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The Origins of The Cape Fear Road In North Carolina

A route came into being that would forever change the way of life for so many colonial families. A road stretching from the piedmont area of Forsyth County, North Carolina, to the Fayetteville area in Cumberland County allowed trade during the last forty-five years of the 18th-century. Roads were vital to establishing competitive market trends during this period, and the Cape Fear Road initially placed the piedmont region on the map with North Carolina economics. Two main routes leading into the colony were the Great Wagon Road and the Trader’s Path, but these roads were mainly migration routes, and neither of these led to the eastern shores of North Carolina. The Cape Fear Road traveled from northwest to southeast to the Cape Fear River. The route was designed specifically for trade purposes. The new road opened an abundant market world to the thousands of families moving to the area.

The origins of the road begin with a man expected to assume the governor’s seat and another man representing a religious group of entrepreneurs. The Moravians of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, discussed the possibilities of creating a new settlement in North Carolina among their church leaders during the spring of 1751. The church leaders backed by British men who supported their cause, such as James Hutton, corresponded with Lord Granville of North Carolina for a large tract of land. The amount of acreage mixed into the conversations was not the average five hundred to six hundred acres but consisted of tens of thousands of acres. This outlandish idea is quite an undertaking in an area filled with wilderness.

The upcoming land market value within North Carolina was the focal point for many new potential landowners. Arthur Dobbs(1689-1765) was no exception. In 1745, Dobbs acquired a land grant consisting of 400,000 acres in North Carolina. He was seeking the office of Royal Governor for the colony and received the position in 1754. Dobbs persuaded and encouraged many families to travel to North Carolina due to his investment in present-day Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties. Born in Scotland, his encouragement with the Scots and Irish greatly enhanced new opportunities for many families in this area.

Bishop Spangenberg records in his journal about a proposed road that will join the Moravian lands, dated January 8, 1753. The new route would reduce the mileage significantly for needed supplies. The Cape Fear River navigates inland to present-day Fayetteville, and this area quickly became known as the Landing Place. Goods and supplies such as salt, spices, gunpowder, and more are shipped from the eastern shores of North Carolina to the Fayetteville area. All that remained was a road to lead from the Landing Place to the Moravian settlement.

Spangenberg and Dobbs were quickly expanding their ideals of living in North Carolina with the expansion of the Cape Fear Road. Trade, mainly consisting of furs purchased from the local families by the Moravians, became the first valuable items to travel the new King’s Road. The Moravians traveled the road frequently and purchased an additional storage building to house their commodities in Cross Creek, known as Fayetteville today. Furs were profitable and enhanced the surplus enormously within the Moravian public businesses.

Initially, ships were continuously arriving from New York to Wilmington until 1775. During the American Revolutionary War, British ships ruled the harbors along the eastern shores of North Carolina cutting the supply lines for many families and settlements.

Many of the frontier settlements elected leaders to represent their crops, furs, and other items for trade. These leaders would load the cargo upon wagons and set out along the Cape Fear Road. This action eliminated the need to correspond with the Moravian communities for valuable commodities such as salt. The Jersey Settlement, the Bryan Settlement, the Davidson Settlement, and the Irish Settlement of Rowan County are just a few who participated in these trading expeditions.

The actual route of the Cape Fear Road started at Cross Creek just north of Rockfish Creek. It reaches near the Deep River and travels adjacent to it, where the road split by 1770. The left split is remnants from an older migration trail that separated from the Tennessee trail in southern Virginia near the Fancy Gap area and traveled south into present-day Guilford County. The right split is the original road created under Dobbs’ supervision as royal governor of North Carolina. Portions of this road today would travel along Highway 67 or Reynolda Road, moving south to Highways 311, 8, 52, 109 to Abbotts Creek, and finally Highway 64 to 84.

There can be no question how the Cape Fear Road enticed trade with the eastern shores of North Carolina. If you have ancestors living in the piedmont region or the sandhills area during the mid to late 18th-century, chances are, they benefitted from this productive colonial road. The fur trade, rated number one for this period, established a market compatible with the families living in the piedmont region. Prices soared for quality fur, and the growing exports allowed easy negotiable trade for many different products. The early families who were willing to travel and haggle received the best bargains. The Moravians quickly learned this as they attempted to entice hunters to sell their furs directly to them. This tactic overturned into a massive profit for the Moravians leading up to the American Revolutionary War.

“The best investment is in the tools of one’s own trade”

Benjamin Franklin

The word trade defines the act of buying and selling. It also represents a person’s occupation. During the colonial period, before 1774, and the continental period, 1774-1789, the definition of trade can lead you to some extraordinary finds among your family history research. Simple words like trade will broaden your horizons with brand new outlooks and a different point of view. Look for the documents as you gather the pieces of the puzzle. When assembled, you reveal the accurate picture of long ago. Little has changed when dealing with colonial marketing idealists compared to today. The concepts then were basically the same as now. Sizeable entrepreneurs and wealthy investors control the monopoly of growth and prosperity and collect the best profits. The Cape Fear Road is a prime example of this. Financially stabled merchants with controlled settlements such as the Moravians advanced rapidly, while other smaller communities disappeared or joined ranks with larger townships nearby. This very issue forces many families to move again shortly after arriving in North Carolina.

1770 North Carolina Map By John Collet (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Governor Dobbs boosted North Carolina’s economy, but he also introduced additional taxes, new parish boundaries, and more that created hardships on the families located in the piedmont region. The governor and the assembly were constantly battling one issue after another. The purchase of his 400,000 acres in North Carolina resulted in little profit in the end. He spent countless hundreds of pounds on other expeditions such as the Northwest Passage. Many historians proclaim Dobbs as hasty and impatient. However, he was partly responsible for the Cape Fear Road. Spangenberg(1704-1792) remained in Pennsylvania until 1762. He returned to Herrnhut, Germany, and lived there until his death. As director of the Moravian churches, he boosted the ultimate goals of the settlements and encouraged members by faith to persevere. The early families arriving in North Carolina before 1754 would have had little impact on the local economy alone. But, with the addition of two men and one road together, they all made a difference. What defines The Cape Fear Road? A historic road created in 1754 connecting the Atlantic ocean and the world to the colonial frontier of North Carolina.


  1. Collet, John survey map 1770 courtesy of the Library of Congress accessed 10.3.2021
  2. Desmond, Clarke Arthur Dobbs Esquire 1689-1765 Hazell, Watson and Viney Ltd Great Britain 1958
  3. Journal of August Gottlieb Spangenberg Entry January 8, 1753 Moravian Archives Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
  4. Robinson, Blackwell The Five Royal Governors of North Carolina 1729-1775 The Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission Raleigh, North Carolina 1963

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