In 1753, 28-year-old Robert Palmer, a lieutenant colonel in the British army, sailed from Scotland with his 32-year-old wife Margaret, and two small sons, Robert and William, to the port on Bath Creek where he had been appointed as customs collector. He had also been named surveyor general of the colony. These two posts were important ones, and Palmer's annual salary of £900 made him one of the highest paid crown officials in North Carolina. Colonel Palmer figured duties on West Indian molasses, salt, wine, sugar, New England rum, and English merchandise for the flourishing stores of Michael Coutanch and others clustered along Water Street. He also surveyed vast tracts of land and smaller plantations for new settlers and recorded their patents with the secretary of the province.
When wealthy, warm-hearted Michael Coutanch, whose Gaelic voice had spoken for Bath citizens over so many years in the General Assembly, died in 1761, Palmer was elected to replace him. After the merchant's widow married the minister of St. Thomas, Palmer negotiated to buy the house that stood on lots formerly owned by another surveyor general, Matthew Rowan. Many times over the past ten years, the hard-working Scotsman surely must have wished he didn't have to ride the long five miles to his plantation after the day's work was done, and the Palmers' move to the large comfortable house at the corner of Water Street and Carteret was a happy one. The wide central passage of the new house, two stories high, let a good breeze blow through from front door to back and along the upstairs hall to its five bedrooms. The Palmers could have a spacious parlor in the room opening onto Water Street where Coutanch carried on his vast business in naval stores and hosted several meetings of the General Assembly and council during Governor Gabriel Johnston's administration. The port collector chose for his own office the northeast corner room with its outside entrance where ship officers could come and go without disturbing Margaret, who had been in poor health for several years. The new house was convenient, too, for entertaining visitors — a need that had increased since Governor Dobbs named Palmer a member of the royal council the previous year.
In December 1764, Bath — like the rest of North Carolina — eagerly awaited the arrival of young William Tryon and his wife, Margaret, on a winter tour of the province. Tryon had recently arrived from London as deputy royal governor so the ailing seventy-six-year-old Arthur Dobbs could retire in the spring. The Palmer household no doubt underwent a flurry of cleaning, polishing, and cooking in preparation for the Tryons' visit just after Christmas. The kitchen would have been filled with the fragrance of pies baking and spicy puddings boiling, a ham from the smokehouse and a leg of venison roasting in the oven, and no doubt the Englishman's traditional Christmas favorite — a juicy side of beef — turning on the spit. Tryon recalled their visit, and others along his route, in a letter to his uncle, Sewallis Shirley: "This journey was accomplished with more Ease and better Accomodations than I could possibly have expected to experience, and I found the Gentlemen very ready in giving the Hospitality their Plantation afforded." It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship; and years later Tryon, referring to Palmer as "a gentleman of worth and character," said, "He had a very excellent House and Plantation at Bath which I often resided in with my family being Hospitably entertained by him."
In the fall of 1765 while most of the colony protested the Stamp Act due to go into effect November 1, Margaret Palmer lay dying in the hushed master bedroom, its shutters pulled to cut the glare of the autumn sun. On October 19, the family's vigil ended, and the Reverend Stewart was summoned to arrange for her burial under the sand-set paving tiles of the church floor. Next to the altar Colonel Palmer placed a handsome slate tablet, testifying that although away from her native land she had labored under the severest bodily afflictions, she had borne them "with uncommon Resolution and Resignation to the last."
The following year Palmer was appointed a commissioner to contract for constructing a new courthouse and jail in Bath, and he kept a careful eye on the workmen's progress as they erected the new buildings at the foot of Craven Street along Bath Creek. In May 1767, he joined Governor Tryon's party to survey the boundary line between the western frontier of the province and the Cherokees' hunting grounds. The cost of the expedition was deplored by a group of farmers in the backcountry calling themselves Regulators, and by the next summer the situation in Orange County, center of their protests against heavy taxation and unequal representation in the assembly, grew so flammable that Tryon called out the militia. On the march to Hillsborough the governor promoted Palmer, already colonel of Beaufort County militia, to the temporary rank of lieutenant general for the duration of the Regulator campaign and named him adjutant-general of his forces. Fortunately, cool heads prevailed at the court session there, and the so-called Battle of the Eno never materialized, though the situation remained far from settled.
On New Year's Eve, 1770, at Tryon's Palace [at New Bern], Palmer took a new oath of office — as secretary and clerk to the crown. With all these added responsibilities, he decided the following spring to leave Bath and move into a house he had built in New Bern for his residence during council sessions.
His older son, Robert, seemed more interested in a future career in the British army than the life of a planter. Consequently, Colonel Palmer deeded the house in Bath, fifteen Negro slaves, and 250 acres in the county to his younger son. William Palmer and his wife, Mary, brought a change of lifestyle to the imposing white frame house with its massive chimneys. Now babies were rocked to sleep in the second floor bedrooms and probably soon slid down the bannister, climbed the apple trees, played hide and seek in the chimney closets, and teased the cook for snacks in the basement kitchen. The oldest was named Margaret for William's mother; then came Euphan Alston; next Robert, the only boy; and finally the baby, Helen. The lofty rooms had probably not held so much noise and laughter since the three Coutanch children played there more than two decades before.
In May, with the capital and its new palace barricaded behind a trench against a rumored attack by Regulators, Palmer again was in the front ranks with Beaufort County militia as Tryon's forces marched into the backcountry. In a brief decisive battle on the banks of Alamance Creek on May 16, 1771, the organized resistance of the backcountry men was broken.
Only a few weeks later William Tryon sailed for New York and his new post as governor there. In mid-August, the new Carolina governor, Josiah Martin, and his family sailed into New Bern while the town was beseiged by another enemy, one of the periodic epidemics of "Yellow Jack" (or yellow fever) carried to port towns by mosquitoes in the holds of incoming ships. Among those who took seriously ill was Robert Palmer, whether from the fever or another disease is not known. When the effects of his illness lingered, a change of climate was recommended; and he booked passage on a ship for England. He obviously expected to return soon, for he didn't resign his position as collector of the port of Bath until 1772, nor did he give up his seat on council until 1775, but his illness continued for five more years. Josiah Martin appointed William Palmer to fill the post of militia colonel as well as to take his father's place as port collector.
Once again ship captains from the Indies, Carolina, and New England crossed Water Street to the office door of the Palmer house. It was a surface similarity though. As the rising tide of independence, first visible only as intense opposition to Parliament, inched slowly toward the high watermark, William Palmer was caught in an eddy of conflicting loyalties. His father had been in the king's service for 20 years, yet William scarcely remembered England. He had grown up in North Carolina, and it was the homeland of his children. His older brother, Robert, was the king's man through and through. He joined a regiment of the British army headed by the former royal governor of South Carolina, Lord Charles Greville Montagu. William, who decided to remain, still could not bring himself to take the patriot's test oath and tried to drink away the demons of indecision that tortured him, especially after Martin fled to a ship in the Cape Fear River and William's crown appointments were stripped away. When a rider from Edenton galloped through the town gate of Bath on May 6, 1775, down Carteret Street — fragrant with the blossoming fruit trees in the Palmer orchard — and on to the courthouse, it was Roger Ormond and William Brown who met him. Scanning the dispatch which said British redcoats had attacked Massachusetts minutemen at Concord bridge and on Lexington green, the Bath safety committeemen were keenly aware that war had begun. They scribbled a hasty note and sent a fresh rider on his way to New Bern.
Other Bath men joined the Continental line or enlisted in the militia, while many who were seafarers signed on with privateers and trading ships to bring in badly needed supplies and ammunition. William's drinking had become so serious a problem that he was deep in debt and incapable of handling his own or his father's business affairs. Small wonder he decided to leave Bath after the state confiscated all of Colonel Palmer's property except that which he had given to his son. In January 1778, William placed a notice in the New Bern Gazette offering to rent both the plantation and the house in Bath which he said was so well known it "requires not particular description here." Even livestock and household furniture were to be sold at public auction in February.
War's end found the young Palmers in the new town of Washington, upriver from Bath, where William was a merchant and no doubt a frequent patron of Mulberry Tavern.
The General Assembly, meeting at the palace in New Bern, grown shabby from neglect, in November 1785, heard complaints by Beaufort County citizens about the inadequate inns at Bath Town and the "ruinous condition" of the courthouse. Then the legislature enacted a law to "Alter the Place of Holding the County Court of Beaufort County from Bath to the Town of Washington." It is unfortunate that the county's representatives were not older. If they had been, they would have felt the irony that this assembly, which wrote finale to Bath's days of leadership, also heard an elderly petitioner who had been one of the town's foremost citizens, Colonel Robert Palmer.
Now retired and living in a small house in Shrewsbury, England, with his second wife Helen, he had sailed for Carolina in hopes of convincing the legislature to return his confiscated land. His claim was reasonable. He had not left the colony to escape the war nor fought with the British army. Indeed, he had served his government long and well and had only left it for reasons of health. Richard Caswell, inaugurated as governor on December 12 in the Council Chamber (then called Commons Hall) where Palmer had worked so many long hours, endorsed his petition. Caswell told the assembly, "I can do no less than assure your Honorable Body that what he sets forth in his petition to you respecting the cause and time of his leaving the country and his conduct whilst a resident here is founded on incontestable facts." Even the governor's words could not influence the legislators. Many of them were war veterans to whom an Englishman was still "the enemy"; and the state was so desperate for funds that confiscated property was among its few tangible assets. Palmer's petition was denied. In London the following year, he appealed for an increase to his miserly annual pension of £150 from the American Loyalist Claims Commission, but not until 1790 was it raised to £300.
In 1786, acknowledging his "precarious state of health," William Palmer traveled to New York in hopes of a cure. He died there in less than a year, and Mary and their four young children returned to Bath. She supported the family by renting out various houses on the town lots she inherited until the mid-1790s when she remarried.
It was Robert and Margaret Palmer's youngest grandchild, Helen, who carried on the tradition for warm hospitality and devotion to both family and community which the Palmers had established in Bath so many years before. Helen fell in love and married a charming French merchant and shipowner in Washington, Lewis LeRoy, who was possibly from Martinique and some years her senior. In 1802, they sold the Palmer house in Bath to two other Washington merchants, Jonathan and Daniel Marsh. A contemporary described Helen and Lewis LeRoy's house on Washington's West Main Street as "the most gracious and cultivated home in town." LeRoy's shipping business prospered, and Helen and their daughters developed a reputation as accomplished musicians and experts at needlework. Helen became a convert to her husband's Roman Catholic faith, and the LeRoy's donated the land for Washington's first Catholic church, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, which was consecrated in 1829.
In the early 1800s, a merchant ship from Washington sailed into the harbor at Martinique in the French West Indies just as a slave insurrection broke out on the island. Two terrified little boys, one white and one black, whose parents were murdered in the massacre, escaped to the waterfront and took refuge aboard the ship. When its captain tied up at his Pamlico River wharf a few weeks later, he turned the two orphans over to LeRoy who could talk to them in French. Lewis and Helen decided to adopt the little white boy, John P. Labarbe, and found his small mulatto friend, Phil (Philippe) a kind master who lived nearby, "Parson" Thomas Bowen. (After the Civil War, Bowen's great-granddaughter, Mrs. Rodman Myers, remembered that Phil was still a trusted and valued servant in the family when she was a child.)
When the children grew up, Peggy LeRoy (Margaret Palmer's namesake) became Mrs. John Labarbe. Other Frenchmen were also welcomed to the LeRoy's home, the most distinguished being the Marquis de Lafayette, who was royally entertained there during his American tour in 1825 with his son, George Washington Lafayette. After the courtly LeRoy died in 1847, Helen supplemented her income by taking in boarders at the handsome old Main Street house which, it was said, still retained "the well-bred air of comfort."
In the first decades after the Revolution, the next generation became part of the rich history of present day Bath.
Nathan Keais, who had served as captain in the Second North Carolina Continental regiment and captained the Tarboro Packet, was appointed to Robert Palmer's former post, collector of the port of Bath. In his Washington office, he logged 42 incoming ships for April and May alone in 1785 — 14 sloops, 18 schooners, 8 brigs, and 2 "ships." He was to have a great-greatgrandson, Edmund Harding, who as first president of the Historic Bath Commission spearheaded the drive to restore its historic buildings.
Jonathan Marsh managed a retail store in Bath while his brother Daniel ran another at Washington. Their schooner Mathilda sailed for Liverpool and the West Indies from Marsh's wharf in Bath on land that had first been Matthew Rowan's, then Michael Coutanch's, and most recently the Palmers'. The Mathilda brought in cargoes of general merchandise and what Jonathan's store ran out of, Daniel's would supply, and the other way around. Small ships sailed back and forth with their orders.
A new bride was mistress of the Palmer house, now the Marsh house. The former Ann Bonner (called Nancy), she was the daughter of Washington's founder, Colonel James Bonner. Nancy, her brother Henry, and her sister Sarah, all newly married, were to have descendants whose lives were entwined with every one of Bath's restored historic buildings. For 120 years, Jonathan and Nancy Marsh and their family would occupy the Palmer-Marsh House.
The winds of war were once blowing along the dusty streets of Bath, shut out for as long as it seemed possible. A tall white column standing in the shade of a giant oak behind the Palmer-Marsh House, William T. Marsh's tombstone, poignantly evokes the tragic story.
Born July 21, 1830, William graduated from Yale with honors and was a member of the North Carolina bar as well as a noted farmer. In 1860 he represented Beaufort County in the lower house of the General Assembly. In May, 1861, Marsh was commissioned captain of the Pamlico Rifles, later assigned as Company I, Fourth Regiment North Carolina Confederate Infantry, before being fatally wounded at Antietam on September 17, 1862. "He fell gallantly, leading his veteran regiment to battle and to victory. He breathed his last 8 days thereafter in the home of strangers who yet soothed his final hours with their sympathy and kindness. Though opposing secession with all the power of his intellect; yet when the storm came, he cheerfully laid himself upon the altar of sacrifice and bravely died for North Carolina. The memories of such heroes are the richest legacies of history."
Guided tours of the Palmer-Marsh House are available to the visiting public.
Edited from Lewis, Taylor and Joanne Young. The Hidden Treasure of Bath Town. Bath, N.C.: Friends of Historic Bath, 1978.