Although just over an hour’s drive today from modern oceanfront resorts on the Carolinas’ border, the southernmost part of Robeson County was bypassed by most early white settlers, deterred by the dark, trackless swamps surrounding the area and its local native inhabitants. Located in the county’s low-lying southeast corner, white settlement was slow while the rest of the county grew more populated.
White colonial surveyors reported in the 1730s that what now is Robeson County was already populated by an indigenous copper-skinned people, some with blue eyes, speaking English. They also noted that these first inhabitants lived in ``English-style’’ wood-frame houses and used farming methods familiar to European settlers. These original residents, already practicing Christians, are known today as Lumbee Indians.
The same liquid barriers that then made the region appear as a vast, mysterious blank spot on early maps also concealed broad ridges of well-drained, rich loamy soil, divided by pine-forested sandy ridges. Geography also made the region an ideal refuge for various Native American groups squeezed out by the growth of white settlements on adjacent lands in North and South Carolina. Being able to survive in the early 18th century among the vast swamps also made the earliest male inhabitants – white and Indian -- prime recruits for Francis Marion, the ``Swamp Fox’’ of the American Revolution.
Today’s modern social concept of multi-culturalism is woven throughout the fabric of Fairmont’s history, with notable ironic twists. For instance, the only group exclusively speaking English here in the late 18th century was the Lumbee tribe. Protestant Huguenots filtering up from South Carolina spoke French while the Highland Scots mainly spoke Gaelic. Besides the Highlanders and protestant French families, there were also Irish and English people filtering into the Fairmont area.
It was the latter half of the 18th century before the first white man, Isham Pitman, settled what would become the town of Fairmont. He had migrated from North Carolina’s earliest permanent white settlements in the Albemarle Sound region along Virginia’s southeastern border.
After buying a royal land grant issued by King George III to Daniel Willis, brother of John Willis, founder of Lumberton, Pitman settled on a finger of Ashpole Swamp. Ashpole covers hundreds of square miles in both states and spans the county’s entire southern border. The small creek Pitman chose was later noted on maps as Pitman Mill Branch, after he built a mill to grind wheat and corn for himself and his few neighbors. It was located in what is now Fairmont Community Park.
When the American Revolution began in 1776, Pitman fought for colonial independence, joined by many neighbors, white and Lumbee. He sent his wife to live with her family in Craven County (New Bern) and left the budding backwater settlement in hiatus. He returned after war’s end in the early 1780s, was rejoined by his wife and cleared more land for farming and grazing livestock. With additional post-revolution land grant purchases, Pitman eventually owned about 24,000 acres.
Already a lay minister, Pitman was licensed to preach in 1792. By 1794, Pitman’s Meeting House was built just north of the mill, close to where its successor, the First Baptist Church, now stands on South Main Street. Pitman led the small congregation until his death in 1825. Pitman never had children but, unlike most of his white neighbors, owned slaves. In his will, he bequeathed eleven slaves to his wife and five to other relatives. Most of Pitman’s remaining land was passed down to his nephew, Elias Pitman, although one large tract west of Old Field Swamp was willed to nephews Hugh and Silas Pitman.
In 1790, Robeson [pronounced Rob-a-son] was – and remains -- the state’s largest county. Including what is now Hoke County, Robeson originally covered 1,270 square miles in 1790, when its population was about 5,336, with a total state population of only 393,751. Robeson’s total included 533 slaves and another 277 counted in the category of ``all other free persons;’’ mainly Lumbees.
There were many more Lumbees living within county borders at the time, but Indians who paid no taxes were not counted. Those who did often avoided the census taker, the local marshal, who also collected taxes then.
Avoiding the census taker was among ``other difficulties which were of serious moment in 1790….The inhabitants, having no experience with census taking, imagined that some scheme for increasing taxes was involved, and were inclined to be cautious lest they should reveal too much of their own affairs,’’ said a general census summary.