What Was It Like to Live in the Carolinas in 1775?
Life in the Carolinas in the Revolutionary period is difficult to imagine. First of all, in 1775, North Carolina was a geographic expression – like Africa or the equator – not a coherent or homogenous political entity. Its territory encompassed a huge cross-section of the eastern coast and contained a diverse mix of inhabitants. There were Englishmen and women, highland and lowland Scots, Czech Moravians, Palatinate Germans, Protestant Swiss, both Catholic and Protestant Irish, African slaves and indigenous American Indians all living in small communities which stretched from the pine and scrub land of the coastal plains through the rolling savannahs of central Carolina to the rising foothills and terraced mountains of the Appalachian mountains.
In many respects, the state of North Carolina – as we understand the term today, with its associated apparatus of laws, courts and democratic institutions – barely existed. There was, in a sense, no state. Royal Governors in theory held supreme executive authority, but often they were absent, corrupt or drunks. The General Assembly was regularly at odds with the Governor and consequently prorogued or even forbidden to meet. For years at a time, the entire Province would degenerate into lawlessness. “The whole Colony was in a state of anarchy and confusion,” wrote the historian Wheeler in the Nineteenth century Sketches of North Carolina, describing the year 1771. “The Courts were closed; public crime and private injustice had no check.”
There were few roads, all of which were largely dirt paths, treacherous and difficult to maintain. On November 10, 1766, Representative Hugh Waddell presented a petition to the General Assembly from “several of the Inhabitants of Rowan, Anson, and Mecklenburg” counties decrying the “many great hardships they endure for want of roads.” There were no bridges over the various rivers and creeks that cross-hatched the land. Safe passage could only be found through fording a waterway when the flood was low, or paying a ferryman to take one across.
There was no census at the time, so we don’t know how many residents of the Province there were, and the number changed daily as more immigrants arrived in ships or pulled wagons into the interior. Most of the land was entirely unpopulated and therefore up for grabs.
There was no common currency, no shared religion, not even a common language. In addition to the English coastal towns, there were small scattered communities of Gaelic-speaking Scots; Celtic-speaking Irishmen; Welsh; German-speaking Swiss; Hoch Deutsch speaking Moravians; French Huguenots; West African slaves with various dialects; as well as the multiple languages of the indigenous Indians (the Indians themselves it is estimated had possibly as many as 150 individual languages throughout the colonies). The disparate nature of the population was reflected in the names the people gave their settlements: Germantown, Salisbury, Jersey, Ayr, Mackey, New Bern, Dutch Creek, Irish Settlement, New Scotland.
The Province of “Carolina” was born on March 24, 1663, when amidst the flickering of torches in the ancient palace of Westminster along the River Thames, King Charles II signed a Royal Charter granting eight peers and their “heirs and assigns, all that territory or tract of ground, situate, lying and being within our dominions of America” between 31° and 36° northern latitude, from the Atlantic coast, clear across the continent to the Great South Seas. To these lucky few (whose names are now given to towns and Counties throughout the region) was bequeathed a new Province – Carolina, a Latin diminutive for the King’s name. The eight men who owned Carolina were called the “Lords Proprietors.”
The Province would only generate income for its owners if it were populated, and its inhabitants engaged in farming or other income-generating activities and, consequently, paying taxes. Although there were a handful of settlers at the time, the vast majority of the Province was uninhabited. The few European settlers who had made it to America and survived their first winter clung to wretched outposts on the coast. Even by the early 1700s, no European had been more than a hundred miles inland from the Atlantic seaboard, much less crossed the Appalachians. The first order of business, therefore, was to encourage settlement – or to put it differently, to generate customers.
This was not easy. Convincing a man to abandon his land, country and settled life to embark upon a highly dangerous, largely speculative and one-way trip to an unknown wilderness thousands of miles from home made for an extraordinarily difficult sales pitch. It took a mixture of desperation or recklessness to cause someone to make for the American Colonies, much less the remote Carolina territory, and at first few did so. By 1725, the entire population of the Province remained less than 13,000.
In order to induce would-be immigrants to make this long and dangerous trip, the Proprietors offered a variety of incentives. The first was the promise of religious freedom. The Proprietors were permitted to grant “indulgences and dispensations” to those “who really, in their Judgments, and for consciences sake,” could not conform to the rituals and beliefs of the Church of England. The Proprietors used this to great advantage. One promotional brochure for Carolina in 1666 promised that, “[t]here is full and free Liberty of Conscience granted to all, so that no man is to be molested or called in question for matters of Religious Concern; but every one to be obedient to the Civil Government, worshipping God after their own way.”
The allure of religious liberty was especially powerful. In Europe in that time, religion was inextricably bound up with the state in a way that is now difficult for us to understand. Every European principality had an officially sanctioned state faith: there was Catholic France and Spain, Orthodox Russia, and of course, the Church of England. Religious minorities – Jews, Huguenots, Moravians or Presbyterians – were everywhere repressed, sometimes violently. From the first wave of Puritan settlers to the northeast coast of America in the 1620s, the freedom to practice a non-state sanctioned faith was arguably the single greatest motivation to would-be immigrants to the American colonies.
A second incentive was economic – the opportunity for a better life. Europe was rigidly divided into classes: noblemen, a newly emerging mercantile or “middle” class, and the peasantry. Whatever class one was born into, one rarely escaped. In the New World, however, these class distinctions largely did not exist, and where they did, movement between them was more fluid. And from time to time there was crop failure followed by famine. Often migration followed on the heels of famine. Third, and perhaps most important was the chance of owning your own land. Where land was available in Europe it was expensive. Most poor people rented or leased their land and were at the mercy of their landlords, practically serfs.
Whether under compulsion or by free choice, drawn by the lure of religious toleration, economic opportunity, desperation or adventure, settlers began populating North Carolina. Many came as indentured servants, meaning they worked for five to seven years to repay the ship owners who effected their passage. “Let no man be troubled at the thoughts of being a Servant for 4 or 5 year,” one promotional circular explained, “so soon as he is out of his time, he hath Land, and Tools, and Clothes given him, and is in a way of advancement.”
Where the lure of cheap land or religious tolerance was insufficient, the Proprietors employed another common sales technique: false advertising. This was widespread. Promotional brochures were distributed in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the various fiefdoms of central Europe, calculated to appeal to the lower classes, religious dissenters, adventurers, or the dispossessed. John Lawson, an early explorer and surveyor of North Carolina, employed by the Proprietors, wrote in 1707 of “the easy Way of living in that plentiful Country.”
“The Inhabitants of Carolina, thro’ the Richness of the Soil, live an easy and pleasant life,” he wrote, “[It is] a Country that, with moderate Industry, will afford all the Necessaries of Life.”
Other advertisements described it as a veritable Garden of Eden, overflowing with wildlife. “This country hath Oak, Ash, Beech, Elm,” wrote one contemporary account, “and sorts of other useful timber that England hath not, as Cedar, Red and White Locust, Laurel.” Carolina, it was said, was overflowing with wild game, fish and birds. “[T]he woods are stored of Deer and Wild Turkey of great Magnitude, weighing many times above fifty pounds apiece and of a more pleasant taste than those found in England.”
Later Nineteenth century writers, relying on these false accounts, would describe early Carolina in lurid, gushing and romantic terms. It was, wrote John Logan in 1855 in A History of Upper Carolina, “new and beautiful and as remarkable for the luxuriant richness of its landscape as it is still for the striking features of its rolling hills and towering mountains.”
Another described it as “a region of romance,” of “large and extensive plains and savannas, swarming with deer and buffalo.” It was a land of “picturesque beauty and grandeur;” of plains “carpeted with grass, and the wild pea vine grew, it is said, as high as a horse’s back. The land was “the most fertile in the world.” The mountains of Carolina were so high the European Alps were “much inferior.”
This was utter nonsense. To a frontiersman in 1730, it was rough and dangerous country – many considered the Carolinas the most unhealthy portion of the colonies. In summer, the heat was immense and inescapable. Sunstroke killed farmers at work in the field. Diseases spread; wounds suppurated and failed to heal; meat and foodstuffs quickly rotted. Travelers complained of omnipresent snakes, mosquitoes, and horseflies. Fear was constant and life was cheap.
Rather than a peaceful and benign Eden, it was a bleak wilderness; silent, remote, largely unexplored and unseen by white Europeans, and populated with wolves, coyotes, black bears and bobcats, as well as tribes of grim, inscrutable and often violent Indians. The first promoter for Carolina, the surveyor John Lawson, was himself captured by Indians and tortured to death.
This is the wilderness that the British would find so inhospitable in the Southern Campaigns of 1780 - 1781.
From the forthcoming book “Most Treasonable:” The Controversial History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (McFarland & Co., 2013).