When I set out a couple of years ago to write my first novel, a historical fantasy called Mountain Folk, I decided to set most the action during the American Revolution. It’s my favorite period in American history. After all, I’m a native North Carolinian — which means I grew up surrounded by reminders of our nation’s founding era.
Our most-populous city, Charlotte, was named after King George III’s wife. It’s the county seat of Mecklenburg, named after Queen Charlotte’s home in Germany. Our third-largest city, Greensboro, was named after General Nathaniel Greene, who commanded the Patriots’ southern field army during the final stage of the Revolutionary War. His name also adorns the city of Greenville and nearby Greene County.
Ranked fourth in population, Winston-Salem was half-named for another Revolutionary War hero, Joseph Winston, who served under Greene at the pivotal 1781 battle of Guilford Court House. As for Fayetteville, sixth in population, its namesake was the Marquis de Lafayette, the dashing French officer who served under George Washington.
Here are some other founding-era personalities whose names now grace counties or municipalities in North Carolina:
• Samuel Ashe. A native of Beaufort, Ashe practiced law before going into the “family business” of politics. Both his father and uncle had served as speakers of the North Carolina House. During the run-up to the Revolutionary War, Samuel Ashe served in the North Carolina Provincial Congress and helped draft the new state’s constitution. Then he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he served as that chamber’s first speaker. In 1795, the legislature elected him to the first of three terms as governor. Asheville, Asheboro, and Ashe County bear his name.
• Griffith Rutherford. Born in Ireland, Rutherford got his first taste of military service as a militia captain during the French and Indian War. Like Ashe, he served in the Provincial Congress that wrote the North Carolina constitution. Elected brigadier general of the Patriot militia in the Salisbury District, Rutherford led the devastating 1776 raid against the British-allied Cherokees. Later, he commanded troops at battles in Georgia and the Carolinas. Wounded at Camden in 1780, Rutherford was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Florida for a year. After the war, Rutherford served in both houses of the new legislature. His name adorns Rutherford County and its county seat, Rutherfordton.
• Edward Buncombe. Born on what is now the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Buncombe came to North Carolina in 1768 after inheriting a plantation on the Albemarle Sound. He was elected colonel of the 5th North Carolina Regiment and fought in the Continental Army. Like Rutherford at Camden, Buncombe was wounded and captured during another British victory, this one at Germantown in 1777.
His battlefield wound wasn’t immediately fatal. But a few months later, Buncombe went walking in his sleep, fell down a flight of stairs, and reopened his wounds, causing his death. From him, we got not only the name of Buncombe County but, indirectly, the word “bunk,” meaning a load of nonsense. That must remain, however, a tale for another day.