Bald Head: The History of Smith Island and Cape Fear

Did You Know?
Excerpts from David Stick’s Bald Head: The History of Smith Island and Cape Fear

  • William S. Powell, distinguished historian and author of the definitive North Carolina Gazetteer, says that the name Bald Head is properly applied only to a small area of no more than a few hundred acres occupying the extreme southwest portion of the southernmost of the islands in the complex.
  • The name CAPE FEAR first appeared on a map drawn by a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1585 colony en route to Roanoke Island, stating: “wee were in great danger of a Wracke on a breache called the Cape of Feare.”
  • The vast areas of Smith Island marshland and the tidal creeks winding among them provide a productive spawning ground for a variety of marine creatures, not the least of which are oysters, shrimp, clams, and crabs, as well as a number of fin-fish, including spot and mullet.
  • Bald Head’s best-known and most-publicized marine visitor is the giant loggerhead turtle, which sometimes weighs as much as half a ton.  Awareness of the plight of the endangered loggerheads is especially acute on Bald Head, where a unique cooperative arrangement involving the developer, residents, the Nature Conservancy, and government agencies has resulted in an active “Turtle Watch” program.
  • Landgrave Thomas Smith, a prominent merchant from Charlestown, secured a grant for the island on which Cape Fear was located on May 8, 1713 for the purpose of trading with the Indians.
  • In September 1717 the notorious pirate Stede Bonnett was captured by Colonel Rhett in the waters of the Cape Fear River adjacent to Bald Head Island.
  • During the War of Jenkins’ Ear (cir. 1740’s) a Spanish man-of-war appeared off Bald Head, harassing vessels entering Port Brunswick and commandeering others departing North Carolina with naval stores. As a result Fort Johnston was begun for the defense of the Cape Fear River.
  • Benjamin Smith , the last of the heirs of Landgrave Thomas Smith to hold title to Smith Island and Bald Head, died in 1826 following a distinguished career in which he served as an aide de camp to General Washington as well as Governor of North Carolina, 1810-1811.
  • In 1784 the North Carolina Assembly authorized a special duty of six pence per ton to be paid by all vessels entering the Cape Fear, the proceeds to be used for “erecting beacons and buoys at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.”  By 1789 there was enough money in the hands of the commissioners to begin construction of a lighthouse on Bald Head.  Benjamin Smith, a member of the commission and owner of Bald Head, donated 10 acres, with the stipulation “that no person, shall be allowed to carry or keep on the said island, or any part thereof, any cattle, hogs, or stock of any kind.” The lighthouse keeper was permitted to keep poultry, a cow, and a calf but anyone found hunting on the Island would be fined five pounds the first time and ten pounds for each succeeding offense.
  • John J. Hedrick, an engineer from Wilmington and commander of the Confederate “Cape Fear Minute Men” was put in charge of the building of Fort Holmes on the west side of Bald Head.  The primary mission of the 1,400 men of the 40th Regiment, North Carolina Troops under Hedrick’s command was to prevent enemy landings anywhere on Smith Island; another was to go to the aid of any friendly vessel unfortunate enough to run aground on or near the island.
  • An early plan, in the 1920’s and 30’s, for development of what the promoter called “Palmetto Island” resulted in clearing for proposed roads, and construction of a pier, a pavilion, and a partially completed hotel.
  • Frank O. Sherrill of Charlotte purchased Bald Head Island in 1938 with plans for a major resort which would include a four lane  “ocean highway” down the East Beach from Fort Fisher – to be paid for by the State of NC. In 1963 he consolidated his holdings by purchasing the federal property surrounding the two Lightstations and Lifesaving Station.
  • In 1972 the Carolina Cape Fear Corporation purchased Bald Head from Frank Sherrill and announced development plans; however, politics, an economic recession, and a new public awareness of the value of undeveloped natural areas doomed their project to failure.
  • Today 10,000 acres of marsh and estuary belong to the State of North Carolina. The Bald Head Island Conservancy and the North Carolina Nature Conservancy are involved in managing the undeveloped land.