Orange County, North Carolina historic information cache - people - Caroline Atwater
Caroline Atwater
In July 1939, documentary photographer and photojournalist Dorothea Lange traveled through North Carolina photographing various people, places, and things for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.

On July 1, one person Lange took several photographs of while traveling through Orange County was Caroline Atwater, who was approximately 74 years old at the time. Caroline lived with her husband, Ernest ("Ennis"), in rural Orange County, about six-tenths of a mile east of Blackwood Station, on the north side of present-day Mt. Sinai Road.

The Library of Congress has several of Lange's photographs of Caroline Atwater in its collection (see below).

Caroline Atwater standing in the kitchen door of her log house
Caroline Atwater standing in the kitchen door of her log house, July 1939 (click on photo for close-up)

Caroline Atwater, wife of Negro landholder, in the yard of her double one-and-a-half-story log house, telling where she was born and how she came to this place
Caroline Atwater, in the yard of her double one-and-a-half-story log house, telling where she was born
and how she came to this place, July 1939

Carolina Atwater tells how they got their place     Caroline Atwater tells where she was born

Home of Negro owner. Orange County, North Carolina     House and yard of Negro owner

Caroline Atwater has a well-swept yard

Photographs taken by Lange of Caroline Atwater and her house, kitchen, and well, with Lang's captions

According to Caroline Atwater's death certificate, she was born March 16, 1864 in Person County to Bedford Whitfield and Littie (or Lillie) Smith. The 1900 census lists Caroline as the mother of nine children, with six of them still living. By 1930, none of her children were living at home. During Lange's 1939 visit with Caroline, Caroline stated that her father had been a slave of the Bains and her mother a slave of the Whitfields (both of nearby Person County), that she had been married twice, didn't recall how many children she had (but that four were living and three or four had died) and that she had learned how to read and write at a "subscription school."

According to her husband Ennis Atwater's 1944 death certificate, he had been living at his rural Orange County home for approximately 40 years at his time of death, and his occupation is listed as farmer; he likely raised tobacco as his main cash crop, but his farm is listed as a general farm in census records. He likely died in his house pictured above (and was buried in the nearby Johnson Cemetery).

Lange's notes from her 1939 visit with Caroline state that Caroline and her husband, Ernest, "bought the house and one acre of land 30 years ago. [Ernest] had been working on the railroad and saved up the money." At the time, they raised no "cash crops," but they did grow potatoes, peas, corn, and other produce, which they sold along with canned berries. Years later, they purchased an additional two acres. Their property was fully paid for, but they once mortgaged it to buy a mule. According to deed records, the property the Atwaters lived on seems to have been purchased circa 1911, from an E.E. Thompson (but may have been actually purchased several years earlier and the deed not attested to until 1911). The property is listed as "1 acre land corner of Durham Road 210 feet square also old house." By 1939, a right-of-way agreement with the local electric company listed their property as "11 acres located 8 miles south of Hillsboro, bounded by Ernest Turrentine, Marion Scott, and W.A. Craig land." After Ennis and Caroline's deaths, the property seems to have been divided up between all or some of their children. In April 1956, a map of the Ernest Atwater property, described as the "north side of Mt. Sinai Church Road (Highway No. 549)" was surveyed by J. Ralph Weaver. However, this survey was apparently never registered with the county, and a copy is not known to exist. Also according to Lange's notes, the Atwater's main house was built by them after they bought the property, but the smaller log house had been built circa 1865; it had originally been located about 600 feet into the nearby field, but they moved it closer to the road when they purchased the property.

Caroline Atwater died in her mid-80s on January 19, 1949 at Lincoln Hospital in Durham; she had been living with her son, Ernest, and his family, at 616 Carroll Street in Durham, likely since her husband Ennis passed away five years earlier. She may have been working in one of the many tobacco factories in Durham at the time, as her death certificate lists her as a 'tobacco worker' in the tobacco industry. She is listed as being buried January 23 in the Mt. Moriah cemetery in Orange County. However, since this was a segregated (all-white, actually) cemetery at the time, she was more likely buried in the Mt. Sinai cemetery or near her husband's grave in the Johnson cemetery.

Durham County Register of Deeds Office
Certificate of Death 10734

David Southern, personal communication

Lange, Dorothea. Photographs of Caroline Atwater. Farm Security Administration (Office of War Information Photograph Collection). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Washington, DC.

Orange County Register of Deeds Office
Deed book/page: 58/178, 64/110, 111/380.5, 161/246
Certificate of Death 539

Spirn, Anne W. Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field. University of Chicago Press, 2008. 127.

United States Federal Census. 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930.
[Created: 07 September 2009; Last updated: 29 December 2010]

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