THE PERQUIMANS RIVER
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Carolina moon keep shining, shining on the one who waits for me
Anyone who has seen a harvest moon rising over the Perquimans River,
bald cypress silhouetted in milky light, will vouch for local lore
about the popular song.
Inspiration came to the composer, so the story goes, as he crossed
Hertford's “S” bridge on a bright moonlit night, anxious to
be reunited with his sweetheart in Florida. The view is as romantic
today as it was then. Yet this northeast North Carolina river has
been a powerful force in shaping the economic and social fabric of
life in the area.
Rising in what was once a corner of the Great Dismal Swamp, the Perquimans
River meanders about 30 miles until it meets Albemarle Sound. Its
upper reaches are narrow, deep and winding. So winding, in fact, that
the Town of Hertford sits on a peninsula bounded on the east, north
and west by the river. Below town the river straightens, widens,
and flows some twelve miles until it reaches the Sound.
A myriad of tea-colored creeks feed the river, their slow-moving waters
stained by tannins leached from cypress and juniper. Shaded by red
maple, bald cypress and black gum, the creeks are temporary home to
Each spring, river herring and shad swim in from the sea to lay their
eggs in the rich quiet waters of creek and upper river. Here is where
their young, along with striped bass born in the Roanoke River, are
nurtured until they set out for sea. The river also has permanent
residents: white and yellow perch, catfish, flounder, large-mouth
bass, and sunfish.
Sweep of wind, not lunar tides, governs the depth of the Perquimans.
When north winds blow, the river will fall. Conversely, when winds
blow from the south, Albemarle Sound waters will invade the river,
slightly increasing its salinity. Such brackish waters invite blue
crabs to take up residence, sometimes as far north as Hertford.
Freely translated, the Indian word Perquimans means Land
of Beautiful Women. But the native Algonquins, few in number and
loosely organized, were quickly displaced by white settlers. By 1661
Kilcocanen, King of the Yeopim Indians, for a valuable consideration
of satisfaction, and with the consent of his tribe, had deeded
to George Durant the land known today as Durants Neck.
This was the first recorded deed in North Carolina. Hunters, trappers
and traders had explored earlier; now an era of permanent settlement
began. Early colonists found a forbidding terrain crisscrossed by
streams and swamps and isolated by the Great Dismal Swamp to the north.
Roads were almost impossible to maintain, so the river became a thoroughfare,
bustling with an assortment of canoes, rowboats and sloops.
Despite isolation and poverty, the little settlement was a leader
in the early history of North Carolina. Until 1716 it served as the
state's first capital, with the first public buildings: prison, storehouse
and pillory. Legislative and court sessions took place in private
homes along the river, and today the Newbold-White House, open to
the public, stands as sentinel to those historic times.
Early on, Quakers were a strong influence on the community. They held
the first religious service recorded in the state in a home near the
river. Apparently it was attended by both the religious and the irreligious;
the latter smoked pipes throughout the service.
Mild winters and a fertile soil beyond expectation fostered
family farming. Indian corn fed people and livestock and made good
liquor. By 1770, 65 percent of corn grown was exported, along with
livestock, furs, and shingles.
Most cargoes were bound for New England and mid-Atlantic states, slipping
through Currituck Inlet until it closed in 1828. Molasses, sugar and
liquor came in from the West Indies. During the Revolutionary War,
when Boston was hard pressed, Perquimans farmers donated a handsome
cargo of corn, flour and pork to their northern allies.
Regular ferry service linked communities, but after ferry-goers repeatedly
complained of great delays and danger from high seas during southeast
winds, Hertford's first bridge across the Perquimans was built in
1798. Twenty feet wide and floating on empty whiskey barrels, the
privately owned drawbridge was eventually purchased by the county
for $5786 and tolls for residents were abolished.
A hundred years later, when high waters dislodged the old bridge,
a new one was christened with a 207-foot trestle, a 153-foot draw and
strict limitations. Crowds were forbidden, and no one was permitted
to drive faster than a walk. The former float bridge sold at public
auction for $16. Finally, in 1928 the current “S” bridge of concrete,
steel, and Carolina Moon fame was constructed.
For almost a century, steamboats were the link to the outside world.
Biweekly trips between Norfolk and Hertford dispatched circuses, passengers,
lumber and cotton. To assure unrestricted passage, the county ordered
road overseers to keep streams clear, and state law prohibited felling
trees into the river.
Several times during the Civil War Union troops sailed up the Perquimans
destroying bridges to stem the circuitous flow of smuggled goods from
Norfolk to Lee's army in Virginia. Hertford, founded a century earlier,
remained relatively unscathed, though its float bridge was destroyed
and one plantation on the river was pillaged.
MAN AND THE RIVER
One can only guess at the abundance of wildlife from anecdotal reports
of vast fisheries, documented exports of furs, and court records of
bounties. Wolves, wildcats, and crows were hunted for cash, and each
taxpayer was required to kill at least ten squirrels a year, for a
payment of two pence a skin.
Stevenson Point, off Durants Neck, may have been the first site of
the great seine fisheries that existed in Albemarle Sound in the 19th
century. Colossal catches of herring and shad were reported in both
Sound and River, with a single haul of 220,000 herring documented
at the Point.
At Easter time fried shad and herring roe were served at church picnics
and the Perquimans cart a sturdy, two-wheeled all-purpose
vehicle could be seen returning from the fisheries piled high with
herring, which often sold for as little as a dollar a thousand.
But a combination of overfishing and changes to the land began to
spell a decline in fisheries. Seine fisheries, with their capacity
for huge catches, eventually resulted in fewer fish caught by individual
fishermen. As early as 1846 one resident lamented that fishing was
"rather a precarious business", though not until the last
quarter of the twentieth century did fisheries plummet, mirroring
the general decline in the area.
Meanwhile, low marshy terrain on the necks prompted farmers to ditch
their fields. Once cleared and drained usually a five-year effort the
value of farmland could skyrocket. When ditches on one man's farm
had to cross another's land, a court and jury would route the drain
and decide on payment of damages. Ditches often crisscrossed the land
to such an extent that few fields exceeded three or four acres, and
natural drainage was altered.
Farming itself was changing. Fast-acting chemical fertilizers and
pesticides replaced organic fertilizers from farm animals and green
manuring, or the practice of leaving stubble in the field to enrich
the soil. While chemical fertilizers can increase yields, their nutrients
can run off into rivers to create algal blooms.
Vast forests primeval of oak and cypress that once covered the land,
providing furs and meat, tar, pitch and turpentine, shingles and barrel
staves, were being whittled away. In fact, a modest shipbuilding industry
thrived in Hertford, with a 50-ton vessel built in 1832.
When the railroad arrived in the 1880's, (five stations in Perquimans
County alone) lumber companies burst on the scene. By 1920 forested
land in the county was reduced by half. Fifty years later, massive
areas in the county would again be lumbered, ditched and drained for
agriculture. Such vast changes interrupt the natural seepage of waters
from swamp to river, alter habitat once used for spawning of fish,
and create potential for agricultural run-off.
We have in our hands the tools to maintain a healthy river, but they
must be used consistently and conscientiously. Careful planning for
growth is key to protecting resources. Runoff from paved areas must
be controlled and effective methods of wastewater treatment must be
Expanded use of Best Management Practices will help prevent runoff
of sediment and nutrients from farm and woodlot. The use of Integrated
Pest Management will mean fewer chemicals used on crops, less chance
of contaminating waters.
We cannot bring back lost nursery areas for fish, but we can manage
our fisheries to encourage a modest population. Ecotourism that protects
the natural resources of an area and promotes passive recreational
pursuits, such as bicycling and canoeing, can boost the economy yet
preserve environmental integrity. One fine example of ecotourism is
the designation of a twelve-mile canoe route along the upper Perquimans.
Maintaining a healthy river will depend on people people who
care enough to become informed, make their voices heard, and work
together to protect our precious natural heritage.