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Durham - A brief history

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Long before the Bull City was named for Dr. Bartlett Durham in the 1800's, the community was making history.

Before Europeans arrived, two Native American tribes, the Eno and the Occaneechi, related to the Sioux, lived and farmed here. The Great Indian Trading Path is traced through Durham, and Native Americans helped to mold Durham by establishing settlement sites, transportation routes, and environmentally-friendly patterns of natural resource use.

In 1701, Durham's beauty was chronicled by the explorer John Lawson, who called the area “the flower of the Carolinas.”

During the mid-1700's, Scots, Irish and English colonists settled on land granted to John Carteret, Earl of Granville, by King Charles I (for whom the Carolinas are named).

During the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, large plantations such as Hardscrabble, Cameron and Leigh were established. By 1860, Stagville Plantation lay at the center of one of the largest plantation holdings in the South. African slaves were brought to labor on these farms and plantations, and slave quarters became the hearth of distinctively Southern cultural traditions involving crafts, social relations, life rituals, music and dance. There were free African-Americans in the area as well, including several who fought in the Revolutionary War.

In 1849, Dr. Bartlett Durham provided land for a railroad station.

North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union. Durhamites fought in several North Carolina regiments. Seventeen days after Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, Union General Sherman and Confederate General Johnston negotiated the largest surrender and the end of the Civil War at Bennett Place in Durham.

After the ceasefire, Yankee and Rebel troops celebrated together in Durham and discovered Brightleaf tobacco, with a taste that led to the ultimate success of Washington Duke and his family. Brightleaf tobacco spawned one of the world's largest corporations, which included American Tobacco, Liggett & Meyers, R.J. Reynolds and P. Lorillard.

Tobacco soon inspired other Durham developments. The first mill to produce denim and the world's largest hosiery maker were established in Durham during this time.

In 1887, Trinity College moved from Randolph County to Durham. Washington Duke and Julian Carr donated money and land to facilitate the move. Following a $40 million donation by Washington Duke's son, James Buchanan Duke, Trinity College was renamed Duke University in 1924.

In 1910, Dr. James E. Shepard founded North Carolina Central University, the nation's first publicly supported liberal arts college for African-Americans.

Today, Duke University is one of the premier universities in the United States, with around 14,000 students split evenly between graduates and undergraduates. Duke's 8,600-acre campus resides in western Durham, about 2 miles from downtown. Duke forms one of the three vertices of the Research Triangle along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The University's research, medical and teaching efforts are all among the highest-ranked in the United States and the world.

In a prescient move in the late 1950s, Duke University, along with the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, persuaded the North Carolina Legislature to purchase a large tract of sparsely settled land in southern Durham County and create the nation's first “science park” for industry. Cheap land and a steady supply of trained workers from the local universities made the Research Triangle Park an enormous success which, along with the expansion resulting from the clinical and scientific advances of Duke Medical Center and Duke University, more than made up for the decline of Durham's tobacco and textile industries.

A new downtown baseball stadium was constructed for the Durham Bulls in 1994. The Durham Performing Arts Center now ranks among the top ten in theater ticket sales in the U.S. according to Pollstar magazine.

After the departure of the tobacco industry, large-scale renovations of the historic factories into offices, condominiums and restaurants reshaped downtown. The renaissance of Durham underway during the early 21st century is an exciting and vibrant development for current citizens of the city. The national and global accolades are a tribute to its longstanding history and future success.

Visit Durham today!

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