Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on October 27, 2023.
As one of the oldest towns in North Carolina, you’d have to expect some interesting facts about New Bern. If you’re familiar with this town, you’ll know there’s a story around every corner and history all around.
Of course, you may know about Pepsi or Tryon Palace, but we think there will be at least one tidbit that’s news to you. We’ve organized these facts about New Bern in chronological order, from its beginnings through today.
So let’s take a ride through the story that is New Bern and how it became one of our favorite coastal towns. Here’s how we’ve laid out our guide:
- Facts about New Bern
- The History of New Bern
- Facts about New Bern Today
- Things to Do in New Bern (and Nearby)
Read More: Important Facts About North Carolina
Facts About New Bern (Stats and Geography)
In this first section, we focus on some basic facts about New Bern before getting into its history.
- Where is New Bern NC? New Bern is located in Craven County, North Carolina. Before Craven County’s establishment, the town was part of Archdale Precinct and Bath County.
- New Bern is the Craven County seat.
- It is within two hours of a few of our most populous cities. For instance, it’s within an easy day trip from Raleigh and Wilmington.
- New Bern is North Carolina’s second-oldest town (after Bath) and is filled with many famous historical sites.
- The town and its surroundings are a part of the Inner Banks region.
- New Bern is at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse Rivers and features a beautiful waterfront downtown.
- The name “New Bern” is a tribute to the capital city of Switzerland.
- In old Germanic, Bern means “bear” and the people of New Bern love showing off their “Bear Town” pride.
Read More: The NC Tripping North Carolina Travel Map
The History of New Bern
As with nearly everywhere in North Carolina and throughout North America, the history of New Bern begins with Native American inhabitants.
First Known Inhabitants
- Prior to European arrival, Tuscarora Indians lived in the area we now know as New Bern.
- Their village was called Chattoka.
First European Settlers (and War)
- Swiss and German immigrants settled here in 1710, displacing the village of Chattoka.
- After Bath, New Bern is the second-oldest colonial town in the state.
- The settlers were led by Swiss Baron Christoph von Graffenried.
- In honor of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, they named it “New Bern.”
- In June 1710, the Tuscarora Indians protested the seizure of their lands and also, their people’s enslavement by settlers.
- The Tuscarora actually captured 4 people from the settlement in September 1711 and executed one of them—John Lawson, a surveyor. They spared the others, which included New Bern founder Christoph von Graffenfried and two African slaves.
- Later in September 1711, the Tuscarora War began with attacks near New Bern and Bath. Fighting continued until a treaty was signed in 1715. As a result, the Tuscarora Indians were moved to a reservation on the Pamlico River.
- Christ Church parish was established in 1715. Its first church building was constructed from 1739 to 1750. After the Revolution, the original building was demolished and the second building burned in 1871. In 1873, the church was rebuilt and it was consecrated in 1875. It still stands today and is an immaculate building to see in person.
18th Century Facts About New Bern (North Carolina Firsts Begin)
- As we mentioned, New Bern is home to many of North Carolina’s firsts. Here’s the first of them—no pun intended. In 1746, the NC legislature passed an act to make New Bern the first capital of NC. It was vetoed, but New Bern would eventually get its way.
- In 1749, North Carolina’s first printing press started on the corner of Broad and Middle streets.
- William Tryon became the royal governor of North Carolina in 1765.
- One of his first moves was to make New Bern the first permanent capital of North Carolina.
- In 1766, the NC Colonial Assembly agreed to build a mansion for Tryon in New Bern.
- Architect John Hawks led construction with a mix of skilled and unskilled laborers, as well as enslaved people.
- Increases in taxes helped pay for construction. Colonists in New Bern and elsewhere were not happy about the funding of such a lavish building for the times.
- Nevertheless, Tryon Palace was completed and dedicated in December 1770.
- Ironically, William Tryon left North Carolina in 1771. This was after local disapproval and the rising Regulator Movement left him feeling unsafe.
- In 1774, New Bern was the site of the first Provincial Congress. This was one of many defiant moves against the British. One more Provincial Congress would be held in New Bern before moving to Hillsborough for the third and Halifax for the fourth and fifth.
- Patriots took control of Tryon Palace in 1775.
- The mysterious Lady Blessington Cannon is believed to have been taken from a British ship and buried in New Bern during the Revolution. A marker commemorates it near the intersection of Middle and Pollock streets.
- On July 4, 1778, New Bern became the first site in North Carolina to celebrate American Independence. Only Boston and Philadelphia celebrated first throughout the states.
- Also in 1778, NC’s first public bank opened in New Bern.
- Our first bookstore opened in New Bern in 1783. If you know the first book to be sold there, we’d love to know!
- In 1790, the first Postal Service in North Carolina was established in New Bern.
- On April 20, 1791, President George Washington visited New Bern (and Tryon Palace) for the first of two nights as part of his Southern Tour. He left on April 22 and headed toward Wilmington.
- After a series of temporary sites and much deliberation, Raleigh was established as the new capital of North Carolina. The General Assembly first met there in 1794 and a new capitol building was completed in 1796.
- While other cities claim this as well, it’s believed that New Bern was the first to celebrate Washington’s birthday. A toast was offered to the then-sitting president on February 22, 1796.
- Tragedy struck, as Tryon Palace burned in 1798. It had fallen into disrepair over the years and would remain in ruin for more than 100 years.
Pre-Civil War Facts About New Bern (19th Century)
- New Bern continued to grow and do things first, well into the 18th century.
- The New Bern Academy was built in 1806 and is North Carolina’s oldest chartered school. It served as a hospital during the Civil War and served as part of New Bern’s graded school system from 1899 to 1971. Today, it’s a free museum that tells the story of New Bern during the civil war, the academy itself, and the town’s interesting architecture.
- In 1817, the First Presbyterian Church organization and building was established here.
- Atlantic Fire & Hook & Ladder Company was formed in 1845. It was the first fire-fighting organization to be chartered. The “Atlantic Company” briefly went inactive during the Civil War as its members volunteered for military service.
Civil War Facts About New Bern
- By the time the Civil War started, New Bern was one of North Carolina’s largest cities. The city’s railroad line supplied goods to Confederate forces, making it a key target.
- During the Civil War, the First Presbyterian Church was used as a hospital and lookout.
- Union forces attacked New Bern on March 14, 1862 and controlled the city from then on.
- Escaped slaves used New Bern as a safe haven throughout the remainder of the Civil War.
- The New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No 1 (Button Company) was established by Union soldies in 1865.
- Although there were other fire companies in town (for Whites and Blacks), Button Company was the Atlantic’s chief rival for decades.
Read More: Cities in North Carolina
Post-Civil War Facts About New Bern
- The residents of Bern, Switzerland, gifted their flag to New Bern in 1896. It is still displayed at City Hall.
- Local pharmacist Caleb Bradham invented and served the first Pepsi in 1898. It was then known as “Brad’s Drink” and would be renamed “Pepsi-Cola.”
Read More: Famous Foods from North Carolina
20th Century Facts About New Bern
- In 1902, Photographer Bayard Wootten, born in New Bern and Bradham’s neighbor, designed the Pepsi-Cola logo. Wootten is also possibly the first woman to take aerial photographs.
- On March 6, 1911, Samuel J. Battle (born in New Bern) was sworn in as the first African-American New York City Police officer. When Battle was born, he was the largest baby in North Carolina, at 16 pounds!
- The first registered nurse in North Carolina (also in the US) was Josephine Burton. She was registered on June 4, 1903.
- The Great Fire of 1922 burned more than 1,000 homes in New Bern.
- In 1928, the New Bern Town Council merged the Button and Atlantic companies into one central location. Today, they are known as the New Bern Volunteer Fire Department.
- Construction on the Marine Corp Air Station Cherry Point began in 1941, just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
- The station was initially used to train marines for the Pacific theater of World War II. It has deployed marines to multiple conflicts, including the Korean War, Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm.
- In 1945, the Tryon Palace Commission organized with the goal of restoring the historic site.
- Along with Mel Groomes, New Bern native Bob Mann was the first African-American to play for the Detroit Lions in 1948. In 1950, Mann became the first known African-American to suit up for the Green Bay Packers.
- At the site of the combined Atlantic and Button companies, the Firemen’s Museum opened in 1955.
- Another first, Tryon Palace opened as North Carolina’s first state historic site in 1959.
- In 1977, a truck bent the pillar of New Bern’s beloved Baxter Street Four-faced Clock. Attempting to fix the problem, a crane picked up the clock but accidentally dropped it, shattering the historic piece.
- In 1990, an effort began to restore the Baxter Clock. $28,000 was raised within months and it was dedicated on April 20, 1991.
- The Notebook, written in 1996 by New Bern resident Nicholas Sparks, became the first novel in America to remain on both the hardcover and paperback bestseller lists for more than one year.
Facts About New Bern Today
- Today, New Bern remains one of North Carolina’s most interesting historic towns.
- There are more than 150 sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Among them is the Baxter Street Clock, a 1920 oversized cast iron clock. It was restored in 1991 and turned 100 in 2020.
- The NC History Center New Bern opened its doors in 2011.
Even without all these facts about New Bern, we still find it a fascinating and beautiful place. If you’ve never visited before, we highly suggest you head this way.
If you know this place well but didn’t know one or more of these facts, that’s okay. I bet there’s something you could add that we didn’t mention.