Life in Halifax

From 1760 to 1840, Halifax witnessed many of America’s great changes. Except during the Revolutionary War, daily life in the town remained very much the same. The population varied little during these years and citizens continued to earn their living in much the same ways. Most importantly, the Roanoke Valley’s social system remained constant.

As a county seat, Halifax was a place where people gathered for court days or to vote in elections. The town was headquarters for a militia district, and on muster days citizen soldiers from miles around gathered to practice their drills on Market Square. Afterward, they often met in one the Halifax’s many taverns or hotels.

Halifax was also a crossroads, a trading center, and a river port. Men from the interior of North Carolina arrived to trade their skins and furs. Market days and country fairs filled the Market Square with people. Long distance travelers found Halifax a welcome stop and often slept on the Market Square with their traveling party. At the warehouses near the river landing, crops from the valley’s plantations were stored, loaded, and shipped. Here, planters and merchants bought and sold these crops, sometimes exchanging warehouse receipts instead of money. Up King Street from the Roanoke River there was more commerce, as shopkeepers sold their wares.

Halifax served as a social center as well, where men from across the valley gathered for wine and cards, or whiskey at any of a number of local taverns. Taverns in colonial North Carolina, as in other parts of the country, were a vital part of the local economy and lifestyle. Travelers could find a place to sleep and a meal to eat as they made their way across the state. Local citizens used taverns for meetings, entertainment, and a place to transact business including the sale of land and slaves. The quality of accommodations found in taverns varied greatly. A town like Halifax with its river port and county courthouse probably had finer taverns than those found in rural areas. Taverns also hosted traveling performers, exhibitions, and various types of gaming. Billiards was a popular tavern pastime as were numerous card games, dice, and table games such as backgammon and chess.

Not everything in Halifax was comfortable. When a heavy storm came through, the Roanoke River would flood its banks, destroying bottomland crops. Drinking water was available only from a few wells, and many townspeople relied on the spring south of King Street (later called Magazine Spring). Early in the day, human waste was dumped into convenient ditches or pits, some of which, disease-ridden matter found its way into the water supply.

Birth, disease, and infections, as well as childhood accidents kept mortality rates high, particularly in young children. In the 18th century, smallpox epidemics raged throughout the valley and the town. One group of Revolutionary War soldiers were more fortunate than most, marching off from their camp in Halifax before an epidemic reached the town. Once they arrived at Arlington, VA, they were given the recently developed smallpox inoculation. (Unfortunately, this was a the time that Cornwallis’s army came to Halifax and the town had little protection against the British soldiers). Women died relatively young from complications during childbirth.

Colonial women could not hold political office, and few were given the opportunity for a formal education. Daughters of wealthy men might attend a boarding school. However, once these wealthy women were married, their job was to maintain their household and they lost all legal rights in deference to their husbands.

African Americans formed a large part of the labor source . Many free and enslaved blacks were seen in Halifax. Most were enslaved, accompanying their masters and mistresses, running errands, or working at nearby docks and warehouses. Some were hired out by their owners as laborers and craftsmen. Some were free, owned property and owned slaves of their own.

Another source of labor was the poor white or the indentured servant. This person, if a male, might gain an apprenticeship to a craftsman or tradesman. The females might earn a living by sewing, ironing, cooking etc. for other people. In return for their many years of legal bondage, the indentured servant would be provided with food, clothing, shelter, and training in a craft or trade.

Most children seldom received more than a minimal education. Instead, they performed many chores, with little time to play. They sometimes roamed nearby woods to hunt and fish for food. The river offered swimming and allowed bathing in the warmer months.

The people of the Roanoke Valley considered religion to be an important facet of their lives. The predominating Anglican faith of the original English settlers eventually lost prominence, due to the growth of the Methodist and Baptist sects. Quakers settled in the valley prior to the American Revolution, and a few Irish Catholics arrived in Halifax during the 1830s.