Halifax After Independence

In the spring of 1791, Pres. George Washington embarked on a tour of the southern states. After passing through Virginia, he entered North Carolina and visited the town of Halifax, home of both Federalist William R. Davie and Anti-Federalist Willie Jones. Although Washington was a dinner guest of a group of local citizens headed by Col. John Baptiste Ashe, the congressman from the district, Washington’s reception in Halifax appears to have been mixed. Willie Jones reportedly said he would welcome Washington as a soldier and a man, but would not greet him as the President. This was an exceptional sentiment, of course, since Washington was much loved throughout the nation. But, as Washington was the foremost Mason in the country, Freemasons were involved in his welcoming ceremony at Halifax. From his cold reception at Halifax, President Washington moved on to Tarboro and then to the other southern states. Washington recorded in his diary that Halifax was clearly in decline, with less than a thousand souls.

Although Halifax achieved its greatest fame during the American Revolution, for nearly sixty years afterward it continued to prosper, as the successful plantation system, political power, and social gentry combined to bring a “Golden Age” to the town and the Roanoke River Valley. But in 1835, changes in the state constitution limited the area’s political power. In 1839 the railroads came to the area, but bypassed Halifax as a major stop and thereby ending the importance of the nearby river port. Finally, the Civil War destroyed the institution of slavery and, with it, the plantation system that had formed the backbone of the valley’s economy.

Although the Roanoke River Valley experienced the same decline as other areas of the state following the Civil War, the section never fully recovered economically and seemed unable to prosper under the postwar system. Industry, the backbone of the new southern economy, was slow in coming to the valley, arriving in the form of textile and paper mills around the beginning of the 20th century. The mills were focused in the northern section of the county, and the new town of Roanoke Rapids developed around the various industries. The economic center of the county shifted to that city, although county governmental facilities remain in Halifax.