Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."

 Chief Justice William Smith


Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers


The recently completed high-speed parkway that links

Wrightsville Beach and Downtown Wilmington is appropriately

named for one of the founders of the city, colonial Chief

Justice William Smith, and certainly reinforces our citizens

respect for their historic past. Chief Justice Smith was

instrumental in Wilmington’s creation as a town and its

further development as the premier city in North Carolina.

Smith stands alongside the many other historic names from Wilmington's colonial past: Gabriel Johnston, Benjamin Smith,

and Cornelius Harnett.


Appointed to the North Carolina General Court:

William Smith was born in England and educated at Middle Temple,

one of the Inns of the Court. After serving as a barrister for two years before coming to North Carolina. When he arrived is unknown but in

early 1731 and upon the nomination of Royal Governor George

Burrington he was appointed a member of the Council and

commissioned Chief Justice of North Carolina's General Court.

Despite opposition to his appointment from North Carolina's

Royal Governor George Burrington, Smith assumed his offices in 1731.

In April of 1731 he was also appointed as Treasurer of the Province,

vice Edward Moseley.


Smith resigned his office in late Spring 1731 due to conflicts with Burrington and returned to England to air his grievances. He returned

to North Carolina in June 1732 with the enmity between he and

Burrington even more intense. To avoid persecution he fled to Virginia

to await Burrington's replacement, Gov. Gabriel Johnston who came

to North Carolina in October 1734. One of Johnston's first acts

was to restore Smith to his former offices.

Creating the Town of Wilmington

Smith became Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston’s closest

and most influential ally in the colony as well as a personal friend.

Gov. Johnston was keenly interested in the development of the

southern part of the province, made his home there, and from that

region he selected most members of his Council. But he gained little

sympathy from the Moore family, who considered themselves the

dominant authority at Brunswick on the lower Cape Fear, which had become a township in 1729.

Johnston then procured a plantation upriver on lands granted by

John Watson, and in 1735 opened a land office, established a seat

of justice, and began a rival settlement he named "Newtown."

Here his meetings of the Court of Exchequer, Provincial Council,

and court of oyer and terminer were held. In 1736 a bill was

introduced in the General Assembly to incorporate Newtown as

"Wilmington," in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington,

the patron of Governor Johnston.

Through the influence of the Moore's the measure failed on its

first reading but in February 1736 a second bill of incorporation


However, in the Council the vote was a tie, standing four

to four as Smith was supported by other Council members

James Murray, Robert Halton and Matthew Rowan. 

Thereupon Chief Justice Smith, who served as President

of the Council, delcared his right as presiding officer to cast a

second ballot. He noted that by virtue of an Act passed by the

Council in 1711, the President could vote twice in case of a tie.

As he favored incorporation, the bill became law, but it would not

be until the February 1739 session that Wilmington's incorporation

bill would become law.

The Moore’s, Swann’s and their allies were furious but their protests

were ignored as the measure was passed by the Lower House as well. Thus, municipal government in Wilmington began with the Act of Incorporation which created the town commissioners and

named the original members.

Chief Justice William Smith then stood as a powerful political

figure in North Carolina, second only to the Governor himself.

Smith's Creek Named for William Smith

Smith owned a one-thousand acre tract by Royal Grant off the

northeast branch of the Cape Fear River signed by Governor Johnston,

and the creek off that branch was subsequently named for the Chief

Justice, as “Smith’s Creek.” This creek has also played an

important role in the local economy as it provided water-power

for the Gordon, and later Campbell Mills located in what is

now the Love Grove section of the city.

In 1741, Smith traveled to England on business and returned to

Wilmington later that year, and took a lesser interest in municipal affairs. Chief Justice Smith died in July 1743 without family, and left most

of his estate to Governor Johnston.




Some NC Tracts of the 18th Century, Wm. K. Boyd, 1925

Early Colonial History of New Hanover County,  E. McKoy, 1973

The Cape Fear, Malcolm Ross, 1965

Land of the Golden River, Vol. 2-3, L.P. Hall, 1980

Dictionary of NC History, W.S. Powell, UNC Press, 1986

    Colonial Records of North Carolina, W. L. Saunders,Vols 3-4, 1886

The Wilmington Town Book, NC Office of Archives & History

Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days, Lawrence Lee, 1965

Book of Wilmington, Andrew J. Howell,  1930