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Last Updated 7/16/01

Upheaval in Albemarle: The Story of Culpeper's Rebellion

The Lords Proprietors of Carolina

Prior to 1663 the Albemarle section lay as a geographical and political orphan. Included in the grant of the “Province of Carolana” made by King Charles I in 1629 to Robert Heath, his Attorney-General, the colony had languished and, except for small settlements, had lain fallow. Carolinaís first proprietor had discovered that the expense of colonization was too great for one man to bear, and his neglect increased after England was ripped asunder by the violent upheavals of a civil war.

Despite this negligence and apparent abandonment, the section known as the Albemarle was not without its attractions. It was, in the opinion of a London “Well-Willer” in 1649, no less than a veritable Eden, a cornucopia of “the naturall Commodities of the Country, which fall into your hands without labour or toyle, for in the obtaining of them you have a delightful recreation.” “The Soyle,” he went on to say, “you may trust it with anything,” and it would yield no less than two crops a year. Six years later Francis Yeardley was praising the pleasant climate of a place “unacquainted with our Virginiaís nipping frosts,” and thereby promising favorable harvests for those who ventured to engage in the production of silk, olives and wines for the London market. Even as late as 1665, after many of the more exuberant claims of the past had been disproved, the Reverend Alexander Moray wrote from Virginia describing the Albemarle as “being the hopefullest place in the world.”

In 1612, John Rolfeís agricultural experiments with tobacco in Virginia had given the lie to Edward Sandysí declaration, “You canít build an empire on smoke.” Crossing the native weed, “poor and weak and of a biting taste,” with the milder South American varieties, Rolfe was able to produce a “Sweet-cented” variety that was pleasing to the taste of the pipe smokers of England. Within a short time, “Virginia” tobacco was outselling the Spanish variety that had dominated the London market for the past fifty years. Tobacco became the “gold” for which the early settlers had so diligently searched. Indeed, this “bewitching vegetable,” as it was sometimes called, was to become the currency of the southern colonies. Debts, fines, custom duties and even salaries were to be paid in tobacco. Fanning out from Jamestown, the Virginians secured the choice lands along the rivers, for a navigable waterway was a necessity in getting the crop to market. By the late 1650ís, a number of adventuresome men had spilled southward into the Albemarle in the search for fertile soil. No later than 1663 there were two areas of settlement, one “on the easte part of the river Chowan,” the other “on the Larboard side entring the same river.”

In 1663, however, the tumult of the restoration of King Charles II to Englandís throne brought about many radical changes, which were reflected in Englandís overseas colonial policies. The English people, weary of austerity, the arbitrary rule of Oliver Cromwell, and the hot and bitter passions of religious upheavals, were quite willing to allow the slow progress of republican principles to grind to a halt and welcomed domestic peace and the gaiety of the returning monarchy.

Carolina was to demonstrate best the changing outlook in colonial policy. With the exception of William Pennís “Holy Community” of Pennsylvania, the prime movers behind colonization were no longer the merchants or religious groups. Now they were the gentility or nobility, the friends and political supporters of Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York. For this group, there was not only the patriotic impulse to expand the limits of the empire, but also a dream of profits which made the venture into colonization more attractive.

Charles II, that “Merrie Monarch,” who enjoyed his throne and entertained no urge to “go on his travels again,” well knew that political debts must be paid. Among those to whom he owed much were those influential characters who had been instrumental in restoring his sovereignty, powerful men who could make demands that the King could not refuse. And to this group, in 1663, was issued a new charter to Carolina, replacing the old Heath Charter of 1629. Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper (to become the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1672), Chancellor of the Exchequer and known as “a man violent in his Passions,” seems to have been the originator of the scheme. A son of one of the members of the Virginia Company of London that had planted the colony at Jamestown, Ashley-Cooper had assumed an active interest in colonization and as early as 1646 had invested funds in West Indian projects. His original companions in the Carolina venture were Sir John Colleton and the Governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, who was in London at this time. The aid of five additional and influential partners was enlisted to secure the charter.

All eight Proprietors of Carolina were men of position and influence in 1663, and all had looked with favor upon colonization schemes. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, was Lord High Chancellor and the Kingís first minister. Colletonís kinsman, George Monck, recently created the Duke of Albemarle, was commander of the Kingís army, and a tightfisted old man who was always ready to listen to ways to increase his fortune. There was the vain, tactless and scheming Lord John Berkeley, brother of Sir William, high in naval affairs, and a favorite of Charles II. Sir George Carteret was Treasurer of the Royal Navy, a member of the Kingís Council, and Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household. The last member was William, the parsimonious Earl of Craven, an old soldier who remained high in the affections of his King.

Such were the men who were granted the vast territory that was called “Carolina,” stretching along the Atlantic seaboard from the 31st to the 36th parallels from Virginia to Florida, and rolling westward to the “south seas.” All of these men had been, and were destined to continue, instrumental in the framing of imperial policy. Their names appear regularly as members of the Council for Trade and Plantations which became, in 1675, the powerful Lords of Trade. John Berkeley, George Carteret and Peter Colleton were members of the Royal African Company, chartered in 1660 to supply Negro slaves to the American colonies. Carteret and Lord John Berkeley were to become Proprietors of New Jersey in 1664 by virtue of a grant from the Duke of York. Later, the Bahama Grant of 1670 went to six of the Carolina Proprietors: Ashley-Cooper; Albemarle; Craven; John Berkeley; Carteret; and Peter Colleton, the son and heir to Sir John. And the Hudson Bay Company, also chartered in 1670, included as members Albemarle, Craven, Ashley-Cooper, Carteret and Colleton.

The future policy for Carolina, insofar as the Proprietors were concerned, was both simple and elastic. They planned to operate as little more than a real estate office offering to supply the ever-present land hunger of the peoples of Europe. They envisioned profits through the payment of annual dues under the medieval practice of quitrents. In addition, they hoped, handsome gains could be realized through the production of such scarce and desirable commodities as sugar, ginger, indigo, cotton, wines and whale oil. Tobacco was already being cropped in the area, but no great expansion was foreseen, for the output from Virginia and Maryland was already beginning to glut the English market. Well aware of the expenses of colonization, the Carolina Proprietors planned no great movement of people under their sponsorship. They expected that judicious propaganda and the scarcity of land in Europe would populate their colony. The West Indian Island of Barbados promised a possible source of manpower. There the heavy concentration of already limited land into huge sugar plantations had gradually shunted the small planter off to the edge of poverty. Sir John Colleton himself had experienced the octopus-like strength of the great planters during his stay in the islands. The Albemarle section seemed ideal for the plans of the Proprietors; partially settled when the charter was granted, its proximity to Virginia meant that settlers could be furnished with necessities from that thriving colony rather than be supplied by expensive and uncertain shipments from England.

The Carolina Charter of 1663 endowed the Lords Proprietors with vast and extensive powers, in which lay the seeds of rebellion; yet these perquisites were not unique for grants of this era. The English reaction against republicanism and their willingness to rest awhile on the plateau of monarchism was not to make its way across the Atlantic, and within the next fifteen years a rash of little rebellions were to light up the southern colonies along the American seaboard.

The Proprietors, granted the virtually autonomous and feudal powers held by the Bishop of the County Palatine of Durham, were in themselves an assembly of small-time monarchs. Within their hands lay the lives, fortunes and destinies of those who settled in Carolina. For instance, it was within their province to divide their grant into such geographical and political subdivisions as they pleased, to design a government and judicial system, collect taxes and other levies, grant lands, pardon offenders against the legal code, and they even had the authority to create a nobilityóso long as the titles granted did not parallel those already existing in England. Extensive military jurisdiction lay mostly in defensive measures, but did include the power to suppress a rebellion within their colony.

These aristocratic privileges, however, were tempered with the imposition of certain limitations upon the activities of the Proprietors. The power of legislation was not ultimate with them, for laws could be enacted only with the “advice, assent and approbation of the freemen” of Carolina. In a like manner, it was necessary that these laws be “reasonable, and not repugnant or contrary” to the statutes of England. An additional measure of protection for the inhabitants lay in the extension to them of all the rights of Englishmen. And, possibly to prevent the religious upheaval that had rocked England for more than a quarter of a century, the Proprietors were authorized to grant religious freedom to all those whose theology conformed, or nearly so, to that of the Church of England, and which did not “in any wise disturb the Peace and safety thereof or scandalize or reproach the said Liturgy, formes and Ceremoneyes” of the Anglican establishment.

Within months there were challenges to the claims of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. Claimants to land under the old Heath grant began to make nuisances of themselves. To counter these allegations, the eight Proprietors submitted a “humble request” to Charles II, soliciting an extension of the boundaries of their domain. The result was the Charter of 1665, little more than a supplement to the 1663 Charter, but expanding the limits of Carolina two degrees southward and one-half a degree to the northward. This enlargement definitely placed the Albemarle area within the jurisdiction of the Carolina Proprietors and nullified the claims of the Virginians to that disputed territory.

The Proprietors dreamed grand dreams for their colony of Carolina. But the picture in their minds was that of a small kingdom arising on the shores of the New World, whose inhabitants gave their allegiance to the King of England, but whose fate would be determined by the holders of the Charter. Their first efforts at government seemed to be in the nature of probing attempts, feeling their way towards what they hoped would be a flourishing community under their benevolent rule; a community where happy and contented people produced those rare commodities that would demand good prices in the London market, while the Proprietors relaxed under Fortuneís magnanimous smile.

Perhaps it was because of their varied interests that the Proprietors appeared content to allow the management of the colony to be gradually assumed by Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, assisted by Sir William Berkeley whose attentions could be focused upon Albemarle from nearby Virginia. To demonstrate to the King that they “slept not with their grant,” plans were announced for the establishment of three “Counties.” Albemarle County was to include that area “which lyeth on the nort[h] east or starboard side entering the river Chowan.” Clarendon County was to extend southward into the Cape Fear River valley, while Craven County was to include the territory south of Cape Romaine.

In 1665, Sir John Yeamans led a group of Barbadians into the Cape Fear area, but after two years of suffering the plagues of shipwrecks, internal disorders and Indian troubles, Clarendon County was abandoned. Craven County, eventually to become the colony of South Carolina, was not to experience a serious colonization effort until 1670. So it was that in the beginning Albemarle County served as nucleus of the proprietary colony of Carolina.

Not until 1669 did the grand plans of the Proprietors make themselves evident in the drawing up of that aristocratic document, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a strange combination of feudal and liberal ideas. John Locke, philosopher, physician, and confidant of Ashley-Cooper, either wrote or collaborated with the Proprietor in drawing up the Fundamental Constitutions. This outline of government was, in the words of its authors, for the purposes of establishing a better government, protecting the interests of the Proprietors, “and that the Government of this Province may be most agreeable to the Monarchy under which we live, ... and that we may avoid erecting a numerous Democracy.”

It was, to say the least, a pompous and even cumbersome pattern for government, and seemed designed to obliterate the strides towards self-government made by the English peoples. Under this system, the Lords Proprietors remained the primary source of authority, vested in a Palatine Court with the eldest proprietor designated as Palatine or presiding proprietor. Each Proprietor was also eventually to maintain his own feudal court in Carolina. Until such time as this plan became effective, Proprietors were represented in the government of the colony through designated deputies, each Proprietor retaining the right to name a deputy to work with the governor and a “Parliament” as the ruling force in Albemarle.

This throwback to a semi-medieval civilization planned a division of Carolina into counties, signories, baronies, precincts, and colonies, with its nobility, based on land tenure bearing titles ranging from Palatine to Landgrave and Cacique. Two-thirds of the land was to be held by the Proprietors and this colonial aristocracy, the remainder to be worked by the lower classes. Great manors, worked by “leet men,” were to be the hub of this feudal pattern. Yet the Fundamental Constitutions did maintain such vital human privileges as trial by jury, religious toleration, and the recording of vital statistics in addition to a regular legislature of the people or their representatives.

Albemarle was no longer an isolated outpost of colonization, but there was little to indicate its people considered themselves in a more favorable position.

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