BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Maybe there were once many eagles on Eagles Island and perhaps people were just hungry when they named Brunswick County landmarks like Frying Pan Shoals and Corncake Inlet. The truth, though, is that names of places may not be as straightforward as they appear. They do, however, reflect the families and culture that shape who we are.
What we name the things around us does indeed reflect something about us. This is the first in an occasional series on coastal places names that take a look at those places over the next several months. Each story will feature one or two of the 20 coastal counties.
Let’s start with Brunswick.
Those familiar with local history might know the county’s name comes from Brunswick Town, the community started along the Cape Fear River in 1726. Founder Maurice Moore choose the name as a way to honor George I, the King of England and Duke of Brunswick. It was a familiar practice in colonial times, and the reason there are so many English and European names along the coast.
For much of its early history, though, the lands west of the Cape Fear River were a part of New Hanover County. For more than 20 years in the 1700s, those in and around Brunswick Town fought for their own regional independence – something that was finally granted in 1764, said Jim McKee, manager of the Brunswick Town/ Fort Anderson Historic Site.
So the reason Brunswick County is so named today is part an effort to please far-away monarchs and part good ‘ole American spirit.
While this story, and others, are well established, other names are replaced over time with new ones or their origins get lost and we can only guess at their meanings. “I try to listen to those ‘I heard’ or ‘I thinks,’” said Musette Steck, former president of the Southport Historical Society. “There’s usually a kernel of truth in there, a place to start looking.”
She and others who follow those leads can see our coastal counties in a different way, in a way where street signs and town names show the way to our local history.
I Am Street
One of the favorite origin stories in Brunswick County is how a street in Southport came to get the name I Am. It’s not always a favorite, though. Steck wishes someone would have kept to the tradition of naming the streets after notable figures in the town’s history. That was, after all, how Moore and Rhett streets got their name – as well the reason for streets Lord, Howe and Dry. Robert Howe Jr. and William Espey Lord Jr. were two of the founders of the town and William and Mary Jane Dry were among the county’s leading citizens, McKee said.
Along this set of streets, there was a two-block alley in downtown Southport that wasn’t adequately named according to the telephone company doing work in the area in the 1950s. The story goes that a town clerk decided to have a bit of fun by using the well-known ditty, “How Dry I Am.” Steck believes that the same group of townsfolk who once held a funeral service for a man’s legs are also responsible for this bit of fun. (After 18 years, she finally believes she learned where the legs are buried, she said.)
“It’s one of the oldest names in the area,” McKee said. This tidal river that flows from the Green Swamp first appears on a map in the 1670s. It’s now known as Lockwood, or Lockwoods or Lockwood’s. But the Folly stays. One of the most popular stories about the origin is that a Mr. Lockwood, about whom not much is known, built a boat along the banks of this river, McKee said.
“But it couldn’t get down the river,” he said.
The whole enterprise was dubbed an act of foolishness or folly. There is some evidence that the ill-advised venture was related to a settlement that failed for some reason.
An alternate theory, according to “The North Carolina Gazetteer,” is Folly is a variation on the French term folie. Although it means “madness” today (which supports the previous theories) it could mean a delight or favorite abode in the 17th century and was therefore used in the naming of English estates.
Sam Keziah, a retired insurance agent and son of the principal of a Shallotte school, learned about one of his influential relatives soon after moving to Brunswick County as a boy. Bill Keziah was his great-uncle.
“He was a newspaper man, along with the Harpers of the State Port Pilot,” he said.
As a reporter, he was also deaf, and would interview his sources via handwritten notes.
“I think someone like that at that time, in the ’50s, would have really stood out,” Keziah said.
And maybe that is why there are quite a few Keziah namesakes in Brunswick County. One is Keziah Park in Southport, a four-acre parcel home to the Indian Trail Tree. “It’s said that these trees were bent to point to good hunting and fishing grounds,” he said.
Another of those is in Boiling Spring Lakes. It’s no surprise that the name of that town comes from the spring that flows through the area and is said to discharge 43 million gallons a day. According to the town, the spring was once known as Bouncing Log Spring, because of a piece of petrified wood churning in the water.
“The town is alleged to have 50 lakes there, and there’s a Fifty Lakes Drive,” Keziah said. “Most of them aren’t very big.” And some of them do have names, like Seminole or Mirror or Patricia. There’s also a Keziah Lake located to the north, close to Pretty Pond and a neighbor of Harper Lake.
Bald Head Island
This island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River is one long known to sailors. The island marks the location of the dangerous shifting sands of Frying Pan Shoals, which are named for their shape, as they jut out handle-like from the island. Perhaps this is why mariners made sure to note any relevant geographical features.
“There are a number of different accounts of ship captains referring to Bald Head Island as Barren Head,” McKee said. “The island had a big sand dune and it looked like a bald man’s head.”
The island was a part of one of the first land grants in the area, which went to the Smith family, McKee said, and became known as Smith Island, and the town that is now Southport was Smithville.
“The island started to become known as a resort area and as a place to enjoy salubrious, healing sea breezes,” he said.
The current community and resort of Bald Head reverted to a version of its earlier name. Something similar happened with Smithville, McKee said. The town was the site of a natural deep-water harbor. Deep Water Point is located near the Bald Head Island Ferry terminal. Nineteenth century residents wanted to capitalize on that economic possibility.
“Eventually, it was decided that maybe the name was the problem,” he said. “It was renamed Southport in March 1887 to see if that would get things going.”
Although Lake Waccamaw is in Columbus County, the northwest corner of the Brunswick also takes this name as one of the townships, from the Waccamaw Siouan tribal nation. According to tribal history, the name Waccamaw first appeared in 1712. The Waccamaw Siouan call themselves the People of the Falling Star, for the origin story of the lake – that a meteor streaked through the night sky and waters flowed into the crater to form the lake.
Although the history of the tribal name is unclear, historians used the Catawba language for comparison and guess that it came from a game called Wap-ka-hare. Its translation means “ball knock” and it’s pronounced something like “wahumwar.” According to the tribe, it’s assumed that Waccamaw is an English version of this pronunciation.
Many names in Brunswick County are derived from notable families. The Gause family were influential planters and there have been landmarks called Gause’s Hill, Gause Landing and Gause Beach. They are also indirectly responsible for this community.
“The Gause Family had one of the nicest houses in the area,” Steck said. There’s also the Gause Tomb, with brick walls 18 inches thick. “It got its name because that’s where they unloaded the bricks.”
More modest brick tombs were more typical of the era and the elite planter class. The Gause Tomb, though, dates to the 1830s and is considered a show of wealth. The cambered brick-paved roof, supported on the interior by vaulting and a central brick pier, is similar to the brickwork at Fort Caswell, and historians speculate that there may be a connection.
One of Keziah’s favorite namesakes in Brunswick County is Richard Caswell. He was an
accomplished resident of the state, he said. Caswell was born in Maryland in 1729, but moved to Kinston, where he is buried, to work as a surveyor before pursuing a career in law. He represented North Carolina at the first Continental Congress and eventually became the state’s first governor in 1777. He served another term in 1785.
The fort dates to 1825 and was built because the area was vulnerable, according the site’s history. The construction of the fort, built of stone and earthworks, was considered one of the strongest in the world and most of it remains today. There is also a nearby Caswell Beach in the Brunswick County and a Caswell County in the northern part of the state.
From Bolivia to Winnabow, More Curious Names
There always seems to be more than one version of good stories. The accounts here come from interviews with local history buffs, as well as local history references. A few are listed below.
Arabella Lane: In what is now the Cottage Point community of Southport, one of the streets is named for an original landowner. “She was an African American woman,” Steck said. “I believe she was born Arabella Price, and the Prices owned much of that land.”
Batarora or Battle Royal: Versions of this name have belonged to roads, rivers and bays and the prevailing theory is that it came from an 1781 battle between the Tories and the Whigs. The Batarora Branch extends from Hood Creek west of Leland.
Bolivia: Boxes of tar and turpentine from North Carolina’s pine-focused economy were often stamped ‘Bolivia’ and shipped to South America. The popular story is that the locals liked the name, McKee said, and it stuck.
Bonnet’s Creek: This waterway near Southport was once known as Fiddler’s Drain, but was renamed for Stede Bonnet, also known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate,’ who used is as a hideout before eventually surrendering after a battle with Col. William Rhett.
Calabash: Listed in 1814 as the Callebash River, it’s believed to be a reference to the calabash gourd. Perhaps because they are used in water gathering, or maybe because of the river’s rounded shape.
Cedar Grove: This community got its name from a group of African Americans who met in 1872 to organize a church that would allow them to worship freely. It was built near Stone Chimney Road under a large cedar tree.
Civietown: The popular theory here is that a man grew “seve beans” in the area. Some versions say he grew seaweed, but the name is also variation of saba, or fava, beans.
Corncake Inlet: “In some places it’s called Corncake and in some places it’s called New Inlet,” McKee said. Either way, it was once the inlet that separated Bald Head Island from Pleasure Island – and rumored to be a good fishing spot – until it was closed via hurricane in 1998.
Eagles Island: This seven-mile long island close to downtown Wilmington, and home to the USS North Carolina battleship memorial, has gone by a few names since the late 1600s, including Cranes Island and Buzzards Island. That changed, though, when Joseph and Richard Eagles came to the area in 1725. The brothers became prominent local planters and the name first appeared on map in 1738.
Exum: Mr. Exum is said to be a man from Florida who came to North Carolina in 1881 and built a store and cotton gin – which became a local landmark.
Holler’n Point: Located on the eastern bank of the Shallotte River, across from Shallotte Point, and said to be a place where locals could shout a messages across the water.
Honey Pond: Although it’s not certain, people think this area along the Wet Ash Swamp north of Shallotte got its name from a population of wild bees that lived here.
Maco: What was once Farmer’s Turnout was renamed Maraco (and eventually shortened) after the development company MacRae Co. The business was a major economic force in the area and Hugh MacRae settled several immigrant colonies on regional lands. According to historians, there’s no documentation that this happened here, though. This unincorporated community is also the setting for one of North Carolina’s best known ghost stories, the Maco Light and the legend of the headless signalman, Joe Baldwin.
Makataka: This community, often called Makatoky by locals, is thought to be named for a Cape Fear Native American tribe and was also the home for men who were cutting cypress in the Green Swamp for the Waccamaw Lumber Company in the early 1900s.
Malmo: This one is a bit of a mystery, according to postal service records, the original post office application was for Hansenville (for Ludwig Hansen who led the push for a local branch), which was changed to Hansen, and finally Malmo, perhaps for the city in Sweden. Although Hansen is from Denmark.
Midway Road: According to Steck, this decidedly blandly-named road, which runs from Bolivia to St. James Plantation has a more colorful history. Before the 1950s, it used to be called Half Hell Road. When moonshiners and other ne’er-do-wells were running from the law, they’d use this road, or maybe sections of the swamp, to get away and when they got there, they were halfway to hell, she said.
Mt. Misery Road: Originally the mountain was more of a hill, one about 25 feet high. Local historians claim the name came from how difficult it was to cultivate the area.
Navassa: Once the home of rice plantations, when this community was one of free people it came to be known for the company that provided many of them work – the Navassa Guano Company. The fertilizer was shipped from an island in the West Indies to North Carolina for processing.
Pea Landing Road: Once the area in southern Brunswick County around Calabash was known as Pea Landing for the for both the local peanut crop and the ports in the area that allowed the farmers to ship it elsewhere.
Pinch Gut Creek: Is the name of this waterway a result of poor the hunting and fishing, which led to a pinched gut? Or is it just a variation on the term using gut as a small waterway? Steck believes it’s the latter, but enjoys the speculation.
Royal Oak: For many years, the landmark of this predominately African-American farming community located on Makatoka Road, was a majestic oak tree, known as the Big Oak. An 1892 article in The Southport Leader said the tree was seven feet in diameter and that its branches covered one-quarter of an acre.
Shallotte River: In 1734, there is reference to the Little Charlotte, or the little Charlotta, river likely an honor to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III. Spellings and pronunciations varied but the move to make it Shallotte River, might have simple been to differentiate the river, and its town, from Charlotte, McKee said.
Sunny Point: “This one kind of drives me crazy,” McKee said. The military terminal is named for a point on the Cape Fear River. “There there are a few of them right there,” he said. The base could just as easily been named Doctor Point (named for a doctor whose house was there) or Howe’s Point or Reaves Point. “In many cases, although not as much now, they were used interchangeably.”
Supply: This town has long been a stop on the river trade route between Wilmington and Shallotte. The trading post was once called Old Georgetown Way, but was officially named Supply in the late 1860s.
Varnamtown: Like Thomasboro, Grissetttown and several others, many of the communities in Brunswick County are named for the families who lived and owned land there. Mr. W. Harry Varnam operated a store during the early 1900s and the area become known for fishing and shrimping.
Winnabow: Daniel L. Russell, who was born at Winnabow, his family’s plantation. He later became a governor of the state. Governors Road, which runs across Rice Creek, is still there. It’s said the family got the name from a Native American word, but the meaning has been lost.
Yaupon Beach: Once a separate community, and now a part of Oak Island, the name comes from a native holly, called yopún in Catawban. Streets here are named for the holder of the oldest deed, Keziah said.
To Learn More
- Brunswick County’s Comprehensive Historical Survey
- Whittler’s Bench, newsletter from the Southport Historical Society
- Brunswick County Historical Society
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