Burke County History
Bishop August Gottlieb Spangler, who was seeking a place for a
southern Moravian settlement, was the first clergyman to visit the
foothills and record his observations. In November of 1752, Spangler
camped near “Table Mountain,” described the wildlife and beauty of the
area; then concluded: “We are in a region that has perhaps been seldom
visited since the creation of the world.”
The settlers who originally came to the foothills were European, and
moved to the area because of the inexpensive cost of land, ease of
accessibility and minimal authority. At the time, land prices in western
North Carolina were far less expensive than other colonies, and the road
to western North Carolina had no major mountain ranges to hinder
travelers. The native Cherokees and Catawbas had few villages in the
area, and only used the foothills for hunting. Few altercations occurred
between natives and settlers until in 1777, the state legislature
created two new counties. One was named for John Wilkes, an Englishman,
and the other was named for Dr. Thomas Burke, an Irishman. Dr. Burke was
a poet, a physician and an attorney. Burke was one of the original
members who drafted the Halifax Resolves, the first call for
independence in the colonies.
Catawba, Alexander, Caldwell, Avery, Yancey, Mitchell, Madison,
Buncombe, McDowell, Haywood, Swain, Rutherford and present day Burke
counties were carved out of the original Burke County area.
Additionally, Washington County, Tennessee was also taken from Burke
when Tennessee was part of North Carolina.
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail - The
March to Victory at Kings Mountain
During the summer of 1780, the southern American Colonies were under
attack by the invading armies of Lord Charles Cornwallis, and suffered
growing losses on the field of battle. On May 12, 1780, Charleston,
South Carolina fell, and most of the Southern American Continental Army
was captured or defeated. Commanding the left flank of Cornwallis’ military
advance, Major Ferguson and his troops (Tories – colonial loyalists)
marched into western North Carolina, intimidating the citizens with
fire, musket and sword. An enraged army of more than 1,000 colonial
Mountaineer Volunteers converged on a small settlement on the banks
of the Catawba River (Morganton).
On September 30, the Overmountain Army made camp at
Quaker Meadows. The Patriot Mountaineers held council beneath a giant
oak tree, where they developed a military strategy that would be remembered
as the turning point of America’s fight for independence. This giant
tree, later known as the “Council Oak,” was located in the vicinity
of Quaker Meadows Golf Course.
Traveling south, the Patriot force arrived in Cowpens, South Carolina.
Colonial scouts reported the location of Ferguson near Kings Mountain,
and more than 900 expert marksmen were selected to give speedy chase to
The next day, the American force surrounded the rocky mountain summit
where Ferguson’s men sought refuge, and the battle was over in less than
an hour. The British force lay in ruin, and Major Ferguson was dead.
Early American Gold Rush
From 1804 to 1827, North Carolina mines were the source of all gold
produced in the United States. In 1828, a New Englander named Samuel
Martin, who had worked in the gold mines of Central and South America,
found gold in the mud between the logs at the residence of his friend,
Bob Anderson, in Burke County.
Burke County gold was found in Silver Creek, Muddy Creek and the
headwaters of the Second Broad River. During the height of the gold rush
during the 1830s, 56 gold mines operated in North Carolina and over
12,000 miners worked in the foothills.
Gold panning continues in the foothills today, and travelers on Highway
221 between Marion and Rutherfordton are invited to stop and pay to pan
for gold in several streams beside the highway.
Search for the Conquistadors
Since 2001, an archaeological dig has been underway in northern Burke
County. Led by archaeologists from Warren-Wilson College, Southern
Illinois University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill,
the UCVAP team believes it has uncovered the remarkably intact and
buried remains of four huts that housed 30 Spanish soldiers stationed at
Fort San Juan from 1567-68. If confirmed, Fort San Juan will be the
oldest interior European colony in North America, founded 40 years
before the English colony of Jamestown and 20 years before Sir Walter
Raleigh's “Lost Colony” at Roanoke, Virginia. For more information, call
The Old Burke County Courthouse
The historic courthouse building, as in most southern towns, is
strategically located in the center of the community. Originally built
in 1837, the restored facility is at the heart of downtown festivals,
free concerts and other special events. The landmark is currently the
home of the Historic Burke Foundation.
Burke County Civil War Monument & Memorial
During the Civil War, North Carolina men accounted for one-fifth of the
entire confederate army. In fact, one-half of the muskets and rifles
stacked at the Appomattox surrender were from North Carolina troops.
Some 40,275 soldiers from North Carolina died on the field of battle.
The statue of the Confederate soldier, located on the grounds of the
Historic Morganton Courthouse, contains the names of more than 1,100
Burke County soldiers who served under the banner of the stars and bars
Taming the Mighty Catawba River – The world’s first fully electrified
The municipalities of Burke County are located in the heart of the
Catawba River Valley. The Catawba River traverses some 220 miles from
Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina to the coastal town of
Camden, South Carolina. The river provides drinking water to some two
million people in the Carolinas, and provides electricity to Duke
Energy. Lake Jamesand Lake Rhodhiss (two of the 11 Catawba River lakes)
are located in Burke County, and offer a variety of recreational
The Catawba River has several “put in/take out” ramps, and is widely
used for canoeing and fishing.
Frankie Silver Story
On July 12, 1833, Frankie Silver was hanged in Morganton for the ax
murder and dismembering of the body of her husband Charlie. She was the
first white woman to be hanged in North Carolina. Her body is buried
approximately eight miles outside the corporate limits of Morganton.
Catawba River Greenway
The 4.4 mile Catawba River Greenway offers opportunities for biking,
jogging, strolling, canoeing and picnicking. Enjoy the natural beauty of
the great outdoors just a moment away from the heart of downtown
The National Park Service formally certified the Greenway as part of the
Overmountain Victory Trail. The Park Service has placed historical
markers along the Greenway walking trail to commemorate the historic
King’s Mountain march.
An extension of the original Catawba River Greenway, Catawba Meadows
is a beautifully arranged 230-acre professionally planned park along
the southern bank of the Catawba River. The 2,000 feet of fully-accessible,
paved walking trail was completed in the fall of 2003. Development continues
on a four-field baseball and softball sports complex, bicycle paths,
fishing areas, picnic shelters and access to community gardening areas.
Future projects will further advance the recreational opportunities
– which include hiking, boating, fishing, nature observance, camping,
mountain biking, disc golf course and sand volleyball courts.
Upper Catawba River Canoe Trail
The Catawba River Canoe Trail extends from Black Bear Access on Lake
James to Lake Lookout Shoals Access on Lake Lookout Shoals. The 82-mile
river trail has 24 boating access points and four portages along the
The Great Reservoir of James Buchanan Duke
Construction of Lake James began on August 14, 1916, and the power
generating plant was in commercial operation in 1919. Lake James was
officially named for James Buchanan Duke, an American Tobacco magnate.
Lake James is one of the most scenic places in western North Carolina,
and was the site of the British fort in the motion picture Last of the
Mohicians and featured in one of the scenes in The Hunt for Red October.
A Recreational Wonderland
Lake James annually supports more than 1.5 million recreational users.
The pristine waters of the 6,510-acre lake meet Pisgah National Forest
(which includes protected national forest and state lands) to the north.
With multiple public access sites (including Lake James State
Park),boaters, hikers, swimmers and picnickers find much to do. The
existing state park has two boat ramp areas, canoe rentals, lake fishing
and swimming. Twenty backpack campsites are conveniently located within
150 to 300 yards from parking and showers. The park also includes a
picnic shelter, three miles of hiking trails, a beach area, and hosts a
variety of interpretive programs.
Lake James State Park Expansion
The existing 600-acre Lake James State Park will also include an
additional 3,000 acres and command a total of 36 miles of shoreline.
Trails, camp sites, and swimming beaches will soon be developed for the
recreational pleasure of tourists and local residents. Future plans call
for an area located within the state park to include a privately
operated lodge site complete with cabin rentals, canoe launches and
Lake James Loop Trail
A Master Trail System is on the drawing boards for the Lake James area.
The trail will tie in with the Mountain to Sea Trail, Overmountain
Victory National Historic Trail and the Upper Catawba River Canoe Trail.
The proposed trail system will also include the existing Lake James
State Park trail system. The trail will act as a connector to a variety
of sites that will be located on the lake. Public access sites will
include a lake headquarters, a lodge site, rental cabins, camping areas,
shopping, dining and an amphitheater. “Pocket Parks” will all serve as
trail destinations, overlooks and a site for an interpretive center for
the Overmountain Victory Trail. Officials stated that the proposed trail
systems would provide opportunities for walking, hiking, camping and
biking for local citizens and visitors to the area.