The Southport area was explored as early as the 1500s by Spanish explorers. During the 18th century, British settlements along the Carolina coast lacked fortifications to protect against pirates and privateers, and numerous Spanish attackers exploited this weakness. In response to these attacks, Governor Gabriel Johnston in 1744 appointed a committee to select the best location to construct a fort for the defense of the Cape Fear River region. It was determined that the fort should be constructed at a site the mouth of the Cape Fear River. During the same year, France declared war against Britain, later known as King George’s War, increasing the fort’s need.
Further, increasingly bold Spanish privateer raids led the North Carolina General Assembly to authorize the construction of “Johnston’s Fort” in April 1745, which would come to be known as Fort Johnston. The Governor of South Carolina agreed to lend ten small cannons for the fort, and the legislature, in spring 1748, appropriated 2000 pounds for construction costs, and construction finally began. Southport developed around Fort Johnston.