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CARPE LIBRUM: A new book by a local historian sheds light on the Cape Fear region’s European roots

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Charles Towne on the Cape Fear: The Rise and Fall of the First Barbadian Settlement in Carolina

Jack E. Fryar, Jr.

Dram Tree Books, 2019, pgs. 238


The process of writing a book is time-consuming at best. There are plenty of books, blogs and workshops that promise the secret to writing a book in a month, or in 15 minutes a day over a weekend, or while upside down, treading water on the moon. But the reality is: A well-drafted, carefully-edited and polished book takes persistence and time.

For almost a decade, Jack Fryar, local historian and founder of Dram Tree Books, has been promising me his history of the Charles Towne settlement—the first major European settlement in our area. A couple of months ago, Fryar came by the bookstore with an autographed copy. Have you ever waited so long for a book that, when it finally arrives, you are torn between devouring it in one sustained messy ready and drawing it out to linger over every carefully chosen sentence, map and picture? If so, you understand where I was.

Fryar has a personal mission to make local history accessible to people who wouldn’t even know where to start looking for it. One of the more important and lesser-known pieces of our local history is the early Charles Towne settlement. Really, everything in this area stems from that. Were it not for Charles Towne, Orton Plantation would not exist. Nor would Brunswick Town have come into being, nor really the settlement on this side of the river as it is today. That is part of what is so interesting about Charles Towne: The settlement itself is gone, but its history is still felt.

Fryar really does make it come alive. He takes his readers first to Barbados, which was pivotal in control of the New World by European powers. How did the enslavement of Africans become the dominant norm in the Americas? Why is that significant to the history of our area? We watch the development of the sugar plantations on Barbados and how owning and managing them played into European politics. Within that economic climate, Fryar situates the restoration of the English monarchy and the return of Charles II. Rather than treating it like an isolated aberration—a failed attempt to colonize the area for the English—Fryar brings Charles Towne to life as the key to the development of this area. We follow the restoration of Charles II to England’s throne and the loyal men who put him there. We see, step by step, the charter of the Carolinas and the circumstances that brought people to this wild and dangerous corner of the world.

How did the sugar trade and slavery connect to the development of our area? How did the restoration of Charles II to the throne make the settlement of the Carolinas a possibility, let alone a priority for the English government? Why are all these pieces important? Because the new world, and our area, were not created in a bubble. There were important factors at work across the globe that made investment of money, time, resources and people worthwhile.

Who were the key players? Who were the Lords’ proprietors and how did they shape this endeavor? If you have ever considered such questions, Fryar’s book answers in clear, accessible language. It’s obvious he spends his days teaching high school history; he is used to carefully talking others through events that have shaped our world.   

The Cape Fear’s Charles Towne Settlement was actually considered a failure. It led to the much more popular and well-known Charles Towne Settlement farther South. Fryar lays out the miscalculations and struggles that led to the abandonment of the site—and the long-term ramifications, which include family relationships responsible for the building of later, permanent settlements in our area. If anything, Fryar makes certain his readers understand the human factor in shaping our history.   

I think that is what makes me love his work so much: He is a gifted historian and includes all necessary documentation and references. Rather than getting caught in a dry recitation of facts and dates, he keeps human fallibility at the center of his story. That is what drove the decisions, and it is what makes modern readers connect with the events. For clarity of writing and purpose, there isn’t a more approachable historian than Jack Fryar.    

Don’t get me wrong: There are a plethora of maps and portraits for history and cartography lovers. Most importantly, there is an invitation to connect with the brave, selfish, desperate and entirely fallible humans who laid the groundwork for our community today.

The holidays are coming up, and all history buffs on your shopping list will see this book as a great addition to their collection.

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