Martin County History

Even before what is now Martin County was first visited by English explorers, it was inhabited by Native Americans who were adept at satisfying their needs from the richly supplied forests and streams. In 1774, Martin County was formed from Tyrrell and Halifax Counties in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods of American history. It was less than three years after the Battle of Alamance near Hillsborough, between the “Regulators” and North Carolina militia called up by Royalist Governor Tryon – generally considered one of the first skirmishes of the American Revolution -and only a few months before the first meeting of the North Carolina Provincial Congress independent of royal authority in August, 1774.

Attempts to establish a new county for the territory which eventually became Martin had been launched more than four years previously. Residents of the area had been experiencing some difficulty and considerable expense in attending to their affairs at the seats of government for the two counties in which they were then living.

William Slade, a representative from the section in the Colonial House of Commons, made several efforts to have the new county created from upper Tyrrell and lower Halifax and co-sponsored a number of bills to that effect during 1769, 1770 and 1771. He succeeded in getting the bills passed by the lower chamber several times, but they evidently failed to secure approval of the governor or council, as none of them ever became law while he was in the General Assembly.

Some of this information was excerpted from the “Martin County History, Volume l”, which may be purchased at the Martin County Travel and Tourism Office.

Where is Martin County?

Martin County is located in northeast North Carolina, about 100 miles from the Outer Banks.

Driving Distances
Greenville, NC – 30 minutes
Raleigh/RTP, NC – 1 hour 45 minutes
Nags Head, NC – 1 hour 30 minutes
Wilmington, NC – 3 hours
Atlantic Beach, NC – 1 hour 30 minutes
Norfolk, VA – 1 hour 30 minutes
Washington, D.C. – 4 hours 15 minutes

Our Cities

Bear Grass

The name Bear Grass, a type of yucca prolific in the area, has been in use at least since 1761 when it was given to the area’s major swamp in a land grant. The early settlers were farmers, with many engaged in the production of turpentine, tar and shingles from the area’s abundant forests.
Though the congregation of the Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church organized in 1828, the Bear Grass community did not emerge until after the Civil War. A public school started by the late 1860s, and Reuben H. Rogerson opened a general mercantile store in 1880. The community’s development was hindered by it not being located along a navigable stream or on either of the railroad lines traversing Martin County. A post office was established in 1885, although it was closed less than two years later.

Records are limited, complicated by the fact that Bear Grass businesses were listed in directories with Williamston addresses because that was the nearest post office. But by the turn of the century, the community consisted of several legal distilleries, cotton gins, sawmills, grist mills and blacksmith shops. Reuben H. Rogerson’s two story steam-powered sawmill and cotton gin was one of the area’s largest before being destroyed by fire in November 1908.

The first decade of the 20th Century witnessed considerable growth in the community. The town was officially incorporated on Feb. 16, 1909.

An unusual physical feature of the town is that, when incorporated, the boundary was a circle with a radius of 500 yards from a white oak “near a well at the stores of Rogers Brothers and Cowing [sic] Brothers.” These limits remain today, making Bear Grass one of the few towns in the state laid out in this manner.

Because residents had more pressing concerns during the Great Depression, town government became dormant in 1934 and was not reactivated until June 21, 1961.

Today, you can still see the circa 1925 Bear Grass School, the 1830s-1840s Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church, the circa 1935 Yucca House (former Bear Grass Teacherage) which sits across the road from the school, the Bear Grass Presbyterian Church. Three frame stores built between 1895 and 1915 comprise Bear Grass’s small but historic commercial district.


The town of Everetts was incorporated in February 1891, and was a thriving trading center situated along the railroad between Robersonville and Williamston. It began more than 20 years earlier as a small rural cross roads named for its principal landowner, Simon Peter Everett. In 1869, he deeded some of his land to the Williamston and Tarboro Railroad Company for the construction of the railroad.

After October 1882, when the Seaboard and Raleigh Railroad, the successor to the Williamston and Tarboro, finally completed the rail line, the Everetts community began to develop as a market for agricultural products such as cotton, corn, grapes, potatoes and eventually peanuts. It grew into a trading center for much of Cross Roads and Poplar Point townships for farm and household supplies. The railroad, with its mail, passenger, and freight services and telegraph line, was the lifeline of the community.

The second impetus for growth was the incorporation in May 1890 of the Martin County Lumber Company by investors from Philadelphia, PA. In addition to a steam-powered mill, the company erected an office, commissary, two stores, and between 10 and 20 houses on a site north of the railroad at the western edge of the community. Local tradition holds that the mill supplied the lumber for the first boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ.

In 1898, one of the investors who also served as plant superintendent, George P. McNaughton, bought out the founders, and with Simon F. Everett, John Fraley and Samuel B. Wynn, founded the Everetts Lumber Company. The company operated until 1909 when it was forced to close because the supply of nearby timber had been depleted.

Today, visitors can see the landmark J.T. Barnhill Building along US Business 64/13, which still serves as a general store and has a painted billboard on its outside wall. There is also the former Champion Automobile Building, which anchors Everetts block-long commercial section. The building was erected in 1919, and sold Champion, Star, Essex, Durrsant, Hudson and Pan-American automobiles before going out of business in 1930. And the post office, first established in 1884, maintains operations today.
Information from Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Structures of Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko


Hamilton, incorporated in 1804 and located on the Roanoke River, long prospered as a bustling commercial port. Shallow-draft steamboats, the cotton gin and a burgeoning textile trade here and abroad brought river traffic to its peak during the years preceding the Civil War.

The small but thriving town might have been even more prosperous before the Civil War if any of several efforts to improve land travel had been successful. Proposals in 1832 to establish a railroad from Hamilton to Tarboro, and in the 1850s to build plank roads to Tarboro and Murfreesboro were each abandoned in the discussion stage.

Many of Hamilton’s fine old homes were built during this period (1830-1850) and are found today in the town’s National Register Historic District. The district includes some of the finest antebellum homes assembled in the county. It also includes the circa-1881 St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a remarkably unaltered and sophisticated example of the Gothic Revival frame church from the early post Civil War period. It is one of the most outstanding examples of frame Victorian Gothic architecture in Eastern North Carolina.

Conoho Masonic Lodge, organized in 1850, provided social pursuits. The Lodge building still stands today and is architecturally significant as a temple form building, few of which remain in North Carolina. The nearby location of the fairgrounds of the Martin County Agricultural Society made the town the focus of the county’s farmers and citizens during annual autumn fairs held from 1853 to 1860, which added considerably to the town’s activities and importance. A self-guided walking tour of homes and other buildings in Historic Hamilton is available from the Hamilton Town Hall.

Hamilton did not escape the ravages of the Civil War and there were frequent skirmishes along the Roanoke River and nearby at the Confederate Fort Branch. It is believed that many antebellum buildings in Hamilton were burned during Union occupation of the town. The most serious Union visit occurred in December 1864 when an unsuccessful assault was made on Fort Branch.

After the Civil War, tobacco and peanuts replaced cotton as the area’s major commodity and another era of prosperity brought new steamers and barges to keep passengers, produce and merchandise moving up and down the East Coast. In Hamilton, residents were building the lovely Queen Anne homes and Gothic coastal cottages and churches that you see on a walk about town.

Today, the river is a prime recreational resource, with a NC Wildlife Boat Ramp and parking area located at the foot of Main Street just down from Town Hall off NC 125. This wharf area was a hubbub of activity during the 19th Century, Hamilton’s heyday as a commercial port.
Info from Historic Hamilton: National Register of Historic Places Historic District brochure, by the Historic Hamilton Commission Inc. And, Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Architecture of a Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko.


The location where the railroad crossed the Williamston-to-Tarboro road (now NC 142) proved a logical place for the development of a trading and marketing center. Named to honor Elder Sylvester Hassell, a noted Primitive Baptist preacher, historian, author, and educator, this community did not begin its main growth until after the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad extended its line through western Martin County in 1890. In preparation a post office was established January 1890, but Hassell was incorporated much later by the General Assembly in February 1903.

Laid out in a grid plan, the town had steady but unspectacular growth during its early years. The commercial and industrial enterprises consisted primarily of supplying the needs of area farmers. The re-establishment of a Christian congregation occurred in 1907.

The 1920 census records a population of 135 people, with graded schools for both races in or near town. Today, Hassell’s importance as a mercantile center is restricted to providing basic foodstuffs and supplies to a limited trading area, but it continues to actively function as a municipality.
Info from Historic Hamilton: National Register of Historic Places Historic District brochure, by the Historic Hamilton Commission Inc. And, Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Architecture of a Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko.

Some of this information was excerpted from the “Martin County History, Volume l”, which may be purchased at the Martin County Travel and Tourism Office.


The second oldest town in Martin County, Jamesville was incorporated in 1785 as James Town, with its name changing in 1797 to Jamestown and finally, on Feb. 10, 1855, to Jamesville.

Situated directly on the Roanoke River, Jamesville residents depended on the shipment of agricultural and forest products, supplying local farmers with merchandise, and taking advantage of the early springtime fishing season that was centered here.

Jamesville thrived prior to the Civil War with the formation of a large sawmill operation headed by Dennis Simmons. The construction of the Astoria Mill about a mile upriver gave the county its largest antebellum industry.

During the Civil War, Jamesville’s placement between Union headquarters at Plymouth, downriver to the east, and Williamston, Hamilton and Fort Branch, upriver to the west, put the town in constant peril. The town’s unenviable position placed it, as one local historian described, in “no man’s land” between opposing Union and Confederate interests. The once-prosperous town was virtually destroyed during the course of the war. As a result, the only surviving antebellum residence in town is the ca. 1810 Burras House on West Main Street.

Post war redevelopment followed improved transportation and continued exploitation of the vast forests in the region. While Simmons’ mill suffered devastating losses during the Civil War, it recovered nicely, rebuilt on a larger scale and operated until 1919. In 1889, it was touted as the largest manufacturer of wood shingles in North Carolina, producing about 25,000 a day.

Even more important was the incorporation in 1869 of the Jamesville and Washington Railroad (J&W) and Lumber Company. By 1870, the first segment of a narrow-gauge railroad extended into the company’s vast stands of timber south and east of Jamesville. Facetiously known as the “Jolt and Wiggle” for its uneven ride, the J&W made possible the expansion of large-scale timbering and small-scale farming into heretofore hinterlands in Jamesville and Griffins townships.

Furthermore, the county’s important fishing industry–including the famous “fishing machines”– was centered here, particularly in the spring when runs of herring brought hundreds to the Roanoke River to obtain a supply of fish to salt and preserve. The C.C. Fleming Fishery on Stewart Street was the most successful, and stands today as the only important structure associated with the fishing industry in Martin County. Jamesville currently has the only riverfront restaurants in Martin County. The Cypress Grill is open seasonally when the herring run (usually January through April). The other restaurant is River’s Edge.

The advantageous location of the original commercial district along Water Street near the river was lessened as travel relocated to the highways, and old commercial buildings were abandoned for new ones along what became US 64. In fact, only one survives on site— the 1914 (former) US Post Office The ca. 1900 general store of Henry Gray Griffin, located across the street from the old post office building, was demolished in 2003.
Info from Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Structures of Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko.

Oak City

With the establishment of the “Goose Nest” post office in 1888, this community – which began in the early 1880s as a small, rural trading center around a collection of farmhouses – received its first official name. In 1905 the town’s name was changed to Oak City because a town citizen visiting Raleigh saw “Oak City Laundry” on a delivery wagon and liked the name enough to urge the General Assembly to effect the change.

With farmers and traders attracted by the new Wilmington and Weldon Railroad service, Oak City enjoyed dramatic and steady growth during the early 20th century. By 1910 the population had more than doubled to 251 residents, and the town’s educational and religious offerings expanded to meet the growing needs of this area. While commercial activity included a number of general stores and boarding houses, the industrial activity consisted of saw and planing mills, as well as a grist mill.

The proliferation of the automobile after the 1910s, accompanied by improvements in the county’s roads, brought significant changes to Oak City. Residents were now able to visit larger towns, so merchants gradually reduced their offerings to cover the basic needs of locals. The end of passenger rail service in 1939 brought about an end to that chapter of town history. Today, the town remains a strong community in northwestern Martin County, with NC 125, NC 11 and NC 42 converging to bring visitors through town. St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1883 as the 1st church for African-Americans in Goose Nest Township, is also located in the Oak City area but underwent considerable remodeling in 1968.
Info from Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Structures of Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko.


The two most important developmental forces in Martin County, the arrival of railroad transportation and the proliferation of profitable lumber mills combined to become major catalysts for the birth of Parmele.

The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad began construction around 1890 to extend its north-south line down through Martin County on a location near the Parmele-Eccleston Lumber mill. This chosen tract of land centering on the Albemarle and Raleigh Railroad developed so rapidly after the line was completed that on February 14, 1893 the General Assembly incorporated it into the town of Parmele. In 1895, a third railroad line was extended from Parmele southeasterly to Washington making this newly-formed town the junction of railroad lines leading in five directions. By 1896 it had two lumber mills, ten general stores, one confectionery, and a population of 200 residents. A devastating fire in 1904 destroyed much of the town’s business sections along the railroads and, along with the declining available timber, may have accounted for the closure of those two lumber companies.

During the 1910s Parmele became noted as the location of a very successful industrial institute for African-American children. Directed by Dr. William C. Chance, the institute taught not only academic learning but also agricultural, mechanical, and home-making skills. After a merger with the town’s public school, the Parmele Industrial Institute was moved into the first brick school building erected for either race in Martin County. The institute achieved regional acclaim, eventually occupying a six-building campus. Unfortunately, the main structure was destroyed by fire in 1954 causing the school to be consolidated into Robersonville’s public school for blacks.

Parmele still seemed to thrive on the commerce brought to it as the juncture of three railroad lines, and despite an increasing reliance on automobiles and trucks after the 1910s, the town’s population grew or remained steady during the mid-20th century, peaking to 417 in 1940. Though improved state highways soon avoided what was left of the old commercial section, the town continues to supply its residents with basic goods through the presence of a general store. The railroad tracks serve as mute testaments to Parmele’s railroad heyday.
Info from Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Structures of Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko.


Incorporated February 1870, Robersonville – located directly on the railroad’s route between Tarboro and Williamston – is the first town in the county dependent on the railroad, rather than the Roanoke River, as its chief commercial and communication link with the world beyond Martin County.

Although the Seaboard and Raleigh Railway Company would not be incorporated until late 1873, town founders envisioned it as a prominent trading center and market for western Martin County. Growing slowly during its first decade, the town quickly fulfilled its destined fate after the railroad’s completion in October 1882 and boasted having eleven general stores, two physicians, and a number of industries by 1884. The town’s population had increased in 12 years to 400 residents with farm families and ambitious young men moving there because of its various entrepreneurial, educational, and social opportunities.

As site of the county’s first tobacco market in August 1900, Robersonville embarked on a second, more expansive era of prosperity, civic progress, and development with a population that surged up to 1200 during the early 1900s. The growth of new industries brought new residential areas which opened to provide homes for the town’s increased population – most notably “New Town,” a residential neighborhood that would become one of eastern North Carolina’s most cohesive and civic-minded early 20th century African-American communities.

The newly acquired prosperity, improved educational opportunities, and modern municipal services fostered a lively cultural and social life in town where entertaining diversions and several cultural, civic, and social groups flourished. Even during the Great Depression economic expansion slowed drastically in Robersonville, but its citizens benefited from state and federal relief programs. Inexpensive sports and popular social pastimes, such as baseball and bridge, also eased the hardships for many during those rough years.

Though the railroad has been replaced by the new US 64 Bypass as the town’s main link to the outside world, Robersonville continues to thrive providing needed services, industry and entertainment to local and out-of-town residents alike. It is the home of St. James Place Museum, and a restored 1910 Primitive Baptist Church.

Info from Martin Architectural Heritage: The Historic Structures of Rural North Carolina County, edited by Thomas R. Butchko.


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 November 1779.

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 in town.

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 and others.
(History taken from research by the late F.M. Manning)


Where are we?

You are in Martin County, North Carolina. We’re approximately 90 miles from Raleigh and 90 miles from the coast. The population is around 25,000. We are primarily an agricultural county. Martin County is served by Highways 17 & 13 for our North-South connections and U.S. 64 for our East-West travelers.

Where is the Sunnyside Oyster Bar and are they open?

The Sunnyside Oyster Bar is located at 1100 Washington Street in Williamston. Their hours are 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm. This a seasonal restaurant that opens generally in mid-September and shuts down after oyster season sometime in late April. The oyster bar has been written about in many national magazines as being one of the best in the country.

What is the Senator Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center?

The center is a multi-purpose arena and meeting center. This is on3e of the finest equestrian facilities this side of the Mississippi. The arena is used for horse shows almost every weekend and there is generally no admission for spectators. There are special shows at the arena that may have a charge for admission. They are Truck/Tractor pulls, Go-Kart Races and Mounted Shooting exhibitions (riders using black-powder vintage-type pistols). The meeting center is used for events such as reunions, corporate meetings, wedding reception etc.

Where is the Asa Biggs House?

The Asa Biggs House (built 1835) is located at 100 E. Church Street in Williamston (one block off of Main Street). The historic house is now home of the Historical Society and maintains an extensive library of genealogical data available to the public for research.

What is the Martin County Historic Church Trail and do you have a trail map?

The Martin County Historic Church Trail consists of 10 churches (all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places except one). Our part of the state was generally built around our farms and the churches within our communities. Download our Historic Church Trail Map by clicking this link.

What is the Fort Branch Re-Enactment and where is it?

Every year on the first weekend of November, there are re-enactments of the battle of Fort Branch. The event is presented by volunteers from all around the country. The fort’s location is located 3 miles southeast of Hamilton, N.C. Just off NC Hwy 125/903 at 2883 Fort Branch Road in Martin County on the Roanoke River. (For GPS, use Oak City, NC 27857) For schedule of event dates and times, you can visit the our events page or the Fort Branch website. There is a museum at the site along with seven of the original cannons that were used during the war. There is also a Civil War Christmas on the first Saturday of December (7:00 pm) at the fort.

Are there any boat landings for the Roanoke River in Martin County?

Yes, in Williamston, Hamilton and two in Jamesville. More information can be found on our Fishing/Paddling section or either the Roanoke River Partners website or Roanoke Outdoor Adventures, an outfitting and canoe/kayak rental operation in Martin County.

Find more information below under the Explore links!

Designed by sunDigital | Powered by LiquidWeb | Copyright - Visit Martin County, NC 2023