The bay lakes region of Bladen County was settled during colonial times. Jones Lake was known as Woodward's Lake for Samuel Woodward, a justice of the peace in the mid-1700s. The lake was later renamed for Isaac Jones, a landowner who donated a tract of land on which Elizabethtown was established in 1773. Salters Lake received its name from Sallie Salter, a Revolutionary War heroine who spied on the Tories encamped in town.
For approximately 100 years after the area was settled, landowners practiced farming along the river lowlands and creek bottoms. Longleaf pines, then prolific in the area, were used for the production of naval stores, primarily providing turpentine, pitch and timber. Due to the growth of the turpentine, lumber and cotton industries, the area's human population soon increased beyond the soil's capacity to support it. However, by 1935, with the fall of the cotton farmer and the exhaustion of industry, large segments of the population found themselves on submarginal land.
The economic circumstances of the thirties were a trying time for the country. In order to create jobs, the federal government poured millions of dollars into conservation. For state parks, these federal assistance programs created a tremendous amount of development and acquisition, giving the park system its impetus.
The federal government purchased submarginal farm lands in the Jones Lake area at an average cost of $4.51 per acre, and the Resettlement Administration managed the area from 1936-1939. In order to stimulate the depressed economy, a program of land conservation and utilization began. With local materials and talents, the Resettlement Administration developed a recreation center at Jones Lake. A large bathhouse, beach, refreshment stand and picnic grounds were constructed.
The property was turned over to the state of North Carolina on July 1, 1939, for operation under a lease agreement. In October, 1954, the land was given to the state by the federal government. Jones Lake opened in the summer of 1939 as the first state park for African Americans and achieved immediate popularity. In later years the park, like all other North Carolina parks, became fully integrated.
Besides serving as a source of recreation, the park has played other important roles in the area's history. During World War II, Jones Lake was open only for picnicking and fishing while the area was used by the Anti-Aircraft School from Camp Davis for special training programs. In the spring of 1970, the area achieved prominence when astronomers gathered there to view a total eclipse of the sun.