September 1862: The Birth of O. Henry

This Month in North Carolina History

Porter, William Sydney (O. Henry) in the Portrait Collection, #P002, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, is the final resting place for Thomas Wolfe, Asheville native and North Carolina’s most famous author. It is perhaps less well known that Riverside also contains the grave of William Sydney Porter who, under the pen name O. Henry, had gained a national and even an international reputation as a writer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, on September 11, 1862. He was educated by his aunt, Evelina Porter, until he was fifteen, when he left school to go to work in the drugstore of his uncle. He became a licensed pharmacist at nineteen. In 1882 Porter left Greensboro for Texas hoping to improve his health. For almost a decade he worked at a number of jobs, including ranch hand, cook, draftsman, and, ultimately, bank teller. At the same time he began to write short pieces for local newspapers and develop his talent as a cartoonist. In 1895 Porter left his position at the First National Bank of Austin to become a columnist and reporter for the Houston Daily Post. He married Athol Estes in 1887. The couple had a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter.

Porter’s life changed dramatically in 1896 when he was indicted for fraud in connection with his work with the bank in Austin. Porter protested his innocence, but, to avoid standing trial, he fled to Central America. Learning that his wife was suffering from an incurable disease, Porter returned to Austin in 1897. After his wife’s death, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary. After serving a little over three years he was released for good behavior in 1901. Working as a druggist in the prison hospital gave Porter the time to continue his writing. His first short story was published in 1898 and others followed. To conceal his identity and imprisonment from his publishers, Porter wrote under several pseudonyms, but the one on which he finally settled was O. Henry. On his release from prison Porter moved with his daughter to New York City, where for the remaining eight years of his life he wrote prodigiously, producing more than 380 short stories, sometimes at the rate of one a week.

O. Henry became one of America’s most popular writers, with an international following as well. Whether his theme was serious or comic, his writing style was casual, light, and playful. He created hundreds of characters from the people he found around him in the west or in New York. Clerks, waitresses, ranch hands, policemen, confidence men – The Four Million, as he entitled one of his collections of stories – were his inspiration. O. Henry was most famous for his surprise endings. In “The Cop and the Anthem” a New York hobo, Soapy, tries repeatedly to get himself arrested so he can spend the cold winter months in the relative warmth of the city jail on Riker’s Island. Discouraged because all of his efforts have failed spectacularly and comically, Soapy sits on a bench and listens to a beautiful anthem being sung in a nearby church. Under the influence of the music Soapy pledges to become a new person and rebuild his life. At that moment a patrolman arrests him for loitering and marches him off to The Island.

Porter’s health began to fail in 1908 under the impact of diabetes and heavy drinking. He traveled to Asheville in an attempt to recuperate and believed he had regained much of his strength while he was there. He returned to New York to resume work, but his health continued to deteriorate. He died on June 5, 1910.


O’Connor, Richard. O. Henry: the legendary life of William S. Porter. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Edgar E. Macdonald, “Porter, William Sydney.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 5. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Image Source:

Porter, William Sydney (O. Henry) in the Portrait Collection, #P002, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

September 1898: Biltmore Forest School

This Month in North Carolina History

George Washington Vanderbilt’s vision of a country house in the mountImage of Splash Damains of western North Carolina produced Biltmore, the magnificent mansion near Asheville that has become one of the best known tourist attractions in North Carolina. Vanderbilt also planned an estate worthy of the house, ultimately buying more than 120,000 acres of mountain land. He had hired one of the country’s premier landscape architects to lay out the lands and gardens surrounding Biltmore, and, in the same spirit, Vanderbilt wanted his vast forest lands managed by a skilled, professional forester. At the time there were only two trained foresters in the United States, Gifford Pinchot and Bernard Eduard Fernow. Pinchot had prepared preliminary plans for the Biltmore forests but would not take on the permanent job of caring for them. On the recommendation of Pinchot and others, Vanderbilt sought his forester in Europe, offering the position to Carl Alwin Schenck, a native of Darmstadt, Germany, who studied forestry at the Universities of Tubingen and Gissen, receiving his Ph. D. in 1894.

Schenck came to the United States in 1895 and threw himself into the work of organizing and managing the vast forest lands of Biltmore. Schenck supervised a team of rangers and laborers patrolling the forests, cutting trees, building roads, and planting seedlings. Almost from the beginning, however, Schenck also had the help of volunteers, boys from local families who asked to be his “apprentices” to learn scientific forestry. As they traveled by horseback over the mountainous terrain visiting work sites, Schenck explained to the boys what he was doing and why. The number of young men wanting to learn from Schenck steadily increased and led him to formalize the educational process. In September 1898, the Biltmore Forest School opened in abandoned farm buildings on the estate, becoming the first school of forestry in the United States.

Schenck believed in a hands-on approach to the study of forestry. Lectures in the morning by Schenck or visiting experts were followed by afternoons in the forest directly applying what was being taught. Schenck was a firm disciplinarian—he was a reserve officer in the Imperial German Army—whom the boys called “the man who looks like the Kaiser” because of his military bearing and his upturned handlebar moustache. Striding energetically around his classroom or a forest clearing speaking enthusiastically in his strong German accent and followed by his faithful dachshund, Schenck was a figure that his students remembered all their lives with respect and affection.

The pioneering Biltmore Forest School was short-lived, graduating its last students in 1913 when Schenck returned to Europe. By the time it closed, however, schools of forestry had appeared at several American universities and graduates of Biltmore had moved into positions of leadership in government forestry, private forestry, and forestry education throughout the United States.

Biltmore Forest School students in Germany

Carl Alwin Schenck. The Birth of Forestry in America: Biltmore Forest School, 1898-1913. Santa Cruz, CA: Forest History Society, 1974, c. 1955.

Forestry Comes to America. Washington, DC: U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Service, 1971.

“Biltmore Forest School.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

Image Source:
Carl Alwin Schenck. Logging and lumbering; or, Forest utilization. A textbook for forest schools. [Darmstadt, Printed by L.C. Wittich, 1912?]. NC Collection Call Number: C634.9 S32L [splash dam: p. 28; Biltmore Forest students: p. 55.]

September 1940: Dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This Month in North Carolina History

Postcard of Roosevelt speaking at dedication of Great Smoky Mountain National ParkPeople began arriving as early as seven o’clock in the morning at the parking area at Newfound Gap on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It was the second of September 1940 and a fine, clear, breezy day at the crest of the Smoky Mountains. By mid-morning there was no space left for parking, and cars were being shunted off onto nearby secondary roads, while their passengers were delivered to the gap in school buses. At five in the afternoon more than 10,000 people had gathered to greet the motorcade from Knoxville bringing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the mountain top for the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

President Roosevelt had long been a friend of the park, but pressing national and international concerns influenced his speech. Taking as his theme the spirit of the pioneers who had settled the mountains, he called on Americans to show that same spirit in the face of threats from Europe and Asia and sought to rally support for his plans to strengthen national defense. Newspapers reported that he received an enthusiastic response from the crowd and was strongly supported by Governor Clyde Hoey of North Carolina who spoke briefly, as did Governor Prentice Cooper of Tennessee and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Roosevelt did not neglect the park altogether, however. He spoke of the many varieties of plant and animal life that would be preserved for the future : “… trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent…” and “brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them.” The park, he believed, would show Americans their past because “the old frontier … lives and will live in these untamed mountains to give the future generations a sense of the land from which their forefathers hewed their homes.”

North Carolinians had been involved in agitating for some sort of national park in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1899 when the Asheville Board of Trade had been instrumental in organizing the Appalachian National Park Association. For a while interest shifted to the creation of a national forest, and the Weeks Law, passed by Congress in 1911, did authorize creation of forest reserves somewhere in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the southern Appalachians. A shift of emphasis from national forest back to a national park followed the creation of the U. S. Park Service in 1916 and the National Park Association in 1919. The impact of the automobile and the potential of tourism also increased enthusiasm for a park. In 1924 the U. S. Department of the Interior released a report favorable to forming a park in the Smoky Mountains on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, and in that same year the General Assembly of North Carolina appointed a special commission to promote North Carolina’s effort to secure the park. The commission faced a difficult challenge because the U. S. government would only create the park if the states could provide the land. National parks in the west had been carved out of federal land, but all the land for a park in the Smoky Mountains would have to be bought from private owners. The North Carolina park commission sought to raise money from private gifts and public funds. In 1927 the state of North Carolina provided two million dollars to purchase land, and when this amount plus private gifts would not meet the need, John D. Rockefeller gave another five million dollars from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund. In 1930 the governors of North Carolina and Tennessee gave deeds to nearly 159,000 acres in the Smoky Mountains to the United States, and the land was given limited park status. During the 1930s several more purchases rounded out the park, and it received full park designation in 1940.

In the years following its opening the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has proved to be one of the most popular parks in the country. The park is 95% forested of which 25% is old growth, comprising more than 100 species of trees. It is home to 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, 43 species of amphibians, and 66 species of mammals, including its famous black bears. More than 1500 species of flowering plants grow in the park, which was named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976. It is known for its miles of hiking trails and fishing streams. In Cades Code visitors find historic nineteenth and twentieth century homes, mills and other buildings which illustrate life in the remote areas of the Appalachian mountains.

Asheville Citizen. September 3, 1940

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The public papers and addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 1940 Volume. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.

Willard Badgette Gatewood, Jr. “North Carolina’s role in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” North Carolina Historical Review, vol.37:2, (April, 1960).

September 1711: The Death of John Lawson

This Month in North Carolina History

Title page of A New Voyage to Carolina

In the late summer of 1711, John Lawson, Surveyor-General of North Carolina, and Baron Christoph von Graffenried, a Swiss aristocrat, began what should have been a short, uneventful trip up the Neuse River. Lawson assured his companion that they would have no trouble with the Native Americans in the area, but by early September, the men were in the custody of a group of Tuscaroras and by the 16th, Lawson was dead.

Von Graffenried lived to tell the tale of their imprisonment, so much of what is known about Lawson’s death comes from his partner’s version of the event. Although initially the Native Americans merely questioned the two men about the purpose of their journey and had decided to set both of them free, they changed their minds when Lawson began quarreling with a Tuscarora chief. Von Graffenried managed to convince the Tuscaroras that Lawson did not speak for him and that he himself was under the protection of the Queen of England who would be sure to avenge his death. Von Graffenried was not present at the execution. Some versions of his account say that Lawson was burned to death, while others state that the Native Americans slit his throat. John Lawson may be considered the first casualty in what is known now as the Tuscarora War, a conflict that almost drove the Europeans from North Carolina and virtually destroyed the Tuscaroras.

In Lawson, the Native Americans lost one of their most sympathetic observers among the new settlers. During his journeys of exploration in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and possibly Pennsylvania, he studied not only the plants and animals of the new world, but also the cultures of its established peoples. Lawson attempted to be an objective chronicler of Native American customs, taking care to distinguish between the different nations. He collected American plants for a London botanist named James Petiver throughout his residence in the Carolinas, but Lawson’s own interests were much broader. He succeeded in combining those interests with the interests of Carolina’s owners, the Lords Proprietors, and soon after his arrival in Charlestown in late 1700, he was directed by the Proprietors to investigate the unsettled interior of Carolina. They later appointed him Surveyor-General of North Carolina and a member of the commission to determine the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia. These appointments gave him the opportunity to study the natural history of the area, meet with a number of different, and usually friendly, Native American nations, and acquire some valuable tracts of land for himself.

After about nine years in America, Lawson returned briefly to England, where as a result of his travels, he was able to publish a map of the Carolinas and one of the most influential early works on the natural history of America, A New Voyage to Carolina, in which he describes his journeys and findings. The book was published under a number of titles in the early eighteenth century in English and in German. It inspired many other explorers and naturalists, some of whom copied from it directly. Lawson was also concerned with promoting the settlement of North Carolina and was involved with the founding of both Bath and New Bern, the latter with Graffenried. He himself owned large tracts of land in the area of the two towns. While in London, he encouraged others, especially groups of European refugees living in England, to move to the colony. Despite his interest in and sympathy for the Native Americans, Lawson’s promotion of the growth of the colony was antithetical to their interests. His attempts to understand their culture did little to mitigate their perception that he was also destroying it.

Hudson, Marjorie. “Among the Tuscarora: The Strange and Mysterious Death of John Lawson, Gentleman, Explorer, and Writer.” North Carolina Literary Review, vol. 1 (Summer 1992), pp. 62-82.

Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina. Ed. Hugh Lefler. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina. London, 1709. Available online through Documenting the American South at

Saunders, William Lawrence, ed. The Colonial Records of North Carolina. Vol. 1. Raleigh, N.C.: P.M. Hale, 1890.

September 1802: Spaight-Stanly Duel

This Month in North Carolina History

Portraits of Spaight and Stanly

In the early nineteenth century, North Carolina men from all walks of life often resorted to violence to settle quarrels and arguments. For those near the lower end of the social scale this usually meant fists and bad language. For those who considered themselves gentlemen, it often meant a duel. Preceded by a formal exchange of challenge and response, a duel with swords or pistols continued until the offended party declared that honor had been satisfied or until one of the combatants was wounded or killed. In September, 1802, North Carolinians were shocked by a fatal duel involving two of the state’s leading citizens.

Richard Dobbs Spaight, by the age of 44, had had a distinguished career in North Carolina politics. Spaight had fought for the patriot cause in the Revolution under General Caswell, served several terms in the North Carolina House of Commons, represented North Carolina in both the Continental Congress and the United States Congress, and been elected the first native-born governor of the state. Spaight’s opponent in the duel, John Stanly, was 28 in 1802, but had already followed a Princeton education with service in the North Carolina General Assembly. In 1802 he was the United States Congressional Representative from the district once served by Spaight. Both men lived in New Bern and were members of the Jeffersonian Republican Party.
Trouble began when friends advised Spaight that Stanly had raised questions about Spaight’s allegiance to the Republican Party. An angered Spaight demanded that Stanly “…give me that satisfaction which one gentleman has a right to demand of another.” Several more letters were exchanged between the two men which appeared to settle the matter, and Stanly gave Spaight permission to clear the air by publishing their correspondence. In forwarding their letters to the New Bern Gazette, however, Spaight added several remarks which Stanly found offensive. This led to an increasingly heated exchange in the newspaper and finished with Stanly distributing a handbill in which he accused Spaight of wishing to “strut the bravo” with remarks which showed a “malicious, low and unmanly spirit.” In reply, Spaight published a flyer accusing Stanly of being “a liar and scoundrel.” Stanly challenged Spaight and the two men and their seconds met at 5:30 on the afternoon of September 5th behind the Masonic Hall in New Bern. Standing opposite each other, armed with pistols, the two men exchanged fire three times with no damage except a tear in Stanly’s coat. On the fourth exchange Spaight was hit in the side. He died the next day.

There was general shock and outrage in the state over the loss of so distinguished a leader as Richard Dobbs Spaight. Stanly defended himself eloquently in a letter to Governor Benjamin Williams who issued a pardon absolving him from legal guilt. The General Assembly, however, passed on November 5, 1802, a bill entitled “An Act to Prevent the Vile Practice of Dueling Within This State.” The new law provided that anyone who participated in a duel would be heavily fined and barred from any office of trust or profit in state service. If an individual were the survivor of a duel to the death, he and any who assisted him would hang “without benefit of clergy.”

The act of 1802 put North Carolina on record as opposing dueling, but it did not stop the practice completely. For one thing, the act only applied to duels within the state. North Carolinians could cross the border into either South Carolina or Virginia where the practice was tolerated. The prohibition against dueling itself was often ignored by those who respected the old custom more than the new law. Gradually, however, dueling became less common until it disappeared in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Wellman, Manly Wade, “The Vile Practice of Dueling: John Stanly and Richard Dobbs Spaight. New Bern, 1802,”  The New East, 4:5 (October, 1976): 9-11, 45-46.

Johnson, Guion Griffis. Antebellum North Carolina: a social history. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

September 1987: The Blue Ridge Parkway

This Month in North Carolina History

The dedication of the last section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including the spectacular Linn Cove Viaduct at Grandfather Mountain, in September 1987, marked the completion of one of America’s most popular scenic roads.Image of car on dirt road

Running 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great SmokyMountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the Parkway was a notable public works project of the Great Depression and the fulfillment of a dream first promoted by Joseph Hyde Pratt, State Geologist of North Carolina.

Pratt advocated construction of a “Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway” and between 1909 and 1912 surveyed the North Carolina portion of a road that would run from Marion, Virginia, to Tallulah Falls, Georgia. The photograph on this page shows a car on the “Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway” in 1911. Pratt was ahead of his time in recognizing the potential economic impact of automobile tourism and foresaw the scenic appeal of the mountains of western North Carolina for vacationing Americans. The one short portion of the “Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway” which was actually constructed was later incorporated into the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Pratt’s surveys are remarkably close to the final location of the great mountain road.

Suggestions for Further Reading
Jolley, Harley E. The Blue Ridge Parkway. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1969.

Buxton, Barry M. and Stephen M. Beatty, eds. Blue Ridge Parkway: agent of transition: proceedings of the Blue Ridge Parkway Golden Anniversary Conference. Boone, NC.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1986.

Image Source:
“On the Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway, the Grove Road, Up the Mountain, East of Asheville, N.C.” In Southern Good Roads, January 1912, p. 8.