MUSEUM OF THE ALBEMARLE
Early newspapers part of area's historical fiber
By Jonathan Smith
Sunday, August 12, 2018
By the time the first newspaper was published in North Carolina in the mid-18th century, 11 other colonies already had publications.
Because it was a frontier colony, its population was widely scattered on farms and plantations. There were no large towns or well-defined community centers. Illiteracy on the frontier also delayed the demand for printed matter.
But by mid-century, New Bern, the unofficial capital, had become a town of some size and the colonial Assembly urgently needed a printer to distribute newly revised laws. In 1749, the lawmakers found one in Virginian James Davis, who accepted their five-year contract and moved his printing press to New Bern to reproduce the colony's legal paper and currency. Two years later, on Aug. 9, 1751, he published the first issue of the North-Carolina Gazette. Four other versions of this newspaper would appear before 1798.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, five different newspapers were in circulation, including Adam Boyd's Cape-Fear Mercury (1769-76), but they all eventually failed, leaving the state without a single paper between 1778 and 1783.
Soon, however, a minor renaissance began with the introduction of new printed matter, including Hillsborough's North Carolina Gazette in 1785, the Edenton Intelligencer in 1788, the Fayetteville Gazette in 1789, the Halifax North Carolina Journal in 1792, and Salisbury's North Carolina Mercury and Salisbury Advertiser in 1797.
Most of these early newspapers consisted of foreign posts from several weeks to several months old. These foreign posts were poetry, farming tips, and items copied from other publications. Local news was largely confined to obituaries and wedding announcements; horse races and cockfights, both popular sports of the time, were also widely reported.
In small-town colonial North Carolina, everyone already knew the local news before a newspaper was printed, which can still be said for our region. Appearing only weekly, early papers were sidelines to other businesses such as printing, book selling, and retail sales of various imported merchandise.
Advertisements during this era were mostly legal notices and announcements of the arrival of new merchandise. Seldom did a display ad appear. Many merchants, as well as lawyers and physicians, had their business cards printed in the newspaper. Subscription rates and postage costs were extremely high, and most readers picked up their copies of the news at the printing shop. High costs and scattered populations in small communities led to low circulation rates.
Newspapers, although appearing later in North Carolina than in the other original British colonies, over time became a vibrant social and political force that helped shape the state's enduring reputation as a progressive southern state. Thanks in part to strong competition among newspapers in the many small towns and medium-sized cities that were characteristic of the state until the late twentieth century, the North Carolina press produced several generations of talented journalists, some of whom moved on to national prominence as reporters, editors, cartoonists, or commentators .
At the Museum of the Albemarle, we have a printing press circa 1890 on display in Our Story exhibit. This same press was used in The Independent newspaper print shop here in Elizabeth City.
Jonathan Smith is a Public Information Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.