When I set out a couple of years ago to write my first novel, a historical fantasy called Mountain Folk, I decided to set most of the action during the American Revolution. It’s my favorite period in American history. I’m a native North Carolinian, so I grew up surrounded by reminders of our nation’s founding era.
Our most-populous city, Charlotte, was named after King George III’s wife. It’s the county seat of Mecklenburg, named after Queen Charlotte’s home duchy in Germany. Our third-largest city, Greensboro, was named after General Nathaniel Greene, who commanded the Patriots’ southern field army in final stage of the Revolutionary War. His name adorns the city of Greenville and Greene County.
Ranked fourth in population, Winston-Salem was half-named for another Revolutionary War hero, Joseph Winston, who lived in what now is Stokes County and served under Greene at the pivotal battle of Guilford Court House. Before that, he and Benjamin Cleveland led the Wilkes and Surry county militia at the Battle of Kings Mountain.
Fayetteville, sixth in population, was named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the French officer who served under George Washington at Yorktown and other key engagements.
Other founding-era personalities whose names grace N.C. counties or municipalities include:
• Samuel Ashe. This Beaufort native practiced law before going into the “family business” of politics. His father and uncle were speakers of the N.C. House. Just before the Revolutionary War, Samuel Ashe served in the N.C. Provincial Congress and helped draft the new state’s constitution.
Then he was elected to the state Senate, where he served as that chamber’s first speaker. In 1795, the legislature elected him to the first of three one-year terms as governor. Asheville, Asheboro and Ashe County all bear his name.
• Griffith Rutherford. Born in Ireland and emigrating to North Carolina via Philadelphia like many backcountry families, this Scotch-Irishman was a militia captain in the French and Indian War.
Like Ashe, he served in the Provincial Congress that wrote the N.C. constitution. Elected brigadier general of Patriot militia in the Salisbury District, Rutherford led the devastating 1776 raid against the British-allied Cherokees. Later, he commanded troops at battles in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Wounded in America’s defeat at Camden in 1780, Rutherford was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Florida for a year. After the war, he was in both houses of the new legislature. His name adorns Rutherford County and its county seat, Rutherfordton.
• Cornelius Harnett. Born in Chowan County, Harnett was a leading merchant in Wilmington and town commissioner. He twice represented the area in the House before the war. He was the first president of the N.C. Provincial Council, essentially the executive branch of the new government, and represented North Carolina in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779.
In early 1781, the British captured Wilmington. Redcoats reportedly grabbed the congressman and threw him “across a horse like a sack of meal.” Harnett’s health deteriorated rapidly and he died soon after his release. Harnett County was named after this martyr to the cause.
• Edward Buncombe. Born on what now is the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Buncombe came to North Carolina in 1768 after inheriting a plantation on the Albemarle Sound. He was elected colonel of the 5th N.C. Regiment and fought in the Continental Army. Buncombe was wounded and captured at the British victory at Germantown in 1777.
A few months later, Buncombe went walking in his sleep, fell down a flight of stairs and reopened his wounds, causing his death. He left us the name of Buncombe County but, plus indirectly the word “bunk,” meaning a load of nonsense. That’s a tale for another day.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.