Finding the New and Old in New Bern, North Carolina

People bring unusual things with them when they move across the globe. They bring sweets and mementos and things that remind them of the place they come from. They bring memories of the river that wraps around their town and the beat that their local clocktower kept of their childhood. They bring with them the words, “this reminds me of home”, and they bring the recipes and languages and songs and dances to make that even truer. They arrive somewhere new with hope, and excitement, and a little bit of longing for the place they left. They mix all of that together with the things they wished were different about their old home and the things they find they love about their new home, and they create somewhere new with a bit of flavor from the old.

America is made up of places where people have brought all these things; their food, their language, their ideas from home. Many of these places even carry the names of the far-flung places that people came from. Places with names like New England, and Holland, and Delhi, and Paris, and Rome, and Athens.

Recently, we relocated our headquarters to a place like this in North Carolina called New Bern. New Bern, which was founded in 1710, was settled by Swiss and German adventurers and named after Bern, a city in Switzerland.

Finding the New and Old in New Bern, North Carolina

In this episode of Our Global Adventures, we talk to New Bern local Nelson Bell McDaniel about the history and culture of the city we’ve made our new home, as well as the similarities and differences between New Bern and its Swiss namesake, Bern.

Nelson Bell McDaniel is a man whose roots in the local area go further back in time than New Bern itself. Even his name is a reflection of the area, a collection of three families who have been here for centuries: the Nelsons, the Bells, and the McDaniels.

For Nelson, it is the convergence of cultures and histories in New Bern that make the city so interesting. It is still connected to its heritage in Bern, Switzerland, and, in Nelson’s words, “If you’re a New Bernian and you go to Bern you instantly feel at home”. However, New Bern also has its own history.

The city served as the capital of North Carolina from 1770 to 1792. The royal governor’s house, known as Tryon’s Palace, still proudly stands in New Bern today, and houses the North Carolina History Center. The building, which Governor William Tryon petitioned for, took three years to build and was so grand that taxpayers came to resent it. “They derisively referred to it as ‘Tryon’s Palace’,” Nelson tells us, and the name still sticks today.

Tryon Palace, New Bern, North Carolina
Tryon Palace, New Bern, North Carolina

Nelson also told us about New Bern’s history as an important commercial and cultural center for African Americans in North Carolina. Prior to the Civil War, approximately half of the city’s 5,400 residents were African American, including 700 free persons of color. When New Bern became part of the Union in 1862, it quickly became home to 10,000 self-emancipated slaves, tripling the city’s population in a few years. New Bern was the base of Union Army operations in the area, and thousands of freedmen joined the Army and Navy. Other members of the city’s new population became laborers and artisans and performed critical combat support tasks. In the latter part of the Civil War, an extraordinary black leadership class emerged in New Bern, including men like the Reverend James Walker Hood, a key figure in the post-Civil War growth of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church.

“I learned quickly that the more open you were to diversity the more interesting life you would have”

New Bern also has a long literary history of poets and novelists that extends all the way back to one of city’s founders, John Lawson, an English writer and naturalist. Margaret Wake Tryon, wife to William Tryon, was a published writer on military affairs, and, Nelson tells us, “she knew more about the military than her husband, the Governor.” Well-known North Carolina poet and columnist Mary Bayard Clarke, who published under the pseudonym Tenella, lived in New Bern. As did William Gaston, a man who, in Nelson’s words, wrote things “about human rights and tolerance [that] are as profound as anything I have ever read on those subjects”. Mark Twain set a story in New Bern, as did French author Jules Vern, even though he had never been here. More recently, New Bern and the Tryon Palace have featured in the popular book and TV series, Outlander. Nicholas Sparks, who resides in New Bern, has set several of his books here, including The Notebook, The Wedding, A Bend in the Road, and Safe Haven. Sparks wasn’t born in New Bern, however, in Nelson’s words, he “got here as quickly as he could”.

Alongside New Bern’s literary history runs a deep love for theater and the arts. In the eighteenth century the city developed a rich cultural life which continues today. New Bern was home to the first chartered school in the state, and, Nelson tells us, the emphasis on theater, culture, and education in New Bern meant that for many years it was known as the “Athens of the South.” Today, the city supports two community theater companies, an active art scene, and hosts numerous historical talks and events throughout the year.

New Bern is also the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola, which was invented by pharmacist Caleb Bradham in 1898. While Pepsi no longer has their headquarters in New Bern, they still hold their annual meetings here.

There is, of course, duality in New Bern’s history. Alongside human rights advocates there were slave owners, and alongside black leaders making history there were white supremacists trying to suppress that history. There were barriers to racial and gender equality the same way that there were in other places around the country. However, in Nelson’s opinion, New Bern’s history shows that there has always been a strong thread of diversity, welcoming, and openness that extends far back into the city’s past.

Nelson tells us that, growing up in New Bern, he “learned quickly that the more open you were to diversity the more interesting life you would have”. In our opinion, that’s as profound a lesson today as it has ever been. He also tells us that those who choose to move to New Bern have always been “a gift to this town”, and that newcomers, within a short time, “identify with its history, its lifestyle, embrace it, [and] perpetuate it,” and, “if we go back to the eighteenth century that’s always been the case.”

As newcomers to this city, that welcoming and open spirit is certainly something that we feel today. New Bern is a place that searches for the truth in its history; that respects and celebrates the great parts of its past without shying away from the ugly. It’s also a place that isn’t afraid of change; that wholeheartedly welcomes newcomers and looks forward to the future.

Nelson told us, at the beginning of our interview, that a New Bernian can travel to Bern, in Switzerland, and instantly feel at home. In our opinion, anybody from anywhere could travel to New Bern and feel at home. We certainly do.

Watch our full interview with Nelson to find out more about New Bern’s history, culture, connection to Bern, and the remarkable people who have made this city their home.