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  • Wilmington, North Carolina and the Cape Fear Region
  • Douglas Gamble

The 2019 meeting of the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers (SEDAAG) will be hosted by the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington. This essay highlights the physiographic setting, cultural history, and current landscape of Wilmington and the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. This issue’s cover depicts the Wilmington historic district, looking eastward from the western bank of the Cape Fear River at the intersection of Market and Water Streets. USA Today named Wilmington the Best American Riverfront in 2014. The historic district reflects Wilmington’s long history as a port city, rail hub, and economic center of the Cape Fear Region. Today, the historic district is dominated by restaurants, entertainment, shops, and a three-mile river walk.

physiographic setting

Wilmington, North Carolina represents the business, service, and cultural center of the five county Cape Fear region (Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover, and Pender counties). The current population of Wilmington is 117,000 and the region-wide population is more than 480,000 (City of Wilmington, 2015; WCC, 2019). The Cape Fear region is located in the Coastal Plain and Tidewater physio-graphic provinces of North Carolina (Patton, 2008; Carbone and Hidore, 2008). The Coastal Plain is a platform of resistant crystalline rock buried by sediments eroded from the Appalachian highlands to the west and transported to the region through fluvial systems. The Coastal Plain is low slope, has little topographic relief, and numerous rivers running west-east and northwest-southeast. The original dominant vegetation was extensive long-leaf pine forests, which has now been replaced by agriculture and forestry. At the seaward edge of the Coastal Plain, the Tidewater represents an assemblage of low gradient beaches, coastal marshes, barrier islands, estuaries, and tidal inlets. The region takes its name from the Cape Fear River, which at 202 miles is the longest river in North Carolina. The Cape Fear River flows from north-central North Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean, passing through a 9,000 mi2 watershed that contains 29 of the state’s 100 counties, which are home to just over 25 percent of North Carolina’s population (Mazzochi, 2006). [End Page 201]

cultural history

The Cape Fear region was home to Native Americans associated with the Siouian, Waccamaw, and Cape Fear Indian tribes (DiNome, 2006). Records indicate that in 1715, five Cape Fear Indian villages were located 20 miles north of the mouth of the Cape Fear River and estimates put the population at 1,000 people. The 1520s represented the beginning of a 200-year period of European attempts to explore and colonize the region (Powell, 1977). The person most frequently attributed with the European naming of the Cape Fear region is William Hilton. While leading a group of Puritans from New England up the river in 1662, Hilton named the Cape Fear promontory and its associated river due to concern for wrecking on its associated shoals (Hood, Martin & Turberg, 1986). In 1730, a few traders erected crude log huts on a bluff on the current location of Wilmington and soon the area had 1,200 people including a large population of enslaved people who worked on nearby rice and timber plantations. In 1739, Wilmington was incorporated by Governor Gabriel Johnston and with a wave of immigrants, notably Scotch-Irish, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina (Randall, 1968).

Since its founding, Wilmington has been a city that has adapted to the changing pattern and significance of transportation in the region. From 1730 to 1900, Wilmington’s primary role was a regional shipping port. In 1772, NC exported more than 177,000 barrels of naval stores (tar, pitch and turpentine from local pine forests) to the British Isles, which was 63 percent of all exports from North American colonies (Winberry and Stine, 2008). However, the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 eroded this strong connection with the British Isles and Wilmington stagnated until the 1830s. After these conflicts, Wilmington experienced significant growth again due to the establishment of rail lines, which connected the port with increased agricultural production in interior North Carolina. By the 1860s...


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