The Story of Charlotte, Part 1: 'Parcel of Blockheads'

After a long ride down from Pennsylvania, a rough and tough group of Scots-Irish settlers just wants to be left alone. But British landowners who own the deeds to Mecklenburg County won’t let that happen


Published:

KIM ROSEN

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 all 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.

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May 7, 1765 — In a field near the banks of Sugar Creek, three well-dressed men make careful measurements with sticks and long chains. Nearby, hiding in the bushes, a dozen other men hold their clubs and knives at their sides, their faces blackened with tar and soot. As the surveyors look down at their compasses, the soot-covered men emerge from behind the branches and attack. A club to the face knocks one of the surveyors to the ground unconscious. Fists and clubs and rifle butts crack another’s skull. The crowd whips the third man until his back looks like a checkerboard.

The surveyors, local agents of British landowners, have been warned this would happen. Months earlier, they announced plans to map and sell the land in newly formed Mecklenburg County. The settlers, who have been living on the land for years and moved here to be left alone, offered the agents a low price as an insult. When the first surveyor refused the offer, they broke his equipment and chased him off. These settlers, accustomed to living independently on backwoods land no one cares about, aren’t about to back down to outsiders. This battle is decades in the making, and before it’s over, a town and its leader will emerge.

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Around 1749 — they leave Pennsylvania and Maryland for many reasons, but mainly for cheaper land and more of it. They are Scots-Irish, and they want a place of their own, away from the insular Germans and haughty Anglican authorities of the north who demand their tax money to pay for churches they despise. They want to be away from the constant warfare with the native people. This marks the third time in a little more than a century they’ve packed up and moved on. First, they left the Scottish lowlands for the north of Ireland. Then, they came to Pennsylvania, many of them so desperate to get there they signed indentured servants’ contracts. Now Pennsylvania’s too crowded and expensive, and they’re leaving again.  

They move slowly through the valleys of Virginia, into Carolina, and off the main road. The paths narrow and fill with roots and rocks and the ruts of a thousand wagons before. For centuries, dozens of Native American tribes used these as hunting and trading paths. The great road ran from the Cherokees in the south to the Iroquois of the north. Centuries before, migrating deer and buffalo wore the ground down.

Piedmont Carolina is a cast-off region to most. Traveling by land is still slow, much slower than traveling by water, so this backcountry is hard to get to. Most people here like it that way. The isolated forests prove to be a refuge for runaways and criminals and malcontents. They’ve made it their home—no matter if some English lord holds the title. Let him come and take it, they think.

It’s already home for others, though—at least six Native American tribes in villages of bark-covered homes around the two rivers that one day will become the Yadkin and Catawba.

Many of the villages are abandoned now. Although white settlers only recently took up permanent residence here, traders and soldiers from Spain and France and England have lived among the tribes for two centuries now. They brought disease with them. But the tribes find strength by banding together on the banks of the river in a nation they call Catawba. An uneasy truce with the Cherokees to the west creates a cautious sense of peace.

Travel is difficult—on the Wagon Road from the north or any of the smaller paths that link scattered settlements. There are only a few inns and taverns with rooms to rent. Travelers sleep in their wagons or on the ground. The lucky ones might stumble on a house with a friendly host. The unlucky ones might find themselves wishing they’d slept outside. Traveling lawyer Waightstill Avery finds a house one night in which his hosts “blunder’d, bawl’d, spew’d and curs’d, broke one another’s Heads and their own shins with stools, and bruised their hips and ribs with sticks ... pulled hair, lugg’d, hallo’d, swore, fought. ... Thus I watched carefully all night to keep them from falling over and spewing upon me.”

A typical day on the road isn’t much more pleasant. “Rained all day,” Avery writes a week later. “Wet through my Great Coat. Found little to eat and what little very poor and nasty.” And Avery is, by backcountry standards, a wealthy man.

The Scots-Irish are here in the Carolina Piedmont to stay. The land around the creeks is dark, rich, and good for planting.

At Sugar Creek and Rocky River, they clear the land for farming and use the logs to build small homes. At each settlement, a Presbyterian church and school rise. By the late 1760s, seven settlements surround churches in the newly formed Mecklenburg County. A handful of others live by the creeks. Stone gristmills line the creeks and taverns sprout at crossroads. But mostly, people farm. Rows of corn and wheat sprout near the cabins. Cows and hogs graze freely in the fields beyond.

Their Presbyterian faith means everything to them, and land titles mean less. On paper, the Church of England rules everyone in the colonies and demands payment for marriages and baptisms. On paper, Lord George Selwyn holds the title to most of the land in the area. But paper doesn’t mean much in the backcountry.   

Anglican minister Charles Woodmason learns that quickly. Woodmason lands in Charleston, South Carolina, and sets out on a mission trip up the Santee, Wateree, and Catawba rivers. He finds the Mecklenburg County area to be a place “Without Laws or Government [or] Churches Schools or Ministers—no Police established—and all Property quite insecure.”

The people are “vile, unaccountable wretches,” living off “what in England is given to the Hogs and Dogs.” Near the disputed North Carolina-South Carolina border, a group of “Ruffians,” as he calls them, greets him with threats. They say they want no “Damned Black Gown Sons of Bitches” around here. Others steal and discard his announcements and sermons. Someone robs his makeshift home. And when he’s able to get a congregation together, drunk Presbyterians interrupt the sermon, “firing, hooping and hallowing like Indians.”

Religion is a powder keg, but land proves even more explosive. Every now and then, official surveyors come to map the land and collect their rent and taxes. When South Carolina surveyors come, the settlers claim to live in North Carolina. When North Carolina surveyors come, the settlers claim to live in South Carolina. Finding a legitimate title is even harder, and there are plenty of surveyors willing to take some farmer’s money to map a fraudulent deed. For a few decades, this isn’t much of a problem. No one in England is paying much attention. But as the backcountry fills with settlers, the lords send their agents for a closer look.

***

Henry Eustace McCulloh arrives on the banks of the Sugar Creek in 1765. He’s a wealthy Englishman, about 28 years old. His father sent him here four years ago to survey and collect the rents on tracts of land he and business partner, Selwyn, own in Mecklenburg County, which had been formed from Anson County in 1763.

When McCulloh visits on March 5, he finds himself surrounded by 150 or so angry settlers dressed in the skins of bucks and bears and carrying knives and hatchets. He displays Lord Selwyn’s deeds and tells the crowd his plans: All land will be open to auction, and he’ll collect back rent from the settlers for the years they’ve lived there. The settlers scoff and warn him with veiled and pointed threats. Thomas Polk, about 32 years old and dressed just a bit better than the rest of the crowd, emerges. Polk offers 10 pounds per 100 acres, with a tone, as McCulloh describes it, of “the utmost insolence.”

The next morning, McCulloh starts his survey anyway. The settlers are waiting for him. Two men with guns sit on a fence. Behind them a crowd approaches. Polk is among the men.

They shout insults and threats. McCulloh, the wealthy young playboy with powder in his hair, is surrounded by the roughneck settlers. He shouts back, invoking the king’s name and calling the crowd a “parcel of blockheads.” As he unfolds his metal surveying chain, the crowd grabs it and breaks it. The men then run him out of the county.

McCulloh heads up the road to Salisbury, the only town of much size in the area. At the superior court, he asks for official eviction papers for the settlers and criminal warrants. The Mecklenburg County settlers have sent their own complaints. In April, the courts decide that both sides should wait until the General Assembly sorts it out. But McCulloh doesn’t wait.

In May, he sends his three surveyors to continue making maps in the area. When they arrive, they encounter the men with soot faces emerging from the bushes.

The settlers attack John Frohock, Abraham Alexander, and Jimmy Alexander. McCulloh is incensed; he asks the court to kick the settlers out and to sue them for 1,000 pounds of back rent—especially Polk, whom McCulloh calls the leader of that “pack of ungrateful brutal Sons of Bitches.”

The colonial governor, William Tryon, wants answers, and he offers not to charge the people involved in the attacks if they come forward. But the witnesses remain silent. McCulloh is forced to negotiate. In early 1766, Polk and the rest of the Sugar Creek squatters agree to pay 13 pounds per hundred acres. It’s less than McCulloh wants to get and more than the settlers want to give. But the deal brings an end to the violence for now. In 1767, Polk and two partners buy 360 acres from McCulloh’s boss, Selwyn. They pay 90 pounds for it.

Polk’s partners in the deal are Abraham Alexander and John Frohock—the same men beaten in the field two years before. On a clearing in the middle of the tract, where the great

Trading Path intersects with a smaller trail, a brick and log courthouse rises. The town of Charlotte will follow.

“Damn thee, Tom Polk,” McCulloh writes in a letter to Edmund Fanning, his friend in Orange County. “If I don’t conquer thee.”

Chuck McShane is a writer in Davidson. Reach him at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane.

Coming Next Month: The American Revolution comes to Mecklenburg, and a small town grows with the new nation.

***

Sources used in this story

The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina: http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/

Douglas Summers Brown, The Catawba Indians: People of the River. University of South Carolina Press, 1966.

Richard J. Hooker, editor, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmaso, Anglican Itinerant, The University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Marjoleine Kars, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Mary Kratt, Charlotte, North Carolina: A Brief History. The History Press, 2008.

Scott Syfert, The First American Declaration of Independence?: The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775, MacFarland and Co, 2014.

The author would like to thank Sheila Bumgarner, Tom Cole, Jane Johnson and Leslie Kesler at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library’s Carolina Room; Marilyn Schuster at UNC Charlotte J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections; and Jim Williams at the Mecklenburg Historical Association for assistance with this piece.

Part 2: A fighting, trifling place

Part 3: The Gold Rush 

 

 

 

 

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