"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."
Chief Justice William Smith
Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers
The recently completed high-speed parkway that links
Wrightsville Beach and Downtown Wilmington is appropriately
named for one of the founders of the city, colonial Chief
Justice William Smith, and certainly reinforces our citizens
respect for their historic past. Chief Justice Smith was
instrumental in Wilmington’s creation as a town and its
further development as the premier city in North Carolina.
Smith stands alongside the many other historic names from Wilmington's colonial past: Gabriel Johnston, Benjamin Smith,
and Cornelius Harnett.
Appointed to the North Carolina General Court:
William Smith was born in England and educated at Middle Temple,
one of the Inns of the Court. With the assistance of Secretary of the Treasury John Scrope, and despite opposition to his appointment from
North Carolina Royal Governor George Burrington,
Smith was nominated as Chief Justice of the North Carolina
General Court and assumed his offices in 1731.
Smith resigned his office in May 1730 due to conflicts with Burrington
and returned to England to air his grievances, but returned to North Carolina without position in July 1733. When Scotchman Gabriel
Johnston replaced Governor Burrington in late 1734, Smith was reappointed to his former office and later became Provincial Treasurer
in April 1732 and Chief Baron of the Exchequer in May 1732.
Creating the Town of Wilmington
Chief Justice Smith became Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston’s closest
and most influential ally in the colony as well as a personal friend. During the mid-1730’s Chief Justice Smith and the Governor worked together to create the town of Newton (later renamed Wilmington in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington to whom Johnston owed his appointment as governor) on lands granted by John Watson, at the expense of Brunswick Town already established to the south. This effort was viewed by the influential Moore and Swann families of Brunswick as a direct challenge to their political dominance of the lower Cape Fear region. Brunswick had become a township in 1729 and was the center of government in the New Hanover precinct, and this new town immediately north was seen as a threat to Brunswick as a port of entry on the Cape Fear.
When the General Assembly met in the autumn of 1736, it presented a Bill for establishing a town in New Hanover precinct by the name of Wilmington at a place then known as Newton, and this was to be the new precinct seat. This measure failed on the first reading. As Governor Johnston and Chief Justice Smith were determined to move the seat to Newton, a land office was opened in May 1736 in Newton and the Governor directed that the various Courts be held there as well.
Breaking the Tie Vote
In January 1740, Governor Johnston sent a measure to the General Assembly calling for the incorporation of Wilmington and it was clear that the vote would only be close in the Upper House. In this dispute with Moore, Moseley and Rice of Brunswick Town, Smith was supported by other Council members James Murray, Robert Halton and Matthew Rowan. On February 19, Chief Justice Smith noted in the Council minutes that by virtue of an Act passed in 1711, the President of the Council could vote twice in case of a tie. The very next day when the Upper House deadlocked 4 to 4 on the Wilmington Incorporation Bill, Smith, as President of the Council, voted a second time to break the tie. The Moore’s, Swann’s and their allies of were furious but their protests were ignored as the measure was passed by the Lower House as well. Thus, municipal government in Wilmington began on 25 February 1740 with the Act of Incorporation which created the town commissioners and named the original members. Chief Justice William Smith then stood as a powerful political figure in North Carolina, second only to the Governor himself.
Smith's Creek Named for William Smith
Smith owned a one-thousand acre tract by Royal Grant off the northeast branch of the Cape Fear River signed by Governor Johnston, and the creek off that branch was subsequently named for the Chief Justice, as “Smith’s Creek.” This creek has also played an important role in the local economy as it provided water-power for the Gordon, and later Campbell Mills located in what is now the Love Grove section of the city.
In 1741, Smith traveled to England on business and returned to
Wilmington later that year, and took a lesser interest in municipal affairs. Chief Justice Smith died in July 1743 without family, and left most of his estate to Governor Johnston.
About the Author
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of Niagara Falls, New York, he has been a devoted student of world history since 1958. He is the former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board of Trustees.
Contact him at email@example.com
Early Colonial History of New Hanover County, Elizabeth McKoy, 1973
The Cape Fear, Malcolm Ross, 1965
Land of the Golden River, Vol. 2-3, L.P. Hall, 1980
Dictionary of North Carolina History, W.S. Powell, UNC Press, 1986
Colonial Records of North Carolina, William L. Saunders, Vols 3-4, 1886
The Wilmington Town Book, NC Office of Archives & History
Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days, Lawrence Lee, 1965
Book of Wilmington, Andrew J. Howell, 1930
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute