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)