Williamston is the county seat
of Martin County, located in the northeastern Coastal Plain of North
Carolina. The town's population is about 7,000, while the county's total
population is about 25,000.
The exact date of the first settlement at what was to become Williamston
cannot be determined, but it is known there was a village in the general
locality as early as 1730. The first settlers are said to have moved
from Bertie County to the south side of the Moratoc (now Roanoke) River
and located near the ruins of what had been a Tuscaroran Indian village.
The locality was known to the Indians as "Squhawky," but it was called
"Tar Landing" by the English settlers, as it gradually became the
principal shipping point for the tar, pitch, turpentine, and other
forest products and meat produced the section.
The settlement prospered and was designated the seat of government when
Martin County was chartered in March 1774. A little over five years
later, during the Revolutionary War, it became the first incorporated
town in the county and was named "Williamston" in the charter granted at
a session of the General Assembly held in Halifax during October and
There are two versions concerning the selection of the name
"Williamston" for the town. One of them - based largely on hearsay and
legend - is that the name was chosen in honor of a poor Irish weaver
named "Dick" Williams, who was supposed to have settled in the area
around the middle of the 18th Century. It is said he arrived with 75
cents in his pocket, but by hard work and strict economy he managed to
create a substantial fortune and became one of the most influential men
The other version is that the town was named in honor of Colonel William
Williams, scion of a wealthy and distinguished family which owned large
plantations in the northwestern part of the county prior to the
Revolution. The name Williams is prominently connected with the early
history of the county.
Colonel Williams' father, also named William Williams, migrated to this
country from Wales in the early 1700s and settled on the south bank of
the Roanoke River in the upper end of the county, which at that time was
in Edgecombe and was later a part of Halifax before it became Martin.
William Williams II was a delegate to the Hillsborough and Halifax
conventions in 1776, was elected colonel of Martin County's militia when
it was organized and continued in that capacity until after he was
elected the county's first state senator in 1777. He resigned his
military commission shortly afterwards and was succeeded as commanding
officer of the county's militia by his nephew, Lt. Colonel Whitmel Hill.
Williamston's importance as a town and its growth and development
immediately before and after its incorporation was largely based on two
factors. First was its location on the banks of a navigable river; and
second, its designation as the seat of county government when Martin
County was formed in 1774.
The Roanoke River enabled ships of considerable size to navigate its
waters as far upstream as Williamston before there were any roads. Being
the seat of government necessarily brought most of the residents of the
county to Williamston to record legal documents, attend court sessions,
or attend military musters, elections or other similar functions.
Having a public landing, it was automatically an important shipping
point for river freight traffic, both incoming and outgoing. Later, the
railroad came, resulting in increased commerce by rail and water. Moving
into the 19th Century, the bridging of the river in 1922, Williamston
became the hub of a system of major highways and roads upon which the
business and commercial life of the county now largely depends.
Williamston is home to the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center,
a showplace for equestrian events and other spectator events that opened
in 1998. There is a downtown revitalization effort underway to
complement the town's Commercial District designation on the National
Register of Historic Places. There are several historic structures of
interest: circa-1831 Asa Biggs House; circa-1885 Old Martin County
Courthouse; circa-1850 Doctor W. Bagley Office; and the circa 1853
Skewarkey Primitive Baptist Church. A self-guided walking tour is
available from the Visitor's Center in the Asa Biggs House on Church
Street in Williamston.
The Skewarkee Trail connects downtown with the Roanoke River via a
converted railroad bed. The paved trail is used by bicyclists, walkers
(History taken from research by
the late F.M. Manning)