The Story of Charlotte, Part 2: A Fighting, Trifling Place
As the Revolution swirls around Charlotte, allegiances are formed, a college rises, and a city carves out an identity
Last year, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. This year, Charlotte magazine will look back at life in the region through the years. From Charlotte’s beginnings as a rural crossroads to its current status as a major U.S. city, this 12-part series will trace Charlotte’s growth and highlight some of the turning points that made the city what it became. And it will do that by simply telling stories about people who lived here—their lives, their dreams, their failures, their successes, and their piece of the great city we are now.
Chapter 1 – Shifting Allegiances
About 1770 — at a crossroads tavern, men sit at candlelit tables, guzzling whisky and rum and peach brandy and schnapps. They grumble about the new tax to pay for the governor’s grand house in the colonial capital, New Bern, or the liquor tax to pay for the new college on Tryon Street. They pass around weeks-old newspapers from New Bern and Virginia, Philadelphia and Boston. A few whisper about a rebellion brewing up in Orange and Rowan counties. Occasionally, the men spill into the streets for a brawl or a quarter-mile horse race or a game of “long bullets”—in which two competitors see who can throw an iron cannon ball the farthest down a muddy trail.
It’s court week in Charlotte, the one week every three months when all of Mecklenburg County comes to town. Across the muddy path from the tavern, farmers and traders crowd around the courthouse. They sell pigs and chickens, corn and wheat, cattle and Catawba River fish. Hunters offer deer and beaver skins and tack wolf scalps to the walls to collect their bounty for thinning the population of these “vermin.” If the hunters are lucky, a trader might offer better clothes from a market in Philadelphia. Paper money is scarce in the backcountry, so customers haggle and trade firearms for food.
In the one-room courthouse above the market, magistrates and lawyers collect fees for recording land sales or mortgage defaults and go about the grim business of assigning orphans to apprenticeships “to learn the art and mystery” of trades from tailor to tanner to housekeeper. There are many orphans.
One man, Thomas Polk, is at the courthouse almost every session. He’s the justice of the peace, the town treasurer, a county commissioner, and at times the county surveyor and Mecklenburg County’s colonial representative. Polk signs off on many of the land transactions. He has another title now, too: agent of Henry E. McCulloh. The men had their differences, sure. Polk instigated the beatings of McCulloh’s surveyors at Sugar Creek a few years ago. But McCulloh still holds title to most of the unclaimed land here. And Polk carries a lot of influence in Mecklenburg. They need each other now. McCulloh cuts Polk in on the profits, hiring him to collect on his high-interest mortgages from smaller farmers.
With the money from the mortgages, his land holdings, and various appointments, Polk buys more land—thousands of acres in the newly formed town of Charlotte and out in the country. He also pushes for Mecklenburg’s county seat to remain in Charlotte. It’s no wonder, then, that Polk wants no part of the rebellion brewing in Orange and Rowan counties. Up there, the “Regulators,” a group of small farmers, have been calling for “self-regulation.” They’ve surrounded courthouses in Hillsborough and Salisbury and demanded lower taxes for the poor, better political representation, and fewer lawyers and clerks, whose fees the small farmers can’t afford. “[T]he lawyers use us as we use our [live]stocks,” writes Orange County Regulator leader Herman Husband. “They ... pluck us well, and then let us run a while to feather again.” In Husband’s opinion, Polk and other wealthy Presbyterians in Mecklenburg are doing that “plucking” back at the courthouse. The Regulators aren’t well organized in Mecklenburg, but Husband’s writings spread south.
The wealthy have one complaint, though. British law still requires Presbyterians to pay taxes to support Anglican churches and ministers. Polk and other Mecklenburg elites, such as the Alexander family, want that to end. The Regulator rebellion gives them the opportunity to demand that while reminding Governor William Tryon “how ready and cheerful we were to support Government in time of insurrection.”
Governor Tryon gets the message. He offers well-paying military and government assignments to key Presbyterians in Mecklenburg County. “The Governor gives Commissions,” Husband bitterly notes. “Making one Col. Alexander and another Captain Alexander, another Alexander, Esq., Justice of the Peace—and all this to take in a large body of Presbyterians.”
In spring 1771, as the rebellion in Orange County turns more violent, Polk and the Alexanders are reliable allies for the governor. But not all in Mecklenburg are behind Polk. In the northeastern corner of the county, a group of soot-faced rebels from near the Rocky River and Sugar Creek settlements set fire to wagons full of militia ammunition and uniforms.
The wagons had been headed to Alamance Creek, about 100 miles north of Charlotte, where Tryon’s royal troops have gathered to put down thousands of Regulators.
After a week of standoffs along the creek, tensions boil over. Tryon orders a Regulator negotiator shot in front of the rest of the camp. By some reports, Tryon shoots the man himself. He also demands the Regulators surrender. They refuse. The governor’s militia opens fire. When the shooting stops, about 20 Regulators and nine of Tryon’s troops lay dead. More than 100 others are injured. To make sure the Regulators are crushed, Tryon orders their leaders’ homes burned and crops destroyed. A month later, after a hasty trial, six of them are hanged. Tryon offers the rest pardons, as long as they pledge loyalty to the King. There is one group, though, that Tryon refuses to pardon—the ones who blew up the wagons, now known as the Black Boys of Mecklenburg.
Times are changing in Charlotte. Polk and some other Mecklenburg leaders are self-educated, but they want more for their children. The only colleges in the colony are in Guilford County, Edenton, and New Bern, faraway places that require weeks-long trips away from home. Polk says the county will pay for a new college in Charlotte with a liquor tax, but the school’s charter needs Tryon’s blessing. Queen’s College opens in 1771, with a nod to the Crown and the outsized ambition of adhering “as near as may be agreeable to the laws and customs of Oxford & Cambridge.”
New money brings other changes. Slaves have long outnumbered the white population in some eastern North Carolina counties and coastal South Carolina. But most backcountry farmers tend their own small farms, relying on their families and day laborers for occasional help. Some are suspicious of slavery. Not for any moral reasons—although a handful of Quakers do question the practice—but because this unpaid labor system only makes it easier for the larger landholders to amass more money and influence. Brought from markets in Charleston, South Carolina, the slaves work the fields on the larger plantations, harvesting wheat and corn. On court days, some slaves (with names like Caesar and Hercules, Nat and Nero) gather in the town common or tend to the horses while their owners argue cases and sign papers in the courthouse nearby.
Except for court days, Charlotte is quiet. Travelers trade stories and goods at the tavern. As Queen’s College establishes itself on Tryon Street, teenage students practice Latin phrases and Biblical verses. But most people in the area are focused on their farms and gristmills, where they grind their corn and wheat into meal for winter food. As 1772 and 1773 drag on, messengers and newspapers from the northern colonies bring news of tough times. Tensions have flared over tea taxes in Boston and Philadelphia. Conflict seems imminent, but it’s still far from Charlotte. Soon, though, word arrives that a new royal governor, Josiah Martin, has been appointed. William Tryon is off to the governor’s seat in loyal New York, his reward for putting down the Regulators in North Carolina. Martin quickly makes two decisions that rankle many in Mecklenburg County—he rescinds the charter of Queen’s College and refuses to end the laws requiring that Presbyterians and other non-Anglicans pay fees to support the Anglican Church, as Tryon had promised. These slights bring anti-British sentiment home.
Throughout the colonies, local leaders plan responses to new taxes and other British policies. In 1774, leaders from almost every North Carolina county meet in New Bern, where they pledge to boycott British goods and stop sending tobacco to England unless the unfair taxes end. But Britain won’t budge. Parliament closes Boston port in hopes of isolating the rebellious city from the rest of the colonies. It doesn’t work. Counties from every colony send supplies for the Boston rebels. Mecklenburg sends cattle and money. By spring 1775, the colonies are in “a state of general frenzy.” War seems inevitable. By late spring, Mecklenburg County, which had been so eager to support the governor and King for many years, begins to lead the charge against the Crown.
Chapter 2 — Independence and War
May 19, 1775—The legend goes like this: Polk, who is a militia colonel in addition to numerous other titles, calls a meeting of county militia captains at the courthouse to discuss Mecklenburg’s possible response to the situation in Massachusetts. While the committee talks, a messenger arrives on horseback with news that the British have opened fire on the Massachusetts militia up north. Forty-nine Massachusetts men are dead. Shocked and angered, the Mecklenburg militiamen run into the courthouse. They debate into the night and decide to declare themselves free and independent of British rule. They craft the declaration overnight and read it aloud to the town at noon the next day. A few days later, James Jack, the tavern owner and militia captain, heads to Philadelphia to deliver the document to North Carolina’s representatives at the Continental Congress. This is the neat and tidy story that will be passed down for years.
Here’s what is certain: A group of Mecklenburg leaders meets at some point that May, possibly to discuss their response to the militia deaths in Massachusetts. This group writes a list of “resolves” on May 31. The resolves declare British laws null and void, strip Loyalists of any positions of authority, and set up a system for the county to govern itself. But the writers leave open the possibility of returning to British colonial rule as long as “Great Britain resigns its unjust and arbitrary pretensions with respect to America.” Newspapers in New Bern and Charleston publish the Resolves. It’s a radical step. Colonial Governor Martin calls the resolves “traitorous.”
Later in the year, pro-British locals gain strength in South Carolina. Polk leads the Mecklenburg men through the snow to intimidate those Loyalists and break up British recruiting efforts. Loyalists who stay behind become outcasts in Mecklenburg. The young women of the county’s “best families” refuse to “receive the address of any young gentleman” who did not fight with Polk.
Aside from a few short skirmishes near Wilmington and Cross Creek, war stays far to the north for the next few years. Polk and William Lee Davidson lead regiments through brutal campaigns in Pennsylvania, and Davidson pressed on into New Jersey. The Patriot army’s tattered shoes leave bloody footprints in the snow. In 1778, Polk heads home to Charlotte to gather supplies. There, he gets news that General George Washington has passed him over for promotion. The 46-year-old Polk resigns, deciding to stay in peaceful Charlotte. But the war will come to him.
News of the war reaches Charlotte every now and again in 1777 and 1778. But mostly, people here settle into their normal routines. The sheriff is more concerned with rowdy locals than British redcoats. Local elections inspire satire. The anonymous poet “Mecklenburg Censor” mocks Polk, local magistrate Hezekiah Alexander, lawyer Waightstill Avery, and other local power brokers. They “cause you more exquisite pain,” the poet quips, “than tyrant [King] George’s galling chains.”
The lightheartedness is fleeting. In spring 1780, the British Legion captures Charleston and moves quickly through South Carolina, eating livestock and crops and burning farmhouses on the way. Runaway slaves follow them closely because they’ve heard the British offer freedom to those willing to join them. In the Waxhaws, about 40 miles southeast of Charlotte, British commander Banastre Tarleton earns his bloody reputation, cutting down Patriot militiamen even after they surrendered. Later that summer in Camden, South Carolina, the British beat the Patriots so badly that American general Horatio Gates abandons his troops and rides his horse as fast as possible about 200 miles to Hillsborough.
The Patriot army needs a place to regroup. The commanders pick Charlotte. Polk returns to service, coordinating purchases for the army, often with his own fortune—a task for which he eventually earns the title of brigadier general. Meanwhile, British General Charles Cornwallis and Tarleton zig-zag through the countryside near the South Carolina border looking for food. In Mecklenburg, they come across a gristmill with 28,000 pounds of wheat. They set up camp. As yellow fever spreads through the countryside, Mecklenburg militiamen harass the British. Snipers wait behind bushes on the rock-strewn trails waiting to take out any redcoat who drifts too far from camp.
On September 26, with Tarleton and most of the redcoats sick, British commander George Hanger seeks an opportunity to prove himself. Against orders, he rides into Charlotte with his green-coated cavalry. As they ride up Tryon Street, American Colonel William Davie and 20 militiamen fire from behind the courthouse’s stone walls. Hanger retreats.
But Cornwallis and reinforcements arrive, and the British advance again.
Davie and the militia scatter north from the courthouse up to Sugar Creek. Cornwallis takes over the town and sets up his headquarters at Polk’s house near the courthouse. He issues proclamations to residents to stay home and give the army food and supplies when it asks for them. The residents don’t comply. A few days later, a group of 450 redcoats looks for food on Beatties Ford Road. In the brush on the side of the road, 13 local militiamen follow them. The British stop at McIntyre’s Farm and start loading their wagons with crops. A group chasing chickens kicks over a bees’ nest and hundreds of bees swarm around the soldiers. The militiamen shoot from the woods. The confused British scatter. By October 9, the British flee Mecklenburg in the middle of the night, dodging bullets from the brush the whole way. “Charlotte is an agreeable village,” Cornwallis writes. “But in a damned rebellious country.”
The fall of 1780 and winter of 1781 are full of good news for the Patriots. Decisive victories at King’s Mountain and Cowpens raise hopes. A new commander, General Nathanael Greene, arrives in Charlotte, where he meets with Polk and writes to superiors for more supplies. By March, Greene leads troops at the battle of Guilford Courthouse, about 90 miles north of Charlotte. Although Greene loses the battle, his troops weaken the British Legion. By the fall, Cornwallis leads his troops north through Virginia, where they are met by Washington’s Continental Army and thousands of French troops. Cornwallis surrenders. The Patriots have won.
Back in Charlotte, life returns to normal. Talk at the taverns turns back to farming or to elections and the Constitutional Convention. The county elects Polk to attend the Philadelphia gathering, where delegates write the new nation’s laws, though he leaves no record of attending. Court day still brings everyone to town. Some visitors are not impressed. A Charleston lawyer traveling through the town in spring 1791 describes “a wretched courthouse and a few dwellings falling to decay.”
In May 1791, President George Washington heads out on a tour of the South. Near Charlotte, he remarks on the rich land that played such a pivotal role in the Revolution, saying it is “very fine, of a reddish cast, and well-timbered.” But he doesn’t have much else to say about the town. “Dined with Genl. Polk …,” Washington writes in his diary as he heads up the road to Salisbury. “Charlotte is a trifling place …”