Elizabeth City naming stirs dispute, colorful lore

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Barbara Putnam


By Barbara Putnam
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A recent guest speaker at the museum, extolling the hospitality that they had been extended on their first visit to Elizabeth City, wondered where Elizabeth City got its name. There has always been dispute among the residents of Elizabeth City with regard to how Elizabeth City was named. Was Queen Elizabeth I of England or Mrs. Betsy Tooley the namesake?

In the company of some Elizabeth City locals, even insinuating Betsy Tooley was the proprietress and barmaid of a local tavern located on Water Street — with propensities for rum from the Caribbean and thirsty sailors — can be cause for eyebrow-raising. Some folklore even alleges that Betsy Tooley ran a brothel.

The aforementioned faction of locals will insist that Betsy Tooley was a lady proper and that she not only owned the tavern but also owned the town they named after her as well. They may begrudgingly concede that on occasion, she may have served intoxicating spirits at her saloon. However, they attribute this to the fact that she was a zealous woman who enjoyed seeing folks having a good time during the era when the thriving harbor of Elizabeth City served primarily as the Gateway to the Albemarle — where ships arrived regularly, transporting laths for the manufacture of barrels and shingles.

According to local lore, Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor Relfe Tooley, for whom the waterfront town was ostensibly named, was born to William and Mary Nash Taylor. County marriage records chronicle that at age sixteen, in April of 1772, Elizabeth “Betsy” married, Nathan Relfe. Relfe was purportedly a successful planter reared in the Flatty Creek section of Pasquotank County.

Betsy was widowed not even a year into her marriage, leaving her a very well-to-do young widow. Upon Relfe’s untimely demise, Betsy was bequeathed with several lucrative possessions such as: One-half ownership in a sizable schooner already established in West India trade; several thousand feet of finished wedge-shaped planks of construction timber; a 206-acre plantation on Knobb’s Creek, 20 casks of molasses, numerous barrels of sugar, and several pounds of coffee, all of which were revered commodities, and enormously valuable.

Perhaps because of her newly acquired affluence, Betsy had no trouble marrying for the second time. Betsy married Adam Tooley, a farmer from Princess Anne County in Virginia. Together, Betsy and Adam ran Betsy Tooley’s Tavern which was situated on the waterfront at the horse-shoe bend in the Pasquotank River and the adjacent village was called Betsy’s Town.

According to Pasquotank County court records, very soon after her marriage to Adam Tooley, a grievance was recorded by a Mr. Enoch Relfe, accusing Betsy and Adam of wasting her first husband’s fortune by “riotous living.” In next to no time thereafter, Betsy Tooley sold the site of the tavern and the surrounding 55 acres of land to the first city founders.

The land was apportioned into acres and sold to sailors and farmers from the Caribbean who were attracted to the fertile soil and obliging climate in Betsy’s town. When the town was incorporated in 1793, it was initially named “Reding”, after a prominent farming family. Less than a year later, it was retitled “Elizabeth Town.” However, due to confusion with proximate communities with the same name, in 1801, it was renamed “Elizabeth City.”

The query of who Elizabeth City was named after has never been factually answered. Aside from the few remaining court records, there are no other facts supporting the Betsy Tooley namesake theory. In all probability, the name came from Queen Elizabeth I of England or the Elizabeth River…. but the Betsy Tooley folktale is more amusing to convey.

Barbara Putnam is Operations Manager at Museum of the Albemarle.