Washington County, compiled and published by Washington County
Historical Society, revised April 1979
in 1787, Plymouth is older than Washington County. For 70 years prior to
Plymouth’s founding, generations of the Rhodes family had been planters in
the area. Arthur Rhodes founded what was to become Plymouth from land he
acquired through inheritance, gift deeds and purchases. This collection of
property became his plantation and was called Brick House. From that
property he sectioned off one hundred acres, subdividing them into 172 lots,
which he would sell. These lots were the beginnings of Plymouth. He sold 16
Rhodes ended his enterprise in 1790 and he and his wife
sold the remaining lots, except for two or three kept for themselves, to
nine trustees for 860 pounds. The trustees installed posts to mark streets
and planted trees. In 1807, Plymouth became the first incorporated town in
the newly–formed Washington County.
Some provisions of the incorporation required “strict
observance of the Sabbath day” and “the erecting (of) a public market.”
Commissioners had the authority to appoint “an harbor–master of the port of
Plymouth.” They also had the responsibility of preventing anyone or any
ship carrying an infectious disease from entering the town. Later, as it’s
told, violation of this law brought about tragedy.
Several theories exist about how Plymouth got its
name. Early in its history, Plymouth was a thriving port. The most popular
theory supposes that sailors on ships from Plymouth, Massachusetts regularly
stopped there for cargo—thus the name Plymouth Landing. Later, the name was
shortened to Plymouth.
Water played a major role in the development of
Plymouth. Flatboats floated down the creeks and rivers loaded with goods and
produce to be reloaded onto sailing vessels. Early in the 1800s Plymouth was
one of six main ports in North Carolina and ranked ninth in population among
towns. In 1790, the United States Congress established Plymouth as a port of
delivery, complete with a customs house. Schooners bound for the West Indies
sailed from the port heavily loaded with hogsheads of tobacco, barrels of
tar, pitch and turpentine, masts and spars, corn and rice.
The town prospered and grew. In 1810 its population
was 671 and the foundation for a solid community was laid. The first public
school was formed in 1810 and the first church in the town, the Methodist
Church, was founded in 1830 with the Episcopal Church following in 1837. (Morratuck
Church, outside the town, had been holding services for years.) By 1840,
there were 1,123 inhabitants. Ten years later, there were only 951. A ship
stopping at the port brought an unknown fever to the town, taking the lives
of many residents and causing others to leave in fear.
In a few years Plymouth’s location on the Roanoke,
which had been such an asset, suddenly became a liability. Plymouth was one
of the ports targeted for blockade by Union forces during the Civil War.
Tradition has it that, by the end of the war, only 11 buildings were
standing. Five of those exist today: Grace Episcopal Church, Ausbon House,
Latham House, Armistead House and the Clark-Chesson House. (See Plymouth's
Historic Walking Tour.)
For many years after the Civil War, Plymouth and
Washington County continued to rely on its rich resources of farmland,
forests and rivers and all are important to its culture and economy today.