Just how does one spell this city’s name? This was once a question of considerable debate.
Founded in 1710 by Christoph von Graffenried of Bern, Switzerland, New Bern was so named by the Swiss baron for the city of his birth. Graffenried, seeking to enrich himself through mining, led a group of German Palatine and Swiss colonists to the Province of North Carolina. Like its namesake, New Bern sits on a peninsula. The town was settled where the Trent and Neuse rivers converge. The settlement was laid over the Tuscaroran village of Chattoka.
In 1723, the General Assembly enacted that the place be “Incorporated into a Township, by the Name of New Bern.”
Over time the town came to be known by various spellings. Some of the variants included New Bern, Newbern, New Berne, and Newberne. Printed in newspapers, referenced in official documents, and used in every day correspondence, the true spelling of this colonial port town’s name became ever more obscure.
During the Civil War John L. Swain, a Confederate army captain, used the spelling Newbern as he wrote of his movements in the area.
In 1891 Henry Gannett, a renowned geographer and father of government map making, sparked an orthographical debate when he wrote the city clerk with an inquiry as to the true spelling of the “Eastern metropolis on the Neuse.” Gannett was writing on behalf of the United States Board on Geographic Names, which he had pushed to establish a year earlier. The clerk, William Oliver, responded that Newbern was the proper spelling, and sent Gannett “a bound copy of the Acts of the General Assembly published in 1793” as proof. Consequently, Gannett settled on Newbern as the official spelling. The State Chronicle published the full exchange between Gannett and Oliver in its July 23, 1891 issue.
Six years later, in 1897, the General Assembly established “that the coroporation [sic] heretofore existing as the city of Newbern shall hereafter be known and designated as the city of New Bern, and all laws in conflict with the above are hereby repealed.”
The spelling of the city’s name was still a matter of interest in 1902 when Graham Daves, a New Bern businessman and an avid amateur historian, penned a letter to the editor of the Semi Weekly Messenger on the “Proper Way of Spelling the Name.”
Perhaps the persistent debate as to the name of the city has it roots in Christoph von Graffenried’s own 18th century account of the settlement in the Colonial Records of North Carolina or in its translation? In Graffenried’s Narrative by Christoph von Graffenried concerning his voyage to North Carolina and the founding of New Bern in the Colonial Records, the name of the city is spelled at least three different ways.
Now uniformly known as New Bern, the study of the normalization of the city’s name is a fascinating slice of the state’s and nation’s history.