Early History of Davidson and Lake Norman Area
Information about early settlement in the Davidson and Lake Norman area.
Among the original pioneers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland who settled on the east side of the Catawba River were George Davidson, Reverend John Thomson, Moses White, Hugh Lawson, John Oliphant, John Brevard, Alexander Osborne, William Morrison and Andrew Allison. The Thomson, White and Lawson home sites were located on the waters of Catawba now under the waters of Lake Norman. John Oliphant’s grist mill (now underwater), located on Oliphant’s Creek, served the needs of these and other early settlers. Both Davidson College and Davison County, North Carolina, were named for George Davidson’s son, William Lee Davidson, Revolutionary officer killed while resisting Cornwallis’ advance at Cowan’s Ford on the Catawba River. (William Davidson's son, Robert (Robin) Davidson was arguably the original Catawba Riverkeeper.) John Thomson was co-founder of the University of Delaware, twice moderator of the General Synod of the Presbyterian Church, contributor to Benjamin Franklin’s publications and a leading advocate of the “Old-side” Presbyterian position in the Carolina back country. Stones commemorating Lawson and Thomson may be seen in the cemetery at Centre Church, one of the oldest places of worship in western North Carolina.
Hugh Lawson White, grandson of Moses White was born on Davidson’s Creek in 1773. He later moved to Tennessee, where he became a United States Senator and in 1836 presidential candidate on the Whig ticket. The home place of John Brevard, who migrated from Cecil County, Maryland, was known as “Purgatory”. His tombstone may be seen at Centre Church. He was one of the Rowan County’s three representatives in the North Carolina Colonial Assembly and father of five sons who fought in the Revolution. Two of them, Alexander and Joseph, were officers in the Continental Line. Two miles south of Brevard lived Alexander Osborne, originally of New Jersey. Osborne was a colonel in the colonial militia and side to Governor Tryon in suppressing the Regulator movement. He, too, rests in Centre churchyard. His son, Adial Osborn, a graduate of Princeton, was one of the original trustees of the University of North Carolina. Andrew Allison and William Morrison received the earliest land grants issued to settles along Forth Creek. Morrison referred to himself as the “first inhabitor of the country.”
During the Cherokee uprising of 1755 Fort Dobbs, named for Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs, was built under the supervision of Captain Hugh Waddell of Wilmington. The fort was 55 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 24 ½ feet high. There were three floors, the top two each overhanging the other below. The fort was subsequently allowed to decay.
Among the Revolutionary soldiers of the region were Robert Simonton, John Reid, Hugh Torrance and John Davidson Simonton (home preserved), Rufus Reid (home preserved), son of John Reid, and James G. Torrance (home preserved), son of Hugh Torrance, built interesting plantation homes. Rufus Reid, whose home “Mt. Mourne” was built in 1836 on the site of “Purgatory”, was a member of the North Carolina House of Commons in 1844 and 1846. James G. Torrance was one of the original trustees of Davidson College and operated the only store in the vicinity. John Davidson, an officer in the Continental Line and a pioneer in the iron industry, lived at “Rural Hill” (destroyed).
North Carolina Historical Sites
in the Lake Norman Area
Rural Hill Farm
Historic Rural Hill Farm is one of North Carolina’s oldest historic plantations. It encompasses more than 250 acres of beautiful rolling hills, pastures, and magnificent vistas. First established circa 1760 by Major John and Violet Davidson, this land has played a significant role in the building of America. John Davidson, a patriot in the American Revolution and signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, built his plantation in the northern part of Mecklenburg County, which quickly joined other prestigious plantations that became known as the Jewels of the Catawba River Valley region. During the American Revolution it was a staging area where American troops camped in preparation for the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, a prelude to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
Rural Hill has been continuously farmed for more than 225 years. Today, this historic farm is an active living farm with various livestock, a reconstruction of the original homestead, the ruins of the main mansion, barns and outbuildings, the present home built in the 1850’s, two of the last remaining one room school houses in Mecklenburg County, the Davidson Family cemetery, and several miles of walking trails. It is also a cultural center for those researching their Scottish heritage. So, there is plenty to see during your visit.
Murray's Mill (Catawba County)
Murray's Mill is located in eastern Catawba County on the banks of Balls Creek. William Murray began operating a mill on the site by 1883. In 1913, John replaced his father’s mill with the current two-story structure, adding a 22’ overshot waterwheel to replace the former turbine. In 1938, John’s son, Lloyd, raised the dam six feet and installed the 28’ waterwheel (it’s said that William’s original wooden dam stands beneath the surface of the present pond).
The mill was the last one in the Catawba County, so the Catawba County Historical Association (CCHA) worked to restore it. Murray’s Mill is now a National Register Historic Site and open to the public. There, visitors will find William’s original, one-ton French buhr millstones, for grinding corn, as well as a Eureka roller mill that John installed for grinding wheat into flour. All of the mill’s storage bins, each partitioned by tongue and groove sheathing, have been preserved, too. Murray’s Mill is a short drive from Interstate 40.
Hours of operation (closed after November 29)
Saturday 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Sunday 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM
Murray's Mill can be booked for guided tours during the off season by
calling 828.465.0383 (this curtesy is reserved for groups of 20 or more)
Summarized from publication by Nathan Moehlmann, Catawba County Historical Association
- About the Upper Catawba River Basin
- Early History of the Basin
- History of Nation Ford
- Post-Civil War History of the Basin