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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Bank of Cape Fear

by Bennett L. Steelman, 2006

A four dollar bill issued by the Bank of Cape Fear, 1855. Image from the North Carolina Museum of History.The Bank of Cape Fear was the first private state bank chartered in North Carolina and one of the state's largest banks until the Civil War. Created by an act of the General Assembly in 1804, the bank was authorized initial capital of $250,000 with notes and debts not to exceed $750,000. In addition to its headquarters in Wilmington, it was permitted to open a branch in Fayetteville. In 1807 the General Assembly authorized the state treasurer to borrow from the bank, and the state exercised its statutory option to buy 250 shares of its stock. Throughout much of the antebellum era, income from Bank of Cape Fear shares represented a major source of state revenue. On 8 Apr. 1807, the bank announced the opening of a Raleigh branch.

Keys to the vault of the Raleigh branch of the Bank of Cape Fear, circa 1820-1830. Image from the North Carolina Museum of History.Supported by Federalists, the bank and its sister institution, the Bank of New Bern, angered Republicans by reissuing old state notes, which led to specie hoarding and currency depreciation. This prompted the General Assembly to levy a 1 percent tax on private bank stock in 1809 and helped push the chartering of the public State Bank of North Carolina in 1810.

Additional branches had opened in Charlotte, Halifax, Hillsborough, Milton, and Salem by 1835 and in Asheville, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh, Salem, Salisbury, Washington, and Wilmington by 1859. By 1861 Bank of Cape Fear capital had reached $2.5 million. The bank remained open throughout the Civil War, and the Wilmington branch purportedly prospered from the blockade-running trade. However, the postwar repudiation of state war debts and a new federal tax on state bank notes forced its liquidation late in 1865, with a 25 percent payoff to investors.


T. Harry Gatton, Banking in North Carolina: A Narrative History (1987).

William S. Powell, "Beginning of Banking in North Carolina, 1804-1860," ESC Quarterly 7 (Winter 1949).

Additional Resources:

"Bank of Cape Fear. An Act for Establishing a Bank in the Town of Wilmington." Revised statutes of the State of North Carolina, passed by the General Assembly at the session of 1836-7 Volume II. Raleigh [N.C.]: Turner and Hughes. p.37. (November 2, 2012).

"Bank of Cape Fear (1804 - 1865)" N.C. Business History. (November 2, 2012).

"Collection Title: Bank of Cape Fear Records, 1815-1846. Collection Number: 02926-z." Southern Historical Collection. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (November 2, 2012).

Medlin, John. "Biographical Conversations With... J. Medlin Pt.2." Audio recording. UNC-TV, July 12, 2012. Accessed Sept. 28, 2023.

Neale, Robert S.  The Bank of Cape Fear of Wilmington, North Carolina: a history of North Carolina's first antebellum bank and its paper money, branches, key personnel, and local impact. Wilmington, N.C.: Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Archives Division. 1999.

Image Credits:

"MONEY, PAPER, Accession #: H.2008.66.1." 1855. North Carolina Museum of History.

"KEY, Accession #: H.19XX.59.1." 1820-1830. North Carolina Museum of History.