Once upon a time, I visited a town so tiny and magical, that you can’t actually find it on a map- Riverton, North Carolina.
The state of North Carolina is not a classic tourist destination, especially not for English visitors to the US, like me. But my time here with my pal Rachel and her family was one of the most brilliant and memorable experiences I had whilst in America. And this was mostly due to her amazing family’s hospitality, and their eagerness to show me the ropes of North Carolina, and a secret town called Riverton.
After a long day of driving-and-eating-and-listening to all the ailments and innuendos of the Steel Magnolias, we reached Riverton. Riverton is less of a village, and more of an idyllic community. There are no shops here, just a selection of houses built sparingly across a large piece of the North Carolina countryside.
It wasn’t quite spring yet, but even though the trees were still bare it was beautiful. Thick forest was on one side of us, and open fields were on the other. I’ve never been to actual cotton fields before, and when I saw the leftover white tufts scattered in patches across the land I was so excited I could barely control myself. It was absolutely glorious I tell ya! Rachel’s mum has a beautiful cottage at the edge of the woods, and it was there that we would be staying for the evening.
The history of Riverton
90% of Americans I’ve ever met are capable of recounting a detailed description of their ancestral heritage at the drop of a hat. But my pal Rachel’s family went one step further than this by taking me to Riverton, their literal ancestral home.
Back in 1807, a bonnie Scottish lass named Catherine Campbell White turned up to the shores of North America with her husband- a baptist minister called Daniel White. They purchased a piece of land- for next to nothing by today’s standards- in what would become Scotland County, North Carolina (so called due to the large numbers of Scots who chose to live there). The fact that so many Scottish immigrants settled in this area meant that for a while Gaelic was widely spoken (how awesome is that?), so in the name of inclusivity Daniel used to hold two services a day. One in Gaelic and one in English.
Catherine’s land encompassed fields, forests, swamps and the good old Lumbee River, and the family thrived in their new home.
Since the OG matriarch Catherine Campbell White died the land has been passed down through her descendants. And so these days, the majority of people who own a piece of land in Riverton are- somehow or other, however distantly- related to each other. Which is pretty cool when you think about it.
A walk round Riverton
Walking down the centre of a road and knowing that you won’t die is definitely one of the most fun activities in life (or maybe I’m just easily pleased). And here in Riverton, a fairly isolated location, I only remember seeing a handful of cars during my entire stay. So naturally when Rachel and I set off on our casual stroll, we opted for a bit of central road walking.
We laugh in the face of danger, and are clearly massive thrill-seekers.
Veering off into the woods, every now and then we could make out the lights or roof of a house through the thick trees. Rachel explained- ‘I think cousin so-and-so lives through those trees somewhere,’ ‘that’s where cousin so-and-so has a house.’ Once we even bumped into a cousin, calling from outside his house- ‘Oh- it’s Rachel!!! It’s me, Cousin Skee!!” He brought out his most recent painting to show us; what a lovely lad!
It was all so Little House in the Big Woods, you know!?
Out through the other side of the trees we surfaced, on to a dirt road leading to an open grassy space dotted with more houses. One of the many Really Cool Things About Riverton is that there are no actual paved roads though the middle of this North Carolina paradise. No paved roads, and no street lamps. Which really adds to the whole sense of being in a living time capsule. The family have effectively managed to preserve not only their history, but also the actual atmosphere of Riverton in all it’s tranquil simplicity.
More North Carolina tales: Lost in translation in North Carolina
We passed the Riverton Public Library (a Little Library/cupboard, which is definitely now in my top 3 libraries of the world), and headed towards Dan Smiths Landing on the banks of the Lumbee River, which seemed to be on the high side that Spring. Canoes are stored beside the river for whoever wants to go out for an expedition, and a little row of wooden chairs are lined up to watch the river run very lazily past. In the Summer, or so Rachel says, this is the perfect spot for river swimming, especially at the July 4th picnic.
The Riverton Parade is a glorious thing
Every year, the entire extended family gather at Riverton for the 4th of July picnic, right on that exact spot that we were standing on. And let me tell you, this sounds like MY KIND OF EVENT.
Mainly because it involves a parade, and what’s the point of life without a few parades every now and then, know what I’m saying!?
We passed an incredibly old-but-beautiful vintage car which Rachel explained is coaxed back to life in time for the annual parade, which involves the Riverton inhabitants and any instruments they know how to play, plus occasionally one of the local firetrucks from nearby Wagram. People decorate their dogs, bikes, cars, wagons and tractors to take part, and if you’re not in the parade, you watch the parade.
But there aren’t enough people to line the entire (not actually very long) route, so as soon as the body of the parade passes you, you have to run to overtake it and cheer it on again.
You see. The people of Riverton are GOOD PEOPLE!
The poet laureate
Not only was I amazingly lucky to have Rachel as my guide whilst I was there, but Rachel’s mum Mary Wayne is an absolute fountain of knowledge on the family history.
John Charles McNeill was an ancestor who is now known as the original Poet Laureate of North Carolina. He lived from 1874-1907, and over the course of his life he was a poet, journalist, teacher and lawyer- and was awarded a prestigious literary prize by good old President Roosevelt himself. He grew up in the Riverton area and never lost his passion for his childhood home. Mary Wayne took us to see the John Charles McNeill house– restored to look the same as it would have looked back in his day- and to a curious little building nearby.
This little hexagonal building, which once had the school attached to it, is the Richmond Temperance Hall and Literary Society. Temperance Societies sprang up across the USA during the 1800s, not only promoting abstinence from alcohol, but also largely supporting the abolition of slavery and the expansion of women’s rights.
I knew absolutely nothing about this area, these people or this way of life, but the more stories Mary Wayne and Rachel told me, the more interested I became. Learning ‘history’ is all well and good, but it runs the danger of becoming nothing but a series of dates and names that don’t have any meaning. Once actual people are involved, with actual stories and actual experiences; that’s when ‘history’ has significance. And becomes actually rather interesting.
So. Call me crazy, but I was genuinely ENTHUSED to visit the grave of John Charles McNeill, whose existence I previously knew absolutely nothing about.
I can also confirm, in case you wondering, that Riverton is surely one of the most peaceful places on the planet to wake up in. This place is a haven, and my pal’s family have done such a brilliant job of preserving its serene cozy way of life.
For a completely different small USA town: Head on over to Carmel, California
When I first travelled to the US about eight years ago, I found it quite strange that almost every person I met would proudly give me- within the first 2-3 minutes of meeting- a detailed run-down of their family tree. This often involved not only nationalities but sometimes even exact towns where there 200-years-ago ancestors hailed from. But as time wore on- I think it’s one of the coolest things ever. Save for the past few generations, I have barely a clue about my family’s history.
I wonder if when Catherine Campbell White arrived here in Scotland County, she ever imagined that her direct descendants would still be living on the same spot, keeping her story alive?
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