As time marches on, people seem to forget the memories and stories of the past. For a lack of better words, we get too caught up in our day-to-day lives to remember the past. History and the lives of our ancestors are all but forgotten except for a few grave markers and stones that mark the past.
New technology such as computers, TVs and cellphones are the norm nowadays. Unless you are a storyteller or a history buff such as I am, these stories and places will be lost forever unless they are told or recorded. This would be a shame because our ancestors were, for the most part, God-fearing and hardworking people who only wanted to carve out a living for themselves and their children.
Anyone who reads my column or hears my stories know that I like to write or tell stories about the Pee Dee River and the river hills that stand as sentries over the river as it slowly makes its way to the sea. This and next week’s column will take you back in time to places and lives of people that settled in upper Richmond County around Grassy Island from the 1700s to the present.
For many years, Indian tribes lived, fished and hunted along the Pee Dee River. As the white men came, they needed a ford to be able to cross the river with their wagons and horses. They soon learned the only place the river could be forded with normal water levels was just above Grassy Island. This place is about 10 miles northwest from the present town of Rockingham. Keep in mind, Blewett Falls Dam wasn’t built until the early 1900s and there were no bridges to cross the river or the many creeks that ran through the area.
In the early 1700s, a large chunk of land known as Anson County was formed out of what then was Bladen County. This land included present Anson, Richmond, Scotland, Montgomery, Stanly, Union and many other present counties in North and South Carolina.
Sometime in the early 1700s, the first white settlement in Anson County was formed on the west bank of the Pee Dee River. It was located not far from the river, about four or five miles above the present day Blewett Falls Dam and was called Mount Pleasant. The little settlement prospered, not only from the rich farmland but also because it was located close to the river ford so people settled on both sides of the river.
As the settlement grew, a court system needed to be set up in the new county. A small log cabin was built around Mount Pleasant and was used to hold court and to house the legal documents of the times.
It seems in 1740, a loose-footed Scotsman by the name of John Clark took up a large portion of land on a hill by the river below Mount Pleasant on land that is still known as Clark’s Mountain. Also in 1741, on down the river before you enter South Carolina, a man by the name of Solomon Hughes built himself a cabin (close to where William Henry Harrington plantation would later be) and called the creek running by his cabin Solomon’s Creek.
There are still several creeks in our area that still hold the names first given to them — such as Cartledge Creek (Edmund Cartledge), Jones Creek (Thomas Jones) and Coleman Creek (John Coleman).
In the 1750s, more settlers started trickling in along the river and creeks of our area. There they built log cabins, planted small farms and fished and hunted to feed themselves and their families. A good number of them settled on the eastern side of Pee Dee River around the Grassy Island area, right across the river from Mount Pleasant in what is now Richmond County.
Grassy Island is a strip of old islands that form in the river just south of Mountain Creek and extend to the mouth of Little River. A Mr. Ingram once ran a fishery on the island and used a flat boat to cross the waterway to get to his home. Most of the people settled on the mainland and used the rich soil to grow crops and raise livestock.
The islands once belonged to the Colemans, the Pickets, the Steeles and the Ingrams. Men who traveled by boat or flat up the Pee Dee River would stop in and trade with the people at Grassy Island so it soon became a well- known trading post.
In the 1750s, an old Indian trail running parallel with the river from South Carolina to Mangum, N.C. and beyond became known as the Old River Road. This road was dotted with very steep hills and curves. With no bridges over the creeks, people with horses and wagons were forced to ford at shallow places.
Sometimes the water would be so high there was nothing to do but wait for the water to go down. With a road and a waterway to get products to market, the Grassy Island Settlement began to grow as did the Mount Pleasant settlement that was just across the river.
People today talk about snail mail, but in the 1750s, people didn’t even have mailboxes. Mail was delivered by boat or horseback to certain houses or cabins in the area where the local people would have to come and pick it up. Why, it could take weeks or months to get a letter.
A small meeting house (church) was formed in Mount Pleasant, but people on the east side of the river still had to ford the river to be able to attend church services. It wasn’t long before the hardships of crossing the river to attend church got to be too much. A location for a new church on the west side of the river was picked for a new Methodist Church. The church was located on a tall hill people in the area called Bethel.
The church site was perfect, as you could stand in the church yard and just about see the whole Grassy Island settlement and the beautiful Pee Dee River winding its way through the hills. The church was built in 1775 and called Bethel.
In the late 1700s, both settlements started spreading out. The ones in present-day Anson County formed the town later to be called Wadesboro. In the Grassy Island community, some people moved to what today we call the Zion community and some of them later help form the town of Rockingham.
In 1779, Richmond County was divided from Anson County; partly because it was so much trouble to cross the river to attend court. Why, people would have to spend days just to register a land deed.
I hope you have enjoyed hearing the early history of this region that is now known as Anson and Richmond counties. Next week, I hope you will join me as I tell some of the stories and adventures that were part of people’s lives in the Grassy Island community.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers’ Club, Richmond County Historical Society and the Story Spinners in Laurinburg.