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Pasquotank County, in the northeastern part of North Carolina, is one of what might be called North Carolina’s “finger counties,” the narrow and long Currituck, Camden, Pasquotank, Perquimans, and Chowan Counties. These were some of the first settled areas in colonial North Carolina, and all were part of Albemarle County, which was established in 1663.  Their long thin shape comes from their being centered on various rivers running into Albemarle Sound.  Pasquotank County was centered around the Pasquotank River, but in 1777, Camden County was formed out of that part of Pasquotank County northeast of the Pasquotank River, while present-day Pasquotank County—all 226.84 square miles and 35,000 people—remains those lands south of the Pasquotank River running to the north bank of the Little River.

Even the county's name is river oriented.  The Pasquotank comes from the Algonquian Indian word pasketanki, which means "where the current of the stream divides or forks". Most significantly about rivers during the colonial period is that they defined transportation centers, and in many ways, transportation continues to define the Pasquotank County today.

The county's first settlement and commercial center was Nixonton, along the Little River. Laid out by at least 1746 and incorporated in 1758, Nixonton remained the county's only incorporated town for almost fifty years and served as the county seat from 1785 to 1799.Dismal Swamp canal At that point the county seat moved to Elizabeth City at "The Narrows" of the Pasquotank River, where the river narrows down from the wide outlet to Albemarle Sound to the winding, narrow river that leads out of the Great Dismal Swamp. Elizabeth City itself was founded in 1793, the same year that construction began on the Dismal Swamp Canal, a commercial water passageway leading from the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Virginia, to Elizabeth City. As David Griffith describes in his book The Estuary's Gift, in the days before the Civil War, "Along with salted fish, they shipped tobacco, cotton, wheat, and corn across Albemarle Sound to Elizabeth City, up the Dismal Swamp Canal, across the Chesapeake, and north to Baltimore, where it was rerouted to Europe and into the southern holdings of the British Empire" (49). Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County have long been the first step between the Albemarle region and the wider world.

Even today, Pasquotank County is known for its water passages.  The Dismal Swamp canal now forms part of the Intracoastal Waterway which runs along the east coast of the United States. In 1983, two men—Fred Fearing and Joe Kramer—decided to offer visiting boaters a free wine and cheese party.  From that began a tradition that continues as a greeting to Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County provided by the Rose Buddies, including a rose for each of the female boaters.

Aside from its history, some interesting parts of Pasquotank County's folklore is based on its location along rivers.  Along the Pasquotank River, just above the central part of Elizabeth City, is the Brick House.  The story is told that the house was used by by Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard, as one of his headquarters. As Daniel W. Barefoot tells in his book Touring the Backroads of North Carolina's Upper Coast:

Local tradition claims that this stately house was once the headquarters of Blackbeard.  According to legend, the basement was used by the pirate as a dungeon for prisoners taken during sea raids. A secret tunnel, now closed, led from the basement to the adjacent river. Through this passage, Blackbeard is alleged to have escaped to his awaiting ship.

It is almost impossible for the tale to be true.  The house dates from the 1750s, and Blackbeard died in 1718. However, there is a slab of granite sunk near the house's steps that is dated 1709 and bears the initials E.T.

Even today, as roadways provide the major transportation links for Pasquotank County, its rivers are still much of the county's focus. The 1996 Pasquotank County Land Use Plan Update recognizes the importance of water to the county. Almost the entire southern half of the county is described as being along estuarine shorelines (6).  These estuarine waters are fed by rivers whose headwaters are in the wetlands of the Great Dismal Swamp, which marks the northern end of Pasquotank County.  As the county Land Plan Use notes, these wetlands

are habitat for important marine and wildlife species. Many of the recreational and commercially important fish and shellfish species spend a portion of their life cycle in the tributaries of the Little and Pasquotank Rivers. . . . The harvesting of these fish and shellfish add to the local economies of the Albemarle region. (28)
In fact, the land use of Pasquotank county depends on these rivers and wetlands.  Of a total 185,078 acres in the county, the largest portion, 87,862 acres or 47%, is in crop and pasture land.  The next largest portion of the county is taken up by water, some 41,005 acres or 22%. Beyond that, another 20,980 acres or 11% of the county is in wetland areas such as bottomlands, swamps, marshes, and pocosins.  Without this one-third of the county to drain water, the half of the county that is in agricultural use would be in constant threat of flooding and disuse.

Pasquotank County is a land defined by its waterways. Bland Simpson, who originally came from Elizabeth City, writes in his book Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian's Coastal Plain what can serve as a wonderful closing description of the rivers and the people who work along them:

The Pasquotank was my river, but it was also the river of the Yeopim Indians; the river of Moses Grandy, the heroic black waterman who plied the Albemarle in the 1800s and bought his own freedom three times before it stuck; of Tamsen Donner, who taught school here before finding her strange sad way west and into American history as a member of the Donner Party; and of the suicidal young poet Robert Frost who, having decided not to throw himself away in the Great Dismal Swamp, paid a dollar to come aboard a southbound boat at Northwest Lock on the canal and floated down toward the Albemarle, where, as much later he wrote in "Kitty Hawk," he was joined by
Some kind of committee
From Elizabeth City
Each and every one
Loaded with a gun
Or a demijohn. (26-27)
Pasquotank County is certainly, at least in part, "where the current of the stream . . . forks" and carries people to where they need or, even better, where they want to go.

Tom Shields
NCST 2000, "Introduction to North Carolina Studies"
Fall 2000