New Bern was settled in 1710 by Swiss and Palatine German immigrants. The new colonists named the settlement after Bern, the capital of Switzerland and hometown of their leader Christoph von Graffenried. The English connection with Switzerland had been established by some Marian exiles who sought refuge in Protestant parts of Switzerland. There were also marriages between the Royal House of Stuart and notable people in the history of Calvinism. The colonists later discovered they had started their settlement on the site of a former Tuscarora village named Chattoka. This caused conflicts with the Tuscaroras who were in the area.
New Bern is the second-oldest European-American colonial town in North Carolina after Bath. It served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government, then briefly as the state capital. After the American Revolution, New Bern became wealthy and quickly developed a rich cultural life. At one time, New Bern was called “the Athens of the South,” renowned for its Masonic Temple and Athens Theater. These are both still very active today.
New Bern has four historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places; their numerous contributing buildings include residences, stores and churches dating back to the early eighteenth century. Within easy walking distance of the waterfront are more than 164 homes and buildings listed on the National Register. Also, nearby are several bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants, banks, antiques stores and specialty shops. The historic districts contain many of the city’s 2,000 crape myrtles—its official flower—and developed gardens. New Bern has two “Local Historic Districts,” a municipal zoning overlay that affords legal protection to the exteriors of New Bern’s irreplaceable historic structures. These areas provide much of New Bern’s unique charm, appeal to retirees and heritage tourism, and contribute to the city’s economic success. The Local Historic Districts, while vitally important to New Bern, comprise only 2.43% of New Bern’s 27-square-mile area. There is considerable area available for new development.