Segment of a 1749 Map by Edward Hyrne
The Lower Cape Fear Area was explored by the Spanish in the early 1520’s. In the early 1700’s it was a harbor for pirates. The first settlement in the area, Brunswick Town, was begun upriver. Fort Johnston was built at the mouth of the Cape Fear River between 1745 and 1754 to protect the upriver settlements, dispatch pilots and provide quarantine service. A small community of pilots, fishermen, and tradesmen grew up around the fort.
In 1792, as envisioned and requested by Joshua Potts, the General Assembly of North Carolina commissioned five men to create the town of Smithville, as Southport was first known, around the fort. The town was named for one of the commissioners, Benjamin Smith, who served in the Revolutionary War and who was later elected Governor of North Carolina.
The town of Smithville grew as a fishing village and military town. It became a popular summer resort because of the pleasant climate and healthful sea breezes. Fort Johnson was active during every war in which the United States has been involved. In 1808 Smithville became the county seat of Brunswick County.
During the 1880’s, Northern business interests promoted plans for combining river transportation and railroad service to make the town into a major Southern port. The town’s name was changed to Southport in 1887 as part of the effort. Although the dream did not materialize, the town did acquire telegraph lines, kerosene street lamps and a coaling dock for steamships.
Southport was regularly serviced by river steamer until 1925 and served by railroad from 1911 until World War II. The ferry connection to Fort Fisher began in 1966. The county seat was relocated to Bolivia in 1978.
Southport is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The town has been observing Independence Day since 1795 and annually hosts the official North Carolina 4th of July celebration.
Recent years have seen an influx of retirees moving to the area around Southport, however, the population of the town itself has remained at about 2500. Many homes in town have been renovated and add to the charm of our seaside village. It is the desire of the society to maintain the historical integrity of our community and we shall continue to encourage the establishment of a Historical Preservation Commission. This would ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy what makes our little corner of the North Carolina coast so special.