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Friday, November 18, 2011

North Carolina's Early Difficulties

Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon - A Lord Proprietor of Carolina
Historian Noeleen McIlvenna regarded the development of North Carolina as an emerging utopian community, yet “very mutinous,” in the “shadows of the British empire” (McIlvenna, 1).   McIlvenna’s reasons center primarily upon geography and its affects upon the human psyche.  Early North Carolinians lived a subsistence-level existence amidst the swamps and shoals, remarkably less aristocratic than their plantationist neighbors of Virginia and the later South Carolina.  McIlvenna posited “a remote, swampy, hurricane-prone region where communication with the outside world meant a struggle through boggy terrain, where every household had to fend for itself… where life did not lend itself to dreams of great prosperity” (McIlvenna, 1).  Other factors associated with North Carolina’s rebellious nature include absentee proprietary rule and the strain posed by conflict with a strange, aboriginal, and alien culture while obtaining little support from their own.  

Another North Carolina historian, Lindsey S. Butler could not agree with McIlvenna more, although he regards his home state’s geography with less ambivalence.  In his essay on the Culpepper Rebellion, Butler sees the outright neglect of Carolina’s owners, the Lords Proprietors as a greater influence on its inhabitants’ rebellious nature.  Early Carolinians “tested” the proprietors’ absentee rule.  The proprietors in England rarely visited America and left the government of their faraway lands to local officials with appointed governors.  These English governors presided over the local Assembly, who often disagreed with, and objected to his authority.  They annoyed their governors, however, no less than they did each other.

Only two proprietors ever lived in America, one as the governor of Virginia who never ventured south of the Dismal Swamp on the Carolina border.  The other, Seth Sothel, became known as the worst governor that Carolina ever had.  The rest remained in England or Europe, relying heavily upon the Assembly and the Fundamental Constitutions to function in their absence.  Arguably not one of John Locke’s best ideas, the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 opaquely provided for liberal characteristics of representative government (the Assembly) and religious freedom.  Its older feudalistic aspects, however, attempted to recreate English ideals of a titled, landed gentry, a class order that could not have worked well in a wilderness environment verging on social liberalities.  Thus, the Constitutions failed before it began and added to the political uncertainties that fueled the rowdy discontent of McIlvenna’s “mutinous people.” 
The development of proprietary and anti-proprietary parties became a pattern for North Carolina particularly that revolved around the nature of power, or the ability to influence others.  John Culpeper came from Charles Town to influence the distressed people of the Albemarle to revolt and dispense with proprietary rule, much like Thomas Cary and John Gibbs not long after.  Drunk sheriffs, prohibitive Virginia tobacco statutes, and the occasional refusal of a governor to return to the colony contributed to rebellion.    This unrest hinted at the cultural divergence building between England, the proprietors, and their colony.  

This divergence later grew to separate eastern and western North Carolina in the War of Regulation, just prior to the American Revolution.  “Arising from the demographic changes, social and economic tensions, and political turmoil” found in the colony, the Regulation arose as an internal civil dispute affecting thousands of North Carolinians (Butler and Watson, 102).  That dispute centered primarily upon excessive government corruption, made painfully obvious to Mecklenburg residents by Governor Tryon’s extravagant palace in New Bern.  

North Carolinians rebelled against authority for many reasons, not least of which included religion.  Religious freedom, a seed planted by Locke’s Fundamental Constitutions, matured behind the virtual wall of isolation provided by the Dismal Swamp and the Outer Banks and their dangerous, shifting shoals.   Since the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony, America had become a refuge for many types of religious dissidents.  Quakerism brought to these shores by George Fox and others established itself early in the Albemarle.  A Quaker became the first known minister to preach in the area in 1672.  Other sects felt welcome as well, such as Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians.  

England’s official, or Anglican Church, never found a place in North Carolina.  Nevertheless, the Vestry Acts of 1701 and 1703 attempted to enforce Anglican worship over dissenting religions in the colony.  Anglican ministers sent to North Carolina, often destitute and inebriated once they realized their situation, reflected England’s opinion of the colony.  Furthermore, their many letters to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) told of their opinion as well.  Rev. C. E. Taylor found North Carolinians “very ignorant” and complained that they “busy themselves with the most Mysterious Parts of Scripture” (Butler and Watson, 98).  The earlier Rev. John Urmstone often felt worse of his flock, especially in Pasquotank.  He found “a very factious[,] mutinous[,] and rebellious people… ready to oppose either Church or state” (McIlvenna, 139).  The fundamental and personal efforts to gain immortality through God could not be legislated, as England discovered.  These arbitrary acts fueled even more unrest.   

Perhaps the greatest distress upon a driver of the human condition, having a strong influence upon the security of early North Carolinians, became the presence of the Native American.  Since the arrival of the earliest English, Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonists in 1584, conflicts have occurred with Native Americans.  The English anticipated conflict even before landing on Roanoke, evidenced by Thomas Hariot’s ethnographic/logistic report to Raleigh.  Hariot referred to the Indians’ tendency to “turn up their heeles” and run away (Butler and Watson, 14).  These conflicts built steadily, through cultural misunderstandings and ideological differences until English domination triumphed in the colony with the end of the Tuscarora War.  Today, only two million Native Americans exist out of over three hundred million Americans, or less than one percent.  While historian Herbert Paschal attributes this result to assimilation, his essay on the “Tragedy of the North Carolina Indians” indicates virtual elimination of the comparatively inferior native culture (Butler and Watson, 3).  

Still, fear of the unfamiliar and the physical nearness of the Native American to early North Carolinians resulted in conflicts that created a uniquely American experience.  This further differentiated Americans from the English, as well as North Carolinians from Native Americans.  For North Carolina, the Tuscarora War best represented a turning point in local Indian relations.  Christopher Gale called the Indian attack of Chief Hancock’s Tuscarora faction a “nefarious villainy,” in which he found English settlers “butchered after the most barbarous manner” (Butler and Watson, 17).  These words once described an old enemy of the English most feared in the Elizabethan era – the Spanish.  Conflict with both the Spanish and Algonquians from 1584-1590 had been a learning experience for the English, yet not quite like the Tuscarora War.  The enemy in this case lived next door, not six hundred miles away in La Florida.  

Dissention in British North Carolina had a long history that began with the first Englishman to step onto its soil.  Land disputes with natives, quitrent disputes with governors, religious disputes with the Anglicans, and land tenure problems with the Granville agents created an internal problem unique to the future state.  The "War of the Regulation" that appeared in 1766 and lasted until 1771 represented a vague reflection of the larger rebellion to come.  It prepared all North Carolinians to meet this challenge.  

Still, the battle between eastern and western North Carolina stemmed from many factors not found in other British colonies, factors that affected the colony since Nathaniel Batts first arrived in 1655.  Geography played a large role.  The lack of economic potential that drew so little attention from the Lords Proprietors further separated the colony from its plantationist neighbors.  Furthermore, events in North Carolina helped to set the tone in America’s relations with the Native American, a relationship which ultimately spelled their doom.  All of these divergent factors created a unique North Carolina identity that joined with twelve others in the War for Independence. 


McIlvenna, Noeleen.  A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Butler Lindley S. and Watson, Alan D., ed.  The North Carolina Experience:  An Interpretive and Documentary History.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 

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