Written By Glenn Roberts, David S. Shields, & B. Merle Shepard
Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012
Between 1700 and 1775 no colony in British America experienced more impressive growth than North Carolina, and no region within the colony developed as rapidly as the Lower Cape Fear. Totally uninhabited by Europeans in 1700, this isolated corner of North Carolina's southern coast is particularly noteworthy for its relatively late colonization and its rapid rise to economic prominence, first settled in 1725, the region grew to be the most prosperous in North Carolina by 1775. The study of the eighteenth-century settlement of the Lower Cape Fear is a prime example for understanding North Carolina and the entirety of colonial America as a patchwork of regional cultures (Bradford, J Wood, 2004).
One family, the Moore’s, proved to be pivotal in the development of the Lower Cape Fear. During early 1700s they shaped the regions political and economic importance within North Carolina. The Moores provide an instructive if exceptional example. As the most powerful family in the region, they articulated an elite model of behavior many other families no doubt emulated. The Moores, like many other settlers, clearly developed impressive and complex kinship ties to the Lower Cape Fear. Maurice and Roger Moore were powerful men, coming from one of South Carolina’s most prominent families. Maurice’s father, James Moore, came to South Carolina from Barbados in the 1670s and served as Governor of South Carolina between 1700 and 1703. These connections insured that two of the 10 siblings, Maurice and Roger, would become wealthy and influential plantation owners.
Orton and Kendall plantations were created on lands granted by the Lords Proprietors in 1725 to Maurice Moore, who along with brothers Roger, Nathaniel, and a group of settlers founded Brunswick Town (now within Historic Brunswick Town District). Maurice established lands further up river and passed ownership of the land to Roger. Although the Moore’s had originally emigrated from Ireland via Barbados, Orton and Kendall were named after the Moore’s ancestral homes in the Lake district of North of England.
Roger Moore was among the first settlers to build a distinctive plantation system along the Cape Fear River. Some fragmentary business accounts reveal that by 1735 Moore already exported lumber, turpentine, and wood shingles from Lower Cape Fear. At this time Moore also traded with connections in both South Carolina and Barbados.
These accounts probably provide only a small glimpse of the range of activities on Moore’s Orton & Kendall plantations. Fifteen years later, Moore’s will revealed that his resources included “Twenty Odd Thousand Acres of Land & Near Two Hundred and Fifty Slaves,” making him almost certainly the wealthiest plantation owner in North Carolina.
Sometime between 1726 and 1730 Roger Moore established a modest house on the 10,000-acre site to be called Orton. The house was burned down by Cree Indians and his next home was established on neighboring land, which subsequently became Kendal Plantation. However, by 1735 he had moved his family to a more suitable brick mansion situated on the original Orton house site. Over time and subsequent ownerships the original brick structure was enveloped and extended to create a Greek Revival Antebellum house that is one of the most recognized in North Carolina today.
Orton Plantation’s rice fields as seen today were constructed sometime between 1726 and 1750 together with the damming and construction of Orton pond, which was essential as a reserve to supply the rice fields with water.
The pond and rice field layout is recorded on many early historic navigation plans of the Cape Fear River. Research is ongoing and current thinking suggests that the ‘back’ rice fields contiguous to Orton pond, protected by higher ground and most easily fortified against the brackish Cape Fear River, were developed first as a beta test site to experiment with rice cultivation.
Due to their success, a large dike impoundment was built out into a shallow portion of the Cape Fear River. This was equipped with extensive irrigation and water control structures to modulate water levels. At the same time sluices drained the fresh water of Orton pond through a series of paddies and canals within the original “Back” rice fields to the 200-plus acres of rice fields that provide the magnificent foreground view from the front of the plantation house. Although cultivation of rice and other crops has been intermittent in the last few decades, the original system of water controls, sluices, canals, and embankments are largely in place and functional.
Orton was the first rice plantation in the Lower Cape Fear Region and one of the largest in North Carolina and because of his vast land holdings, Roger Moore was referred to as “King” Roger. The amount of slave labor that was needed to build the original pond and back rice fields was significant, but with commercial success even more slaves were imported to build out and cultivate the massive front rice fields. This horrendous and cruel labor system gave way after the Civil War to large agrarian employment and eventually more mechanized cultivation.
Upon his death in 1750, Moore left his Orton and Kendal estates and 250 slaves to his sons, half-brothers George and William. William died seven years later and passed Orton to wife Mary and son Roger (the younger). Orton was thereafter passed through various ownerships:
- Richard Quince: 1770-1796.
- Benjamin Smith: 1796-1826, grandson of Roger Moore and Governor of North Carolina (1810- 11). 1800, Brunswick census lists 199 slaves
- Dr Fredrick Jones Hill: 1826-1854. 1830 Brunswick census lists 55 slaves. 1850 census shows profitable Sawmill, Corn mill and Rice Threshing Machine producing 15000 bushels of rough rice (annual production of 325,000 pounds of Rice) with 77 slaves
- Thomas Calezance Miller: 1854-1872. Rice plantation flourishes until end of Civil War. 1860 Brunswick census lists 144 slaves in 40 houses.
- Isaac B Grainger: 1874 -1876
- Currer Richardson Roundell: Feb 1876- July 1876
- Col. Kenneth McKenzie Murchison: 1884 -1909
- Luola Murchison Sprunt and James Sprunt: 1909-1924
- James Laurance Sprunt: 1924-1973
- James Laurance Sprunt Jr., Laurance Gray Sprunt, Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, Samuel Nash Sprunt
- 1978-2010 Louis Moore Bacon (descendant of Roger Moore), as principal of parent company to Orton Plantation Holdings LLC.
Current rehabilitation of National Register-nominated Orton Plantation house and gardens together with the proposed rehabilitation and restoration of the rice fields highlighted the need to connect the plantation house, gardens, and rice fields as one historic entity, hence the desire and importance of including the rice fields on the National Register. In order to understand the rice field systems as agricultural features, the fields should be considered in context of the plantation, plantation house, slave villages, kitchens, outbuildings, and burial grounds. As cultural landscapes, rice fields consist of interconnected systems of land, water, vegetation, and wildlife that differentiate them from other cultural resources.
The rice grown and produced at Orton was of a high quality, fine grain which was highly prized and sought after as seed rice by the larger Southern plantations. The annual production of seed rice was critical in order to maintain the vast economies and rapid growth of rice plantations in the Southern states. Orton and other Lower Cape Fear plantations were a key factor in the maintaining the development and success of the Southern-based rice economy. Orton Rice fields have the potential to be primary sources from which researchers can gain understanding about Colonial and Antebellum periods of North Carolina and the Cape Fear Region.
Extensive slave labor made the economic development of the Lower Cape Fear possible and the circumstances surrounding slavery did as much to differentiate the Lower Cape Fear from other regions as anything else. Contemporaries acknowledged that there were many more slaves in the region than could be found on inland territories. Although fiercely independent of South Carolina, Governance and Tax structure, Lower Cape Fear rice plantations, represented the most northerly position of the Carolina Lowcountry and is known as the upper most limit of the “Deep South.”
Orton's rice fields are the last of the many rice plantations of North Carolina. They stand as tangible record of the skill and labor exerted by enslaved laborers. Although the noted Civil War battlefields of Fort Fisher and Fort Anderson flank the southern boundary of Orton, the reason for the war itself was the demands of the slave labor practice that built and cultivated the plantation's rice fields that will hopefully be restored as its own 'battleground' testimony.