Second Chances, the Albemarle Connection, a Revolt and Noxious Disease
Less than a century after the first English families stepped ashore on Roanoke Island, steady streams of pioneers were betting on hope.
They were settling along the north shore of Albemarle Sound in earnest. They had little inkling of the adventure ahead (reports from explorers were always glowing) nor how self-reliant they would become, nor how hard it would be.
Hunters, fur trappers, Indian traders, the solos of civilization, had boldly explored before, reaping marginal rewards. They understood the reality of life in the New World.
England, heady with anticipation for its rewards, awaited big returns from her wilderness colonies founded on land she did not own.
Why Did People Come?
Some immigrants were leaving an intolerable life. Some wanted to get rich. Some wanted to worship freely. Some came to avoid being hanged.
If you couldn’t afford passage, or if you were offered the choice of hanging or banishment, you came as an indentured servant, bound to a master for a certain number of years.
You might hope to learn a trade and you might hope to receive freedom dues at the end of your tenure: money, clothes, seeds, a gun, or maybe even a piece of land. Servitude could be a path to new beginnings, or it could be a dead end with overwork, early death, poverty, or continual re-indenturing to stay alive.
Some had no choice. They came as slaves, chattel bound forever to planters, many from Barbados sugar cane plantations.
Few came with the desire to enrich England’s coffers.
But First They Had to Get Here
Albemarle Sound has no safe harbor. A barrier beach spells the lash of the Atlantic Ocean, but inlets are notoriously dangerous. So ships routinely sailed into Chesapeake Bay to disembark along the James River.
From there, settlers who wanted to go south had their choice of travel on two rivers, the Elizabeth and the Nansemond, which, according to propaganda-of-the-day will convey you into Carolana, so that this (James) River is a Haven to both Colonies.
Well, maybe. To get to North Carolina from the James River would require another 80 miles or so of hard traveling. First an upstream row on one of the two rivers on a flatboat or other small craft.
Then miles of slogging on Indian trails, many along rises through the Great Dismal Swamp (greatly whittled down today). Alternatively, a traveller could head west over land toward the Blackwater River, then navigate the Chowan River downstream.
Quaker missionaries William Edmundson and George Fox were overwhelmed by the trip in 1670. Edmundson, whose guide got lost, was sorely foiled in swamps and rivers. And Fox wrote that he was overwearied by the time he got to Carolina, having travelled hard through the Woods and over many Bogs and Swamps.
Half a century later the land was still impassible. Surveyor William Byrd described it as a miserable morass where nothing can inhabit. (Except runaway slaves who forged clandestine communities in the tangle.) By 1796 there would be a canal through it, initially proposed by George Washington, dug by slaves.
Surely the seeds of familiar grains, wheat, rye, oats and barley, would prosper here, since the climate and soil were so felicitous. They did not. Fortunately, there was corn.
Algonquians had adopted Three Sisters farming, complementary planting of maize, beans and squash that sprang from the Iroquois creation myth. An Algonquian named Squanto shared the technique with Jamestown settlers.
Plantings were mounded for drainage and minimally tilled. Corn stalks supported bean vines. Squash hugged the ground, kept it moist, cool and weed-free. Herring or menhaden and maybe some ashes were buried for fertilizer. Bacteria in root nodules of beans fixed nitrogen in soil. A truly remarkable way of farming.
We don’t hear much about beans and squash, but corn saved the colonists. They used every part of the plant. Kernels, dried, roasted, ground or green, kept people and livestock alive. Husks were woven into baskets or used to pad mattresses and collars for draft animals. Cobs became kindling and, of course, pipes. And corn liquor saved people from drinking bad water.
John Lawson was an explorer in the 1700s, a kind of self-appointed reporter who gave a pretty accurate, if optimistic, picture of the land. . . .Mild winters and a fertile Soil beyond Expectation produced everything that was planted to a prodigious increase. . .
He was less impressed with the homesteaders: he never saw one Acre of Land managed as it ought to be…and were the planters as negligent in their Husbandry in Europe as they are in Carolina their Land would produce nothing but Weeds and Straw. . .
We can make a couple of inferences from that quote. First, Lawson had a different perspective from the farmer: he was briefly observing, not continually laboring under the grindstone of the wilderness. Second, virgin soil, gift of the great forests had been building over centuries. It gave freely to the farmer, no prodding needed (though eventually it would give out from overwork).
Their methods might have been less-than-casual by Lawson’s standards, but eventually the colonists produced so much corn that New England sent vessels here to pick up cargoes of it, and wheat, too, that finally succeeded as a cash crop. (Stony soil and short growing seasons limited production up north.)
Those early days were often rough, especially if crops fell short and the winter was long. Then colonists traded with Native Americans, or waited for supply ships, or went on half rations until spring.
Springtime brought the great fish migrations, and great joy, for with fresh fish came giddy salvation. Colonists learned from the Native Americans how to fish the rivers and salt the herring, small fish, to preserve them through the winter in buckets and barrels. Meals would consist of fried salt herring and cornbread washed down with yaupon tea. Three times a day.
(Yaupon holly is a robust, pest-free holly native to the coastal plain. The botanical name, Ilex vomitoria, comes from Native American rituals of drinking huge quantities, then purging before battle. In gardens today, its dwarf form is an excellent substitute for boxwood hedges.)
Scattered homesteads, isolated by swamp, produced self-sufficiency. Clearing, planting and harvesting were done with primitive tools: hoes, scythes, shovels and axes for the first hundred years until plows eased manual labor.
The great forests gave them skins and furs, especially deerskins, but birds and animals threatened crops. Bounties on wolves and wildcats gave incentive for extermination.
Households produced their own food, drink, clothing (homespun of flax and cotton). They builttheir own homes and furniture — and boats, planted gardens and orchards with apples and peaches for good eating and prodigious quantities of liquor.
Dunghill fowl (chickens) provided food and feathers for beds, and stocks of bees provided wax for candles and sweet treats. Corn was pounded by hand, until grist mills in the 1700s produced a smoother product for a small fee. (One early traveler commented that there wasn’t much difference between corn meal for the family and fodder for the horses.)
Farm animals fattened quickly. Cattle, horses, sheep and swine bred easily and spent the mild winters outdoors on their own. Before the Revolution, Carolinians grudgingly exported farm animals to stingy Virginians. Once the Revolution freed up trade, produce was sold up north instead, to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, at fairer prices.
As homesteads prospered, families purchased ready-made clothing, shoes, sugar, salt, molasses, and rum from ships that came in from England and the West Indies.
Colonists had little money, so they bartered with each other for goods and services. Debts and fines were paid with country commodities: Indian corn, tobacco, wheat, port, or deerskins.
In time, a sort of division of labor for profit worked its way through society and particular skills were marketed: boat building, corn grinding, produce, shingles and barrel staves.
As society became increasingly complex, gold and silver coin and paper money supplanted barter and country goods.
Early Relations with Native Americans
Initially, most contact between the two civilizations was amicable. One village, for instance, introduced explorers to roasting eares and Sturgeon.
There are recorded instances of trust and personal favors.
In the 1650s the King of the Roanoke Indians brought his son to the home of Virginia legislator Francis Yeardley to learn to speak out of the book and to make a writing. Yeardley provided a carpenter and workmen to build an English house furnished with English utensils and chattels for his chieftain friend.
Yeardley soon purchased land along three great rivers from the Roanokes for 200 pounds sterling. The deal was sealed with delivery of a turf of the earth with an arrow shot into it.
The Duke of Albemarle and the Lords Proprietors
Governing this sprawling southern territory was a headache for the Virginia colony, especially with threat from the Spanish, who were nipping from the south.
Enter George Monk, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, brilliant leader of armies, adroit political strategist, and loyal friend of exiled King Charles II. After a decade of Commonwealth rule under dour Oliver Cromwell, England was ready for a change. Monarchy? Or anarchy? The Duke of Albemarle lobbied hard for monarchy until parliament finally agreed.
In 1660 King Charles II, the Merry Monarch to his subjects, came out of exile to take the throne. He owed big favors to the Duke and supporters. He had an eye for empire that would bring guineas to satisfy debts and allow for kingly frivolities like theatre and lavish parties.
Three years later, he signed the Charter for the Province of Carolina, his land (Carolus is Latin for Charles), naming eight supporters as Lords Proprietors. They would rule the tract that would become North and South Carolina by committee from the comforts of England. The Duke of Albemarle, the oldest, was named first palatine, titular CEO in today’s parlance.
The motto on the seal, The Taming Makes the Land, embodies the English approach to land, used or abused, as an avenue to wealth.
Nobody truly understood what was going on here. The King and cronies remained in England with their wilderness fantasies stirred by glowing reports from explorers who never seemed to mention the muck, the snakes, the bramble and the bugs.
The Proprietors envisioned elaborate courts, feudal manors, and silk. One detail was missing. They needed people to work to turn their visions into reality. Never mind that survival alone was a full-time calling in over-drive.
They gave settlers religious freedom, not because of a holy conversion to tolerance, but because Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers were stable bodies that could populate the new land and that meant fewer infidels to contend with at home.
To further swell the ranks of laborers, English judges routinely meted out death sentences for trifles, then benevolently commuted sentences to indeterminate indenture in the colonies.
To attract investors, the Mother Country — temporarily — waived the Navigation Acts that would tax goods and bind colonial shipping to England exclusively — a rasp of a burr that would lead to Revolution.
It was grand-scale venture capitalism. Tobacco was Aztec gold to investors. They would be sure to assemble the manpower to produce enough to satisfy a Mother Country that craved this novel opiate.
Planters with capital could purchase large tracts of land at bargain rates. Acreage granted was based on numbers of servants and slaves in tow, a tidy incentive that exploded into another two hundred years of bondage.
It all sounded so promising. But nobody was happy. Not the Proprietors who were getting complaints instead of tax money. Not the settlers who were paying higher quitrents than their neighbors in other colonies. And for what? Widespread corruption, broken promises, haphazard governance and lack of protection from Native Americans. (A gritty attitude toward justice and fairness was seeding in.)
And then England decided to enforce the Navigation Acts. The goal of trading in the 17th century was to import as little as possible, export as much as possible, make as much money as possible and hoard the profits. It’s a practice known as mercantilism.
Colonists were limited to shipping only raw materials only to England and only in English ships. England would send finished products back to the colonists for purchase at high prices. Taxes were levied on every transaction, at every turn, even on goods shipped between colonies.
Albemarle residents were irate. Tobacco was their cash crop, but it had to be sold to New England first because their small ships navigated Albemarle inlets easily. Cargo was then loaded onto larger English ships.
Layers of new taxes took the profits out of tobacco, at a time when hurricanes, drought and hard rains caused years of bad crops. (The Albemarle would never realize the tobacco bonanzas of southern Virginia and central North Carolina.)
They decided to send an envoy to England to plead their cause in person.
They chose a sympathetic former governor, Peter Carteret, to articulate their concerns: they were isolated by swamps with poor roads, cut off from sea trade by the barrier beach, they needed more help.
The Proprietors knew that governance had been lax and laws enforced without rigor. But they also feared their charter might be revoked if the Navigation Acts were ignored, for these were the embodiment of English law on the high seas.
What else could angry settlers do? In 1677 they rebelled. It was a small rebellion. The idea of cutting ties with England was never entertained. But the rebellion lasted for two years and it epitomized the spirit that would propel the colonists toward independence a century later.
In historical accounts, Thomas Miller comes off as a rigid bureaucrat with a midget mind and a classic talent for ruffling feathers. As customs collector in an agitated colony, he was zealous about seizing illegally imported goods and imposing fines.
When the chance came, he appointed himself interim governor and proceeded to interfere with elections and imprison opponents, including George Durant, a prominent and highly regarded settler. This was not a good move.
Miller traveled with armed guards who apparently lost their nerve when forty armed colonists confronted them and jailed their leader. They did not fire shot. The revolt was bloodless.
It was called Culpeper’s Rebellion. John Culpeper, a renegade who had been thrown out of Charles Town and who had the reputation of a troublemaker who enjoyed a good fight was the leader and took over as governor, presumably ruling to the satisfaction of his peers for a time.
Meanwhile, Miller escaped and fled to England to tell all. Culpeper followed to make his case and was tried for treason. One of the proprietors pointed out that colonists had a right to riot over poor governance and Miller’s abuses. And nobody was particularly keen for bad publicity about the colonies. Culpeper was acquitted and sailed back to a hero’s welcome.
In the long run, England did us a favor. You might call it benign neglect, the Proprietors’ lack of interest in the particulars of running a colony.
About a decade after the Proprietors laid down a general code of laws envisioning themselves as lords of the manor, they put together a more pragmatic set of rules that would authorize colonial justices to administer county functions.
Since most people could not read, justices came from community leaders. These were the tiny but visible elite who held the best land and ran the best farms.
Here is what the justices were responsible for: adjudicating minor civil and criminal cases, probating wills, registering cattlemarks, supervising orphans, opening roads, contracting for bridges, establishing ferries, overseeing public buildings, such as courthouse and jail, paying jurors, acquiring weights and measures, stocking the powder magazine, levying taxes, and maintaining control over expenditures.
As population increased, counties needed decent roads. At the beginning of the 18th century, roads were impassable. By the eve of the Revolution an intricate highway system with bridal paths and bridges had been created.
Who was responsible for such progress? Justices who entertained petitions for roads, appointed juries of twelve to determine routes, designated a company and a surveyor to build roads and an overseer to maintain them. Justices then had to deal with swampy terrain, negligent overseers, and curmudgeonly landowners.
Good practical experience that would lay groundwork for managing a young country?
In 1729, the Lords Proprietors sold their rights to King George II and North Carolina became a royal colony. By this time, Native American populations had shrunk.
Tribes who traded regularly with the English were devastated by smallpox. Only about 500 natives were left in the Albemarle; deaths were as high as 90 per cent in some tribes.
The immigrants had brought with them a cauldron of diseases. The English brought smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and influenza. The Africans brought malaria and yellow fever. Parasites of shipboard rats contributed typhus, and contaminated water spread typhoid fever.
By 1755 the brew of wretched diseases must have gotten out of hand, because the colony had restricted tainted imports and passed the Distempered Act to bar immigrants who suffered from malignant infectious distempers.
Within a few years, investors and merchants began complaining that these restrictions interfered with profits and recruitment of fresh labor.The Act was repealed in 1760.
Despite diseases and taxes, the next century would be a prosperous one for eastern North Carolina, with rapid growth plucked from land rich in resources. By the decade of the Revolution, the entire colony had grown from 21,000 in the 1600s to about 250,000 in 1780, 80,000 of whom were slaves.
Though plantation life was expanding, most of the land was worked by independent yeomen who were able to cobble together a reasonably comfortable life by farming, fishing, and hunting, with maybe some logging for extra income. They were a sturdy, self-sufficient lot, able to improvise, wise in the wild ways of the land, unflinching in a fight, but with a neighborliness and generosity that continues to this day.
As crossroads grew into towns and cities, or remained rural, place names once derived from names of Native American tribes blended with names given by the English to their settlements. Reading them is to reflect on the heritage and history of the Albemarle.
(Next: The Fight for Independence and the Independence Hurricane)