Independence and Revolution
Dan L. Morrill
of North Carolina at Charlotte
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
. " . . . 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
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.
, 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.
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
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
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
. . . 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,
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
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
, 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.
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
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
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.
Robinson Rock House
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
, 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
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
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.
, the wealthiest man in town, hosted a big party in the yard of his
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
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