Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Pender County - Rich in History

Posted February 7, 2008

It contains two of the most mispronounced names in North Carolina: Topsail and Burgaw.

It also boasts some of the Old North State’s richest history.

Our 100 County Tour today takes us just north of Wilmington along the coast.

You could call Pender a county of warriors. Pender sent a stout wave of Patriots to Moore’s Creek to crush the Scottish Highlanders in the Revolutionary War. Pender County also sent 4,000 soldiers to battle in the Civil War including namesake William Pender, the youngest general in the Confederacy.

The colorful history also includes Topsail Beach where pirates used to hide in a  channel and ambush merchant ships in the 1700’s. Finally, merchant ship captains grew wise and avoided plunder by spotting the tops of the pirate sails in the distance. That is how the island and beach took its name.

Did you know that the US Navy took over Topsail Island during World War II in a joint venture with Johns Hopkins University called Operation Bumblebee?
Rockets and launchers were assembled and stored on the sound side of the island in what was the infancy of America’s space program. Remnants of Bumblebee remain on the island today.

Many outsiders over-pronounce Topsail. It should never be TOP SALE. It is simply TOP-sul with the accent on the first syllable.

My question for you is: How do you pronounce the county seat of Pender? Is it BURR-gaw or burr-GAW? I have heard both with people vehemently defending each pronunciation. Let us settle this once and for all. We will let natives decide.

And what about Surf City? Don’t you love that name? I love their motto: “Big enough to be competitive but small enough to be happy.”

By the way, ajstarrn wins the Duke-UNC contest by coming closest to predicting the final score in round one of The Battle of the Blues. Congratulations. Please email me at to pick and claim your prize.


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  • Baseball Nut Feb 7, 2008

    One of the neatest sights I ever saw was from a fishing pier on Topsail Island years ago. It was in the fall of the year and the beach was empty that morning when I noticed a large black blob on the beach a ways down from the pier. Upon further inspection with a pair of borrowed binoculars it turned out to be a black bear! What a sight! He looked around for a bit and then turned and walked back over the sand dunes. I told many of my family and friends about it but they never quite beleaved me until we visited again the following spring and saw a newspaper photo of the bear at the pier house. I had the last laugh. It turns out that Pender County has a healthy population of coastal black bears.

  • keithrivenbark Feb 7, 2008

    I was born and raised in Pender County as were both my parents and their families. It is a wonderful place and I encourage anyone who has never been to visit. I was raised in the Long Creek community, oh, and it IS BURR-gaw to the locals!

  • ajstarrrn Feb 7, 2008

    I've always heard Burgaw pronounced BURR-gaw.

  • fishnett5977 Feb 7, 2008

    yes those old buildings are lookout towers. some have been made into homes and up till about 15 yrs ago, some were just abandoned buildings until either Fran got them or the town took them down.

  • davidpmcknight Feb 7, 2008

    Was the Pender County community of Willard named for Willard Scott?


  • bleslie Feb 7, 2008

    Yes, I believe you are correct, Amy.

  • ajstarrrn Feb 7, 2008

    Are the Bumblebee remnants those 2 or 3 level white spooky looking buildings? I used to go to Topsail several times each summer and always wondered what those buildings were, but I never asked anyone!

  • fishnett5977 Feb 7, 2008

    Some of my fondest childhood memories are from Topsail Island and Surf City! The first beach my Mama & Daddy took me to. Remember well being rocked to sleep on the pier, laying on quilts and listening to the sounds of the ocean while my parents and grandparents fished. Going to North Topsail when my Mama's sister and her husband owned a trailer there. Having fun as a teenager with my cousins - beach walking, and checking out the boys(most of them Marines from Camp LeJune). Lots of things and landmarks changed after Fran but I still have a great fondness for the whole island. You kinda step back in time a little - and I hope the small beach town feel never goes away there. Great memories there - and will always have them. :)

  • murdock Feb 7, 2008

    BURR -gaw is a nice little town. Pender county is almost the step-child of the urban Wilmington area but boasts some good high school athletes and beautiful land.

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