New Bern is a city in Craven County, North Carolina with a population of 29,524 as of the 2010 census. It is located at the confluence of the Trent and the Neuse rivers. The city is 112 miles (180 km) east of Raleigh and 87 miles (140 km) northeast of Wilmington.
Formerly an Indian town named Chattoka, New Bern was settled in 1710 as a Swiss immigrant settlement. They named the town after Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The Swiss connection with England was established by Marian exiles who went to the country. There were also marriages between the Royal House of Stuart and notable people in the history of Calvinism.
New Bern is the second oldest town in North Carolina (after Bath). It served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government and then briefly as the state capital. After the American Revolution, New Bern became wealthy and quickly developed a rich cultural life. At one time New Bern was called "the Athens of the South."
Renowned in the South were the Masonic Temple and the Athens Theater, both still very active today.
New Bern is the birthplace of Pepsi Cola.
New Bern has four historic districts with homes, stores and churches dating back to the early eighteenth century. Within easy walking distance of the waterfront are more than 164 homes and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also nearby are several bed and breakfast inns, hotels, restaurants, banks, antiques stores and specialty shops. The historic districts are the site of many of the town's 2,000 crape myrtles — its official flower — and developed gardens.
Union Point park borders both the Neuse and Trent rivers. It is the site of the city's major celebrations, such as Neuse River Days and the Fourth of July. Since 1979 the Swiss Bear Downtown Revitalization Corporation has worked to redevelop downtown and stimulated the creation of art galleries, specialty shops, antiques stores, restaurants and inns. This area has become a social and cultural hub. James Reed Lane is a downtown mini-park and pedestrian walk-through on Pollock Street across from historic Christ Church. Private restoration efforts have returned many of the downtown buildings to their turn-of-the-twentieth-century elegance.
Nicholas Sparks set his novel, The Notebook, in the city. In 2005, a segment of NBC's The Today Show noted that New Bern was one of the best places in the United States to retire. Retirees from the northern states have added to its population.
Varying complex cultures of indigenous peoples had lived along the waterways of North Carolina for thousands of years before Europeans explored the area. New Bern was first settled by Europeans in 1710 by Swiss and German immigrants under the leadership of Christoph de Graffenried, Franz Louis Michel and John Lawson. It was named after the capital of Switzerland, Bern. The first permanent seat of the colonial government of North Carolina was located in New Bern. Following the American Revolutionary War, New Bern became the first state capital. Christoph von Graffenried ordered that the layout of the town was made into the shape of a cross, although the town is not in the shape today due to growth of the town and towns surrounding it.
In 1862 during the early stages of the American Civil War, New Bern was the site of the Battle of New Bern. The town was captured and occupied by Union forces until the end of the war in 1865. As nearly ten thousand slaves escaped and went to the Union camps for protection and freedom, the Union Army set up the Trent River contraband camp to house the refugees and organize the adults for work. Missionaries started classes to teach adults and children literacy.
Beginning in 1863, a total of nearly 4,000 freedmen from North Carolina enlisted in the United States Colored Troops to fight with the Union for their permanent freedom, including 150 men from the Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island. After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, slaves in Union-occupied territories were declared free; more freedmen came to the Trent River camp for protection. The Army appointed Horace James, a Congregational chaplain from Massachusetts, as the "Superintendent of Negro Affairs for the North Carolina District." In addition to the Trent River camp, James supervised development of the offshore Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, which was intended to be self-supporting.
Due to the continuous occupation by the Union troops, New Bern avoided some of the destruction of the war years. It recovered more quickly than many cities after the war. By the 1870s the lumber industry was quickly becoming New Bern's major source of revenue. Timber harvested could be sent downriver by the two nearby rivers. The city continued to be a center for freedmen and by 1877 had a majority-black population.
The state legislature defined the city and count as part of North Carolina's 2nd congressional district, which elected four African Americans to the US Congress in the late 19th century. The state's passage of its new constitution in 1899 essentially disfranchised black citizens. They were totally closed out of the political process and participation on juries and in office, a situation that persisted until after passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.
By 1890 New Bern had become the largest lumber center in North Carolina and one of the largest in all of the South. During this time, as many as 16 lumber mills were running and employing hundreds of men from New Bern and the area. The competitive nature of the lumber barons, the abundance of lumber and craftsmen, led to the construction in New Bern of some of the finest homes in the South, many of which have survived. The lumber boom lasted until the 1920s. One by one the lumber mills went out of business. Today only Weyerhaeuser manufactures lumber in the area.