Natural History

The History of Guilford County, North Carolina, U.S.A., to 1980, A.D.
by Blackwell P. Robinson of U.N.C.-G (to 1890)
& Alexander R. Stoesen of Guilford College (from 1890)
edited by Sydney M. Cone, Jr.
project of
The Guilford County Bicentennial Commission, 1971, John Harden, Chairman
The Guilford County American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1976,
J. H. Froelich, Jr., Chairman

published with funds provided by The Guilford County Commissioners, Blue Bell, Inc., Cone Mills Corporation, Gilbarco, Inc., and other friends of history.  No publication date, no copyright information.

The following material is quoted directly from the book.
This information is made available strictly for private use and not for republication in any form.

Volume One
Guilford County’s First 150 Years

by Blackwell P. Robinson
Chapter I ~ First There Was The Land

First there was the land – the streams, the flora, and the fauna. Then came the Red Man to inhabit the upper central Piedmont section of North Carolina in the land which is now called the county of Guilford. The Red Man, centuries later, was followed in the mid-eighteenth century by the white man and later the black man. But just what were the topographical and climatic conditions which attracted them?

Topographically, the county is typical of the Piedmont with its well rounded hills and ridges and occupies an elevated plateau dissected by the valleys of numerous streams. According to the Soil Survey of Guilford County, the topography varies from gently reolling to rolling, steep and broken. The smoother areas are confined largely to the broader devides in the northern and central parts of the county. There are also five important ridges, most of them running in a general east-west direction. These smooth belts of country vary in width from one-half to three miles.

The Survey continues:

The rolling, strongly rolling, steep, or broken topography occurs along the slopes and around the heads of streams. The topography along the slopes of Haw River, Reedy Fork, North Buffalo, South Buffalo, and Little Alamance Creeks is rolling to strongly rolling, becoming broken in the east near the county line. In the southwestern and southern parts of the county along Deep River, and Registers, Polecat, and Stink[ing] Quarter Creeks the topography is broken. The lowlands along the streams have a level surface. In general the slopes leading to the streams are smooth and gentle, but in a few places they are steep and bluff like.

One may surmise as to the derivation of the offensive name of one of these streams – Polecat Creek – but the other name – Stinking Quarter – has a legend handed down by one John Swaim whose memory, according to his granddaughter, ran back to the days of earliest settlement. It seems that in pioneer days a man, whose name has not come down to us, established his claim to the forest bordering this beautiful stream. In summer, at the season when the female deer brought forth her young and venison was a much sought-after delicacy, he shot down great numbers of does for their skins and left their carcasses to rot in the woods. As a result, “the land stank” in that “quarter.” Hence, the name.   [footnote: Belle Swaim, Scrapbook No. 11, Greensboro Historical Museum, Undated clipping (c. 1881) from the Greensboro Patriot.]

The county has an area of 660 square miles and its elevation ranges from about 700 feet to about 900 feet above sea level. The highest elevations occur in the northwestern and southeastern parts and the lowest in the eastern and southern. Thus, the prevailing slope of the land is eastward.

There are no large streams in the county, because they all have their sources in this county or in the adjacent Forsyth County near the western boundary line of Guilford. Two of these streams are dignified with the name “river”; Haw and Deep. Haw River and its tributaries rise northeast of Kernersville in Forsyth County and in northwest Guilford and flow northeast through Guilford to the southeastern corner of Rockingham County. Here the Haw River proper turns southeast and eventually joins Deep River near Moncure in Chatham County, where it becomes the important Cape Fear River which flows by Wilmington down to the Atlantic Ocean. Deep River rises southeast of Kernersville in Forsyth and Guilford counties and flows south and southeast to the northern part of Moore County and then east and northeast to join the Haw.   [footnote: Soil Survey, P. 168; Jasper L. Stuckey, North Carolina: Its Geology and Mineral Resources (Raleigh: Department of Conservation and Development, 1965), pp. 17-18.]

The county is also drained through the basins of Reedy Fork, North and South Buffalo, Big and Little Alamance, Polecat, and Stinking Quarter creeks. They all flow northeast into Alamance County and are nearly all sluggish. Smaller creeks, branches, and intermittent drainage ways connect with the larger streams and give the county a comprehensive drainage system.   [footnote: Soil Survey, P. 168. For a more detailed study see M. J. Mundorff, Geology and Ground Water in the Greensboro Area, North Carolian (Raleigh: Department of Conservation and Development, 1948.) Bulletin Number 55.]

In addition to its relatively high elevation and rolling topography, Guilford County has a healthful climate. The mean annual rainfall for the last three decades is 41.85 inches, according to the Weather Bureau of the Department of the Interior. This is usually sufficient for crops commonly grown here. The average winter brings two snows of an inch or more. A few winters have brought only a trace of snow, but occasionally from 15 to 20 inches have been recorded in one storm. Snow rarely stays on the ground more than a few days.

The mean average temperature is 58.0 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average growing seasion is approximately 200 days, usually extending from the middle of April to the first of November.

The soils are residual and alluvial, the latter occupying only a small part of the county. The residual soils are derived directly from the underlying rocks. [footnote: U.S. Department of Commerce, Local Climatological Data, Greensboro, N.C., 1969.]

This is indeed a prosaic account of a land that was described in glowing terms by such writers as Willaim Byrd II (infra., pp. 11 et. seq.) and by the delightful eighteenth-century traveller and essayist, J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur. The latter described western Guilford in a book first published in London in 1782:

“No spot on earth can be more beautiful; it is composed of gentle hills, of easy declivities, excellent lowlands, accompanied by different brooks which travers the settlement. I never saw a soil that rewards men so easily for their labors and disbursements; such in general with very few exceptions are the lands which adjoin the innumerable heads of all the large rivers which fall into the Chesapeak [sic], or flow through the provinces of North and South Carolina, etc. It is perhaps the most pleasing, the most bewitching country which the continent affords; because [end of page 1] while it preserves an easy communication with the sea-port towns, at some seasons of the year, it is perfectly free from the contagious air often breathed in those flat countries, which are more contiguous to the Atlantic.”   [footnote: Letters from An American Farmer (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1926), p. 133.]

Describing a trip from Hillsborough across this same land in the 1850’s, Calvin Henderson Wiley, a Guilford County native and the first State Superintendent of Common Schools, wrote:

“We have now left the swamps, the level lands and broad sheets of water, the sand-hills and pine forests, behind us; we have got among forests of oak and hickory, into a country undulating with hills and valleys, and chequered with creeks and bountifully supplied with springs … The sloping hills are yellow with the ripening wheat; and in the vales and bottoms the green grass waves in the summer breeze … We continue our journey westward, observing that the whole country which we pass is fit for the abode of man, and can be easily cultivated. The lands are not extremely fertile; but they are almost universally good, and can be tilled without the necessary expenditure of capital…
“The whole country including Guilford County is a pleasant and fertile one; and is capable of containing and supporting a very large population.”  
[footnote: Calvin H. Wiley, The North Carolina Reader (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Company, 1851), pp. 49-51, 57.]

At the time of the coming of the white man this section was heavily covered with oak, chestnut (now extinct), hickory, poplar, pine, maple, and dogwood trees amid thick and luxurious undergrowth. Three decades later General Nathanael Greene, after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15, 1781, reported to Congress that “the greater part of this country is a wilderness, with a few cleared fields interspersed here and there.”   [footnote: Rev. S. M. Rankin, HIsory of Buffalo Presbyterian Church and Her People, Greensboro, N.C. (Greensboro: Jos. J. Stone & Co., n.d.), p. 16.]

The first settlers found wild animals and game in abundance. Bears, deer, squirrels, rabbits, and a few still-remaining buffaloes furnished meat for their tables, and wild fowls, such as turkeys, quail, geese, and even pigeons in season, relieved the monotomy of “all meat”. This sportsman’s paradise was enhanced by the great number of fish in the many streams. As one writer expressed it, they chased the fox and the deer, they hunted the buffalo and the bear, shot the wolf and the panther, and trapped the beaver and the otter.   [footnote: Ibid., pp. 16-17; Robert D. W. Connor, Race Elements in the White Population of North Carolina (Greensboro: The Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, 1933), p. 82.]

Vermin constantly preyed on the crops of the early settlers, and wild animals were a threat to livestock and human beings. Dr. David Caldwell, Guilford County’s first “first citizen,” was attacked in the 1760’s by a pack of wolves which nearly took his life. He was returning home late one night when a pack of wolves, attracted probably by the smell of the asafetida or other medicines in his saddlebags, raised a howl behind him and were gaining on him. Having no defensive weapons – not even a switch – he used “his characteristic presence of mind”, reached forward, pulled the bridle off his horse, and using that as a whip, went at full speed until he reached home. He had just time enough to get through the gate and shut it before the wolves came up.   [footnote: Eli W. Caruthers, A Sketch of the Life and Character of The Rev. David Caldwell (Greensborough: Printed by Swaim and Sherwood, 1842), p. 113n.]

Though rich in many natural resources, Guilford County is not blessed with rich deposits of minerals. In fact, the pioneers found few mineral resources which could furnish the basis for a livelihood, though gold mining flourished for a time in the nineteenth century. Later copper, iron, and quartz were found in relatively small quantities. Even later granite would be quarried, mica and clay mined.

All things taken into consideration, it was a good land – a land where one could live and breathe, and have one’s being. It was a land, indeed, that evoked the enthusiastic acclaim of the eighteenth-century traveller, Elkanah Watson, who wrote soon after the Revolution:

In the general face of the country – the temperature of the climate – the purity of the air, and the exuberance of the soil, this region closely resembles the South of France, although several degrees nearer the Equator. [footnote: Winslow C. Watson (ed.), Men and Times of the Revolution; or Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, Including Journals of Travels in Europe and America from 1777 to 1842 (New York: Dana and Company, 1856), p. 255.]