18 April 2022
Tarboro, N.C. — Tucked away in Tarboro is a patch of green that, at first glance, looks like a simple, grassy nature park. But this piece of land, with antique oaks towering overhead and historic monuments scattered below, is one of the few remnants of the Colonial-era in the United States.
In fact, George Washington himself walked across this land.
Only two of these original Colonial Town Common remain in the country – one in Boston and one in the small town of Tarboro.
Not as commonly used in the modern era, many original Town Commons no longer exist — either developed over or sold long ago. However, in the 1700s, a “town common” was a regular part of early American landscape design.
Built before the founding of the United States
Tarboro was officially established in 1760, so the town common is older than the United States itself.
“Originally designed for the common grazing of livestock, community outings and military drills, there were two schools located on the Common,” reads the listing on VisitNC.
Commons across the country also served as places for community gatherings, as well as sites for memorial markers and, sometimes, military training camps.
Boston’s Common, for example, was used as a training field during the Revolutionary War.
However, it was also used as a site for public punishments – and was known to host a whipping post and stocks, according to information compiled on the Freedom Trail.
Only 15 years after the founding of Tarboro, the Revolutionary War began.
President George Washington visits North Carolina
Several years after the war ended, President George Washington visited Tarboro. Even today, a marker stands on the town common as a salute to the historic moment when the country’s first president stayed overnight.
According to the documented history of Washington’s Southern Tour, he visited on April 18, 1791. A few days prior he had arrived in the state, visiting Halifax on his carriage ride down the East Coast.
He was met by the banks of the Tar River, on which Tarboro was built, and met by Col. John B. Ashe. When Washington and his procession entered the small town, they were met by a salute from a single cannon.
A map shows his tour then took him to Greenville, New Bern and Wilmington before continuing down into South Carolina and Georgia. During his trip back northward, he visited Charlotte, Salisbury, “Salem” and Guilford Courthouse.
A sign in Tarboro’s Town Commons proudly announces their role in Washington’s historic tour through North Carolina.
Preserved for hundreds of years
Today, the town common may no longer host two schools or be used for grazing the community’s cattle – but the spirit remains the same. It’s an active gathering place for the town – a place for locals walking their dogs, or for hosting community events. Just as the town commons from the Colonial-era, it’s full of monuments and historic sites.
The Wyatt Fountain, named for Henry Wyatt, is one of the most central features of the common today. Wyatt was the first North Carolinian to die in the Civil War.
There’s a tombstone-shaped monument which serves as a memorial to the USS Maine, which sank in 1898 and became one of the major inciting incidents for the Spanish-American War. Of the 354 crew members, 266 were killed, creating the rallying cry for the war: Remember the Maine!
A piece of metal from the ship is imbedded in the memorial.
The Tarboro Town Common is also home to an 1840 Cotton Press – the last of its kind.
It’s rare in the modern era for a piece of pre-Revolutionary history to have survived centuries of growth and development. In Tarboro, as you walk along the grassy common, surrounded by the large historic district, it’s easy to imagine one might be walking in the same footsteps as George Washington.
Want to visit? The Town Common spans 15 acres, but you can start at 701 N. Main Street, Tarboro, NC.