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, near the North Carolina coast. It lies east of Raleigh and northeast of Wilmington. New Bern is the county seat of Craven County and the principal city of the New Bern Micropolitan Statistical Area. New Bern is the birthplace of Pepsi Cola.
New Bern was settled in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine German immigrants. The new colonists named the settlement after Bern, the capital of Switzerland and hometown of their leader Christoph von Graffenried. The English connection with Switzerland had been established by some Marian exiles who sought refuge in Protestant parts of Switzerland. There were also marriages between the Royal House of Stuart and notable people in the history of Calvinism. The colonists later discovered they had started their settlement on the site of a former Tuscarora village named Chattoka. This caused conflicts with the Tuscarora who were in the area.
New Bern is the second-oldest European-American colonial town in North Carolina (after Bath). It served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government, 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 for its Masonic Temple and Athens Theater. These are both still very active today.
New Bern has four historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places; their numerous contributing buildings include residences, 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 breakfasts, hotels, restaurants, banks, antiques stores and specialty shops. The historic districts contain many of the city's 2,000 crape myrtles — its official flower — and developed gardens. New Bern has two "Local Historic Districts," a municipal zoning overlay that affords legal protection from alteration to the exteriors of New Bern's irreplaceable historic structures. These areas provide much of New Bern's unique charm, appeal to retirees and heritage tourism, and contribute to the city's economic success. The Local Historic Districts, while vitally important to New Bern, comprise only 2.43% of New Bern's 27-square-mile area. Ample area is available for development unrestricted by historic district guidelines. The Downtown Local Historic District is 368.64 acres or 0.576 sq. mi.; the Riverside Local Historic District covers 51.94 acres or .081 sq. mi.
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; it has 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. The Tuscarora, an Iroquoian-speaking people, had migrated south from the Great Lakes area in some ancient time and occupied this area for hundreds of years before any Europeans arrived. They had an ancient village here at the confluence of the rivers called Chattoka.
New Bern was first settled by Europeans in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine German immigrants under the leadership of Christoph von Graffenried, Franz Louis Michel and John Lawson. They named the settlement after It was named after Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Von Graffenried originally directed the town to be laid out in the shape of a cross, but later development obscured this shape. This became the first permanent seat of the colonial government of North Carolina. Following the American Revolutionary War, New Bern became the first state capital.
Tryon Palace was completed in 1770 as the British colonial government house. After the Revolution, it was used as the first state capitol of newly independent North Carolina. The Palace burned in the 1790s. A modern reconstruction, built from the original plans and on the original foundation, is a historic site and tourist attraction. During the 19th-century Federal period, New Bern was the largest city in North Carolina.
After Raleigh was named as the state capital, New Bern rebuilt its economy by expanding on trade via shipping routes to the Caribbean and New England. It was part of the Triangle Trade in sugar, slaves and desired goods. It reached a population of 3,600 in 1815.
After the January 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. 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 Colony on Roanoke Island.
Due to the continuous occupation by the Union troops, New Bern avoided some of the destruction of the war years but there was much social disruption because of the occupation, and the thousands of freedmen in the camp near the city. 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, who created thriving churches, fraternal associations and their own businesses. By 1877 it had a majority-black population.
The state legislature defined the city and county 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 a constitutional suffrage amendment in 1900 used various devices to essentially disfranchise black citizens. As a result, they were totally closed out of the political process, including participation on juries and in local offices; this situation mostly 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.