In 1771, the North Carolina Colonial Assembly authorized Richard Evans, who had represented Pitt County at the same assembly two years prior, to form a town by dividing his 100-acre plantation, situated south of the Tar River. The assembly appointed seven commissioners, including Evans, to sell lots in the newly chartered town in public auctions. The town was called Martinsborough for the royal governor at the time, Josiah Martin.
Evans died before Martinsborough became the county seat in 1774.
On January 8, 1787, Martinsborough was renamed Greenesville, later becoming Greenville, for the Continental Army general, Nathanael Greene, who successfully weakened the British forces in a series of battles in North and South Carolina during the Revolutionary War.
With a charter for Pitt Academy, 1787 also saw the the beginning of the city’s long interest in education.
During his Southern Tour, President George Washington noted in his diary after visiting in 1791 that Greenville was an “indifferent place” of about 15 families with a large tar and turpentine market. Despite having numerous prominent citizens, a shipyard and a jockey club, Greenville’s growth was slow.
Opening Greenville to the world, the 1830s saw a bridge built over the Tar River and steamboats along it. Factories were established manufacturing guns, carriages, cotton gins and silk. This growth didn’t continue long though: the next decade, many prominent citizens joined in the mass exodus from North Carolina to the newly opened southern and western territories.
During the Civil War in the 1860s, the Tar River made Greenville a target for raids by Union forces and several skirmishes. Surrounded by earthworks, the city’s women ran several Confederate hospitals. Reconstruction brought to the city, already impoverished by the war, a carpetbagger type of government, killings and riots in the streets.
Expansion once again returned in the late 1870s when nice homes were built and new businesses flourished. The train reaching Greenville in 1890 spurred more growth including the first tobacco warehouse, the beginning of what later pushed Greenville into being the largest tobacco market in the state. Tobacco money flooding into the city meant beautiful mansions, expanded borders and new industries for Greenville.
East Carolina University’s precursor, the East Carolina Teachers Training School was established by the state legislature in 1907. Its opening in 1909 transformed Greenville into the educational and cultural center of eastern North Carolina.
Greenville’s prosperity, like so much of the country’s, gave way to the devastation of the Great Depression in the 1930s when businesses closed and homes were neglected.
Building and renewal resumed in the 1950s and has remained steady since but some of the development has come at a cost of sacrificing history. Buildings were razed, neighborhoods of beautiful homes became parking lots and formerly tree-lined streets became barren to accommodate road expansion.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, East Carolina College became East Carolina University and the medical school was created, making Greenville the region’s center of medicine, a development bringing new businesses and industries to the city and an explosion of neighborhoods in all directions.
Specialty shops, art galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, concerts and festivals now define the city’s downtown/”Uptown” while groups dedicated to preserving the district’s history work together and with the city.