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A History Of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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This is not an encyclopedic history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The story is too complex and too big for the scope of a project such as this. There are important parts of the history of this community that are left out or barely mentioned. What this writer attempts to do is highlight the major themes and pivotal periods of our past and tell dramatic tales that document the nature and significance of each. The story ends in the early 1980s, because everything thereafter is current affairs.

This writer asserts that two major themes have been present in the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County from the earliest days of Scots-Irish and German settlement in the 1740's until today. One is an intense desire for economic development and expansion. The other is the on-going saga of race. Whenever the pressures of the two have come into direct conflict, especially in the 1890s and in the 1960s and 1970s, economic considerations have won out.

This writer has depended heavily upon the research and scholarship of others. Especially helpful were several M.A. Theses written by graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Sadly, these manuscripts lie mostly unused and ignored. One must also make special mention of the superb scholarship produced by Paul Escott, Thomas W. Hanchett, Janette Greenwood, Jack Claiborne, Mary Norton Kratt, Mary Boyer, Frye Gaillard, Ken Sanford, and Alex Coffin. Hopefully, this book will encourage others to speak and write about this community's fascinating past. Remember, history is the past from the vantage point of today. That's why it is so instructive.

This writer is deeply indebted to his wife, Mary Lynn Caldwell Morrill, who in this as in all other aspects of his personal life has shown untiring support, patience, and understanding. A direct descendant of Alexander Craighead, she possesses all of the best qualities of her Scots-Irish heritage. This book is dedicated to her.



Chapter One

Native Americans and the Coming of

The White Man

Off Elm Lane in southern Mecklenburg County there is a massive boulder that sits majestically beside the bed of Four Mile Creek. Children from a nearby suburban neighborhood often scamper to the top of the so-called "Big Rock," hopefully unaware of the hate-filled graffiti that mars its ancient face. This is an evocative place for those who care about the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Location Of The Big Rock

The Big Rock was a campsite, rendezvous point, and observation post for the first human beings who inhabited what is now Mecklenburg County. They were Paleo or Ancient Native Americans whose forbearers had migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait  made dry by advancing glaciers some 40,000 years ago. These initial nomads reached the Carolina Piedmont about 12,000 years ago. They had wandered over the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains in pursuit of big game. Living in highly mobile and lightly equipped groups, the Paleo Indians ambushed their prey, principally now extinct giant mammals, by thrusting spears into their flanks at close range.

The Big Rock is an ancient campsite and observation post.

The first Native Americans who resided here lived in tiny bands of one or a few families, rarely came in contact with other human beings, and inbred for centuries. They have left no evidence of permanent settlements, burial sites, pottery or agriculture; and, like the great majority of Native Americans, they never developed a written language. Despite the harshness of their existence, Paleo Indians saw their numbers increase in North America. Only the hardiest had completed the long trek from Asia, and the cold climate of the Ice Age may have eliminated many disease-causing organisms.

Shelter In The Big Rock

There is a small crevice or indentation on the backside of the eastern wall of the Big Rock. It would have provided protection from the strong, cold winds that blew across the almost treeless grasslands that covered the surrounding countryside in ancient times. Imagine what it must have been like for the small bands of Paleo Indians who spent wintry nights at the Big Rock thousands of years ago. The howl of wolves would have echoed in the pitch-black darkness. The men would have chipped stones into spear points, and the women would have roasted hunks of fatty meat in the flickering flames of the campfire. Arising at first light, these small assemblages of nomadic hunters would have resumed their ceaseless chase after the herds of mammoth, horses, camels and bison that meandered across the Piedmont landscape.

About 10,000 years ago the glaciers started to retreat and deciduous forests began to predominate in this part of North America. Their habitat destroyed or massively altered, some large mammals, like the mammoth, disappeared, while others, like the camel and the horse, moved elsewhere. Paleo Indian traditions began to die out as the Native Americans adapted to their new environment. Archeologists have named the next cultural customs the "Archaic."

Archaic people, who also visited the Big Rock, foraged for plants and hunted smaller game, such as rabbit, squirrel, beaver and deer. Still nomads, they roamed within smaller territories than had their predecessors, because to succeed as hunters and food gatherers they had to become intimately familiar with local plant life and with the habits of indigenous animals. Indians of this era were more technologically proficient than their forbearers. One of their most ingenious inventions was the atlatl, a spear-throwing device that enabled them to kill deer and other large game more easily. They also used grinding stones and mortars to crush nuts and seeds, carved bowls from soapstone, and polished their spear points into smooth and shiny projectiles.

A momentous event in the history of the Native Americans of this region occurred about 2000 years ago. Indians of the so-called "Woodland" tradition began to practice agriculture and establish permanent settlements. Interestingly, the great majority of the Native Americans who inhabited what is now the Carolina Piedmont, including the Catawbas of this immediate area, were still following these Woodland customs when the first white men arrived in the 16th century. People of this tradition developed a sophisticated culture, replete with religious ceremonies and complex ethical systems. Their religion was polytheistic, meaning that Woodland Indians believed in many gods. Unlike followers of Judeo-Christianity, who divide existence into heaven and earth or separate celestial and terrestrial realms, Native Americans held that many spirits inhabit this world and that they must be appeased. Woodland Indians also had no concept of private property. Land was for use, not for ownership. Native Americans believed that carving up the earth into separate plots and fencing it off was as senseless as parceling out the air or cutting up the water. Such notions would come into direct conflict with the cultural values that white settlers would bring to the Carolina Piedmont.

Replica of Woodland Indian Structure.

The original permanent English settlement in North America appeared on the James River in Virginia in 1607, although European explorers had made contact with Native Americans along the Carolina coast as early as 1524, and the so-called Lost Colony had been established on Roanoke Island in 1585. Named in honor of the reigning King of England, James I, Jamestown struggled to survive until the discovery of tobacco gave the settlers a cash crop. Thereafter, new people began to arrive from Europe; and some traveled south from the James River into North Carolina in search of game and better land. The great majority of the white settlers of the Coastal Plain were Englishmen and Englishwomen who had come to the New World in search of greater economic opportunity. By the mid-1700's, writes historian Tom Hanchett, "the ports of New Bern and Wilmington, North Carolina, and Georgetown and Charleston, South Carolina, flourished where major river systems emptied into the Atlantic."

The first English-speaking people to move through this region were merchants who brought finished goods, such as iron utensils, pots, and axes, on the backs of horses or on their own backs to trade for animal hides prepared by the Catawbas and other Native American tribes. The Catawbas and other inland tribes also traveled widely. Long before the arrival of the white man, Native Americans had established trade routes along footpaths that stretched from the mountains to the sea. White explorers and traders became familiar with this system of reliable, well-established Indian trails and adopted it for their own use.

Title Page Of Lawson's Journal.

On December 28, 1700, John Lawson set out in a large canoe from Charleston, South Carolina and headed upriver with ten companions and a favorite dog to explore the Carolina backcountry for the eight Lords Proprietors who had been awarded all the land south of Virginia and westward to the "South Seas." His journal paints a fascinating picture of the customs and habits of the Native Americans who resided in the Piedmont. Indigenous people lived along the banks of the rivers in small villages of bark-covered houses, each tribe controlling a few miles of a particular stream's course. Lawson and his compatriots saw countless corncribs as they paddled inland. Corn was the staple crop grown by North Americans of this region in soil that Lawson said was "red as blood"

Catawba Indians

When Lawson traveled through the Piedmont there was a population of 4000 to 5000 Indians in at least six villages scattered along a twenty-mile stretch of the Catawba River. Here the Catawba, a branch of the Souian language group, enjoyed the advantages of fertile soil, a fish-filled river, abundant wildlife and a hospitable climate, though they also faced periodic battles with their Cherokee neighbors to the west. In 1650, a legendary military engagement was fought at Nation Ford near present day Fort Mill, South Carolina. Approximately 1100 Cherokees and 1000 Catawbas were killed in a single day. The ensuing truce granted the Catawbas an area along the "Great River" from near its headwaters in North Carolina to what is now Chester County, South Carolina.

A fundamental transformation of the Yadkin-Catawba territory occurred in the 18th century when the era of Native American domination of the region came to a precipitous end. European civilization became predominant within a very few years. The initial white settlers drove their covered wagons into the Carolina Piedmont in the 1740s, mostly along ancient Indian trading paths. First in a trickle then a virtual flood, these immigrants, who were mostly from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, came swarming down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road to establish farms and homestead. Unlike the white traders who had preceded them, these families planned to stay. The road that brought these hardy souls into the Carolina hinterland was described during the 1750s as "a seldom trodden rocky farm road to the back field" amidst a "vast primeval wilderness arched high overhead by large wide spreading branches of majestic trees, ash, walnut, oak, pine, poplar and chestnut." Luxuriant forests and meadows abounded with game, including bear, deer, quail, and pheasant.

Early Scot-Irish and German Settlers House Type.

The pioneers changed what they found. To them the ancient home of the Native Americans was a wilderness to be tamed. The white settlers built houses, taverns, mills, established ferries, and cleared fields. The Catawbas were powerless to resist. "The Catawbas, like coastal tribes nearly a century before, found themselves in the midst of a growing swell of European immigration they could no longer resist," writes one scholar. By the 1760s, after only a decade of persistent white occupation, much of the Catawba's lands had been sold, bartered, or lost. The Catawba nation had dwindled to a population of about 1000, for in addition to tribal warfare they suffered from contact with European diseases and vices: chiefly smallpox and whiskey. In 1764, two years after the death of the last famous Catawba chief, King Haiglar, the colonial governor of South Carolina granted the Catawba fifteen square miles on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. By 1840 the area had dwindled to 652 acres, and there were only seventy-five Catawba left. Little was thought about the surviving remnants of the Catawba until 1977, when Chief Gilbert Blue laid claim to the original fifteen square miles granted to the Catawba in 1764.

Catawba Indian pottery
Catawba Indian Pottery

Unlike the white settlers who had migrated to the Coastal Plain a century earlier, most of the pioneers who moved into the Piedmont in the mid-1700s were Scots-Irish Presbyterians or German Lutherans. Their primary reason for coming was to escape oppression and to be "left alone." Certainly that sentiment was paramount among the Scots-Irish. Scotsmen and Scotswomen who had moved from Scotland to the Ulster region of Ireland in the early 1600s, the Scots-Irish were only too aware of the discriminatory actions the English could enact. Under provisions of the Test Act of 1703, the Church of England had refused to recognize the legitimacy of Presbyterian rites, including communion and matrimony, and had ordered Presbyterian ministers defrocked. After the Scots-Irish had succeeded in establishing a strong regional economy based upon raising and shearing sheep, Parliament had enacted legislation that excluded Irish wool from English markets. Adding insult to injury, English settlers proceeded to push the Scots-Irish off the best Irish land. The response of growing numbers of these beleaguered Presbyterians was to move again, this time to North America.

About 250,000 Scots-Irish immigrated to the New World in the first quarter of the 18th century, most entering through Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Lewes, Delaware. Learning that the land near the coast was already taken, the former residents of Ulster trekked inland and created farms until they reached the Alleghany Mountains. They then turned south and began filtering into Virginia and the Carolinas. Although both arrived in the Yadkin-Catawba region during the same years, the Germans and the Scots-Irish did not live side by side but settled in separate church-centered communities, the former along Buffalo Creek in what is now Cabarrus County and the latter in the southern reaches of the Catawba territory along the banks of Mallard Creek, Reedy Creek, Sugar Creek, Long Creek and the Catawba River.

Tradition holds that the first Scots-Irish pioneer to bring his family to Mecklenburg County was Thomas Spratt. A marker in the 1900 block of Randolph Road marks the spot where Spratt constructed his home.  Erected by the Colonial Dames in 1926, the marker reads:







The chief spokesperson for the Socts-Irish settlers of what is now Mecklenburg County was the indefatigable and peppery Alexander Craighead. He was summoned to be minister at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church and Rocky River Presbyterian Church in 1758. Before Craighead's arrival, itinerate ministers had met with the Presbyterian faithful in local farmhouses. Only the chimney remains at Richard Barry's house across from the intersection of Neck Road and Beatties Ford Road in northwestern Mecklenburg County, where John Thompson, a Presbyterian preacher, held worship services in the early 1750s.

Craighead, whose grave is located in the oldest burial ground of Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church on Craighead Road off North Tryon Street, was born in Donegal, Ireland and died in Mecklenburg County in March 1766. He traveled as a child with his parents to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. Ordained in 1735, Craighead became an outspoken critic of the Church of England and even succeeded in alienating the majority of his fellow Presbyterians because of his extreme views on religious issues and because of his intemperate criticisms of the king.  Craighead accompanied George Whitefield in Pennsylvania and became a participant in the Great Awakening.  He also was heavily influenced by the teachings of Gilbert and Charles Tennent.  In 1733 Gilbert Tennent insisted that only those preachers who were pure in heart should be allowed to conduct services.  He also began preaching in an emotional manner, even encouraging church members to stand and shout.  Craighead followed the same pattern.  In 1736 he began emoting from the pulpit and even refused to let his wife take communion because she was not sufficiently contrite.  Several of his own church members said Craighead "was under some dreadful delusion of Satan."  Finally, in 1741, the traditionalists, who insisted only on commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith and formal religious education as requirements for preaching, ousted the New Side preachers from the Synod of Philadelphia.

Location of Alexander Craighead's Grave

To Craighead's way of "New Side" thinking, even the Presbyterian Church was tainted because of its commitment to maintaining traditional dogma rather than emphasizing the importance of faith and spontaneous emotion in religious matters and because of its willingness to make peace with British officials. Craighead preached fiery sermons and exhorted his flock to resist any threats to their independence. He warned his people that Presbyterian leaders were allowing "swarms of profane Creatures" and "scandalous Persons" to come into the churches. The Philadelphia Synod finally expelled Craighead from Pennsylvania because of his radical views. It was only on the frontier that ministers of Craighead's persuasion and penchant toward emotionalism were able to establish themselves and preach and administer the rites of the Presbyterian faith as they understood them.

Alexander Craighead faced a monumental challenge in Mecklenburg County. This was a raucous place in the mid-1700s. After all, it was on the frontier. The great majority of people were illiterate. Squabbling and fighting were routine. Men purposely allowed their thumbnails to grow long so that they could more easily gouge out the eyes of their adversaries in a brawl. Drunkenness and fornication were widespread. Modern concepts of hygiene, derived largely from the advent of the germ theory of medicine, had no place in 18th century life. The most common house form was the log cabin, sometimes with three walls. Typically, the only opening in the exterior wall was for an entry door. The floors were dirt. A permanent fire in a large fireplace at the end of the main room billowed smoke into the cramped living quarters, frequently turning the air into an acrid cloud. Privacy, even for the most intimate acts, was virtually unattainable.

Arthur Dobbs

Arthur Dobbs, the Royal Governor of North Carolina, visited what is now Mecklenburg County in 1755. He observed that the great majority of the inhabitants were impoverished. Most families had six to ten children, all "going barefooted," and the mothers were barely clothed. A good place to visit to get a feel for the harshness of 18th-century farm life is the President James K. Polk Birthplace Memorial near Pineville. The log outbuildings at Latta Plantation in Latta Plantation Park off Beatties Ford Road can serve the same purpose. Their authenticity, however, would be enhanced if they were less tidy and more malodorous.

Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister, described the Scots-Irish residents of Mecklenburg County as "vile, leveling commonwealth Presbyterians." They are, he continued, "profligate, audacious Vagabonds . . . Hunters going Naked as Indians." C. W. Clerk, a companion of Woodmason's, found them "Rude - Ignorant - Void of Manners, Education or Good Breeding." (Click Here To Read About Sexual Habits) Andrew Morton of the Church of England visited the Catawba-Yadkin region in 1766 and wrote a similarly unflattering description of the settlers. He told his superiors in London that "the Inhabitants of Mecklenburg are entire dissenters of the most rigid kind." Admittedly, officials of the Church of England were predisposed to castigate the Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the Carolina hinterland. Still, their observations were not created entirely out of whole cloth. There was considerable truth in what Woodmason and his associates wrote about the early white settlers in Mecklenburg County.

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