Williamston is the
county seat of Martin County, located in the
northeastern Coastal Plain of North Carolina.
The town's population is approximately 5,900 while the
county's total population is about 25,000.
Asa Biggs House,
circa 1831, Home of Asa Biggs, a former
U.S. Senator and federal judge. Today it
houses the offices of the Martin County Historical Society.
The exact date of
the first settlement at what was to become
Williamston cannot be determined, but it is
known there was a village in the general
locality as early as 1730. The first settlers
are said to have moved from Bertie County to the
south side of the Moratoc (now Roanoke) River
and located near the ruins of what had been a
Tuscaroran Indian village. The locality was
known to the Indians as "Squhawky," but it was
called "Tar Landing" by the English settlers, as
it gradually became the principal shipping point
for the tar, pitch, turpentine, and other forest
products and meat produced the section.
prospered and was designated the seat of
government when Martin County was chartered in
March 1774. A little over five years later,
during the Revolutionary War, it became the
first incorporated town in the county and was
named "Williamston" in the charter granted at a
session of the General Assembly held in Halifax
during October and November 1779.
There are two
versions concerning the selection of the name
"Williamston" for the town. One of them - based
largely on hearsay and legend - is that the name
was chosen in honor of a poor Irish weaver named
"Dick" Williams, who was supposed to have
settled in the area around the middle of the 18th
Century. It is said he arrived with 75 cents in
his pocket, but by hard work and strict economy
he managed to create a substantial fortune and
became one of the most influential men in town.
The other version is
that the town was named in honor of Colonel
William Williams, scion of a wealthy and
distinguished family which owned large
plantations in the northwestern part of the
county prior to the Revolution. The name
Williams is prominently connected with the early
history of the county.
father, also named William Williams, migrated to
this country from Wales in the early 1700s and
settled on the south bank of the Roanoke River
in the upper end of the county, which at that
time was in Edgecombe and was later a part of
Halifax before it became Martin. William
Williams II was a delegate to the Hillsborough
and Halifax conventions in 1776, was elected
colonel of Martin County's militia when it was
organized and continued in that capacity until
after he was elected the county's first state
senator in 1777. He resigned his military
commission shortly afterwards and was succeeded
as commanding officer of the county's militia by
his nephew, Lt. Colonel Whitmel Hill.
Martin County Courthouse - Williamston
was designated as the county seat when
Martin County was formed in 1774.
importance as a town and its growth and
development immediately before and after its
incorporation was largely based on two factors.
First was its location on the banks of a
navigable river; and second, its designation as
the seat of county government when Martin County
was formed in 1774.
The Roanoke River
enabled ships of considerable size to navigate
its waters as far upstream as Williamston before
there were any roads. Being the seat of
government necessarily brought most of the
residents of the county to Williamston to record
legal documents, attend court sessions, or
attend military musters, elections or other
Having a public
landing, it was automatically an important
shipping point for river freight traffic, both
incoming and outgoing. Later, the railroad came,
resulting in increased commerce by rail and
water. Moving into the 19th Century,
the bridging of the river in 1922, Williamston
became the hub of a system of major highways and
roads upon which the business and commercial
life of the county now largely depends.
Williamston is home
to the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural
Center, a showplace for equestrian events and
other spectator events that opened in 1998.
There is a downtown revitalization effort
underway to complement the town's Commercial
District designation on the National Register of
Historic Places. There are several historic
structures of interest: circa-1831 Asa Biggs
House; circa-1885 Old Martin County Courthouse;
circa-1850 Doctor W. Bagley Office; and the
circa 1853 Skewarkey Primitive Baptist Church. A
self-guided walking tour is available from the
Visitor's Center in the Asa Biggs House on
Church Street in Williamston.
The one-mile Skewarkee Trail connects downtown with the Roanoke River via a
converted railroad bed and ends in a riverside
boardwalk. The trail is used by bicyclists, walkers,
skaters and others.
(History taken from
research by the late F.M. Manning)