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A large tract of land along the Roanoke River in eastern Halifax County has been known as Caledonia since the early eighteenth century when it was claimed by settlers from Scotland. (The word is the Latin term for northern Scotland.) William Maule, on April 1, 1713, patented grants for four 640-acre tracts “on ye South side of Morattuck River called Callidonia.” Maule was a figure of some prominence in the colony, having served as deputy to John Lawson in surveying the boundary between Virginia and Carolina in 1710. In 1714 he was appointed surveyor general under Governor Charles Eden. He later served as a member of the Colonial Assembly, a judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court, and a member of the Colonial Council.
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In the nineteenth century Caledonia was one of several plantations owned by Governor Samuel Johnston of Hayes Plantation in Edenton and, later, by his son James Cathcart Johnston. Upon the latter’s death in 1865, he left the lion’s share of his estate to friends rather than relatives, a judgment that engendered unsuccessful lawsuits by Johnston’s offspring. One of the recipients of Johnston’s largesse was H. J. Futrell, who took control of Caledonia. The farm’s 7,500 acres were particularly fertile riverfront property protected from the waters of the Roanoke by a nine-mile-long dike constructed by Johnston’s slaves.
In January 1892 the board of directors of the State Penitentiary reached an agreement to lease Caledonia from the Futrell family. Seven years later the state bought the farm for $61,000. In his report in 1892, the superintendent wrote that forty-six percent of the prison population were unfit for railroad work but well suited for farm labor. The following year 1,000 convicts were dispatched to Caledonia and two nearby farms on the Roanoke River. One-third worked on diking the river while the rest engaged in crop production on 4,500 acres. The two great difficulties faced at the site were dike breaks and malarial fever, which claimed a high percentage of the prisoners. The prison farm at Caledonia continues to operate to this day.
David Marshall (Carbine) Williams, while imprisoned at Caledonia in the 1920s, was given special permission to work in the camp’s blacksmith shop. There he developed the working model of the first floating chamber and short-stroke piston concept that revolutionized the design and manufacture of firearms. Williams’ invention is said to have greatly aided the success of U.S. forces in World War II. “Carbine” Williams died in 1975.
W. A. Cooke, Caledonia : From Antebellum Plantation, 1713-1892, to State Prison and Farm, 1892-1988 (1988)
North Carolina State Penitentiary, Biennial Report, 1889/990, 1891/92
Fred Olds, “Caledonia Prison Farm,” Prison News, October 1, 1929
Land Grant Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh
William L. Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, I, 743, and II, 239
(Raleigh) News and Observer, January 19, 2003