When I set out a couple of years ago to write my first novel, a historical fantasy called Mountain Folk, I decided to set most the action during the American Revolution. It’s my favorite period in American history. After all, I’m a native North Carolinian — which means I grew up surrounded by reminders of our nation’s founding era.
Our most populous city, Charlotte, was named after King George III’s wife. It’s the county seat of Mecklenburg, named after Queen Charlotte’s home duchy in Germany. Our third-largest city, Greensboro, was named after General Nathaniel Greene, who commanded the Patriots’ southern field army during the final stage of the Revolutionary War. His name also adorns the city of Greenville and nearby Greene County.
Ranked fourth in population, Winston-Salem was half-named for another Revolutionary War hero, Joseph Winston, who served under Greene at the pivotal 1781 battle of Guilford Court House. As for Fayetteville, sixth in population, its namesake was Marquis de Lafayette, the dashing French officer who served under George Washington at several key engagements, including Yorktown.
Here are some other founding-era personalities whose names now grace counties or municipalities in North Carolina:
• Samuel Ashe. A native of Beaufort, Ashe practiced law before going into the “family business” of politics. Both his father and uncle had served as speakers of the North Carolina House. During the run-up to the Revolutionary War, Samuel Ashe served in the North Carolina Provincial Congress and helped draft the new state’s constitution. Then he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he served as that chamber’s first speaker. In 1795, the legislature elected him to the first of three one-year terms as governor. Asheville, Asheboro and Ashe County all bear his name.
• Griffith Rutherford. Born in Ireland and emigrating to North Carolina via Philadelphia (as many backcountry families did), Rutherford got his first taste of military service as a militia captain during the French and Indian War. Like Ashe, he served in the Provincial Congress that wrote the North Carolina constitution. Elected brigadier general of the Patriot militia in the Salisbury District, Rutherford then led the devastating 1776 raid against the British-allied Cherokees.
Later, he commanded troops at battles in Georgia and the Carolinas. Wounded during America’s 1780 defeat at Camden, Rutherford was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Florida for a year. After the war, Rutherford served in both houses of the new legislature. His name adorns Rutherford County and its county seat, Rutherfordton.
• Cornelius Harnett. Born in Chowan County, Harnett became a leading merchant in Wilmington and served as a town commissioner. He twice represented the area in the North Carolina House, first in 1754 and then again on the eve of the war in 1775. He served as the first president of the North Carolina Provincial Council, essentially the executive branch of the new government, and then represented North Carolina in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779.
In early 1781, the British captured Wilmington. Some redcoats reportedly grabbed the congressman and threw him “across a horse like a sack of meal.” Harnett’s health deteriorated rapidly. Although the British released him in April, Harnett died shortly thereafter. Harnett County was named after this martyr to the cause.
• Edward Buncombe. Born on what is now the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Buncombe came to North Carolina in 1768 after inheriting a plantation on the Albemarle Sound. He was elected colonel of the 5th North Carolina Regiment and fought in the Continental Army. Like Rutherford at Camden, Buncombe was wounded and captured during another British victory, this one at Germantown in 1777.
His battlefield wound wasn’t immediately fatal. But a few months later, Buncombe went walking in his sleep, fell down a flight of stairs, and reopened his wounds, causing his death. From him, we got not only the name of Buncombe County but, indirectly, the word “bunk,” meaning a load of nonsense. That must remain, however, a tale for another day.