Gates County is quite prideful in its high school athletics. Gates County High School has won a state championship in football, in 1971. That team was led by legendary coach, Pete Smoak. Most recently, the football team has been successful in the Tar-Roanoke Conference, and winning the conference in 2010. The Red Barons galvanized the entire northeastern part of North Carolina, as it went on its improbable run, winning 11 games in a row, and going undefeated in the conference. This team was led by current head coach, Matt Biggy. It is home to many athletes, including Thomas Smith, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, and Walter Smith I, formerly of the Toronto Argonauts.
As in other areas along the waterways, centuries of Native Americans created settlements, increasingly permanent, along the Chowan River. At the time of European contact, the Chowanoke occupied most of the territory along the river. After suffering dramatic population decreases likely due to European infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity, most were pushed out by encroaching Tuscarora.
With early settlement in the mid-17th century by English colonists, the county was organized in 1779 from parts of Chowan County, Hertford County, and Perquimans County. It was named for General Horatio Gates, who had commanded the victorious American colonial forces at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777.
Thousands of years of indigenous settlements had preceded European exploration of present-day Gates County.
In 1585, the Ralph Lane Colony explored the Chowan River. They explored the river at least as far up as Winton. In 1622, the John Pory Colony led an expedition from Virginia to the Chowan River. (Pory was secretary of the Province of Virginia.) In 1629, Sir Robert Heath was granted a patent to settle Carolina. This patent embraced Gates County.
During the 1650s, colonists from Virginia started to move increasingly into the Albemarle Sound region. Colonel Drew and Roger Green led an expedition into the Albermarle area. In 1654, Francis Speight was granted a patent for of land near Raynor Swamp. The first English settlement in Gates County was established near Corapeake, North Carolina in 1660. In 1670, Colonel Henry Baker of Nansemond County obtained a grant of land for near Buckland. In 1672, George Fox, leader of the Quakers, visited Gates County. He described the county as barren.
Following the English colonists' defeat of the remaining Chowanoke in 1676, the following year, they created a Chowanoke Indian Reservation, the first within the present-day United States. It was established at the Chowanoke settlement between Bennett's Creek and Catherine Creek in Gates. From 1684–1722 Gates County was a part of the Chowan precinct. In 1711, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel established an Anglican school for Chowanoke and local Native Americans at Sarum, with Mr. Marshburn as the teacher.
In 1806, Middle Swamp Baptist Church was established as the first Baptist church in Gates County, as part of the Second Great Awakening revival in the South, led by Baptist and Methodist preachers. In 1811, Savages United Methodist Church was established, the oldest Methodist Church in Gates County. Both denominations preached to enslaved blacks as well as white settlers, and accepted them as members.
In 1825, Marquis de Lafayette passed through Gates County and was entertained at Pipkin's Inn. The town of Gatesville was incorporated in 1830. The old courthouse located on Court St. was built in 1836. The oldest item in the courthouse is the Federal-style bell, which was purchased in 1781.
William Paul Roberts, who would become the youngest Confederate general to serve in the American Civil War, was born in Gatesville, 1841. According to the 1850 census, there were 717 farms in Gates County and only 15 produced cotton. In 1851, Reynoldson Academy was established. Organized by free blacks, New Hope Baptist church was established in 1859. In 1878, Jethro Goodman introduced peanuts into Gates County. Secretary of State Thad Eure was born in 1899.
Port of Hamburg
The Cross Canal, or Hamburg Ditch, three miles (5 km) south of the Virginia line, was Gates County's water route to the major port of Norfolk. Opened 1805–1822, it ran straight east for ten miles (16 km) through the Dismal Swamp, from a landing on Daniels Road in Gates County to the Dismal Swamp Canal. The Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center is now located there. The Cross Canal is no longer a through route. In the late 20th century, sportsmen in small boats still used the Gates County end, at the site of Hamburg, to enter the swamp. Hurricanes since then toppled huge trees across it, blocking all access to the canal.
The Civil War
Survival in Gates County prior to the American Civil War required self-reliance. Most of the land in Gates County was covered with virgin timber. The mostly subsistence farmers did not hold many slaves.
A. J. Walton was the Gates County representative to the North Carolina secession convention. Soon after, the "Gates Guard" was the first company raised in the County to protect its borders. The second company was "Gates Minutemen". Thanks to the productivity of its agriculture, Gates County helped supply food to the Confederate States of America. General William P. Roberts from the county was the youngest general of the Civil War. Brigadier General Laurence S. Baker, a native of Gates County, lost an arm.
Jack Fairless, another county native, formed a band known as the "Buffaloes" (later Company E, 1st Regiment of North Carolina Union Volunteers). Made up of draft dodgers, Confederate deserters, and renegades from both sides, the Buffaloes raided homes throughout the area. With the able bodied men off fighting the war, the only people left behind were women, children, and old men unit to be soldiers. Fairless had an easy time terrorizing them. Fairless had originally been a Confederate soldier, but he been dishonorably discharged for stealing. He was eventually killed by his own men in self-defense.
Fort Dillard was built as a Confederate fort in the county. The story of the "Ellis Girls" was long told in the county. One day while fishing in the Chowan River, the sisters spotted a Union gunboat on its way to burn Winton. Union soldiers seized the girls and held them prisoners on the gunboat until they finished burning the town. Only then were they released, unharmed but very frightened.
On May 9, 1925 the first bridge opened across the Chowan River between Gates and Hertford counties. In 1925, Hwy 158 opened between Gates and Pasquotank through the Great Dismal Swamp. In 1935, the Sunbury Ruritan Club was established, the first and oldest in the state.
Beckford Junction was abandoned in 1940. Beckford Junction was a train switch that allowed trains to go to Suffolk, Elizabeth City, or Edenton. The last passenger train serving Gates County ended in 1954. In 1954 the Gates County Historical Society was established.
In 1973 A.B. Coleman donated of land in the Millpond to the state. This was the beginning of Merchants Millpond State Park. In 1984 a bad tornado struck Gates County, killing two people and causing between $500 thousand and $5 million USD worth of damage. Hurricane Floyd hit Gates County in 1999.