"Bentonville was home before it was a battlefield."


While researching heritage tourism possibilities in eastern North Carolina, the RGJ team discovered several plantations known to area families but not listed among information about the state's plantations.  Carolyn Cole, a member of the RGJ team, traces their family history to the Cole Plantation, a part of the Bentonville Battlefield, and further back to the 1600's in Jamestown, Virginia. The family’s quest to learn more about its history took them to the Johnston County Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina. The Heritage Center now boasts a national reputation for its genealogical archives and assistance to people searching for information about their families.

Heritage-based tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the tourism industry.  Heritage travelers tend to be more affluent, highly educated, and curious about different places, people, and history.  They view their vacations as time to relax and learn something new.  Heritage travelers tend to stay longer and spend more money.

Problems and Challenges

During conversations with the Heritage Center staff, RGJ learned that limited space and resources has prevented them from preserving many of the artifacts and stories from African American and Native American families whose ancestors once lived on the named and unnamed plantations that connected black and white families along the eastern seaboard.  Some of the family members from these plantations are recognized nationally and internationally in the arts, sports, politics, business, and other disciplines.  Their stories are interesting and when included in southern and rural history provide the accuracy and inclusion that fosters understanding and appreciation of the contribution that all races and ethnic groups contributed to our country's greatness.

The I-95 outlet center has several mid-priced hotels that cater to family reunions throughout the spring and fall.  Family reunions are mini conferences.   None of the area hotels can seat families with more than 60 – 65 people in their conference rooms.  Also, they must limit musical and other performance activities due to space and time issues.  Their limitations are opportunities for the Bentonville project to fill a gap and meet a growing tourism market head on with research and entertainment facilities. 

Alternatives and Solutions 

To include the history of the people of color of African and Native American descent that once lived on the Cole Plantation and other neighboring plantations, and to create an economic opportunity for Johnston County and Bentonville, the RGJ team proposes to expand eastern North Carolina’s presence in the heritage-based tourism industry to include a heritage center and heritage trail connecting these plantations and providing a place dedicated to preserving the stories and artifacts of the families whose ancestors once lived, worked, and humanized plantation life in North Carolina. 

Our work begins with the Cole Plantation at the Bentonville Battlefield, the descendants of the Cole family, both black and white, and the people whose relationship to the plantation was by marriage or ownership.  The will of Abraham "Abram" Cole, a mulatto born in 1836, reveals property adjoining the Harper House, the main attraction at the Bentonville Battlefield.  The house of Abram's mulatto brother, Levin Cole, born in 1830, is described by Todd Johnson in The Early Architecture of Johnston County as the first house owned by a former slave.  Their brother, Hinton Cole is the great grandfather of jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk.  Other records reveal the ancestors of Nat King Cole living at Bentonville before moving on to Georgia.  Pura Fe, a Tuscarora musician and singer also descends from the Cole family line.  DNA records from Ancestry.com and MyFamilyTreeDNA reveal a wealth of descendants, both black and white, that would bring more heritage travelers to Bentonville and eastern North Carolina seeking information about families of color, and mixed heritage that lived in North Carolina before, during, and after the Civil War.  Bentonville, like many small towns and communities, has its own unique story to tell.

RGJ envisions a nearly forty-acre site that includes a heritage center with its library, archives, and museum dedicated to preserving the stories, history, and artifacts of the African, Native American, and Caucasian families that lived and worked together by force or choice in Bentonville before it was a battlefield.  Many of the older people telling their stories should be recorded in a documentary as soon as possible before these stories are lost forever.  The Bentonville Heritage Center will include a family reunion center with a theater, internet café, offices, community meeting space, a restaurant and/or banquet facilities with activities for all ages to attract family reunions and other events to Johnston County.  It is our belief that such a facility will strengthen the local economy and offer a unique experience in genealogical research for families, scholars, hobbyists, civil war buffs, and family reunion travelers. 


RGJ aims to assemble partners, develop the market, and provide the initial business management of a heritage center dedicated to the stories and artifacts of the people of color that lived on or near the Bentonville Battlefield.