Salt Works

Robert Williams' Report on the Need of Salt Manufacture
Extract from State Records, Vol. XXII, page 739
To Cornelius Harnet from Robert Williams
New Bern, May 27th 1776

(transcribed by D.W. Morton)

One of William's Many Letters to the Council Regarding Salt
To Cornelius Harnet, President, and the rest of the Council for North Carolina at Washington:
I have viewed with serious attention the situation of this province for a great while, and considered what it must suffer this winter, without a quantity of salt can be made with the utmost expedition and abundance of men employed about making salt marshes after the manner of France, Portugal and Spain. The season will be over in August. I have been long in possession of Browning upon Salt, and have made it my study for many years, and have made it my business when in Portugal to go and view their salt marshes in Lisbon.

I was going to Halifax some time since to propose it to the Congress there, but our William Thompson told me that Avery and Blackledge were appointed and only 600 pounds allowed to carry on the work, but did not tell me he was one of the commissioners himself; nor after my appointment would he consult me or say a word about it, and was unwilling to sign along with me a letter I was going to send and since delivered myself to James Coor, which letter I also showed to our other delegate, Solomon Shepard, who also took no notice of it and seemed quite unconcerned.

Must leave others to judge from whence this backwardness proceeds. When I found I was appointed a fourth commissioner, considering the common consequence, the need of dispatch, the season advancing and our suitable situation, I was in my own mind so sure at the propriety, thinking Thompson would join and encourage, that I had engaged men to make wheels and hand barrows. Was going to raft a large quantity of fine timber John Easton had ready, and was willing to risk the pay; was going to risk a considerable quantity of plant I had myself, set smiths to work and produce spades and hoes to make a rough shed to cook and eat under, some place under locks to keep utensils and provisions when we get them.

The salt may be preserved in conical heaps, as I have seen done in Portugal, until it is carried away, and it will not receive any injury from the weather, although exposed to the open air for three years. One mask or marsh must be finished first and will, including the banks, be about 240 feet long and 150 feet large; then finish another as fast as possible, etc., and continue at it as long as the season promises any advantage from additional works. Must refer to some other observations in the draught of the letter delivered James Coor.

If the Council think well to employ me and make me the acting Superintendent upon pay, and allow the whole country of 4d per bushel to myself, delivering all accounts upon affirmation, appoint paymasters to deliver money as materials are procured and work faithfully done, they may depend on the vigorous and steady exertion of my faculties; will give up my time for the purpose. Have hitherto fatigued myself, spent money and time, traveled upon the occasion about 140 miles at different time already, without any view of superior advantage above the rest of the commissioners; but, as some pull back and others do not appear, I will not be packhorse for others to share the profits.

I cannot tell, nor anybody else from a right judgment, how long we shall be in getting the material and making the first division or mash of 18 salts beds, but would be in hopes that after we got in the way we should make another every succeeding week.We have reason to expect every salt marsh of 18 salt beds will make between 25 and 40 bushels a day in hot, dry weather. All workmen to be employed as cheap as possible. Would suppose the daily expenses may be guessed at nearly thus, including provisions, which, however, must be provided separate:
Daily expenses…Pounds 12- 5-0
For sixty days, makes….Pounds 735- 0-0

I wish that and more might be laid out for the public good, and that more laborers might be employed with propriety, as every day now is of the utmost consequence. Many marshes ought to be now finished and more carrying on.

If there is no salt made it will require but little force to subdue and starve the province, which next spring must and will fall, of course, and tumble down of itself, like an old house in a calm. If what I have offered is worthy of acceptance in receiving orders, I shall be ready at an hour’s warning, and some money must be lodged immediately in a safe hand that may be confided in New Bern.

Would recommend John Easton, an honest man, to provide provision and to be paymaster at Core Sound. If the formality of bonds be thought requisite, ‘tis best not to retard the work but do what part as soon as may be after ‘tis going on.

I am, with due regard, the Council’s assured and affectionate friend.
Robert Williams

Extracts from Colonial Records, Vol X page 538
Transcribed by D.W. Morton 1919

1776: It is the further opinion of this committee that works be established in the Province of North Carolina for the purpose of making common salt, and that Waightstill Avery, William Thompson, Richard Blackledge and Robert Williams be commissioners to erect works necessary for that purpose and to carry on the process, and obtain all   possible information relative to the same; and that they be approved to draw upon the Treasury for a sum not exceeding 2000 pounds to pay the expenses of erecting such works and providing all materials, implements and utensils proper to be made use of, and that such work be fixed in such part of the sea coast where they will be best secured from the annoyance of the enemy, and to tend to furnish the colony with the greatest quantity of that necessary article, and that the said directors give bond, with sufficient security, for the faithful discharge of the trust reposed upon them, and the due application of all such monies which may be advanced them; and that over and above their reasonable expenses, be allowed the sum of 4d. (for the space of two years from the last day of August next) for every bushel of salt manufactured by them, and delivered to such persons as shall be directed to receive the same, for the public use; and that the said commissioners, after fixing upon a proper place on the sea coast for the manufacture of common salt, do purchase the same of the proprietor or proprietors thereof for and in behalf of the public of this Province upon the most reasonable terms, and give a draft for the same on either of the Treasurers of this Province, who shall be allowed the same in the settlement of his accounts with the public; and that the conveyance for the same shall be taken in the name of the President and his successors of this Congress, for and in behalf of this Province, and that said conveyance shall be taken in fee simple.

Essay included on North Carolina Highway Marker Program
Marker is on Turner Street in Beaufort

In April 1775, the government of Great Britain severed all trade with the newly forming American government. One of the greatest concerns, especially in North Carolina, was the consequent shortage of salt, a vital commodity for the colony. In 1775 and 1776, the Provincial Congress of North Carolina worked quickly to create salt works. The first of the works was established near Beaufort.

     Salt was essential in the daily lives of Americans. It was needed as a preservative for food, with salted and dried meats being a staple for most during the winter months. In addition, Americans used salt in caring for livestock, curing animal hides, and providing for basic nutritional needs. Because of its importance, the government acted quickly.

     The Provincial Congress in 1775 passed three laws related to salt and to maintain its trade. First, the body established ceiling prices on salt, to ensure that salt remained available despite shortages. Then they began rationing the already existing salt supply. Finally, the government offered a bounty prize of 750 pounds to the first person to create a salt works and manufacture salt in North Carolina.

     In April 1776, the Provincial Congress expanded its actions, appointing four men to act as commissioners for salt industry development. Two of the men, Robert Williams and Richard Blackledge, began to develop salt works plants soon after their appointment, drawing upon the state funds.

     Williams, who came to Carteret County from England in 1763/65, began production of his salt works at Gallant’s Point near Beaufort in April 1776. Williams had already developed a small salt works near present-day Front Street in Beaufort, and hoped to expand upon his earlier methods. Rainstorms and lack of funding hampered Williams’ work. In December 1776, a committee appointed by the Congress judged Williams’ salt works unsatisfactory, and state funding was withdrawn.

     Blackledge also established his salt works near Beaufort, locating his at the mouth of Core Creek, on the north side of the Newport River. Blackledge utilized a salt production method based on solar heat, boiling salt water in large metal canisters until the water evaporated and only salt remained. Blackledge was provided with 500 pounds to launch his salt works, and in August 1776 the Provincial Congress judged his salt production to be satisfactory, and offered further financial support. Blackledge drowned in September 1777, but the works continued to operate through the Revolutionary War. William Borden purchased the operation in 1785.