Rocky Mount Mills and the city of Rocky Mount would not exist without the Tar River. The river was the impetus for initial human occupation of the land and was central to 12,000 years of continuous settlement. It offered a variety of ecological niches that provided a diverse and bountiful array of flora and fauna that brought and then sustained human life. Although there have been no archaeological assessments of the Rocky Mount Mills property proper, archaeologists have studied the area in its immediate vicinity, which uncovered evidence of Native American occupation for thousands of years. CHW would be remiss not to study the mill’s environmental and Native American history for they are crucial periods that inform the mill’s entire existence and subsequent future.
Historian Richard White’s The Organic Machine was a seminal work of environmental history that reinforced the need to study both natural and human history in unison since they are interdependent. The natural and the cultural are so intertwined that their stories cannot be removed from the other.  He maintained that one can find the unnatural in nature as one can find the natural in the unnatural. Using the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest as a case study, White tracked human activity on the river from Native Americans to American capitalists to immigrants. He observed that the geomorphology of the Columbia determined where and how people could work and move. Even though nineteenth century engineering, such as steam-powered boats, eventually managed to counter the river’s power and make it work for their purposes, the machinery had limitations and was often not powerful enough to make it fully upstream. The relationship between Man and River has been and will always be a constant push-and-pull of energy expenditure.
Labor, White argued, was the glue that tied the human and natural worlds. Rivers adjust and react to events that affect them. They are powerful natural entities that influence humans to expend energy manipulating them for their own uses. Likewise, rivers also expend energy; they erode, they transport, they deposit, etc. White summarized, “the geography of energy intersected quite tightly with a geography of danger and a human geography of labor.” If we look at nature through the concept of labor, then we can better understand the influence and power rivers possess in shaping human history.
“Like us, rivers work. They absorb and emit energy; they rearrange the world.”
The Tar River comprises one half of the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, one of six major estuaries that drain into the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary. Interestingly, the Tar and Pamlico rivers are two distinct ecological sections of the same river, the former being freshwater and the latter brackish. It is the third largest river basin in North Carolina and is home to two national wildlife refuges. The Tar River spinymussel is one of seventeen rare or endangered freshwater mussel species that inhabit the upper basin and one of only three freshwater mussels with spines in the world. It is also home to the Atlantic white cedar ecosystem. Rocky Mount Mills lies entirely in the Upper Tar River sub-basin as does the majority of the city of Rocky Mount; its southern boundaries lie in the Lower Tar River sub-basin.
The basin’s – and thus the Tar River’s – biodiversity is an immense draw today to nature enthusiasts as it was to its earliest settlers thousands of years ago. Archaeologists have identified approximately 25 prehistoric sites within the Rocky Mount locality, most of which were situated along the banks of the Tar River [Figure 1]. These particular locations offered food and technological resources; not only did the river itself provide food and means of travel, communication, and trade, the lower terrace featured forests and banks with their associated plant and animal species while the second terrace and uplands contained an oak-hickory climax. Below the Great Falls, where Rocky Mount Mills came to be established, the first and second terraces supported wetland and upland forests. The second terrace was suitable for agriculture and was used as such. At the Falls were/are rocky uplands that provided deciduous forest cover and stone resources, that latter of which promulgated lithic technology.
The impending construction of the US-64 Bypass in the 1980s prompted the need for archaeologists to conduct salvage excavations on the lands where the highway was to be built, which is across the Tar River from Rocky Mount Mills. Professor David Sutton Phelps and his team at East Carolina University led the investigation, producing a report on their findings in 1980. From Church Street to the Great Falls, they found continuous distribution of cultural material spanning 12,000 years (i.e. continuous human habitation for that length of time). The majority of the recorded prehistoric sites were along the Tar while the rest were scattered along its tributary streams, signifying the importance of the river system for survival. Two sites in particular, 31NS3A and 31NS3B, were major villages from 9000 BCE to the historic period; the density of archaeological material at these sites suggest their central nature in the Tar River community whereas the other sites appeared to be satellite settlements [Figure 2].
This specific area that encompasses the two villages is called the “Thorpe Site.” Sutton and his team found that the time period of most intense occupation was during the Middle to Late Woodland periods – from approximately 300 BCE to 1650 CE – due to the presence of artifacts such as Roanoke Triangular and Clarksville points and Woodland-period ceramic sherds. They also uncovered a single human burial with surviving remains. The body was likely that of a young child and was situated in a NW-SE orientation and in a flexed position. The burial pit was an oval 40cm x 20cm. Even though they did find remains, the burial was badly deteriorated because of the high acidity of the soil. The only evidence of the bones was discolored soil and the tooth enamel was almost completely disintegrated. The area was perhaps the western boundary of the political territory of the Tuscarora tribes, which occupied the land here from 800 CE to 1650 CE (Late Woodland period). Colonial expansion after the Tuscarora War (1710-11) enabled European settlers to occupy and work the land. More about this story later.
Like for Native American groups, the Great Falls were a focal point for the settlers, who primarily came from the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Plants, animals, fertile soil, rocky outcrops, fish – these were valuable resources that drew them. The Falls is a cataract that extends ¼ mile and where fish pass to spawn upstream. It is/was a hydrologic system that could easily be adapted for industrial purposes. It powered a grist mill that was established in 1807 and then Rocky Mount Mills that eventually replaced it in 1818. The city of Rocky Mount also originated at the Falls, demonstrating the central role the Tar River played in the city’s growth. The railroad’s arrival in 1847 shifted the community nucleus further south but even this movement was still subject to the river’s power.
Water determined the location of the mill since the river provided a ready source of power. The Great Falls formed a natural dam; but to harness the river’s power, early mill engineers crafted an artificial dam from the natural one to control the flow of water to the mill’s generators. This created a reservoir that maintained a steady water supply for the mill’s intake system. Over time, the mill made changes to the river, such as the early-20th c. deepening of the tail race. From the profiles and surveys done of the Tar in addition to manuscripts, it is clear that the Battles were very knowledgeable of the velocity and depth of the water running by the mill. Since it is perhaps the most valuable resource for the mill, it is unsurprising that they studied it closely to ascertain how their energy needs are being met.
Nevertheless, proximity to the river can be full of risks. Flooding is a grave concern for the city of Rocky Mount. Hurricane Floyd devastated the city in September 1999, 10 days after Tropical Storm Dennis passed and left saturated ground. Floyd killed 51 people in the state and destroyed 7000-8000 homes. In Rocky Mount, over eight square miles were under water with some areas remaining so for two weeks, which subsequently created a health and safety hazard. The hurricane caused over $400 million in property damage and loss in the city. Rivers such as the Neuse, New, Roanoke, and Waccamaw, exceeded their 500-year flood levels and the Tar River had floodwaters crest up to 24 feet above its flood level.
Figure 4. Images of high water during Hurricane Floyd, 1999.
Hurricane Matthew in 2016 may not have been as deadly as Floyd but it was certainly almost as destructive, leaving towns heavily underwater and thousands of homes damaged. However, it does not have to be hurricanes that cause flooding. Heavy rainfall – for any reason – is the major threat to Rocky Mount residents and those living along the Tar River. Once water breaches the river’s limits, it spills and causes havoc inundating roads, shutting down power, and stranding people and animals. To live next to a river means to be aware of its power.
The lesson the Tar River offers is that even though rivers provide many benefits for human settlements, those benefits are tempered by the risks people take to establish themselves right on the banks. As Richard White argues, the human-river interaction is a push-pull relationship, which is certainly the case for the Twin Counties and the Tar. For the recreational and hydroelectric opportunities the Tar provides, it also necessitates flood mitigation efforts. After Matthew hit North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper announced that the state would initiate a study to reduce flooding of the Tar River and three other major river basins. The goal for this study – to be completed Spring 2018 – is to examine the sources of flooding and to determine best strategies for mitigating future floods. The study concentrates on the river section between Tarboro and Princeville because they are areas often hardest hit by flooding owing to their low-lying topography (Tarboro sits slightly higher than Princeville). Like New Orleans, Princeville, too, had a levee that was meant to protect it. However, flaws in its design allowed water to move past it three days after the hurricane hit. It is the hope that the study findings will address issues like this and lead to solutions that actually protect residents instead of putting them in more danger.
The flooding along the Tar shows how difficult it is to control rivers. When people build systems meant to contain and direct them, water often finds a different path; it will highlight any inadequacies and shortcuts made. One is certainly able to harness a river’s power, as was the case with Rocky Mount Mills, but if that power is not given due respect, then rivers can return the favor with a vengeance.
Kay, Lindell John. “State to study efforts to reduce flooding.” Rocky Mount Telegram. 2017. http://www.rockymounttelegram.com/News/2017/11/15/State-to-study-efforts-to-reduce-flooding.html (accessed 13 February 2018).
Kozak, Catherine. “The Legacy of Hurricane Floyd.” Coastal Review Online. 2014. https://www.coastalreview.org/2014/09/the-legacy-of-hurricane-floyd/ (accessed 13 February 2018).
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. “The Tar-Pamlico River Basin.” NCDEQ, 2013. http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/apnep/tar-pamlico (accessed 26 January 2018).
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. “Tar-Pamlico River Basin.” NCDEQ. 2014. https://deq.nc.gov/map-page/tar-pamlico-river-basin (accessed 26 January 2018).
Phelps, David Sutton. Archaeological salvage of the Thorpe site and other investigations along the U.S. 64 Bypass, Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Greenville, N.C.: Archaeological Laboratory, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, East Carolina University. 1980.
Varnell, Michael. “Hurricane Preparedness in the City of Rocky Mount.” United States. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Learning Resource Center. 2006. https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=692148 (accessed 12 February 2018).
Victor, Emmy. “After Matthew, flaws in levee design left Princeville underwater – again.” WRAL. 2017. http://www.wral.com/after-matthew-flaws-in-levee-design-left-princeville-under-water-again/16492492/ (accessed 13 February 2018).
White, Richard. The Organic Machine. New York: Hill and Wang. 1995.
WRAL. “Hurricane Floyd: The storm, the aftermath.” WRAL. 1999. http://www.wral.com/news/local/asset_gallery/5225107/?s=0. (accessed 15 February 2018).
On Environmental History:
Barry, John M. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1997.
Blackbourne, David. The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2007.
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1992.
Van Slyke, Lyman. The Yangtze: Nature, History and the River. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 1988.
On Rocky Mount Mills history:
Glass, Brent D. The Textile Industry in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. 1992.
Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce. A Brief History of Rocky Mount. Rocky Mount: Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce. 1958.
Rocky Mount Mills. Rocky Mount Mills: A Case History of Industrial Development, 1818-1943. Rocky Mount: Rocky Mount Mills. 1943.
 Richard White. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995). 12.
 Ibid. ix-x.
 Ibid. 31.
 Ibid. 7.
 Ibid. 12.
 Ibid. 3.
 North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. “Tar-Pamlico River Basin.” NCDEQ. 2014. https://deq.nc.gov/map-page/tar-pamlico-river-basin
 David Sutton Phelps. Archaeological salvage of the Thorpe site and other investigations along the U.S. 64 Bypass, Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (Greenville, N.C.: Archaeological Laboratory, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, East Carolina University, 1980). 9.
 Ibid. 12.
 Ibid. 13.
 Ibid. 81.
 Ibid. 13.
 Arthur Winslow. Letter from Arthur Winslow to B.H. Bunn. Letter. Folder 1, Box 9, Southern Historical Collection. Rocky Mount Mills Records, 1804-2007.
 WRAL. “Hurricane Floyd: The storm, the aftermath.” WRAL. 1999. http://www.wral.com/news/local/asset_gallery/5225107/?s=0. (accessed 15 February 2018).
 Michael Varnell. “Hurricane Preparedness in the City of Rocky Mount.” United States. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Learning Resource Center. 2006. https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=692148.
 Catherine Kozak. “The Legacy of Hurricane Floyd.” Coastal Review Online. 2014. https://www.coastalreview.org/2014/09/the-legacy-of-hurricane-floyd/
 Lindell John Kay. “State to study efforts to reduce flooding.” Rocky Mount Telegram. 2017. http://www.rockymounttelegram.com/News/2017/11/15/State-to-study-efforts-to-reduce-flooding.html (accessed 13 February 2018).
 Emmy Victor. “After Matthew, flaws in levee design left Princeville underwater – again.” WRAL. 2017. http://www.wral.com/after-matthew-flaws-in-levee-design-left-princeville-under-water-again/16492492/ (accessed 13 February 2018).