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Chapter Two

Independence and Revolution  

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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     Alexander Craighead's  principal legacy was to instill among the people of his congregations a fierce determination to resist the imposition of unwanted authority from outside the community, especially from the State capital in New Bern or from London.  "Social historians studying the more than two-century story of Mecklenburg might well agree that this community's character has its roots in the independent-mindedness of her early citizenship," writes LeGette Blythe in his popular 1961 history of Mecklenburg County.  Dramatic proof of this commitment to noninterference occurred during the so-called "Sugar Creek War" in 1765, the year preceding Craighead's death and three years following the creation of Mecklenburg County from a portion of Anson County in 1762.  Conflict arose when Henry McCulloh, one of Governor Dobbs's partners in land speculation and an agent for another absentee property owner,  Lord George Augustus Selwyn assembled a team of surveyors in the area to determine the boundaries of Lord Selwyn's land so that the Scots-Irish, many of whom were squatters, could begin paying the rent that they lawfully owed but had never attempted to defray.

Grave of Alexander Craighead

       A group of local ruffians, led by Thomas Polk, warned McCulloh to desist or he would be "tied Neck and heels and be carried over the Yadkin, and that he might think himself happy if he got off so."  Undeterred, McCulloh attempted to perform his duties and ordered the "parcel of blockheads" to stand aside, whereupon the squatters, their faces blackened, attacked McCulloh's men, including several members of the locally prominent Alexander family.  Abraham Alexander  was "striped from the nape of his neck to the Waistband of his Breeches," declared one participant in this act of defiance.   According to McCulloh, "Jimmy Alexander very near had daylight let into his skull."  McCulloh retreated and departed for New Bern.  Lawlessness succeeded in winning the day. 

     William Tryon, who became Royal Governor in 1765, sought to quell unrest in the backcountry by settling the outstanding land disputes.  He appointed Thomas Polk and Abraham Alexander to a two-member commission to study the issue.  Not surprisingly, the commission decided that McCulloh's and Selwyn's claims were invalid because they had not attracted a sufficient number of settlers to their property.  Tryon accepted this decision and proclaimed McCulloh's and Selwyn's proprietorships null and void. The Proprietors had to sell their land to the settlers or to the Royal government.

     Governor Tryon donated part of the land formerly belonging to the Proprietors as the site for a county seat.  Abraham Alexander and Thomas Polk were put in charge of the creation of the town in 1768, to be named "Charlotte" in honor of the Queen of Great Britain.  Martin Phifer, leader of the Lutheran community of Dutch Buffalo Creek in northeastern Mecklenburg, protested the location of the county seat and labored unsuccessfully to have it moved.  Eventually Buffalo Creek would separate from Mecklenburg and form Cabarrus County in 1793.

     The County seat was the center of power political power in Colonial America and in the early years of the United States.  County courts, composed of appointed Justices of the Peace selected by the Governor, registered deeds, issued business licenses, collected taxes, and verified wills.  Local courthouses also settled disputes among residents.  The Justices of the Peace appointed local officers of the court, including the sheriff.  One can understand why Thomas Polk wanted Charlotte to be in southern Mecklenburg County, where the Scots Irish were especially strong.

      The growing wealth of Mecklenburg's elite notwithstanding, deep-seated resentments against the Royal government continued to exist among the Scots-Irish.  A particularly vexing issue was the status of the Presbyterian Church.  Governor Tryon was most interested in strengthening the position of the Church of England in North Carolina.  He pressured the colonial legislative to pass two acts that were galling to the Scots-Irish.  The first assured that tax money would flow to the Anglicans.  The second, the Marriage Act of 1766, denied non-Anglican ministers the right to legally bind couples in matrimony.  To be legitimate, couples had to pay a fee to the Church of England.  The Presbyterians of Mecklenburg County spoke out vigorously against the Marriage Act.

     The Mecklenburg Scots-Irish felt slighted again when they petitioned the colonial legislature in 1770 to establish a seminary in Charlotte.  This was the first institution of higher learning south of William and Mary.  They proposed to name it Queens College.  North Carolina Statutes forbade the creation of dissenting schools.  Governor Tryon supported the petition because of Mecklenburg's help in subduing the Regulator movement in Orange County in 1770, but the King disallowed the establishment of the school.  It closed in 1773.

             A dramatic manifestation of defiance of Royal authority by the Scots-Irish of Mecklenburg County  happened  in May 1775.  Indeed, this series of incidents has become a matter of enduring controversy, at least in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  It is a fascinating story.  Allegedly, a group of leading citizens of Mecklenburg County drafted and signed the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 20, 1775, and were therefore the first colonists to break their legal ties to Great Britain -- fourteen months before the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and approved Thomas Jefferson's more famous Declaration of Independence that we celebrate every Fourth of July.

       It was not until 1819, forty-four years after the alleged signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, when Virginia and Massachusetts were arguing over which of the two states had been first to break with Great Britain, that U.S. Senator Nathanial Macon and William Davidson , the latter representing the Mecklenburg County district in the U.S. House of Representatives, put forth the astounding claim that the Scots-Irish of North Carolina were the first to declare their independence.   Thomas Jefferson dismissed it as a hoax "until positive and solemn proof of its authenticity shall be produced."

      Even its staunchest defenders admitted that no copy of the actual document existed.    "Nearly all of my father's papers," declared a son of John McKnitt Alexander , "were burned in the spring of 1800."  A document was supplied, but it was John McKnitt Alexander's account of what transpired in May 1775, not the actual Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence itself.  To bolster their case, supporters of the so-called "Meck Dec" interviewed several signers, all of whom had attained advanced age by the time they were asked to search their memories.  These elderly gentlemen, mostly Presbyterians,  all agreed that they had attended a meeting in May 1775 but could not recall the exact date.  William Polk, son of Thomas Polk, published a pamphlet containing these testimonials and declared the matter settled.  In 1825, a large crowd gathered in Charlotte on the 50th anniversary of the alleged signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and heard it read by Reverend Humphrey Hunter of the Presbyterian Church.  What further proof could one want?

     Trouble for the backers of the "Meck Dec" surfaced in 1838.  An archivist uncovered an article in the July 12, 1775, issue of a Massachusetts newspaper that reproduced a series of resolutions that had reportedly been drawn up in Charlotte on May 31, 1775. Unlike the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the Mecklenburg Resolves expressed the hope that the exercise of independent authority by officials of Mecklenburg County would end if Great Britain would "resign its unjust and arbitrary pretensions with respect to America."  This was a remarkable display of defiance, but it was not an unequivocal pronouncement that the people of Mecklenburg County were "free and independent."  Any doubt about the authenticity of the Mecklenburg Resolves disappeared in 1847, when scholars found the entire text published in the South Carolina Gazette of June 13, 1775.  No such contemporary verification of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence has ever come to light.  

     The fact that the leaders of Mecklenburg County backed a conditional separation from British rule just eleven days after they allegedly declared their independence seems oxymoronic.  Also, none of the participants who was interviewed years after the dramatic events of May 1775 made any mention of the Mecklenburg Resolves.  One cannot help but wonder whether these aged men remembered the meeting where the Mecklenburg Resolves was signed, not the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

       Defenders of the authenticity of the "Meck Dec" have labored tirelessly to prove their case.  They note that a diarist in the  Moravian settlement at Salem, now part of Winston Salem, recorded in June, 1775 that the citizens of Mecklenburg County had "unseated all Magistrates and put Select Men in their places."  The bearer of this news to the Moravians was Captain James Jack, who did deliver a document or documents to North Carolina representatives to the Continental Congress then meeting in Philadelphia.  The question is what did Captain Jack have in his satchel, the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the Mecklenburg Resolves, or both?  The preponderance of evidence suggests that it was the Mecklenburg Resolves.  Captain Jack, for example, traveled through Salisbury when the court was in session in early June, 1775.  The timing of his arrival in Rowan County is congruous with May 31st, not May 20th when the Mecklenburg Declaration of independence was purportedly signed.

     Supporters of the legitimacy of the "Meck Dec" have pointed with special pride to the fact that the date " May 20, 1775," appears on the North Carolina flag.  But politicians, not historians, put it there.  On May 20, 1861, North Carolina seceded from the United States of America and became part of the Confederate States of America.  The State Convention put both dates on the state flag to underscore its contention that the same "opposition to tyranny" that had produced the American Revolution also gave rise to the Civil War.  The date "May 20, 1861" was removed from the state flag in 1885, but "May 20, 1775" was retained.

        According to Chalmers Davidson, Professor of History and later archivist at Davidson College, Archibald Henderson  provided the strongest evidence for the authenticity of the "Meck Dec." A member of the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Henderson launched his campaign in 1919.  He calculated that the news of the Battle of Lexington outside Boston had arrived in Charlotte on May 19th, the date when the heads of Mecklenburg militia units and other leaders had supposedly gathered to consider an appropriate course of action in light of this auspicious news and the day preceding the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.  "The evidence is as good that it did happen as that it didn't happen," Chalmers Davidson told this writer in an interview in the 1980s.

     Backers of the "Meck Dec." were overjoyed in 1905 when Colliers Magazine published what purported to be a facsimile of the June 3, 1775, edition of the Cape Fear Mercury of Wilmington, N.C.  There for everybody to see was a contemporary reference to the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.     Definitive proof seemed at hand.   "Here at last was the contemporary documentation that skeptics and scoffers had been demanding for years," writes Richard N. Current in his 1977 article on the "Meck Dec." in the North Carolina Historical Review.  Supposedly found in a trunk of a diplomat who had stolen it, the issue of the newspaper turned out to be hoax.  Alas, there was still no definitive proof of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

     The controversy over the "Meck Dec." is unending.  Despite solid evidence produced against it by a distinguished list of scholars, including Charles Phillips,   James C. Welling, William Henry Hoyt, and R. D. W. Connor , supporters of the genuineness of the document are unyielding. Dr. Edward S. Perzel of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a disbeliever, knows what it is like to be a skeptic.  "This is very, very serious to a lot of people here," he declared.  "When they figure out who I am, they're just not nice."

      The residents of Mecklenburg County have held many May 20th festivals over the years to mark the alleged signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The largest was the Centennial Anniversary in 1875.  As reported by one source, 40,000 people gathered in an around the Square at Trade and Tryon Streets to observe a parade, fireworks, horse races, a hundred-gun salute, and cockfights between North and South Carolina birds.  Former Governor William Alexander Graham, whose father claimed to have seen the events of May 19 and May 20, 1775, gave the principal address.  Graham insisted that the "oral evidence of living witnesses" provided sufficient proof for any fair-minded person. President Woodrow Wilson participated in the festivities on May 20, 1916.  President Dwight Eisenhower  came in 1954.   The most recent grand celebration of the "Meck Dec."  occurred on the occasion of its Bicentennial in 1975.  A local citizen was  hired to impersonate Captain James Jack.  The hapless fellow was even dispatched up I-85 on horseback to carry the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to Philadelphia.   What a ride!

      Every May 20th a small group of dedicated citizens from the Mecklenburg Historical Association, the local historic society, gathers at the monument that was erected in 1898 in Uptown Charlotte by the defenders of the document.  It is a poignant scene.  Most Charlotteans drive by in their sleek automobiles and take no notice of what is transpiring.  Someone reads the "Meck. Dec.," and a wreath is laid at the base of the obelisk.  Then the faithful  disperse and resume the routine of daily living, only to return for another brief ceremony 365 days later.

    Let's make one thing clear.  One cannot demonstrate conclusively that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is a fake.  The dramatic events of May 19th and May 20th could have happened. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith, not proof.  You believe it or you don't believe it. One cannot help but wonder, however, what interest there would be in proclaiming the authenticity of the "Meck Dec." if  the British and Tories, the local supporters of King George, had prevailed in the American Revolutionary War instead of the other way around?  Happily, such considerations are the responsibility of philosophers, not historians.

     In this writer's opinion, the most unfortunate consequence of placing so much emphasis upon the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is that little attention has been focused upon the Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31st.  It was a bold and radical document that reflected the political beliefs that Alexander Craighead had planted and nurtured among the Scots-Irish of the Yadkin-Catawba territory. "The Presbyterians of Mecklenburg County," writes H. Beau Bowers in his M.A. Thesis at UNCC , "owed much to the Reverend Alexander Craighead  and his unique mix of Old World Presbyterianism and New Side  Theology."  Josiah Martin,  Royal Governor of North Carolina, opined that the resolves "surpass (sic.) all the horrid and treasonable publications that the inflammatory spirits of this Continent have yet produced."  "The Mecklenburg Resolves placed its supporters at the forefront of colonial resistance in 1775," Bowers maintains.  North Carolina's delegates to the Continental Congress regarded the Mecklenburg Resolves as excessive and "premature" and decided not to reveal its contents to their compatriots meeting in Philadelphia.

      There is no controversy concerning Mecklenburg County's pivotal role in the American Revolutionary War.    In 1780-1781 British and Tory troops invaded the Carolina hinterland and brought the war literally to Charlotte's doorstep.  Indeed, one can reasonably contend that the most important events in Mecklenburg County from a national perspective occurred during those few fateful months in 1780 and 1781 when the success of the effort by the American colonies to defy British authority hung in the balance.

     In 1778, a complex combination of considerations induced the British government to make the South the main arena of military operations.  Uppermost in King George III's mind was the assumption that by sending a large army to Georgia and the Carolinas he could encourage the Tories to come out in large numbers.  On December 29, 1778, Savannah fell to the redcoats; and Charleston suffered a similar fate on May 12, 1780.  Charles Cornwallis, the newly-appointed commander of the British army in the South, was then instructed to take his troops inland and provide protection for the backers of the King.  Among his subordinate officers was Banastre Tarleton, a highly aggressive commander of cavalry who inflicted a devastating and controversial defeat on Colonel Abraham Buford's Continental troops in the Waxhaws on May 29th.

Charles Cornwallis 1738-1805

      Any realistic expectations that the Patriots or Whigs could stop Cornwallis from having his way in the Carolina backcountry appeared to end on August 16th in the pine forests outside Camden, South Carolina, where Cornwallis and Tarleton overwhelmed General Horatio Gates's force in a bloody, frontal assault. There was no denying the enormity of the defeat.  Sent to block the British advance and recapture Charleston, Gates had instead suffered a humiliating setback and had left his men behind to wander about in small groups with no instruction where to gather.  Only about 700 dispirited Continentals, regular troops, finally joined Gates in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

     The people of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County faced an ominous threat in the late summer and early fall of 1780.  Regardless of their political leanings -- there were plenty of Tories and even more potential Tories in Charlotte and its environs  -- local folks recognized that a powerful occupying force was about to come into their midst.  It was one thing for local farmers to join with their neighbors in signing the Mecklenburg Resolves. It was quite something else for them to pick up their rifles and resist Cornwallis's army that was fast approaching from the southeast.  No doubt many serious conversations were held in the scattered log homes of Mecklenburg County in those fateful weeks when everybody anticipated the imminent arrival of the British army.  The reasons for someone becoming a Whig or a Tory continued to be complex and highly personal. 

Nathaniel Greene

     Cornwallis and his 2300 men marched out of Camden on September 8, 1780.  The initial British objective in North Carolina was Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, where numerous gristmills along its fast-flowing creeks would allow Cornwallis to replenish his supplies before proceeding on to Salisbury and eventually to Hillsborough.  Opposing him was General William Lee Davidson , commander of the patriot militia in western North Carolina following the capture of General Griffith Rutherford  at Camden. A 35-year-old former Indian fighter, Davidson had seen extensive service under General George Washington  before returning to Rowan County in 1780.  Determined to slow down the British advance, Davidson dispatched William R. Davie  and a small force of mounted militiamen into the Waxhaws to torment the redcoats.  Davie, a South Carolinian, did just that.  At daylight on September 20th, he led his men on a daring strike at Wahab's Plantation in what is now Union County.  The British army, however, moved inexorably toward Charlotte.

William R. Davie

     Cornwallis reached Charlotte late in the morning of September 26, 1780.  Davidson had ordered Davie's militia, assisted by local irregular troops commanded by Joseph Graham , for whom Graham Street in Uptown Charlotte is named, to fight a delaying action.  Outnumbered about ten to one, Davie's small force of about 300 men looked southward down Tryon Street from the courthouse, then located in the middle of  Charlotte, and waited for Cornwallis's redoubtable army to appear.  Apprehension and disquietude must have permeated the scene.

      According to Davie, Charlotte was a town containing "about twenty Houses built on two streets which cross (sic.) each other at right angles in the intersection of which stands the Court-House."  Graham described the structure as "a frame building raised on eight brick pillars ten feet from the ground, which was the most elevated in the place."  A rock wall some three and a half feet high extended between the pillars so that the local residents could use the ground beneath the courthouse as a marketplace.

     Davie placed some of his soldiers behind the rock wall beneath the courthouse and sent others down Tryon Street to hide among the fences, houses, and outbuildings to protect his flanks.  It was not long before sentries road into Charlotte with the news that the redcoats and Tories were about to enter the town.  The rolling of drums could be heard in the distance.   The first to arrive were the green-coated cavalrymen of Tarleton's Legion. Tarleton was ill, so command of the unit fell to the rakish Major George Hanger .  " . . . the legion was forming at the distance of three hundred yards with a front to fill the street, and the light infantry on the flank," Davie declared in his official report issued following the battle.  Convinced that the patriot militia could be easily dislodged, Hanger ordered his men to gallop pell-mell  toward the courthouse, swords swinging menacingly overhead.  Davie instructed the militia to hold their fire until the last moment.

     A sheet of flame announced the presence of the patriots behind the rock wall beneath the courthouse.  Stunned by a well-executed volley, Hanger and his men turned back, leaving several horses writhing in agony in the street.  A second attempt also failed.  Davie was exultant.   "They were again well received by the militia and galloped off in the utmost confusion," the patriot commander declared. Unable to protect his flanks against the sheer number of troops that Cornwallis could throw against him, Davie eventually had to order his militia to mount their horses and retreat northward on Tryon Street toward Salisbury.  In keeping with the military tactics of the day, the Tory cavalry vigorously pursued  the departing patriots in order to prevent them from forming another battle line and delivering an effective volley.  The Tories caught up with George Locke, a young lad from Rowan County, swooped down upon and cut his body to pieces. 


A marker in the median of Tryon Street just south of its intersection with the connector road from I-85 commemorates Locke's death.   Almost nobody knows that it is there.  Joseph Graham , who commanded Davie's rear guard, was severely wounded.  The patriots suffered five killed and six wounded in the Battle of Charlotte.  The British reported their losses at twelve killed and wounded.  Charlotte is the only town in North Carolina that had a Revolutionary War engagement fought in its very heart.

          Charles Cornwallis and his army encamped in Charlotte from September 26th until October 12th.  The British were not surprised when they found it to be an inhospitable place.  "It was evident," said Tarleton, "and it had frequently been mentioned to the King's officers, that the counties of Mecklenburg and Rohan (sic.) were more hostile to England than any others in America."  Davie and his militiamen continuously harassed the foraging parties that Cornwallis dispatched into the dense forests that surrounded Charlotte to gather food and supplies from local farms and grist mills.  The British attempted in vain to win the support of the people of Mecklenburg County.  Davie reported that a large contingent of redcoats and Tories marched "in the direction of the Catawba, near Tuckasegie Ford"  According to the patriot commander, the enemy was "cajoling and flattering the people to take Paroles."

     Cornwallis's efforts to pacify the local population were unsuccessful, causing the British to label Mecklenburg County a "Hornets' Nest."  One particularly unpleasant episode for the redcoats and Tories occurred in the first week of October at McIntyre's Farm on Beatties Ford Road.  Some 300 troops, marching toward a grist mill on Long Creek near Hopewell Presbyterian Church , were engaged in gathering livestock and farm produce along the way. "Some . . . horses were harnessed to the farm wagons, and parties began to load them with the various products of the fields," writes one scholar. 

     Local farmers had been warned of the approach of the enemy and were laying in ambush in the woods bordering the farm with rifles in hand.  Incensed when the redcoats and Tories "shouted joyously amidst their plunder,"  the farmers opened fire on their unsuspecting victims and sent them scurrying back to Charlotte.  "A large number of the dragoons were shot down," reported one observer.  "The leading horses in the wagon were killed before they could ascend the hill."  Militiamen followed the enemy most of the way back to town, taking up position in the woods all along the way and making life miserable for the Cornwallis's soldiers.

     A far greater calamity for the British happened on the afternoon of October 7, 1780, at the Battle of Kings Mountain about thirty miles southwest of Charlotte.  Patrick Ferguson, an athletic man of slight build and one of the best professional soldiers in the British army, was killed and his entire force of some 900 men were shot dead or captured by a roughly equal contingent of Patriot militiamen.    " . . . never was the trite apothegm that the greatest events often proceed from little causes more fatally confirmed than by the present check," said Henry Clinton , British commander in North America.  The snorting hogs, circling buzzards, and howling wolves that infested the macabre hilltop the day after this horrific engagement sent a terrifying but unmistakable warning to many Loyalists who dared to take up arms for the King.

     One important consequence of the major setback at Kings Mountain was that Cornwallis decided to retreat into South Carolina and await reinforcements from Charleston.  He took his army to Winnsboro.  The respite for the people of Mecklenburg County from the Revolutionary War was not  long-lasting, however.

       Nathanael Greene  rode into Charlotte on December 2, 1780, and assumed command of the Continental Army of the South, which General Gates had recently brought to town. "The appearance of the troops was wretched beyond description, and their distress, on account of provisions, was little less than their sufferings for want of clothing and other necessities," Greene proclaimed.   A former Quaker from Rhode Island and George Washington 's favorite subordinate, the new commander was also concerned about the lack of self-control he found among the soldiers in Charlotte.  "General Gates had lost the confidence of the officers," Greene explained, "and the troops all their discipline, and they have been so addicted to plundering that they were a terror to the inhabitants."  To demonstrate his resolve to restore proper comportment among his troops, Greene had a wayward soldier publicly hanged in the town square of Charlotte as an example to the others.  "New lords, new laws," said one eyewitness.

     In December 1780, an impressive coterie of combatants walked up the courthouse stairs in Charlotte, their swords clanking against the wooden risers.  There was Colonel William Washington , second cousin of George Washington .  Greene also conversed with Colonel John Eager Howard  of Maryland and General Isaac Huger  (pronounced "u-gee") of  South Carolina.  The most famous of Greene's subordinate officers at Charlotte was the volatile but unsurpassed tactician Brigadier General Daniel Morgan .  A resident of the Virginia frontier, Morgan was a boisterous, coarse, irreverent, and rowdy backwoodsman.  "Outsiders in particular found Morgan a dangerous man to cross," writes historian Don Higginbotham.  In one "mass brawl" in a tavern near Winchester, Virginia., Morgan and his friends had overpowered their adversaries by "resorting to kicking, biting, and gouging."    

       After listening to the advice of his fellow officers, Greene sat at a table in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in the heart of Charlotte and finalized his plan of military operations.  He realized that his army could not remain in Mecklenburg County because troops from both sides had picked the countryside clean.  Defying the dictum that one should never divide an army in the face of a superior enemy, Greene left Charlotte with the larger part of his army on December 16th and marched to a new camp just across the Pee Dee River from Cheraw, South Carolina.  He placed the rest of his troops under the control of the always resourceful Morgan.  The Old Waggoner led his soldiers out of Charlotte on December 20th and headed westward across the Catawba and Broad Rivers.

     Morgan's troops won a decisive victory over a British and Tory army headed by Banastre Tarleton  at Cowpens in upper South Carolina on January 17, 1781.  Cornwallis then set out from Winnsboro in an effort to catch Morgan's troops before they could cross the Catawba and join up with Greene's soldiers who were retreating northward through Salisbury.  The British marched through Lincoln County and reached Cowan's Ford   at the opposite shore from Mecklenburg County shortly after Morgan and his men had reached the other side. 

     Nathanael Greene  had ridden with an aide and two cavalrymen through 120 miles of Tory-infested territory.  He arrived in Morgan's camp on January 30, 1781.  On the same day, the waters of the Catawba receded enough to allow Cornwallis to begin making plans to cross the river.  Greene ordered William Lee Davidson to delay the British advance while Morgan and his troops dashed for Salisbury and the Trading Ford on the Yadkin River. 

     Joel Jetton, a patriot militiaman, awoke suddenly on the morning of February 1st at Cowan's Ford, when he heard the whinnying of horses and the sloshing of water somewhere out out on the river.  Grabbing his rifle, he ran to the edge of the water and peered into the misty half-light of dawn.  Coming straight at him were three mounted British officers in resplendent scarlet and white uniforms and hundreds of redcoats.  "The British! The British!"  Jetton yelled as he scurried up the bank and awoke his startled compatriots.  The militia opened fire, making the muddy waters of the Catawba turn red with British blood. 

     The gunfire caused General Davidson to rush to Cowan's Ford , where he began rallying the militia and organizing reinforcements.  The British, who had now gained the shore in sufficient strength to deliver volleys, fired their muskets at the patriots.  A musket ball penetrated Davidson's chest, killing him instantly.  Thereafter, any semblance of resistance on the part of the militia evaporated, as young and old alike fled for their lives.  The British officially claimed that they suffered three killed and thirty-six wounded at Cowan's Ford.  The actual figures were probably considerably higher.  "A great number of the British dead were found on Thompson's fish dam, and in his trap, and numbers lodged on brush. . . . the river stunk with dead carcasses, the British could not have lost less than one hundred men," claimed one militiaman.

     Davidson's ultimate sacrifice paid great dividends for Greene and Morgan.  It gave the patriot army the critical head start it needed to reach the Yadkin at the Trading Ford, seven miles beyond Salisbury, and get across the river in boats before the first elements of Cornwallis's army arrived there on the night of February 3rd.  Frustrated because the Yadkin River was out of its banks and because he had no boats to cross it, Cornwallis, who got to the Trading Ford on February 4th, could do little more than fire an occasional artillery shell at Greene's camp, which he could clearly make out with an unaided eye on the opposite shore of the Yadkin.

     Mecklenburg County was no longer to be affected directly by the American Revolutionary War. As the tide of battle surged back into South Carolina and eventually into Virginia, where Cornwallis was entrapped at Yorktown and forced to surrender his army to General George Washington   on October 19, 1781, the farmers of the Carolina Piedmont returned to the performance of their daily chores.  They fed chickens.  They shucked corn.  They slaughtered hogs.  Even the formal end of hostilities and recognition of the United States of America by Great Britain on September 3, 1783, did little to alter the humdrum lifestyles of the residents of Mecklenburg County. 

          The great majority of the early settlers of Mecklenburg County scratched out a meager living in the fields they labored to keep free from unwanted trees. Their humble log dwellings have long succumbed to insects or the hands of man. These subsistence farmers grew what they ate and made what they wore.  The staple crop  they raised on the land they owned or rented was corn, either eaten directly or indirectly after it had been used as fodder for the animals, mainly pigs. Some farmers did raise livestock  that they turned loose to graze on the open range of the Piedmont and herded periodically for drives to coastal markets. Some corn was distilled into whiskey and sold.  But most settlers knew nothing about commercial agriculture.  They were poor and malnourished.  Infectious diseases like measles, influenza, whooping cough, and dysentery could easily take anyone away.  Go to the cemeteries of the oldest Presbyterian Churches in Mecklenburg County, such as Providence, Steele Creek, Hopewell, Sugaw Creek, and Philadelphia, and you will encounter the numerous graves of infants and of women who died in childbirth.  The "good old days" were not so good.

     There were a few people of considerable wealth living in Mecklenburg County in the Colonial era.  One was Hezekiah Alexander , whose imposing rock house erected in 1774 off what is now Shamrock Drive is the most impressive remnant of the local built or man-made environment of the Colonial era. The Hezekiah Alexander House is now administered by the Charlotte Museum of History. In 1767, Alexander, a blacksmith by trade, sold his property in Pennsylvania and moved to Mecklenburg County, where he already owned land and where he had influential relatives.  Recognizing that more and more settlers were moving into the Yadkin-Catawba territory, Alexander employed his sons and nephews as teamsters and had them haul Mecklenburg's cash crops, mainly flour, cattle, furs, and pinkroot (a drug used to treat hookworm), to Philadelphia, where they were traded for manufactured goods and slaves.  The return of the wagons would assure Alexander a hefty profit. Alexander's slaves were also essential for his business enterprises.

Men like Hezekiah Alexander and Thomas Polk represented a small but influential elite of artisan-planters in early Mecklenburg County.  In addition to farming, members of this class built mills and ferries, operated taverns, and financed purchases by their neighbors.  Slaves were a symbol of social status on the colonial frontier.  Thomas Polk and his kin owned eighty-one slaves.  The largest slaveowner was Adam Alexander, who held 55 people in bondage.

Location Of Robinson Rock House Ruin

A smaller and lesser  known rock house is now a ruin deep in the woods at Reedy Creek Park.  It is the John Robinson House , possibly built as early as 1783.  Another old home, also constructed in the 1780s, is the Kerr House  on Arlington Church Road in eastern Mecklenburg County, which has been substantially altered.  Its initial owner was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, as was Major John Davidson , who erected an imposing brick home, called Rural Hill , on Neck Road in northwestern Mecklenburg County in 1788.  The house at Rural Hill  burned in 1886, and only the ghost-like columns of its once-grand portico remain. Tradition holds that General William Lee Davidson  spent the night before the Battle of Cowan's Ford  at Davidson's first house at Rural Hill.  Hugh Torance , a peddler from Salisbury, married a Revolutionary War widow and built a log home on Gilead Road in 1779.  It is now part of the Hugh Torance  House and Store, a public historic site.  More about him later.

         The largest landholder in Colonial Mecklenburg was Thomas Polk , whose house stood on the northeastern corner of the courthouse square in Charlotte.  "Polk's name appears throughout the deed records for the county, buying and selling tracts that would eventually amount to a personal holding of over 15,000 acres," writes historian H. Beau Bowers.  Like most of Mecklenburg's elite, Polk also owned slaves.  "In a backcountry not noted for large-scale agriculture or the presence of bonded labor," Bowers asserts, "the possession of slaves stood out, almost as noticeably as stone houses, as one indicator of an individual's wealth."

     The members of Mecklenburg County's elite also dominated the political and cultural life of the community.  This was true both before and after the American Revolution.  As immigrants continued to flood into the Yadkin-Catawba territory, pushing the population of Mecklenburg County upward to 11,395 in 1790, the wealthier residents made sure that the social system they dominated remained intact.  Hezekiah Alexander  was an elder at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church.  His cousin Abraham Alexander , who was also a large slaveholder in the county, was a founder of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church .   Hezekiah's brother John McKnitt Alexander , whose copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence  allegedly burned in 1800, was an elder at Hopewell Presbyterian Church  and a member of the State legislature.  Robert Irwin, an ally of the Alexanders and the Polks, was an elder at Steele Creek Presbyterian Church and a State senator from 1778 until 1784.

Grave of Thomas Polk

Old Settlers Cemetery

Mecklenburg did receive a famous visitor in 1791.  He was General and former President George Washington.  Arriving in the middle of the afternoon of May 28th, Washington was on an extended tour of the South.  "During the late war, if my information be correct, the inhabitants were true to the cause of their country, and brave in its defense," the former President told a member of the party that was sent out to meet him.  Lots of folks gathered in Charlotte to greet their illustrious guest.  So many came that not a few had to sleep in their covered wagons.  Thomas Polk , the wealthiest man in town, hosted a big party in the yard of his Federal style  house on the Square. Washington spent the night in an Inn  on West Trade Street operated by a Captain Cook .

      Washington departed from Charlotte the next morning and began his journey to  Salisbury.  The festivities of the previous day notwithstanding, the President was evidently not impressed with Charlotte.  Writing in his diary, he called it "a trifling place."  Maybe it was, but two events of the 1790s, one national in scope and the other regional, were to inaugurate a period of unprecedented economic growth in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.  One was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney  in 1793.  The other was the discovery of gold by a teenager named Conrad Reed  in 1799.



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