This Month in North Carolina History
It took a long time for the news to reach North Carolina.
The first American printing press began operation in Massachusetts in 1638, with the first newspaper in the colonies published in Boston in 1690. North Carolina, which lacked the busy ports and bustling commercial centers of many of the other colonies, was a littler slower to develop. Early eighteenth-century North Carolinians had to wait weeks and in most cases months for their news to arrive in papers from Northern cities or from England. Even when newspapers were established in South Carolina in 1732 and Virginia in 1736, North Carolinians did not rush to establish a press.
It was not until 1749, when the legislature decided that the colony needed a press of its own to print currency and laws, that James Davis, an experienced printer from Virginia, was hired and brought to set up shop in New Bern. Later that year Davis issued his first title, “The journal of the House of Burgesses of the Province of North-Carolina,” the first work to be printed in North Carolina.
Davis served as official printer of the colony for thirty-three years, though his work was not limited to official publications. In August 1751 he published the first issue of The North Carolina Gazette , North Carolina’s first newspaper. Although it looks very different from the papers we’re used to today, the Gazette was a typical eighteenth-century newspaper. It contained a wide range of articles, many reprinted from other papers. Essays, laws, and unsigned or pseudonymous editorials took up the first couple of pages.
Local news, if it was included at all, was often relegated to inside pages, and advertisements and announcements appeared throughout. Although the Gazette offered, according to its masthead, “the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestic,” the freshness of the news was debatable. A typical issue might include stories reprinted from other papers as many as four or five months old.
After the Gazette was established, newspapers began to appear slowly across the state, with other papers founded in the larger eastern cities of Wilmington, Fayetteville, and Halifax. By the end of the eighteenth-century, Hillsborough, Raleigh, and even Salisbury, in what was then considered the far western end of the state, had newspapers.
James Davis originally published the North-Carolina Gazette from 1751 until around 1760. He began a new newspaper, The North-Carolina Magazine; Or Universal Intelligencer in 1764 and published this until around 1768. In May 1768 he started over again, this time returning to his original title. The new North-Carolina Gazette lasted until 1778.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Robert N. Elliott, Jr., “James Davis.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography , vol. 2, edited by William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Robert N. Elliott, Jr., “James Davis and the Beginning of the Newspaper in North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review 42, no. 1 (Winter 1965): 1-20.
Watson, Alan D. “The Role of Printing in Eighteenth-Century North Carolina.” Carolina Comments 48, no. 3 (May 2000): 75-83.
North-Carolina Gazette, August 1, 1777. Masthead.