Established in 1757, Halifax, North Carolina, was originally an inland port that connected backcountry communities to bustling trade networks along the Roanoke River. Befittingly, the town—named after George Montague-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax and President of the Board of Trade (1748 – 1761)—quickly emerged as one of the colony’s preeminent commercial settlements. With economic power came political influence, and in 1759, the town became the seat of newly-formed Halifax County.
During the spring of 1776, the Fourth North Carolina Provincial Congress convened in Halifax to address the colony’s growing sentiments for liberty and republicanism. On April 12th, the Legislature submitted and unanimously approved the “Halifax Resolves”—the first official resolution passed by an American colony recommending independence from Britain:
“Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered to concur with the other delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign Alliances, resolving to this Colony the Sole, and Exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony, and of appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of a general Representation thereof to meet the delegates of the other Colonies for such purposes as shall be hereafter pointed out.”
The Resolves permitted North Carolina’s delegation at the Second Continental Congress—William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, and John Penn—to cast affirmative votes for American sovereignty; however, they were not authorized to submit such legislation before Congress. That distinction belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia, whose delegates introduced the Lee Resolution on June 7, 1776.
Before the Fourth Provincial Congress adjourned later that May, its representatives organized a temporary government called the Council of Safety. During a meeting in Halifax on July 22, the interim administration received news that the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Council members expeditiously adopted legislation declaring North Carolina “absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.” On August 1, Council President Cornelius Harnett delivered North Carolina’s first public reading of the Declaration to the Halifax populace.
The Fifth (and final) Provincial Congress assembled in Halifax from November 12 to December 23, 1776. Members of this delegation approved North Carolina’s first state constitution and elected Richard Caswell as the first state governor. During the Revolutionary War, Halifax served as a military supply depot for the Continental Army; however, the local armory—burdened by increased expenses and logistical delays—was relatively ineffectual with its production of arms. Instead, the town gained greater distinction as a recruiting center for state and Continental forces.
WAR COMES TO HALIFAX
Following the British Army’s pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse, General Charles Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington, North Carolina, to reprovision his troops and amend his campaign strategy—ultimately deciding to abandon the Carolinas and join forces with Generals William Phillips and Benedict Arnold in Virginia. In need of a northernly route, Cornwallis assigned the British Legion—under command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton—as his army’s advance guard to secure crucial river crossings and neutralize any Patriot resistance they encountered.
On May 7, 1781, British forces skirmished with several local militia units on the outskirts of Halifax. Unable to organize a formidable defense, the Patriots retreated to defensive positions across the Roanoke River as Tarleton’s troops seized the town. The British bombarded the militia with artillery but failed to drive them out. According to Tarleton, the North Carolinians “were routed with confusion and loss” during the engagement—although the exact number of casualties remain unknown—while the British suffered only three wounded.
The main British army marched into Halifax on May 11, prompting the remaining militiamen to withdraw from their redoubts. Shortly after his arrival, General Cornwallis learned on good authority that Tarleton’s command behaved “outrageously” during their four-day occupation of the town. Homes were ransacked, animals slaughtered, and townspeople harassed. Two soldiers—a sergeant and a dragoon—were even accused of rape and robbery. Appalled by the egregious offenses, Cornwallis personally court-martialed the transgressors and had them executed for their crimes.
FROM PROSPERITY TO DECLINE
President George Washington visited Halifax during his Southern Tour of 1791. While well-received by the townspeople, Washington’s impression of Halifax was rather uninspired, noting “[the town] seems to be in a decline, & does not it is said contain a thousand souls.” Nevertheless, North Carolina’s agrarian aristocracy kept Halifax prosperous until the mid-1830s when new railroad systems bypassed the town, rendering its inland river port obsolete.
Perhaps more damaging was the disenfranchisement of free blacks, who constituted a sizeable portion of Halifax society. The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 excluded racial requirements for voting rights, thus granting suffrage to free black men. According to the 1830 North Carolina Census, Halifax County was home to 2,079 free African Americans—the largest such population in the state—and approximately three hundred of these individuals were legally allowed to vote. Unfortunately, the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835 expunged this right from emancipated blacks, which consequently diminished Halifax’s political power.
Notwithstanding voting rights, African Americans valued Halifax for its connection to the Underground Railroad. Sympathetic residents of various races harbored runaways and ensured their safe departure along the Roanoke River. From Halifax, many fugitives entered the Albemarle Sound, where they subsequently escaped to the Atlantic Ocean or slave sanctuaries within the Great Dismal Swamp.
Beginning in 1954, after several decades of neglect, old town Halifax underwent a transformational period of refurbishment and preservation. Members of the Historical Halifax Restoration Association led these efforts, which allowed Historic Halifax to become the first North Carolina landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Today, this reconstructed historic district functions as a living history museum portraying life in the colonies on the eve of independence.
There are several notable properties retained by Historic Halifax. At the corner of King and Market Streets stands the Jailhouse. Constructed in 1838, this structure replaced the town’s two previous prisons, both of which burned down in 1762 and 1836, respectively. During the Revolutionary War, Halifax’s second jail imprisoned Tory soldiers and sympathizers, the most notable being Brigadier General Donald MacDonald, whose Loyalist forces were defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge—the “Lexington and Concord of the South.” Across Market Street lies a now-vacant lot where the Halifax County Courthouse once stood. Cornelius Harnett delivered North Carolina’s first public reading of the Declaration of Independence from its steps on August 1, 1776.
To the south of Market Square stands the Eagle Tavern, famous for hosting Marquis de Lafayette during his Tour of America on February 27, 1825. On the northside, adjacent to St. Andrews Street, is the Montfort Archaeology Museum. Though the current building was constructed in 1984, it stands upon the foundation of the Joseph Montfort House (c. 1762), which burned down in the 1860s. The museum displays artifacts recovered from Montfort’s home, offering a glimpse into Halifax high society and the life of “the highest masonic official ever [to reign] on this continent…the first, the last, the only Grand Master of America.”
The Law Office of Thomas Burgess can be found in the southeast corner of Historic Halifax. While this small, one-story structure appears rather ordinary, it possesses quite the intriguing history. In August 1825, Jesse Bynum and Robert Potter—two bitter adversaries vying for candidacy into the North Carolina House of Commons—engaged in a ferocious street fight with their respective camps on the law office grounds. Bynum sustained a serious head wound while Potter was stabbed. Both men were arrested. The altercation’s violent nature resulted in the annulment of Halifax’s election that year.
During my visit, Historic Halifax externalized the antithesis of its momentous and vibrant past. Many buildings appeared weathered and worn, lawns were unkempt, and half of the town’s interior exhibits were closed to the public. The allure of living history has died, leaving Halifax a ghost town. Granted, this sojourn occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, and perhaps circumstances have improved since, but the lackluster presentation drew an impression emblematic of George Washington's experience.
Visit Free African Americans in Antebellum North Carolina to learn more about Halifax's African American history
Check out Gawker.com to learn more about the "Brawl at Burgess'" and the peculiar political career of Robert Potter