Cape Fear River Folklore: Chasing North Carolina’s Mermaids
When I first heard the legend of North Carolina’s mermaids, I knew I had to go searching for them. Our state is home to many legendary creatures. Bigfoot roams our Uwharrie National Forest. The Santer, Big Cat, or Beast of Bladenboro has been spotted for centuries in Western North Carolina.
We have pirate lore on our coastlines, and fairy lore in our mountains. Now, our state can add mermaids to our list of incredible tales.
The Legend of Mermaid Point
Mermaids were spotted as early as the 1700’s, often around last call at Ramsey’s Tavern. Drunken men stumbling home claimed to see mermaids sitting on a sandbar, washing the seawater from their hair. The mermaids favorite place to enjoy a moonlit bath was at the intersection of the Deep river and the Haw River, right at the headwaters of the Cape Fear River.
Why, you may ask, would mermaids travel this far inland? The men claimed the mermaids swam up the Cape Fear River to preen in the freshwater.
Sadly, Mermaid’s Point was eventually flooded, leaving the mermaids nowhere to sit above the waters. Ramsey’s Tavern met a similar fate in the early 1900’s, and the mermaid legend vanished from history.
While this legend could easily be discounted as drunk and lonely Revolutionaries telling tall tales, the origin of the legend is nearly as fascinating as the mermaids themselves.
Ambrose Ramsey’s Revolutionary Tavern
Today, a roadside historic marker is all that remains to remind North Carolinians of Ramsey’s Tavern. Ambrose Ramsey, a member of the NC state assembly and provincial congress, built the tavern in the newfound town of Lockville (which no longer exists today, absorbed by the modern day town of Moncure). He also built Ramsey’s Mill. The Mill and Tavern both served the Patriots of the Revolutionary War.
However, following the renowned Battle of the Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, General Charles Cornwallis camped his Loyalist (British) army at Ramsey’s Mill. Patriot (American) General Nathanael Greene pursued, and pushed Cornwallis to the British-controlled Wilmington. Cornwallis camped at Ramsey’s Mill for two days before being chased towards the coast, using Ramsey’s Tavern as a headquarters. According to the history written at NC Markers, Cornwallis “used the rocks of the mill dam to create a bridge over the Deep River, allowing for the army to continue toward Cross Creek. They then destroyed the makeshift bridge so Greene’s men could not follow.” However, Greene’s army continued to create skirmishes, deterring Cornwallis from establishing a true base of operations.
I wonder where the mermaids were during all of this fighting.
Modern Day Mermaid Point
Today, about twenty miles downstream from the original Mermaid Point, local restaurant owners in Lillington allow for viewings of the Cape Fear River while celebrating the legend. On a sunny spring day, I drove through wide open North Carolina fields to this rural town and a slower, simpler way of life.
Warm hushpuppies and butter, deep-fried catfish, and macaroni and pimento cheese greeted me at the table overlooking the Cape Fear, where Megan and Ilia, the owners of Mermaid Point: Eats and Drinks on the River, celebrate their love for the river life with seafood, river-views, and canoe rentals. Their menu tells the legend of the North Carolina mermaids at Mermaid Point and Ramsey’s Tavern — a legend that just as easily could be lost to the ages.
Ilia has spent seven seasons on the Cape Fear River, traveling his canoe down the gentle waters all the way to Wilmington–the same path as the mermaids must have taken hundreds of years prior. And he’s taken the trip all alone.
“It takes around six or seven days,” he shares. “You really feel separate from the hussle and busy-ness of everyday technology. You become part of the river.”
“For centuries,” he adds, “this was all farmland. And farmers always stay away from the river, so they don’t get flooded. So no matter how much the outside world builds up and changes, the river is untouched. This is the exact same river from centuries ago. The same sights. It’s not changed.”
Having seen the river in the quiet of the night and silence of the day, Ilia says that, while the mermaid legend is beautiful, he does believe it’s just a legend.
But legends give our Carolina character and magic. And there was much worse ways to spend a hot summer day than daydreaming about mermaids while sitting on the shores of the Cape Fear River and drinking a sweet tea.