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Last Updated 7/16/01

Upheaval in Albemarle: The Story of Culpeper's Rebellion

“A Generall Mapp of CAROLINA. Describeing its Sea Coast and Rivers,” made about 1672
by Richard Blome for the Proprietors. The original is in the British Museum. Note the arms
of the eight Proprietors. Note also the small numerals inscribed along the coast line
indicating the depth in feet of the water in that vicinity.
(Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Archives and History).

Ye County of Albemarle

Although the Carolina Charter of 1663 had stated the colony to be little more than a wilderness, “not yet cultivated or planted, and only inhabited by some barbarous people, who have no knowledge of Almighty God,” the Albemarle area was not unknown to the white settler. Since 1653, and possibly earlier, people had been trickling into the area, some of them having received land grants from the Governor of Virginia. The earliest land grant on record, however, was made to George Durant in 1661 in what is now Perquimans County. By 1663, there may have been as many as 2,000 persons, and perhaps more, scattered along both banks of the Chowan.

This flat land of sandy soil, covered with “great forests of Pynes,” was laced with sluggish streams, with the Chowan providing a watery highway into the interior. Great expanses of drowned lands, “horrendhous Swamps belly-deep of Tar Coulered Water,” straggled along the fringes of the high ground. It was a young country, a place where people were on the move, and no great plantation houses arose to grace the land. The business of hacking a home out of the wilderness was far too difficult to permit the delicacies of elegant living.

Other problems faded into insignificance when contrasted with the difficulties of communication. Between Albemarle and its elder neighbor, Virginia, the terrain was so cluttered with a jungle of swamp, cloying forests, and lazily meandering streams that it was not only difficult to travel overland, but well nigh impossible to transport goods. Isolated by geography, Albemarleís one salvation lay in water carriage, but here again nature had been unkind. The inlets into the shallow waters of Albemarle Sound were often clogged with shifting sand bars that forbade the entrance of large oceangoing vessels. It was, in fact, a “coastal back-woods.”

The land was good. Products of the earth flourished in the mixture of sand and heavy humus, fertile enough to be described in 1707 as “soyle ... more lusty than [that of] South Carolina.” Both corn and wheat grew well. Cattle and swine thrived, and the animals of the forestsóbeaver, otter, fox, deer and wild catófurnished skins. The tall pines were generous with the tar and pitch so wanted by naval interests, while the ground itself yielded the herbs, including “saxafras,” so desired as “druggs” by the apothecaries of Europe.

Despite the bounties of nature, agricultural interests continued to center on tobacco; Albemarle, it was claimed, produced “tobacco as good as that of Virginia.” Already, however, the markets were saturated, and prices plummeted downward as the supply exceeded the demand. Still the Albemarle planters concentrated on the weed. Scant heed was paid to the urgings of the Proprietors, to whom the cultivation of sugar cane, ginger, indigo and cotton seemed not only desirable, but more profitable. Both the Proprietors of Carolina and Maryland had, in fact, seriously considered a cessation of tobacco planting in their colonies in 1664. Such a curtailment, however, was felt to be inexpedient, not only because of the hardships imposed upon the people, but any decrease in customs receipts meant a reduction in the revenues of the Crown. They could only hold out certain encouragements for crop diversification, including provisions that all hemp, tar and pitch exported from Carolina would be allowed to pass through English customs duty free.

But the people of Albemarle were a stubborn lot, to be later accused by the Lords Proprietors “as a people that neither understood your own nor regarded our Interests.” They planted tobacco in such quantities as they pleased, and were not above flouting the law if the occasion seemed profitable. And English law worked against their interests. The Navigation Acts of 1660, 1661 and 1663, primarily intended to thwart Dutch traders, worked a particular hardship on the tobacco colonies. These acts required that all colonial trade be carried in English ships, while all European goods destined for the colonies had to be first landed in England before transshipment to America. Certain enumerated articles, including tobacco, could be landed only in England. This had been an ambitious restriction on the part of the mother country, for English ships could not handle the entire trade. With the elimination of Dutch competition, the sea-farers of New England slipped in to fill the vacuum. And they were not above scheming with the colonists to bring in European goods as well as taking away their tobacco without the payment of British customs.

Factions were present among the people of Albemarle. When the Proprietors instructed Governor Berkeley of Virginia to send a governor into the Albemarle, they suggested that perhaps it might be well to appoint two such officials, for it was their understanding that the settlements on either side of the river were at odds with each other because of religious differences. Religious toleration had early become an underlying cause of dissension in the colony. Although it had been intended that the Anglican Church be formally established in Carolina, other sects opposed the idea for fear that a tax-supported church could lead only to the imposition of tithes and additional taxes for its upkeep. Later, in 1704, one observer noted the religious divisions in Carolina: the Quakers, powerful foes of the Anglicans; an irreligious group, who would be Quakers if they were not required to lead the strict moral life demanded by the Society of Friends; and an unclassified number “something like Presbyterians,” the leaders of whom were “some idle fellows, who preach and baptize through the country.” Despite the stress placed on the establishment of the Church of England as a state-supported institution, as late as 1670 there was no Anglican minister in Albemarle. Eventually, the passage of a law allowing the Governor and members of his Council the authority to perform the marriage ceremony became necessary.

The Quakers, perhaps fearing religious harassment, were among those groups involved in the struggle for political power. But the strongest group of politicians included those who had first settled the area and who had gained prestige and a degree of personal wealth through the passage of time. Included in this clique were George Durant, John Jenkins, Samuel Pricklove, Caleb Calleway, John Harvey, Thomas Jarvis, Richard Foster, John Willoughby, James Blount and Valentine Bird.

Almost from the beginning of formal government in Albemarle there was friction. The first executive of any description was Samuel Stephens, appointed by the Council of Virginia as “commander of the southern plantation,” in 1662. It seems, however, that Stephens was little more than a deputy for Virginiaís Governor Berkeley. After the granting of the Charter in 1663, the Proprietors had placed the establishment of formal government into the hands of Sir William Berkeley, and his instructions outlined the pattern of government they envisioned for Albemarle. He was delegated authority “to nominate, constitute and appoynt such persons as he shall conceive fitting to be and contineu Governor,... he behaveing himself well.” In addition to a governor, Berkeley was to appoint six “fitting persons” as a Council to assist in government as well as aid in the selection of all military and civil positions other than Surveyor and Secretary of the Colony. The Governor and his Council, “with the consent of the freeholders,” or their delegates, were cautioned “to make good and wholesome lawes, ordnances and constitutions for the better Government and good of the Collony.” All such laws were to be transmitted to the Lords Proprietors within one year for either their “rattification” or “denyall.”

As the first real governor of Albemarle, Berkeley selected, in October, 1664, William Drummond, “a sober Scotch gentleman of good repute,” who had lived in Virginia since before 1654. Drummond served for three years. During his term of office he participated, in 1666, in a conference at St. Maryís, the capital of Maryland, with representatives of Virginia and Maryland to consider the possible control of tobacco prices. Drummond and Surveyor-General Thomas Woodward, “being ye Legislative power of ye said County for ye time being,” agreed to a suspension of tobacco planting in Virginia, Maryland and Albemarle from February 1667 to February 1668. The creation of an artificial shortage, they hoped, would increase the demand and, in turn, the price of the next yearís crop. Although delayed by an Indian uprising, Drummond managed to persuade his legislative body to pass a law agreeing to such an interruption in the harvest. The plan fell through, however, when Lord Baltimore, the Proprietor of Maryland, refused to sanction the agreement.

Drummondís successor was by appointment of the Proprietors, although it is not unlikely that it was upon Berkeleyís recommendation. The same Samuel Stephens who had been named “commander of the southern plantation” in 1662, and who was known to Berkeley as a “mild gent.,” was named Governor of Albemarle in 1667. Government in Albemarle assumed a more definite pattern in Stephensí instructions from the Proprietors. Stephens, aided by his Council and with their consent, was allowed almost complete control over the executive branch of the government. His Council, which could be no fewer than six, could be expanded to twelve if he felt the increase to be necessary. And now the freemen of “each respective denizen, tribe or parish,” were to gather every January 1 to elect delegates to the General Assembly. These delegates, along with the Governor and his Council, were to compose the body of this legislature.

Stephens did not govern a happy people. Land tenure gave rise to grumbling, especially when just across the border in Virginia the annual quitrent amounted to only one farthing an acre, payable in produce. In Albemarle the sum due each year was a half-penny an acre and payable only in coin. This inequity, wrote Surveyor-General Thomas Pollard, was a great factor in discouraging prospective settlers from Virginia, “it bein land only they come for.” In reply to such complaints and arguments the Proprietors, on May 1, 1668, issued the document that was to become known as the Great Deed of Grant. Henceforth, they promised, the inhabitants of Albemarle would hold their lands “upon the same terms and conditions that the Inhabitants of Virginia held theirs.”

The General Assembly passed certain statutes in 1669 designed to attract new settlers to the colony. Those concessions, felt attractive to newcomers, included a one-year tax exemption and a five-year protection against law suits. Land holdings were restricted, while “Strangers from other parts” (Virginia) were prohibited from entering Albemarle “to truck and trade with the Indians.”

Internal strife continued to mark domestic affairs in Albemarle. There were the “many & various Comotions, disorders & irregularities” that are always present in a young and weak government. The amiable Stephens was not the strong figure needed at such a time and invited disrespect; “some were so Insolent as to draw their Swords against him.” And Sir William Berkeley later was to censure one unnamed rabblerouser “who gave soe ill an example of offering violence and indignityes” to the Governor of Albemarle. Sometime before March 7, 1670, Governor Stephens sickened and died. By July his widow, the former Frances Culpeper, had become the second wife of Sir William Berkeley.

Stephensís successor fared little better, though he managed to quiet emotions that were veering dangerously near the boiling point. Young Peter Carteret was a distant kinsman (fourth cousin) of the Proprietor, Sir George Carteret, and his brother Philip was to serve as Governor of New Jersey from 1665 to 1682. Appointed Assistant Governor and Secretary of Albemarle in December, 1664, Peter Carteret landed in the colony February 23, 1665.

Carteretís life followed more closely that of a farmer than that of the traditional picture of an executive. Indeed, his years in Albemarle illustrate rather graphically the lives of the early Carolina settlers. In addition to his governmental duties, he was charged with the operation of the plantation on Colleton Island, which in 1665 consisted of little more than some cleared land, “a 20 foot dwelling howse [and] a 10 foot hogg howse.” For the next seven years the Assistant Governor of Albemarle grubbed in the soil, at times approaching dangerously near to starvation. After two years, prospects had been bright, the crop yield was promising, although Carteretís new eighty-foot “hogg howse” could not prevent at least one-third of his swine from dying.

The plagues of Albemarle rivaled those visited upon ancient Egypt. On August 27, 1667, a hurricane ripped through the colony just at harvest time. The following year the burning, bright sun of a drought crisped the crops until July 30. Then nature, in one of her more capricious moments, opened her Heavens to soak the parched earth with rain until the last of August, thereby doing more damage than had the long dry spell. Misery compounded itself when on August 2, 1669, in the midst of the tobacco harvest, another violent hurricane brought ruin. And just four days more than a year later, on August 6, 1670, the winds rose to new heights as still another hurricane levelled crops and houses. Even the whale oil industry, which Carteret had been developing with some success, fell off, for in 1669 the mammals no longer came in close to the shore.

Such was the situation when Stephens died. Carteret could have entertained little happiness when the Council, on March 10, 1670, confirmed him as governor of an area where “it hath pleased God of his providence to Inflict Such a Generall calamitie upon the inhabitans of these countreys that for Severall yeares they have Nott Injoyed the fruitts of their Labours.” Albemarle had reached the bitter edge of poverty and famine. The Virginians were of little help; instead they took advantage of the situation and raised corn prices.

Early in Carteretís administration came the first word of the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which, declared the Proprietors, “Shall be unalterable.” The flame was fanned, as murmurings crept among the people that within this new frame of government lay the germs for a self-erected aristocracy, with the general population reduced to little more than the level of feudal serfs. An additional cause for apprehension lay in the information that a new colony was to be seated in the southern part of Carolina, and destined to become the primary center of government. This alone was enough to give rise to the fear that soon Albemarle would revert to its former status of isolation. And, the Proprietors went on, the colony “will never be in a happy & safe posture” until towns were established.

The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, however, with its systems of courts and councils, could never become workable until a nobility was created. And although the people were assured they were to have a voice in the government, as required in the Charter, the Proprietors maintained a check on their legislative programs through the appointment of deputies to represent them on the Grand Council. And it was the Grand Council, not the Assembly made up of representatives of the people, who retained the right to propose, or initiate, all legislation.

The Great Deed of Grant of 1668, despite its surface appearance as a liberal concession, proved rather empty in application. Rents upon some occasions were raised back to their old level of one-half penny an acre. The news of the Fundamental Constitutions, framed within a medieval structure, seemed only to confirm the persistent rumors that quitrents were to be eventually raised to as high as six pence per acre.

Discontent was so evident in early 1672 that the Council felt it necessary that Governor Carteret and his Assistant, John Harvey, travel to England to lay their grievances before the Proprietors. Heading the lists of complaints contained in a letter dripping with words of respectful submission, was the request that quitrents be again lowered until they were consistent with those of Virginia. And the laying out of land in 10,000 acre plots as outlined in the Fundamental Constitutions the Council considered to be both impracticable and a deterrent to future settlement. Moreover, they feared it would encourage contempt for the law. There were proposals that the Proprietors furnish some aid in the establishment of the towns they had urged so strongly. And, it was added, it would aid considerably if the Proprietors would furnish arms and ammunition to the settlers. Included in this petition were suggestions concerning the property rights of children who had arrived in the colony as indentured servants, as well as several other changes to be made in the present conditions of land tenure.

Somewhat apologetic about the straightforward manner in which they presented their grievances, the Council explained they felt this approach to be “more Christianlicke than by fawninge & disemblinge pretences.” They included a warning against “the Juglinge devices & Stratagemes” of those in Virginia who were attempting to bring Albemarle within the jurisdiction of that colony and who were already discriminating against Carolina tobacco being shipped through Virginia ports. The unrest in Albemarle was indicated in the warning that there were factions within who were undermining the confidence of the people “by making mole hills mountaines of Discouradgments.”

The Council explained that Carteret, “by whose prudence and Integrity God hath blessed us since receiving that charge,” was being dispatched to London, accompanied by Harvey, for this personal representation would be almost “as if wee had had ye conveneince & happiness to have Spoken Man by Man to your Lordshipps.” Before his departure Carteret issued to John Jenkins, President of the Council and Lieutenant-Colonel of the Albemarle militia, a commission endowing him with all of the power of Governor. By early June the two agents of Albemarle were in New York awaiting passage to England. But on July 11, 1672, John Harvey, pressed by “more than Ordinaire accident & Occasion of busisynes,” found it necessary to return home, leaving Carteret to shoulder alone the burden of presenting the Councilís grievances before the Proprietors.

Carteret entertained the hope that he would eventually return to Albemarle as the colonyís secretary, but he never did. Much has been made of Peter Colletonís statement that Carteret had fled Carolina, “having left ye Government there in ill order & worse hands.” This unwarranted accusation seems to have been an attempt by the Proprietors to justify their own neglect and shortcomings in the development of Albemarle and to brand Carteret as the goat for all of the later troubles and unrest in Albemarle. Unless the Council was masking its own sentiments in weasel words, their address to the Proprietors spoke of “ye goodness of our Governor.” In addition, they implied that it was Carteretís “prudence” and “Integrity” that had given Albemarle “more unity & tranquility than ever before.” In Carteretís defense, it should likewise be remembered that in addition to his executive position, he was charged with the responsibility of making a financial success of Colleton Island. Similarly, he was under constant pressure not only to develop the whaling industry, but to promote the more exotic and profitable products of sugar, silk, and vineyards.

Nevertheless, the Albemarle of Peter Carteret was a simmering cauldron of unhappy people, dissatisfied with their present and apprehensive of their future. In such a situation the seeds of discontent and rebellion can always find fertile soil.

“Instructions for the Honoble Peter Carteret Esqr Governr
and Commander in Cheife of the County of Albemarle and
Mr John Harvey his assistant:” April 27, 1672. Original
in North Carolina Department of Archives and History.

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