Perhaps more than any other single factor, coastal geography has influenced Oriental’s history. The Neuse River, Pamlico Sound and the many creeks and estuaries in and around Oriental have always provided food, transportation, recreation and beauty. The first residents in this area were Native Americans, who fished, hunted and farmed along the creeks and river long before Europeans arrived. Most of the coastal Indians in this part of North Carolina were of the Algonquian linguistic stock. In the area around what is now Oriental, the Algonquian people belonged to the Neusiok tribe. However, there were also people of Iroquoian stock nearby – the Tuscarora, who lived further inland.
European Settlement in Oriental, NC
By the early 1700’s, Europeans had begun settling in the area. Land grants from the King of England show large tracts of land along the Neuse River that were sold to colonial farmers such as Furnifold Green and William Powell. Unfortunately, the settlement of Europeans in Eastern North Carolina created friction with the Native Americans who had preceded them. The strained relations between colonists and Native Americans eventually culminated in the Tuscarora War of 1711-1714, which centered around New Bern and which the Europeans finally won. Following the Tuscarora War, the Native American population in the area dwindled, until by the mid-1700’s, the Neusiok and Tuscarora tribes had disappeared as distinctive peoples.
In the early days of European settlement, Oriental was also the haunt of pirates. The famous pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, made his home in Bath, North Carolina. However, stories circulated that some of Blackbeard’s treasure, as well as a captured princess, could be found buried along Oriental’s shores. These rumors have prompted periodic “digs” along the shores of Oriental’s creeks. Both Teach’s Cove and Teach’s Oak (which fell during a storm in 1958) were named for the notorious pirate.
The Founding of Oriental, NC
Area creeks such as Smith, Greens, Pearce, and Whittaker were named after early settlers, who were responsible for the growth of European settlement around Oriental until the Civil War, but they were farmers and landowners who never created a fully realized town center. It was a slightly later settler, Lewis Midyette, who is considered the founder of Oriental proper. According to tradition, in the 1870’s “Uncle Lou” was sailing from New Bern back to his home in Dare County, where he was a farmer and a fisherman. To ride out a gale, he anchored his boat at the mouth of Smith Creek, in the protected waters off Oriental. The next morning, Midyette went ashore and climbed a tree to take a look around. He was captivated by the beautiful landscape, especially the extensive waterfront created by the many creeks. Delighted with his discovery, just like many visitors since then, he returned home to persuade others to join his family in moving to the area. His descendants still live in Oriental.
How Oriental, NC Got its Name
But Oriental was not called “Oriental” when the Midyettes settled here. Before the Civil War, the loose settlement in this area had been named “Smith’s Creek,” after the creek where Lewis Midyette sought shelter from the gale. In 1886, the United States Post Office established a post office under that name, and “Uncle Lou” became the postmaster. Especially because the Postal Service frowned on towns with double names, “Uncle Lou’s” wife Rebecca thought the village needed a more distinctive (and one-word) name.
According to one story, when she was visiting the Outer Banks, she found, washed up on the beach, the nameplate from the sailing steamer Oriental, which had been wrecked in 1862 off Bodie Island. (According to a less dramatic version of the story, she just saw the Oriental’s nameplate displayed in a Manteo home.) “Aunt Becky” Midyette thought that “Oriental” was a far better name for her village than “Smith’s Creek.” Because the name made such an impression on her, the village became known as Oriental a few years after the post office was established, and it was incorporated under that name in 1899. There is no other town named “Oriental” in all of the United States.
The foot of Broad Street, where the current bridge is located, was called the Town Wharf. In that area, you could find the mills, the “company store,” hotels, banks, the hardware store, the livery stable, millinery shops, fish houses and a dozen or more stores in wood and brick buildings.
Oriental’s Developing Economy
From the early 1900’s, Oriental’s economy was supported by lumber, fishing and farming. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, transportation was provided by steamships connecting towns along the Neuse River and the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. Oriental became a prime landing spot for steam vessels because it had a relatively deep channel, with a tributary that formed a harbor capable of protecting boats in foul weather.
Train Service in Oriental
Schooners also stopped here to take on lumber and shingles. During this period, excursions by steamboat became a favorite treat for Oriental residents. On occasion, usually on a weekend, individuals or groups chartered the same boats that conveyed cargo during the week to take them on outings to islands, other villages or beaches. In 1906 the Norfolk and Southern Railroad, a consolidation of several railways such as the Pamlico, Oriental & Western Railroads, built a line from New Bern that was extended in 1907 to Oriental, and a train came to town that provided both cargo and passenger service. Because of the marshy land between New Bern and Oriental, it was nicknamed “the Swamp Lily.” Train service to Oriental ended in the 1950’s.
Fishing, farming and forestry in Oriental
Fishing, farming and forestry were for many years the main occupations in Oriental. Fish houses lined the harbor, where shrimp sold for 8 to 10 cents a pound. The Whorton Crab Factory is believed to have been the first commercial seafood processing plant in North Carolina. If locals weren’t fishing, then they were farming. Cash crops in Pamlico County included cabbage, corn, wheat, cotton, tobacco and Irish potatoes.
Although the lumber industry was crucial to the early “boom years” in Oriental, the last sawmill closed in the early 1960’s, just about the time that recreational sailors began to discover the village. The 1960 census recorded only 522 residents within the town limits, a decrease from the 1930 census.
The Sailing Capital of North Carolina
Just four sailboats called Oriental home in 1960, but moderate temperatures, beautiful scenery and slow-paced living began to draw water lovers to town in large numbers. Today, the number of boats has grown to nearly 3,000, and Oriental is known as the “Sailing Capital of North Carolina.” Conveniently located on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), Oriental is a popular stop for “snowbirds” cruising south for the winter or heading north for the summer. Many residents will tell you that their first visit to Oriental was while cruising along coastal North Carolina.
Oriental is known by many as The Sailing Capital of North Carolina.
Fishing, agriculture, marine-related businesses and tourism now dominate the local economy. Fishing trawlers still grace the small harbor, bringing in a catch of shrimp, crab or perhaps flounder, depending on the season.
Many commercial fishing vessels call Oriental’s harbor home.
Oriental’s History Museum: Preserving the Village
The nameplate of the sailing steamer Oriental has been lost, but a porthole from the ship is in Oriental’s History Museum. Through both permanent and rotating displays, the Museum offers many windows on Oriental’s past, from a colonial-era dugout to mid-twentieth-century navigational instruments.
The Museum has developed several walking tours that highlight eighty-five or more historic structures in town. Brochures to guide these walks and explain the history of the structures are available to Museum visitors free of charge and can also be found in a rack outside the Museum door after hours. Be sure to check out the online walking tour created exclusively for VisitONC by local web development company Circle Squared Publishing.
Stop in to Oriental’s History Museum for more information about local history.
Oriental’s History Museum is located at 802 Broad Street. Hours are Friday 11am-1pm, Saturday 1-4pm and Sunday 1-4pm. Group tours available by appointment. Follow the museum on Facebook and stay up to date with their latest events.