History Corner: Wachovia, North Carolina: The First Settlements

The area of Wachovia in Forsyth County, North Carolina, includes the community of Winston- Salem and contained several towns founded in the mid-eighteenth century as religious, cultural and trade communities of the German pietistic sect known as the Unitas Fratrum. The Brethren, as they came to be called, was organized by followers of the Czechoslovakian religious reformer Jan Huss; after seceding from the Church of Rome, they elected their own ministers. Following years of persecution, the Moravians, as they later came to be known, fled from Moravia and Bohemia and found protection under the Austrian aristocrat Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf on his estate in Saxony. From there they embarked on missionary activities that eventually led to the establishment of settlements in Europe, the British Isles, North America, the Caribbean and Africa. With English guarantees of religious freedom, the Moravians made their first permanent settlement in North America in 1741 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. From this base they continued to seek land on which they could establish communities where Moravians could live profitably and independently. When they learned of land that was being offered for sale by Lord Granville, their leaders turned their attention to North Carolina.

Guides and Chainmen

In December 1751, the Moravian bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg set forth from Bethlehem to explore the Granville holdings in search of a suitable tract. Eventually, he selected one that became the future region known as Wachovia. Accompanying the bishop's group on horseback were two hunters who doubled as guides and who worked as chain men during the survey and the professional surveyor William Churton. Hoping to find a suitable area along the Yadkin River, Spangenberg and his exploring party traveled across North Carolina from Edenton to the Blue Ridge Mountains and over the mountains at Blowing Rock, returning down the Yadkin River valley. They surveyed small tracts as they traversed the region across North Carolina from east to west, but during this travel they did not succeed in finding an area suitable for the major settlement the bishop visualized.

On the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains they became lost because one of the hunters, who had previously traveled the wilderness route to the Yadkin River, missed the trail and led the party into the mountains instead. Enduring extreme hardship and illness, several months passed since they had seen a living soul. In January 1753 the Spangenberg party camped at "the three forks of Muddy Creek" and there decided to make their settlement. After having made their way back from the mountains into the Yadkin drainage, the bishop wrote about the region: "Towards the end of the year we came into this neighborhood, and found 'a body of land' which is probably the best left in North Carolina. If we had a true account of this in the beginning, perhaps we would not have gone to the Catawba nor beyond the Blue Mountains to the New River … ." He selected the tract of land that encompassed the entire drainage of Muddy Creek or Carguels Creek because, he wrote:

"This tract lies particularly well. It has countless springs, and numerous fine creeks; as many mills as may be desired can be built. There is good pastureage for cattle, and the canes growing along the creeks will help out for a couple of years until the meadows are in shape. There is also much lowland which is suitable for raising corn, etc."

Ancestral Estate in Saxony

Arriving at a broad plateau that divided the Yadkin and Dan River valleys, the Spangenberg expedition made camp. Churton surveyid a tract that Spangenberg named "Wachau" after the ancestral estate in Saxony of their patron Count Zinzendorf. In time, the name was anglicized to "Wachovia." Considered to be the best land still unsettled in North Carolina at that time, it lay about 20 miles south of the Virginia border and conveniently on the road to Pennsylvania. After the tract had been surveyed and laid out during the winter months, Spangenberg proceeded to make plans for settlement. In August 1753 the Unitas Fratrum purchased from Lord Granville 98,985 acres of the surveyed tract. A land company was organized to finance the settlement, each stockholder of which received 2,000 shares and agreed to bear the proportionate share of the cost of colonization.

On October 8, 1753 an advance group of 15 unmarried Moravian men set out on foot from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, bringing with them a wagonload of supplies, and arriving at the Wachovia tract on November 17th. Twelve of the men, chosen for their skills useful in a pioneer community, were to remain as settlers. They took possession of a cabin near a meadow that had been abandoned by a hunter named Wagner, and there they held their first fellowship meeting. As wolves howled in the forest all about them, they set about to erect their settlement, and within a year the advance group of men had completed construction of a carpenter shop, a tannery, blacksmith shop, a flour mill, a pottery, a cooperage and a shoe shop, and had them operating to serve the settlers who soon followed. This became the first of the Moravian towns founded in the region; it was situated some three and a half miles from the present Winston-Salem, and they named it Bethabara or "House of Passage."

The first to settle in Bethabara received a goodly number of visitors during the first several years, many of whom came for trade, some for medical attention and others seeking refuge during the unrest caused by the French and Indian War, which was just beginning. It was not long before the settlement had become a developing center that served the dispersed population living throughout the surrounding countryside. Despite the alarms and reports of bloodshed as a result of French and Indian activity in the region, the Moravians held to their agenda for developing Wachovia, following instructions that came from Pennsylvania and Europe. The development of Bethabara in 1753 was followed by the founding of Bethania in 1759 and of Salem in 1766. In these new communities, the Moravians were able to preserve their own religious, social and economic customs, and they tended to segregate themselves from other settlements. They believed in common ownership of property and community cooperation, and it was not until 1849, almost a century later, that the congregation abandoned its supervision of business, and in 1856 its lease system.

Several Surveyors Involved

Several surveyors had been involved in the laying out and development of the early towns in the Wachovia region. The first, as noted, was William Churton, who accompanied Bishop Spangenberg on his initial venture into North Carolina. Later, Philip Christian Gottlieb Reuter was sent to initiate a program of mapping the entire Wachovia tract and planning its development with new villages. He was assigned to work with the church leadership in selecting the site for a town that would become the center and dominant community. Reuter drew up plans for it, laying out a 2,000-acre lot in the traditional form of a German or linear village, the homes for residents concentrated along the main street while farming and tending the outlots. Within a few months in 1759 the new community, which was named Bethania, was settled. A surveyor of a later period was Carl Ludwig Meinung (1743-1817), a native of Salem. He worked also as bookkeeper and held several other responsibilities.

A number of surveying instruments used by the early Wachovia surveyors have survived, preserved in the Museum of the Boys School in Old Salem, Inc. Included is a particularly rare instrument named the Sea Quadrant designed "for taking Altitudes of the Sun, Sea and Stars, from the middle Horizon, … whereby the Latitude at Sea may be obtained with greater Certainty, and more frequently, than by any other Instrument commonly used for that purpose." Invented by Caleb Smith, it was first produced by the prominent London instrument maker Thomas Heath in 1734 with the optical element made by James Mann. Formerly the property of the Moravian Land Office, it was probably used by early Wachovia surveyors and later by Ludwig Meinung of Salem. Regrettably the telescope tube is presently lacking.

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