Carteret Town – A Planned Community
Looking at Manteo today and seeing it as a wonderful, picturesque, small town, it’s difficult to imagine that if not for apparent incompetence and outright corruption, the town might today rival Wilmington as the major port of North Carolina.
Pure speculation? Of course, but as the 1600s gave way to the 17th century, Roanoke Island was seen as the key to the prosperity of northeastern North Carolina.
A bit of historical background:
From 1711-1713 Colonial North Carolina was entangled in the Tuscarora War—a horrific conflict that abounded with atrocities on both sides. If South Carolina had not sent help, it is very possible the Tuscarora Indians would have won.
The war devastated what was already arguably the weakest economy of all the British Colonies.
What the colony lacked was an effective transportation network—it is very difficult to build a road over swamp—and a convenient port of entry. Wilmington was just becoming a town, but even if ships could use its docks, there was no effective way to move product to the interior of northeastern North Carolina.
The colonial assembly recognized the problem and came up with a legislative solution that was innovative and remarkably ahead of its time.
In 1715 they passed An Act for a Town on Roanoke Island for the Encouragement of Trade from Foreign parts.
The planned communities of the 20th century had nothing on what the provincial legislature had in mind.
They selected a developer—Richard Sanderson, a wealthy Perquimans County investors who, among other things, would eventually own the entire island of Ocracoke.
The legislation gave detailed instructions, telling the surveyor that he was to “…lay out the…quantity of three hundred acres of Land… and that Sixty acres of the said Land fronting on the water…”
Everything was planned. Lot sizes were “half an acre each” and the town was to have “… convenient Squares & places for a Church, Publick Town House, and a marketplace with Convenient Streets and passages.”
Even the size of the homes was specified, telling would be homeowners that their house had to be “…at least twenty foot and fifteen foot…”
The town was to be named Carteret Town in deference to the Lord Proprietor who owned the province.
It may seem odd to think of Roanoke Island as a port of entry today. Oregon Inlet is a fickle passage to the inner waters of the North Carolina’s sounds, but in 1715 Oregon Inlet did not exist. There was, however, Roanoke Inlet, a navigable inlet about nine or ten miles north, placing on a direct line to Shallow Bag Bay where Carteret Town was planned.
Unfortunately, the 1715 plan never made it past the paper stage to reality.
There were probably a number of reasons for that. The population of the colony was somewhere around 16,000 to 17,000 at the time, and there may not have been enough people willing to start a new town. The location certainly seemed to play a role in its failure; Roanoke Island may have been an ideal port of entry, but it was difficult to get to and isolated from what little civilization existed in North Carolina at the time.
Meanwhile in 1722, Sanderson, in a real estate slight of hand, sold 1500 acres of Roanoke Island land that he did not have title to William Maule, the official surveyor for the colony.
By 1723 it was apparent that the 1715 attempt to create Carteret Town had failed, and the legislature repealed the act and voted into existence an identical law, including a preference for Richard Sanderson to develop the project.
And here’s where it gets a bit murky.
The Lords Proprietors, who had the ultimate say over legislation, did not want Sanderson as the developer, preferring John Lovick, who was the Secretary of the Assembly and on Governor Eden’s council. Lovick was granted the entire island, even though there were landowners with clear title.
Lovick immediately sold the island to Sanderson and William Reed, a prominent politician of the day who would eventually become the acting governor of the colony. The sale went forward in spite of residents of the island who could legitimately claim ownership of their property.
Reed, convinced perhaps, that he did in fact now own the island and therefore the rights to Carteret Town, named himself town commissioner and attempted to levy a poll tax on residents for a courthouse that would never be built.
Although Carteret Town never got beyond words on paper, it did serve as a legislative blueprint for other North Carolina towns. Edenton and Portsmouth, now a ghost town, were created using similar legislation. In neither case was the rampant corruption of Carteret Town apparent.