St. Mary's - The First Mission

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According to page 433 of the History of Edgecombe County North Carolina, the first authentic account of a church being erected in the parish is in 1748. This church was designated by a reference in a division of the parish, as a “Chapell” near Elias Fort's on Tar River. There is substantial evidence that this is the church which was located about seven miles northwest of Tarboro on the southeast side of Tar River, near a small spring at Teat's bridge.

Shown below is a section of an 1877 survey map in the Edgecombe County Court House. Notice the references to an “Old Bridge” and to the “Site of Teat’s Bridge” written on the original map. (All other text was added in 2004.) If, in 1877, there were remnants of an “old bridge,” this might be the original Teat’s Bridge that was in use during the time of St. Mary’s Chapel a century earlier. Chapel Springs, a low place in the river bank, is but a short walk downstream. The logical place to look for the remains of St. Mary’s chapel would seem to be between the “Old Bridge” and the springs. The only site that is on the southeast bank is slightly upstream from Chapel Springs on a high bluff overlooking the river.

Map of St Mary's

This agrees with what the Daily Southerner published on March 9, 1882, “The Church was built at Chapel Spring on the Hyman farm and on a high bluff overlooking Tar River at this place. There is a rock ford across the river, supposed to have been built by the aborigines. With the exception of these rocks in the bottom of the river there are none in miles of the place.”

Another clue to the whereabouts of St. Mary’s is in Edgecombe County Will Book A (page 27) where, in Elias Fort’s 1761 will, Elias leaves to his son William Fort land “on the riverbank” at a point beginning “at the chapel door.” The chapel door was apparently used here to designate a dividing line for breaking up Forte’s property among his heirs. The possible chapel site shown in the survey map does indeed include a property line.

In the Edgecombe Library an undated reference taken from the Edgecombe County Chronicle (of Pinetops) states that, “old-timers speak of having seen brick foundations, possibly of a bridge or a building” at or near the Teat’s Bridge site. This suggests that the foundation of the chapel might still be found. However, considering the constant southward movement of the Tar river for more than two centuries, it is also possible that the river has engulfed the chapel site by now, especially if the chapel door was indeed situated “on the riverbank” in 1761, as Elias Forte’s will states. The following photo shows a property marker located on the “possible location” bluff.

Marker or St mary's

At the approximate site of the aforementioned “old bridge,” there are some large timbers in the river. One of them is an approximately one foot square beam that appears to be driven down vertically into the river bottom. A photo of it, taken when the river was very low, is shown here. This feature is near the north bank of the river, the opposite side from where the chapel would be.

Wooden Support

Following are two photos taken from the “possible location” bluff. The first one looks upstream. The white trunk of the sycamore tree in the center of the picture marks the approximate location of the square beam in the river bottom where the old bridge would have been. The curve of the river is also evident here.

This one is also from the bluff, but looks downstream toward Chapel Springs. The river curves back to the left and Chapel Springs is slightly beyond the point where the bank nearly reaches the left edge of the photo.

In the spring of 2005 some artifacts were discovered near the above described area. (Below) Wrought nails ranging in length from two to three inches.

(Below) Small section of the stem from a clay smoking pipe used during the Colonial period. Tilted to show the hole where the smoke was inhaled. Stem is about one quarter inch in diameter with the hole being about one sixteenth inch wide.

(Below) Heavy nail about two inches long, possibly part of the chapel door.

(The above was researched by Arnold Worsley between June 2001 and June 2005)