In the colonial period, North Carolina’s ports emerged as crucial sites in the growing maritime trade network of the American colonies. These ports of entry served as pivotal hubs where vessels underwent inspection, import fees were collected, and commerce thrived. They were instrumental in facilitating trade with other colonies and foreign nations. Beginning with the settlement of permanent residents in the area north of Albemarle Sound, the colonial authorities, initially under the governance of the Lords Proprietors, recognized the strategic importance of establishing efficient maritime infrastructure. The Lords Proprietors intended to establish three port towns in Albemarle County in 1676, specifically on Roanoke Island, Perquimans, and an area between the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers. However, the actual establishment of these towns varied from the initial plan, with most ships entering or leaving the colony primarily passing through Roanoke Inlet. Despite the variations in their importance, five official ports of entry developed during the colonial period, each serving as regional British-American customs collection districts with unique characteristics and economic importance. 

Port Bath, established as North Carolina's inaugural port of entry and located in the town of Bath along a Pamlico River tributary, served as a primary gateway for ships navigating through the Ocracoke Inlet. Despite its relatively smaller size, Port Bath played a pivotal role in North Carolina’s maritime commerce, facilitating the exchange of goods such as rum, sugar, and lumber.  

Port Beaufort, positioned strategically near Cape Lookout, managed maritime traffic through Topsail Inlet, known today as Beaufort Inlet. This port became synonymous with the export of naval stores (i.e. tar, pitch, and turpentine), lumber, and provisions, especially corn amongst other things. And frequently suffered from the presence of Spanish privateers.  

Port Brunswick played a crucial role as a gateway for commerce in the Cape Fear River basin area. Its port collector's office was situated in the town of Brunswick, below Wilmington, the first permanent European settlement on the lower Cape Fear River. The port facilitated trade in a wide array of commodities, including agricultural products, naval stores, and manufactured goods.  

Port Currituck, established to serve commerce through Currituck Inlet, faced significant navigational obstacles due to inlet shoaling. Despite its limited functionality, Port Currituck symbolized the ambitious efforts of colonial authorities to expand maritime trade along North Carolina’s coast.   

Port Roanoke, though serving most of the Albemarle settlement, had its collector’s office located in Edenton, reflecting the administrative complexities of colonial port operations. This port, while facing challenges such as shifting inlet channels, remained integral to the economic life of the region.  

*Additional material can be found in this collection for the following ports: Port Edenton, Port Elizabeth City, Port Swansborough, and Port Wilmington as well as several folders with material from unidentified ports. 

Over time, the significance and geographic locations of North Carolina’s Ports shifted in response to changing economic and environmental conditions. With the advent of the early nineteenth century, the closure of Roanoke and Currituck Inlets led to increased reliance on Ocracoke Inlet for maritime transportation. Even with the absence of Port Currituck, the office of the collector for Port Roanoke in Edenton continued to experience substantial business activity. 

Despite the transition from maritime to land-based transportation modes, North Carolina persisted in its efforts to upgrade and sustain its ports. In the early twentieth century, efforts to develop a state port facility were initiated, culminating in the establishment of the North Carolina State Ports Authority in 1945. State port infrastructure was constructed in Wilmington and Morehead City, serving as essential assets for maritime trade. Additionally, inland intermodal terminals were established to enhance connectivity between ports and mainland markets.  

While these records offer a comprehensive glimpse into the maritime operations of the time, it is important to note that they are not without limitations. Many decades of port activity remain unaccounted for leaving significant gaps in the historical record. Existing documents are predominantly from the latter part of the 18th century, with sparse representation from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, mainly from Port Roanoke. 

Despite these gaps, the Port records present a wealth of information for scholars and enthusiasts interested in maritime history and the early commerce of North Carolina. They provide detailed insights into individual ships, their owners, captains, destinations, ports of landing, cargoes, and other relevant subjects. Even for those familiar with existing literature on North Carolina's maritime history, the Port Records offer new perspectives, revealing a diverse array of trading routes, mercantile practices, and traded commodities.