Washington County:
Natural History and Historical Overview
By John Paul Lilly
Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept Soil Science
North Carolina State University
Washington County is located in the Tidewater Region of Northeast North Carolina. It has a total area of 420 square miles, including 336 square miles of land and 84 square miles of water (Lynch and Peacock, 1982). It is distinctly bounded to the north by the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound and to the west by ancient beach ridges marking the boundary between the Lower Coastal Plain and the Tidewater. To the east and south the County has no distinct boundary but is a continuation of the wetlands that cover much of the peninsula between the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. The northern part of the county drains to the Albemarle Sound and the southern part drains to the Pamlico Sound. The elevation of the County ranges from a few feet above sea level in the east, to about 50 feet on the western edge near Hoke (Lynch and Peacock, 1982). The climate of the County is typically warm and humid in the summer and cool in the winter. The number of freeze-free days per year is about 215, and the average yearly precipitation is about 53 inches. Snowfall is rare.

The history of the county has been shaped by to its location and topography. Access to water transportation was an advantage, and the port of Plymouth was the beneficiary. Over time, however, railroads and highways have largely replaced water transportation and water access has declined in importance. Originally, most of the county was a vast expanse of forbidding swampland that resisted development. People settled on the relatively small areas of higher land along the river, the sound, and along the western boundary with Martin County. Even today, the population of the county is concentrated there. The population of the county has never been large because the amount of farmland was limited, and few soils were suited for high value crops such as tobacco or peanuts. Industry did not develop because there was no significant waterpower or other resources, and the population base was small.