If history consists of the lives of great men, whose names are “wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies in our houses,” North Carolina should contribute many pages to the epitome of civilization; for her institutions, public and private, have been established by men of superior abilities, who have spared neither time nor resources in the founding of a great State. In journalism, as in economic and political growth, the pioneer work has been done by men of strong personal character, who possessed the art of citizenship as well as the talents requisite for their chosen work. These editors, though the remains of their labor often seem eccentric when compared with our modern journals, had great influence among the people, and their memories are forever perpetuated in the ideals of the State they served so well.
Among these pioneers of our press none were purer in public and private life, more energetic, or held greater favor throughout the State than Dennis Heartt, the founder, and for nearly fifty years the editor, of the Hillsborough Recorder. Like many of our best citizens, Mr. Heartt was not a native Carolinian. His father was an English sea captain, who settled in New England. Here, in the village of North Bradford, Connecticut, November 6, 1783, Dennis Heartt was born. Very little is known of the young man’s early life. In 1798 we find him in New Haven, apprenticed to Read and Morse, printers, the latter a brother to the inventor of the electric telegraph. The young compositor soon became very proficient in his work, and was able to set up 5,000 ems in one morning’s time. It was while in New Haven that the following incident is told of Mr. Heartt. When setting up an article written by Noah Webster, the compositor changed the word fashon in the copy to fashion. In the proofreading, the “Schoolmaster of the Republic” struck out the i. The printer then conformed to the copy, but in the final proof the Lexicographer corrected his mistake, inserting the ubiquitous i. Later in life, when success had crowned his labors, Mr. Heartt frequently related this as an illustration of the trials and vexations peculiar to newspapermen.
In 1802, having served his apprenticeship, Mr. Heartt left New Haven, removed to Philadelphia, and began life for himself. Here he married Elizabeth Shinn, of Springfield, Burlington County, New Jersey, whom tradition represents as “a very pretty little Quakeress.” In 1807 he was one of the invited guests of Robert Fulton on the trial trip of the “Clermont.” In 1810 he commenced the publication of the Philadelphia Repertory, a literary paper. Ten years later he migrated to Hillsborough, North Carolina, and on February 20, 1820, issued the first copy of the Hillsborough Recorder.
At this time the population of Hillsborough was 806, “of whom there were twenty-nine more males than females. Orange was a large and prosperous county, though its circulating medium was bank notes, there being little silver and no gold, and its bar had Judges Ruffin, Cameron, and Norwood among its numbers. Judges Badger, Murphy, Mangum, and Nash were then on the bench, or had recently resigned.” These men were types of North Carolina’s best life, and Mr. Heartt, by indomitable energy and constant application, won a reputation in the State second to none.
Many obstacles to a successful career presented themselves to the young editor. A new settler, coming from a distant section, he would naturally find some difficulty in gaining the confidence of the people and adjusting himself to his new social environments. The stage-coach, the only means of communication with the outside world, must have discouraged an editor accustomed to city life and a fast post-line to the nearest centers of trade. To these must be added the excessive labor and vexation caused by the presses. “In those days the old, double full Ramage press was used with buckskin balls for inking the forms. Printing was executed under many difficulties. Types were costly and were used from ten to fourteen years. The forms were sometimes underlain with damp paper to bring out the impression. Mr. Heartt engraved the head of his paper, and with leaden cuts of various kinds illustrated his articles and advertisements. He made his own composing sticks of walnut wood, lined with brass. They were good sticks and I remember to this day the sound made by the types as they were dropped by the left thumb into their places.” (Governor Holden, 1886.)
These are only a few of the discouragements encountered by Mr. Heartt. If “genius is the art of overcoming great difficulties,” his name must be classed with those of Carolina’s most gifted sons. His early training as an apprentice, his previous experience in journalism, and the energy with which he began his work soon enabled him to conquer his equivocal environments. He gained the confidence of the people, his subscription list quickly rose to five hundred, and for many years the Hillsborough Recorder was the best-known paper in Central Carolina. For years, some of the oldest citizens have declared, the only literature found in their homes was the Bible and the Recorder, and they “would swear by either.” The paper was popularly styled the “New Testament,” for it was “true as Gospel.” Such being the character of this representative of North Carolina’s ante bellum life, let us examine some files, and behold in a few coarsely printed pages, worn and “seared like the yellow leaf,” a true index to the social conditions of an age forever gone but never forgotten.