In Noeleen McIlvenna’s book, A Very Mutinous People (2009), she examines the often overlooked beginnings of North Carolina in region of the coast called the Albemarle. Albemarle was the neglected child of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. The southern part of Carolina, Charleston, was their darling. The subtropical holy city with its large harbor and seasoned plantation veterans from Barbados was a perfect place for them to export Virginia’s slave society, leaving Albemarle mostly to its own devices and out of their direct control. Formed from runaway indentured servants, Quakers and other Renagadoes that fled from the aftermath of Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia still full of the “Leveler” egalitarian ideas that resulted from the British Cromwellian Revolution , the Albemarle region of late 17th century North Carolina was a meritocratic society with democratic leanings protected by the Great Dismal Swamp and the treacherous shores of the North Carolina outer banks. The area was not conducive to plantation agriculture or merchant shipping and the inhabitants engaged in small scale farming and trade with the smaller, more agile ships from New England. The settlers of Albemarle also established trade and peaceful relations with the native Algonquin speaking tribes and the powerful Tuscaroras. From their haven the settlers were out of the reach and out of the mind of the Lords proprietors and their attempts to establish a top down society of Landgraves and Cassiques (their titles for the new peerage) in America.
In 1675 Thomas Eastchurch, a disgruntled local man and aspiring Cassique, was looking to ingratiate himself with uncollected taxes. He managed to get elected to the General Assembly and became de facto governor of Albemarle. After seizing power he jailed the former popular governor named Jenkins and appointed another disgruntled local with dreams of peerages and fat purses named Thomas Miller to be his overly zealous tax collector. Miller’s crusade to enforce the tobacco tax, the hated Navigation Acts, which heavily taxed any exports, and the more hated Plantation Duty Act, which impeded their New England trade, forced the Alamance population into insurrection. An armed force forcibly removed the governor and his deputies declaring “Wee will have noe Lords noe Landgraves noe Cassiques we renounce them all” in what is now known as Culpepper’s Rebellion. The rebellion, as described by McIlvenna, was a “… grass roots democratic movement against imperial authority in all its forms. They fought to preserve their right to representation and against both imperial taxation and the corruption of imperial officials on the ground, like the American Revolution of a century later.” But unlike the American Revolution the rebels were a heterogeneous band made up of white men and women, free blacks and Native Americans. This was unique anywhere in the colonies at the time, which also made them a guiding light for the disenfranchised across the colonies and bugbear for those in power.
The Alamance settlers’ problems weren’t over after the rebellion. They soon attracted the attention of a
Proclamation regarding Cary. Image from the State Archives of North Carolina.
progression of ruthless men looking to make Alamance their bonanza and the people their supplicants. The Alamance settlers were met with a stark choice- to be a hierarchical slave society with the Anglican Virginians as their masters -or be a free society with no one their masters. They chose the latter and rebelled again. Cary’s Rebellion in 1708-1711 showed that they would not readily internalize the hierarchical values of the Virginians and would fight to keep their independence. A new governor named Edward Hyde was, in the end, successful in putting down Cary’s Rebellion and establishing Anglican control, but only by calling in British Marines. It would be that last time that Quakers or anyone not willing to take an oath of allegiance were allowed to hold office. But Hyde would not find his position lucrative, for he would discover, just as his predecessors had, that collecting taxes from these people was next to impossible.
Fort Neoheroka. Image from the State Archives of North Carolina.
The final stage of the fight for North Carolina involved a player that had, until now, kept to the sidelines. This player was the Tuscarora Indians and their allies. Because of their good relations with the settlers there was none of the animosity and violence that was sown between the Europeans and Native Americans in other areas of Colonial America. The Albemarle settlers did not encroach onto Native American lands out of a mutual respect for their trading partners. The Cassique speculators had no such qualms about violating this trust that had kept the peace for fifty years. In September, 1711 the famous surveyor, ethnographer, and neutral player in the politics of Albemarle, John Lawson, along with the leader of New Bern was sent by the Alamance governor to reconnoiter the Neuse River, looking for new lands to settle. En-route they were taken captive by the Tuscarora. The presence of a land surveyor on their lands, who was known to have staked out land from smaller tribes, set the Tuscarora on a warpath that would leave hundreds dead, including John Lawson (The unfortunate irony is that Lawson is about the only ethnographer that gave an account of the proto-historic Native Americans of Carolina, without which we would know next to nothing. The English were horrible ethnographers, the French and the Spanish were much better). Bath County was ravaged, but the non-Anglican portions of Albemarle were untouched and the settlers would not meet the governor’s call to arms, so the governor had to look elsewhere. The South Carolinians came to their aid and after a protracted and difficult war and siege of Fort Neoheroka (a nearly impenetrable fort designed by a brilliant escaped African slave named Harry) the Tuscarora were defeated and the survivors moved up to New York to live with their Iroquois allies or scattered to live with other tribes in NC.
Asking the martial slave lords of South Carolina to come to one’s aid was a bit like Roman Britain enlisting the Saxons to help defeat the Picts. They may defeat the enemy, but they also may never leave. And the South Carolinians did not want to leave. They married into the Albemarle Anglican planter clique and soon dotted the Cape Fear river with their plantations. The leveling ideals of the Albemarle were not to be the dominant school of thought for the rest of North Carolina’s history but would live on with the new egalitarian Scots Irish and German farmers of the Piedmont who stood up to the Planters (and lost) in the 1760’s during the Regulator Movement. North Carolina, in the end, would be a hierarchical slave society with power in the hands of a few, but at least some fought valiantly against its implementation and McIlvenna does a service by documenting the defiant ones who wanted a different future for their people.