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A Moravian explorer in the Piedmont left us with a description of the area

A Moravian explorer in the Piedmont left us with a description of the area

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Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenburg

This is part one of a two-part series.

Driving around the more rural parts of Iredell County, I sometimes wonder what this area looked like to the Native Americans and first European settlers. Fortunately, a Moravian religious leader, Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenburg (1704-1792), has left us a description of what he saw more than two and a half centuries ago.

Spangenburg was a man who liked to see and do things for himself. He became a theologian and a bishop in the Moravian Church, properly called the Unitas Fratrum (United Brethren). The Moravians spoke German. Today, Moravia is a part of the Czech Republic.

As a bishop, Spangenberg was the man most responsible for the Moravian settlements in Forsyth County, North Carolina, and the city of Winston-Salem.

It was Spangenburg’s task to purchase land in North Carolina from Lord Granville, one of the famous “Eight Lords Proprietors” who owned most of what is today the two Carolinas.

Spangenburg, a sensible, moderate man. He was not the type of man who would buy “a pig in a poke.”

Beginning in the latter half of 1752, he and a small group traveled from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to the Yadkin River in North Carolina, a rough journey on horseback which took about six weeks. On arrival, the group began to explore the Granville lands and by the 13th of January 1753, he chose land in the valley of the Yadkin River as the site for the Moravian colony. It would be called the “Wachovia Tract,” Wachovia meaning “meadow land,” and was laid off in 1755 for the Moravians by the General Assembly. North Carolina’s Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs— for whom Fort Dobbs is named — approved the transaction.

Fortunately for us, Spangenburg kept a diary. The record of his Tar Heel travels begins on Sept. 10, 1752. Spangenburg and others arrived in North Carolina from Pennsylvania, then travelled westward, to present-day Guilford County, then trekked southwest to the Catawba River. Next, the explorers went up Little River into present-day Alexander County. From there they wandered southeastward and came to the Yadkin River—variously called by them the Adkin, the Atkin, the Etkin, and the Edkin—near present-day Wilkesboro.

Spangenburg’s notes give us an idea of what the piedmont looked like in the years just before mass migration of Scots-Irish and Germans to the area down the Great Wagon Road — roughly today’s US 29 from Pennsylvania, some 270 years ago.

With a settlement in Pennsylvania, the Moravians wished to plant a colony in North Carolina in what was then Anson County, the western part of which would come to be called “Rowan County.” The western part of Rowan became Iredell County in 1788.

While staying with Andreas Lambert, a Scotsman, who was living near the Island Ford in present-day Iredell County, the group explored a lowland tract of land about three miles long, as a possible site for settlement.

“Most of it is already clear [of timber] and can be used part for a meadow,” wrote Spangenburg, “part for Indian corn, and part for hemp. Hemp will be particularly profitable, for it sells at a good price and there is a bounty on it, to encourage its culture.

“There is not much timber, but enough to serve for a while if we are careful …

“The tract is well adapted for the raising of cattle, and ten couples of our brethren can make a good living here … Any one who knows how, and is willing to work, can make good meadows here, and can care for the cattle through the winter, until the meadows are ready, by using the small reeds which grow in the lowland, and which stay green all, or nearly all, winter. Cattle, and especially horses eat these reeds eagerly …

“This tract is well-watered,” he wrote. “On the upper side there is a site for an overshot millwheel, and on the east branch a mill could be built with an undershot wheel. The banks of the stream are so high that a man could not ride across, had not the buffalo broken them down here and there. There are also good springs.

“A settlement on this tract should be placed about in the middle, where the woods begin. There is a pretty little creek at hand, and the water from a spring in the hills runs down and forms a pool, where the buffalo probably bathed in hot weather, at least they have made a path around it.

Eventually the Bishop chose a site to the east in present-day Forsyth County, that better met his peoples’ needs. Besides the town of Salem (begun in 1766), the older communities of Bethabara (settled in 1753) and Bethania (settled in 1759) were begun under his supervision. Salem, of course, is part of present-day Winston-Salem.

Note the mention of buffalo. These were not the same species as one sees today in the West, but a smaller species called the “woodland buffalo.” We still have the “Buffalo Shoals Road” to remind us that the beasts once lived here.

O.C. Stonestreet is the author of “Tales From Old Iredell County,” “They Call Iredell County Home” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Mooresville, NC.”

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