On our last visit to Brunswick Town, we walked over to the ruins of Russellborough. Today the site looks like a pile of brick and stone covered by a protective pavilion. But long ago, this ruin was one of the grandest residences in North Carolina – and the home of two successive royal governors.
The History of Russellborough
Captain John Russell chose a plot between Brunswick and Orton Plantation to build his mansion in 1751. He christened the 56 x 65 foot, two-story home, Russellborough. Unfortunately, the captain passed away in 1753 before his home was completed.
Following Russell’s death, town leaders set out to convince Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs to buy the estate by offering him a deal: one shilling per acre and one peppercorn. Peppercorn sounds like an odd payment, but it was their way of ensuring Dobbs would stay until the peppercorn could be harvested the following year.
Dobbs accepted the deal in 1758 and moved to Brunswick from New Bern to escape high rents and rampant disease. He completed the island-style mansion and renamed it, Castle Dobbs. Over the next seven years, Dobbs announced the existence of the Venus Fly Trap, limited French influence in the colonies, and promoted the settlement of the North Carolina colony.
At 73, Dobbs married Justina Davis, a 15-year-old Moore descendant in St. Philip’s Church. A few months later, he suffered from a debilitating stroke that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Due to his failing health, he decided to retire and return home to Ireland. Just two weeks before his departure, Dobbs experienced a fatal seizure. He was buried at Saint Philips – but no sign of his grave remains.
After Dobbs passed away, William Tryon was appointed royal governor. Tryon purchased Russellborough from Dobbs’s heirs and gave the home a new name: Castle Tryon. Unfortunately for Tryon, his appointment happened just before Brunswick revolted against the British Stamp Act in 1765. During the uprising, local citizens put Tryon under house arrest.
Miserable, Tryon made plans to build an extravagant chateau – and move the seat of government back to New Bern. When he left Brunswick in 1770 for Tryon Palace in New Bern, William Dry III purchased the home and renamed it Bellfont.
Dry served as the port collector during the Stamp Act crisis. His service to the Crown was perceived as support of the Crown, which jeopardized his standing within the colony. In the following years, he sought to improve his reputation and earn acceptance among Brunswick’s citizens. The task proved simple as Dry was a jovial planter who focused on entertaining guests.
In 1774, Dry revealed himself as a Patriot by opposing instructions from the Crown and appeals from the governor, opting to support patriot-minded assembly bills. A year later, he detached himself from the royal cause altogether by toasting to the successes of the American military in New England. Royal Governor Josiah Martin suspended Dry from the council over his support of the patriot cause.
The war came to Dry’s doorstep when the British looted Brunswick and burned down Bellfont in 1776. Dry spent the remainder of his life on Blue Banks plantation in Brunswick County.
The Russellborough ruins became part of Orton Plantation in 1830 when Frederick James Hill paid $4.25 for the port of Brunswick. After James Sprunt purchased Orton, Jeffrey Lawrence, a former slave, led him to the old home site.
In 1909, The National Society of Colonial Dames erected The Russellborough monument. The monument was constructed of stones taken from the mansion’s foundations.
James Laurence Sprunt donated the site to North Carolina in 1952. Sixteen years later, Brunswick Town Historic District, including Russellborough, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
What Did The Governor’s House Look Like?
Tryon described Russellborough in a 1765 letter:
“This house which has so many assistances is of an oblong square, built of wood. It measured on the outside faces forty-five feet by thirty-five feet and is divided into two Stories exclusive of the Cellars; the parlour is about five feet above the surface of the Earth. Each Story has four Rooms and three light Closets. The Parlour below and Drawing Room are 20 x 15 feet each: Ceilings low. There is a piaza runs around the House both stories of ten feet wide with a Balustrade of four feet high, which is a great security for my little Girl. There is a good Stable and Coach Houses, and some other Out Houses.”– Governor William Tryon
Archaeology findings confirm Tryon’s description. The mansion consisted of four rooms bisected by a center passage on each floor, with a parlor and drawing room on the first floor. It featured double porches that encircled the home and a secret passage that gave residents a way to escape to safety.
The home also contained one of the colony’s earliest indoor toilets. It was discovered during excavation and is currently displayed at the Brunswick Town Historic Site museum. The commode’s sewer system included a brick drain that ran from the back corner of the foundation to the river – it doubled as a trash shoot.
The “Out Houses” surrounding the residence included a stable and coach houses.
The stone and brick remains of the cellar reveal just how impressive Russellborough was. Fireplaces rose from the edge of the foundation. It contained a storage area for wines and liquor. A round brick cylinder was the site of an indoor well, where a wrought-iron well hoop lowered wine bottles into the well to cool. Yellow Dutch bricks pave the floor.
Visiting The Historic Site
Russellborough is part of the Brunswick Town Historic Site. Located at 8884 St. Philip’s Rd. SE in Winnabow, the historic site is open Tuesday-Saturday. They are closed for most major holidays. Admission is free.