In the antebellum period of the early 19th century, the plantation system held full sway in the Albemarle and the region was dominated by large aristocratic landowners and the institution of black slavery. Elaborate manor residences in the countryside and beautiful townhouses that today grace nearly every town in the region were constructed by the wealthy few.
Some landowners, such as Bertie County's David Stone and Washington County's Josiah Collins built and ran large elaborate plantations and held hundreds of slaves. Since northeastern North Carolina had no major port, most slaves were brought from Charleston or Virginia. And although the plantation economy wasn't as firmly entrenched in the Albemarle as it was elsewhere in the south, African slaves were vital to the region's agrarian economy from the days of earliest settlement. In 1860 Bertie and Chowan Counties, slaves comprised nearly 70% of the population and 25-50% of the population in surrounding counties.
But the majority of the population lived a difficult life of subsistence and farming and had manual labor. The lands were productive for crops such as tobacco, peanuts, corn, and occasionally rice. Again, the barrier formed by the Outer Banks prevented a major port town from developing, although Edenton, Washington, and other towns along the rivers and sound did a thriving "shallow draft" shipping business.
Merchants in the Albemarle instead partnered with George Washington and other Virginians to form the Dismal Swamp Canal Company was created in 1784. The canal was to run between the deep water port of Hampton Roads and the Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, allowing merchants a safe mode of transporting their goods out of the region. Digging began in 1793 and progressed slowly since the canal had to be dug completely by hand through the treacherous Great Dismal Swamp.
Most of the labor was performed by slaves hired from nearby land owners. It took approximately 12 years to complete the 22-mile long waterway. By 1805 flat-bottomed vessels could be admitted into the canal, where tolls were charged to allay the continual expense of improvements and maintenance. By 1820 the Canal was recognized as an important part of commercial traffic between Virginia and North Carolina. Today, it is part of the Intercoastal Waterway.