Sadly it is time to lay poor Gabriel Johnson to rest.
A couple of you are sighing sadly. Most of you are thinking, “What? Who?”
Gabriel Johnson, who died at the age of 54, was the longest-serving governor of North Carolina. He died on July 17, though not on this July 17th. He died a couple of years ago, like 265 “couple of years” ago. He was our second colonial governor and he ran North Carolina for 18 years, from 1734 to 1752.
He was born in 1698 or ’99 in Scotland, a country known for producing mechanics who keep the USS Enterprise in space. We don’t know much about his early life. He studied medicine, but did not practice it. For a time he taught oriental languages at St. Andrews University where, one supposes, a student would step up to him, confused, after class and say, “Gee, Doc, that was all Greek to me,” and he would clap the fellow’s shoulder and reply, “No, my boy, that was Chinese!”
Eventually he found his way into London where he was befriended by the Earl of Wilmington, who landed him his job as governor.
Johnson arrived in old Brunswick, below a city named New Town. North Carolina had no official capital until our own William Tryon would finish his majestic brick pile in New Bern, known both mockingly and lovingly as Tryon Palace, in 1770. But that obviously didn’t mean business wasn’t done in the colony, or that its governors didn’t have a place to live.
Charles Eden, who governed the state when it was still technically part of South Carolina in 1714, ruled the nest from Edenton (hence the name) up along the Pamlico Sound. A lot of our governors chose Brunswick, which today is a ghost town consisting of a roofless church and some foundations – the British burned it to the ground in the Revolutionary War and no one ever built it back.
This is also where Gabriel Johnson arrived, almost penniless we are told, and where he settled down.
He focused on the colony’s agrarian future. Like New Bern's own Baron DeGraffenried who’d landed 23 years before him, he believed we had a future in silkworm farming and so he planted numerous mulberry trees (a silkworm’s favorite dish).
Over his many years here, he raised himself from his own poverty through real estate and smart marrying. It was quite a trick since his own salary as governor, paid through the controversial and poorly-collected quitrents, were thousands of pounds in arrears at his death.
He eventually amassed 25,000 acres of land and 103 slaves in several counties (including Craven), and he married Penelope Galland. She was the stepdaughter of Charles Eden and also one of the wealthiest women in the colony.
He managed a number of achievements, including bringing in the state's first printer (James Davis, in New Bern), and the establishment of a number of forts. One that was approved under his administration was Fort Johnson, guarding the entrance to the Cape Fear.
Important to New Bern was his search for a permanent capital.
For years the government met in rounds, first in one town and then in another, to keep the leading citizens who were stretched from the South Carolina border to the Virginia border along the coast, happy. Government documents were loaded into wagons and the assembly would rotate around towns: usually Edenton, New Bern and Brunswick or New Town. We had precious little population in our interior at that time: almost all the Europeans hugged the coast.
Much of the colony’s business took place in the north, which angered the growing population in the south. The men of Brunswick and the governor began pushing for a “central” location in New Bern.
It didn’t work out that way, of course. Eventually, while Johnson was unable to set up a permanent capital, he at least named a central location for the payment of taxes and the center of maritime business: that was in New Town, a tiny, unincorporated bump of a town mostly settled by his previous Scots. Thanking his British benefactor, he also renamed the town as “Wilmington.”
Johnson would die in office in 1752, but I have not been able to find any source that would tell me how or why. We can assume cessation of breathing had much to do with it.
Johnson was followed, from 1754 to 1765, by the eccentric and curious Arthur Dobbs, then by William Tryon (1765-1771) who would bring New Bern to the forefront, and finally by our last colonial governor Josiah Martin (1771-1775), who would conclude his term of office by ingloriously fleeing New Bern and taking shelter on Gabriel’s own Fort Johnson.
Contact Bill Hand at email@example.com, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.