-tail deer for meat. By 2000 BC, those groups might have grown into bands of 50 to 150 individuals either exploiting resources within a single drainage basin or working shifting territories always within range of the source of rocks for tools in the Uwharrie Mountains. By 300 BC, the people in Piedmont had started using pottery. By 1000 AD settlements in the Haw River valley were raising maize, beans, squash, and sunflower seeds to supplement a diet of deer, squirrel, and rabbits from hunting, and were to continuing to gather acorns and hickory nuts. By 1400 AD, some settlements on rivers became compact, defended, and having a population of as many as 100-150. By 1600 the Haw River valley was inhabited by the Sissipahaw, the Eno River valley by the Eno and Shakori, and the Occaneechi were situated on an island in the Roanoke River near present-day Clarksville, Virginia.
The Occaneechi controlled the Great Trading Path when English traders began using it to trade beads, tools, and other goods in the backcountry for pelts. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the Colony of Virginia in 1680 placed Fort Christianna in present-day Brunswick County to control the trade along the Great Trading Path. The Occaneechi (and likely the Saponi as well) were pushed further into the backcountry, settling at the bend of the Eno River in present-day Hillsboro. By 1700 disease has so reduce the indigenous population that John Lawson in 1701 reported the combining of once distinct tribes into single villages.
The Northeast Creek basin during most of its prehistory had few inhabitants. Judging from the few artifacts from the Northeast Creek basin, there was occasional hunting in the upland forests and clearings around Northeast Creek over a long period of time. And in the Woodland period a hamlet occasionally cultivated a wider bottomlands at locations along Northeast Creek.
Settlement of the Northeast Creek basin began in the 1750s. Prior to 1732 and the closing of Fort Christianna in present-day Brunswick County, Virginia, English traders moved along the Great Trading Path, which ran close to the current alignment of I-85. During this period, settlement brought the possibility of conflict with the Eno, Sissipahaw, and Occaneechi residents of the surrounding area.
The creation of Orange County in 1752, the establishment of Corbin Town (Hillsborough) in 1754 as its county seat, and the opening of Granville’s office for land grants enabled the settlement of the Northeast Creek basin, the prime land going to the earliest to claim land grants. The Regulator Movement stirred up Orange County between 1764 and 1771. In 1771, Chatham County and Wake County were formed out of Orange County. Dividing the rebellious Regulators was likely the occasion for acting on public demands for more nearby court and county functions. From 1729 to 1776, all of the Northeast Creek basin was within the Granville District, a 60-mile-wide strip of land granted to John Carteret, Second Earl Granville as settlement of his proprietary share of Carolina. The other seven Lords Proprietors sold the remaining part of Carolina back to the crown. Granville’s land agents handled the grants of land, and the earliest grants in the Northeast Creek basin were handled by these agents. Many of these early grants were later regranted by the State of North Carolina to the original grantees.
The settlers who moved into the Northeast Creek basin came primarily from Virginia and the more well-to-do among them brought the institution of slavery to the this area.
The counties were governed by justices of the peace appointed by the royal governor, and after the American Revolution the state legislature. These justices met as a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. The judgments of this court were implemented by an appointed sheriff.
The American Revolution was a source of conflict in the general area from 1776 to 1781. Both the North Carolina revolutionary government and the Loyalists (Tories) established militias organized under captains, who had responsibility for certain parts of a county. The inhabitants of the Northeast Creek basin chose one side, chose the other, or remained neutral. After the American Revolution, the remaining land in the Northeast Creek basin was granted. The inhabitants formed churches as the centers of their community, and families became allied through marriage. Folks moved out in search opportunity to be replaced with folks who moved in for the same reason.
Early Development (1800-1830)
Because of mucky soil and impassible wetlands, travel was difficult across the Northeast Creek basin. It became an outlying area to Chatham, Orange, and Wake counties even long after settlement. Few county officials came from the area because of the distance from the county seats. Chapel Hill was the closest town and eventually there was a stagecoach route that took advantage of rare regularly passable fords over New Hope Creek, Crooked Creek, and Northeast Creek.
However, most most residents transacted business at local mills and stores. Zachariah Herndon, for example, established a store on the road to Chapel Hill and bordering Northeast Creek. By 1826 he deeded property to his son Rhodes that included the store and two cotton gins. By 1839, it had been sold to Isaiah High who in turn was trying to sell it as Herndonville.
The country store was the main point of trade in and out of a community and also the main source of credit. Women brought yarn and cloth to trade for needles, for example. Men brought produce or animals to be shipped to towns in exchange for nails or hats.
Other trade was directly with local mechanics (artisans) and craftsmen who made wheels with iron tires (wheelwrights), barrels (coopers), hats (hatters), and men’s clothes (tailors). Shoemakers, the most available artisan made and repaired shoes and boots. Blacksmiths made tools and ploughs, and millwrights built and repaired the water mills used for grinding corn and, in a few cases, for powering sawmills.
Life was intensely local, which is what gave it the Rip Van Winkle mood that modern historians ascribe to this period.
Antebellum Society (1830-1860)
The Nat Turner slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1830 produced hysteria throughout the South. Attitudes about slavery became hardened by fear. Yet, this was a period of many improvements in ways that tied the Northeast Creek basin into the state and national economy.
In 1850, the North Carolina Railroad surveyed land for a route from Raleigh to Charlotte. The route followed the old Raleigh-to-Hillsborough road and had stations at Morrisville, Nelson, Brassfields, Prattsburg, and Durham Station.
Civil War (1860-1876)
The Civil War and its aftermath caused many changes in the Northeast Creek basin. The changes in legal relations with the now freed slaves resulted in new institutions and relationships. The beginning of industrialization in the growing city of Durham had impacts in the countryside.
The first post-Civil War constitution for the state of North Carolina mandated that counties create townships as units of limited local government, each township having a clerk, magistrates, a constable, and a school committee. For example, the first elected officials for Patterson township in Durham County were:
Magistrates: R. S. Leigh, A. B. Gunter
Constable: J. B. Marcom
School Committee: H. S. Marcom, W. T. Barbee, W. R. Marcom.
The Northeast Creek basin is also in parts of Cedar Fork Township and Oak Grove Township (once in Wake County but after 1881 in Durham County) and part of Williams Township in Chatham County.
The local government function of townships was ended in 1877 by a state constitutional amendment after the return of “home rule”.
Rural Progress (1876-1920)
The industrialization of Durham brought new railroad links. A general attitude of progress brought innovations like the Lowe Grove Credit Union and a push for public schools.
In 1904, the Durham and Southern Railway Company began construction on a railroad line from Durham to Erwin. The line came through the Northeast Creek basin after leaving the East Durham station. Stations in the basin were given Japanese names — Oyama, at the crossing of Cornwallis Road — and Togo, at the crossing of Alston Avenue Road. During World War II those stations were renamed–Oyama to Few, after the President of Duke University — and Togo to Genlee, after the commander of the Confederate Army of Virginia, General Robert E. Lee. The railroad operated with a few large industrial customers, hauling cigarettes, crushed stone, sand, cement, and bricks. CSX now operates this line, which paralells NC 55 from Cornwallis Road to the town of Apex in Wake County.
Depression and War (1920-1945)
The expansion of public schools reached the Northeast Creek basin. Julius Rosenwald, the chief executive of Sears Roebuck, ensured that Negro children would also have schools; local citizens organized the purchase of land and construction of one-room school houses and hiring of teachers.
Boosters in rural communities of the Northeast Creek basin had visions of expanding the population and commerce of their communities. The North Carolina Highway Commission assisted these efforts with the construction of NC 54, which connected Nelson, Lowes Grove, and Chapel Hill.
All of these efforts came to an abrupt halt during the Great Depression and regained momentum with the transformations of the New Deal and the mobilization during World War II.
Economic Progress (1946-1960)
In the early years after the war, a straighter route from Apex to Durham was created as NC 55. This brought some new businesses and some new residences built on the new highway.
The necessity of diversifying the local economy was as clear in North Carolina as in other states. Gov. Luther Hodges was persuaded by a Greensboro businessman of a bold plan of creating a state-sponsored research park. Located in the Northeast Creek basin, land purchasing began in 1955 and the governor’s support and announcement came in 1959.
Creation of Research Triangle Park (1960-1990)
In response to this new development, a group of Greensboro and Durham real estate brokers and lawyers conceived of a planned unit development to be a bedroom suburb for Research Triangle Park. Called Parkwood, the development was for 25 years the major suburban development in the Northeast Creek basin and had its own independent civic life.
Urbanization and the Building Out of the Northeast Creek Basin (1990-Present)
As the Research Triangle Park drew more research facilities and employees, surburban development started filling in the Northeast Creek basin with a subdivision here and a shopping center there. The construction of Southpoint Mall not far from the basin accelerated the building out with the Amberley development in Wake County filling out that county and new developments in Chatham County filling the area along O’Kelly Chapel Road.
As more of the poorer land for development is “terra-formed” through extensive site preparation to provide sites for residential developments and commercial buildings, a lot of the ruggedness and wetlands that supported the ecology of the Northeast Creek basin is changing into an artificial and manmade landscape. The people of the Northeast Creek basin face the task of envisioning just how much of nature and the unimpaired functioning of the creek will be around in the future.
Local history is a growing activity for citizen historians, who do the examination of primary records and secondary references to tell the story of very local communities. The growth in interest in the history of ordinary people and not just the powerful politicians and inhabitants of the big and stylish houses has benefited from citizen historians whose avocation is researching, transcribing, and analyzing historical records and putting them in the context of a township, a small crossroads community, or other very local geography.
The research context for Northeast Creek Streamwatch is the entire 47-square-mile basin of Northeast Creek. Northeast Creek inhibited and enabled the particular places and times of agricultural development and then urban development. Weaving the story of the people, the resources, and the landscape of the Northeast Creek basin exposes the legacy of the past and the value of Northeast Creek for the future.
For Further Reading:
Anderson, Jean Bradley, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina, Durham, Duke University Press, 1990, 2011.
Hadley, Wade Hampton, Doris Goerch Horton, Nell Craig Strowd, Chatham County, 1771-1971, Durham, NC, Moore Publishing Company, 1976.
Murray, Elizabeth Reid, Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, (2 vols.), Raleigh, Capital County Publishing Company, 1983.