Greenville was founded in 1771 as "Martinsborough," after the Royal Governor Josiah Martin. In 1774 the town was moved to its present location on the south bank of the Tar River, three miles west of its original site. In 1786, the name was changed to Greenesville in honor of General Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War hero, and later shortened to Greenville.
During Greenville’s early years, the Tar River was a navigable waterway; and by the 1860’s there were several established riverboat lines transporting passengers and goods. Cotton was the leading agricultural crop, and Greenville became a major cotton export center. Before the turn of the century, however, tobacco surpassed cotton and became the leading money crop. Greenville became one of the State’s leading tobacco marketing and warehouse centers.
For over a century, Greenville was recognized only for being an important tobacco market and the home of a small State-supported college. By the mid 1960’s, a new image began to evolve. The small college, East Carolina Teachers College, had become the third largest State-supported college, and enrollment approached 8,000 students--twice the 1960 enrollment figure. In 1967, it became East Carolina University. The ECU Medical School admitted its first four-year class in 1977. At the turn of the century, enrollment at ECU topped the 18,000 mark, and current enrollment is nearly 26,000 students.
Greenville’s current economic development began in 1968 when Burroughs Wellcome, a major pharmaceutical research and manufacturing firm, chose Greenville as its home. The site is now owned by DSM Pharmaceuticals, which employs approximately 1,400 people. The City and Pitt County have also become home to many other major industries and businesses including Rubbermaid, NACCO Materials Handling Group, Grady-White Boats, and ASMO. This has added to Greenville’s population and the economic growth of the City.
Today, Greenville is a major industrial and economic center for Eastern North Carolina — a center for education, industry, medicine, and culture. The City covers approximately 35 square miles and has a population of 84,554.