Although there exist a small handful of documents today that were printed by Robert Ferguson in Hillsborough, NC in the 1780’s, the first well-established and lasting printing operation in Orange County was the press of Dennis Heartt.
Dennis Heartt was born in 1783 in North Bradford, CT. Apprenticed as a young man to Read and Morse printers in New Haven, Heartt first printed under his own name in Philadelphia in 1804. Heartt’s name first appears in partnership with Abel Dickinson and were published on behalf of authors such as Jacob Johnson, Benjamin Johnson and Matthew Carey. These were primarily textbooks. It appears that the partnership with Dickinson must have ended around 1806, although Dickinson continued to print books for the Johnsons and Carey thereafter.
No known imprints carry Heartt’s name from 1807 to 1809, but starting in 1810, Heartt published a literary periodical called The Philadelphia Repertory. The Repertory published only through 1812, however Heartt’s other Philadelphia publications continued through 1818. The North Carolina Dictionary of Biography says that Heartt relocated from Philadelphia to Hillsborough on doctor’s orders after a bout of small pox. So it must have been in 1819 that Heartt moved to Hearttsease, his stately home in Hillsborough, still standing at 115 East Queen Street.
Starting in 1820 books published in Hillsborough, NC bear Heartt’s name. About that same time, heart commenced publishing the newspaper that in its total press run constitutes his magnum opus: The Hillsborough Recorder. The Recorder was published by Dennis Heartt for 50 years, every week covering the news from London to Hillsborough, constituting one of the most valuable sources of Orange County history that we have today.
Heartt’s books were mostly on religious themes – primarily Baptist and Quaker. Although Heartt was a Presbyterian, his wife, Elizabeth Shinn, was a New Jersey born Quaker. Heartt’s most significant literary book was undoubtedly The Poetical Works of George Moses Horton (Hillsborough, 1845). Horton was a slave who learned to read and write while visiting students and professors at UNC, becoming a highly accomplished poet. His works were the first writings of a slave to ever be published in the South. Heartt also published an anti-slavery tract by Prince Saunders, but Heartt should not be viewed through roase-colored glasses. His editorial comments in the Recorder often portrayed African-Americans in an unfairly negative light.
Among Heartt’s apprentices was William W. Holden who later served as Governor of North Carolina during Reconstruction. Holden, a Republican, was much despised by white Democrats for his positions on racial questions. In Holden’s Address on the History of Journalism in North Carolina (Raleigh: N&O Book and Job Print., 1881), he tells us: “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. The latest news from China was printed once in three months; and the Northern news, brought to Hillsboro by the tri-weekly stage coach, was condensed and printed once a week. How slowly, in comparison with the present, did the world move at that day.”
From about 1853, Heartt operated the business with his son, Edwin A. Heartt, but poor Edwin died at the age of 36 in 1855. Dennis carried on the business for another 14 years. Just before his death in 1870, Heartt sold the paper and it was moved to the burgeoning town of Durham. Heartt’s death put an end to a prolific career. His imprints, especially in the form of his beloved Recorder, remain the work of record of both his life and the history of Orange County, NC.