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Last Updated 7/16/01

Upheaval in Albemarle: The Story of Culpeper's Rebellion

Rebellion in Albemarle

As the Success dropped her anchor in Albemarle Sound, Albemarle seemed to have lost much of its zest for turbulence. Yet tempers still seethed beneath the surface. When it became known that Miller was the new Customs Collector, he was subjected to “great abuse & affronts” by a number of the more belligerent inhabitants. Valentine Bird appeared more than reluctant to relinquish the post of Collector. Miller claimed this was because Bird feared he would be held accountable for his arrears in collections. There was also a near brawl with Richard Foster, who had been appointed a deputy collector by Bird, and who was considered by many of the anti-proprietary faction to be “their cheefe Judge.” When Miller came in Fosterís home, boasting of the ease with which he would reform the customs, he was answered with Fosterís bellow that if it were not for the law against murder, “he could freely run his knife” through the loudmouthed intruder. Patrick White and his wife, visitors in the house, joined in berating the new Collector, who seemed little troubled by the strictures heaped upon him.

Journeying into the interior, Miller summoned the legislature, to whom he read his orders, commissions and instructions as required by custom. Among the documents presented to the Assembly was a written statement from the Proprietors, filled with conciliatory phrases. Included were assurances that they would never cede Albemarle to Virginia, “But will alwayes maintaine our province of Carolina entire as itt is,” and would secure for its people their “English Rights and Liberties.” And as a sop to the anti-proprietary group, they expressed their pleasure with the administration of Jenkins. The Assembly, still predominantly pro-proprietary in sentiment, registered no protests against Millerís assumption of the government. In fact (or so it was claimed), they seemed to be quite willing to go along with his proposals for a new order in Albemarle.

Page of Francis Godfrey's will proved November 5, 1675,
showing signature of John Culpeper. Courtesy of
North Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Thomas Miller was not a person to attract friends in great numbers. Although dictatorial, he was a most efficient man, possibly too much so. Given to excessive drinking and loose talk, he more than once abandoned discretion in conversation to voice an opinion, often derogatory, on almost any subject. In his lust for power, Miller was guilty of “many extravagant things,” decreeing strange limitations for members of the legislature and levying fines without even the pretense of a trial. If these dictates were ignored, Miller was not hesitant to publish warrants calling for the apprehension, dead or alive, of some of the most prominent men in the county.

For the first time in the history of Albemarle, customs were collected with facility and dispatch. Deputy collectors were appointed, Timothy Biggs for Upper Albemarle and Henry Hudson for the lower section of the county. A “pipeing guard” was organized to enforce Millerís dictates. Solomon Summers was to cruise the Sound near the inlets in the Success, stopping and searching all ships for contraband.

Despite the rigidity of these regulations and controls, the people seemingly submitted without rancor, as affairs “went on in a quiet and peaceable manner,” although not without the customary grumblings. Even John Culpeper seemed docile, and the former charges of treasonable language against Miller were dropped “upon the humble submission of the said Culpeper.” Yet behind this façade of “good order & peaceable decorum” ran a current of plots and schemes, apparently geared to the return of George Durant from London. Anti-proprietary men, according to later accounts, spent their time “poysoning the peoples ears unsetling and disquieting their minds” by the revival of the old rumors that the Proprietors were going to increase quitrents to two pence an acre and eventually to a high of six pence.

Millerís diligence in the collection of customs began to pay off. Despite Birdís reluctance to give up the post, Miller was able to recover a large amount of tobacco. Additionally he was successful in forcing the former collector to forfeit a £500 bond for his negligence in allowing many vessels to sail without the proper payment of customs. Richard Foster, in spite of his dire threats, was likewise compelled to surrender his bond. John Willoughby, who had given a £200 bond that Captain John Liscombís Patience carried no contraband, was also obliged to forfeit this guarantee when Miller and Biggs seized “severall parcels of goods judged to be imported contrary to the Law.” During the five months that the County of Albemarle remained in a “quiet posture,” the Collector and his deputies gathered in 817 hogsheads containing 327,068 pounds of tobacco and collected £1,242 in forfeitures and seizures. Total customs receipts during this period amounted to nearly £8,000.

On the first Saturday of December, 1677, Captain Zachariah Gillamís Carolina, “a very pretty vessel of some force,” sailed into Albemarle Sound at the end of a long voyage from London. On board was George Durant, and in her hold was an uncommon amount of firearms, ammunition and “scimiters.” According to Gillamís later testimony, his cargo was to be sold to the inhabitants to enable them to defend themselves against the Indians. Gillam, a native of Boston, had been in the Carolina trade since 1674. Prior to that time he had captained vessels exploring Hudson Bay in the employ of the same men who were also the proprietors of Carolina. In 1673 he had been dismissed by Lord Shaftesbury (the former Ashley-Cooper) because “he had very much abused them,” through illegal trading while on a voyage of exploration. And it was common knowledge that he was not overly respectful of the customs regulations.

Soon after dropping anchor, Captain Gillam went ashore to tender his papers to Miller. To the Collectorís question if Gillam had ever carried tobacco out of Albemarle, the captain answered that he had, some 180 hogsheads. Then, said the triumphant Miller, Gillam would have to pay the duty of one penny a pound on that cargo. Assurances that the duty had been paid in England and a suggestion that the shipís books be examined seemed to make no difference to the Collector, who immediately placed Gillam under arrest and a £1,000 bond for a breach of the Navigation Acts. The captainís papers were seized and his boat crew placed in confinement.

Having discovered from the seized papers that George Durant was a passenger aboard Gillamís ship, Miller armed himself with a brace of pistols and rowed out to the Carolina about eleven oíclock in the evening. Stepping on deck, he thrust his cocked pistols into Durantís chest and, “in an insolent Hectoring manner,” arrested him as a “Traytour.” This bit of bluster failed. Miller was soon overpowered by Gillamís crew. Benjamin Gillam, the captainís son and first mate of the Carolina offered Miller the use of the shipís long boat to go ashore, but the Collector angrily refused. For the next one and one-half hours he was kept in close confinement aboard ship, all the while railing against the indignities to which he was subjected. During this time Richard Foster and William Crawford came out to the ship for a hurried conference with Durant.

The following morning the flame of armed rebellion flared forth in Albemarle. John Culpeper exercised his literary talents by drawing up a “Remonstrance” for the “Pasquatanckians.” Although professing to omit many heinous crimes, the document not only accused Miller of denying a free election for delegates to the Assembly, but declared that he “hath positively cheated” the County out of 130,000 pounds of tobacco. It was further stated that Captain Gillam had arrived with three times the goods he had brought the previous year, but had become so outraged at his abuse at the hands of Miller that it was with difficulty that he had been persuaded to remain in Albemarle. In addition, the Collector and acting Governor was blamed for so “many other Injuries, mischiefes and grievances he hath brought upon us, that thereby an inevitable ruin is comeing (unless prevented), which wee are not about to doe.” Thirty-four signatures, including those of William Crawford and Valentine Bird, were affixed to the document.

Samuel Pricklove was given a copy of this manifesto and dispatched into Perquimans precinct to arouse the people there. Culpeper himself went into the upper part of the Chowan precinct to lead the people there in seizing the marshal along with all official papers. Richard Foster stirred up the Currituck precinct.

Although the Marshal General of Albemarle, the Quaker Edward Wade, managed to intercept Pricklove and confiscate the remonstrance, he had little time to sound the alarm. Wade was himself taken prisoner a short time later by John Harvey.

Furnished with muskets and cutlasses from Gillamís ship, the rebels began a wholesale arrest of the proprietary faction. Bands of armed men scattered to seek out Thomas Miller, Timothy Biggs, Henry Hudson, John Nixon (a member of the Council) and all others who had favored Millerís operations. All the deputies of the Proprietors except Richard Foster were taken into custody and their papers, both public and private, confiscated. A number of the proprietary party who had held positions of authority fled into Virginia. Those “who are in Scorne called Quakers,” and known adherents of the Proprietors, were subjected to threats by some of the rougher sort, and their houses ransacked for weapons after they refused to support the uprising. John Williams, a New England sea captain, used the general confusion to slip away without paying duty on the 100 hogsheads of tobacco in the hold of his ship.

Miller and those who had supported him were first imprisoned in the house of William Crawford on Albemarle Sound. Offshore, “the said Gillam rid his shipp,” from which a steady stream of arms was unloaded. For two weeks Miller and his deputies were held captive, forced to listen to Crawfordís constant “vowing and swearing” that the insurgents would stand by each other “to ye last dropp of blood.” And, swore the irascible captain, if a single man among the rebels were killed by the proprietary men, every one of the prisoners would suffer death.

Richard Foster, in command of a seventy-man guard, embarked Miller, Biggs, and Nixon in small boats and rowed them around to George Durantís plantation at the north end of the sound. Gillam followed, firing a salute with three of his deck cannon “to accommodate the frolick.” Gillam, however, having provided the weapons for rebellion, refused to sell additional items of his cargo other than drinks until he was sure that any new government would be favorable to his operations.

The rebels assembled, ostensibly to elect delegates to the Assembly. Brash talk and “irreverant speeches” dominated the proceedings while a spirit of rebellion, overpowering caution, led to a singular number of loud threats against the Proprietors. Even the King came in for a share of what could be considered treasonable malevolence. There were shouted demands that the people of Albemarle should be allowed to ship their tobacco when and where they pleased, and not a farthing in customs should be paid. Their leaders could give a tint of authority to their operations, for they now had in their possession the Great Seal of the Colony. A search party, led by Valentine Bird and Edward Wells, had ransacked Timothy Biggsí dwelling and had discovered, hidden deep in a hogshead of tobacco, all of Millerís papers, commissions, instructions, and the Seal.

The curses of the mob filled the air when Miller, Biggs, and Nixon, surrounded by three rows of armed guards, were brought out. Angry voices demanded that they be hanged at once without the formality of a trial. When Richard Foster brought in Henry Hudson from Currituck, the cries grew more insolent, with the mildest demands calling for at least a trial of Miller for his “several odious crymes.” Even as William Searsí drum rattled out a call for order, some of the more rowdy among the group were throwing the stocks and pillory into the water. Others continued their insistence that Miller should be indicted for “blasphemy, treason, and other crimes.”

It was Richard Foster who finally managed to gain the attention of the crowd. He explained that since the government had been usurped by Miller, there was no Council to conduct such a trial, and the first order of business should be the election of an Assembly as an initial step in the establishment of the new order. Even as this was proposed, antagonism against the Proprietors was voiced in the shout that they would “have noe Lords, noe Landgraves, noe cassiques, we renounce them all and fly to the Kingís protection.”* In the following election, the eighteen members of the Assembly chosen were the leaders of the revolt: Thomas Cullen (Speaker), James Blount, Anthony Slocum, John Vernham, Henry Bonner, John Jenkins, Samuel Pricklove, William Therril, Caleb Calleway, Alexander Lillington, William Crawford, Valentine Bird, William Jennings, Thomas Jarvis, Enoch Billings, Richard Saunders, Patrick White, and William Sears. The election of Sears, a drummer in the militia, was considered by the prisoners a new low in government.

John Jenkins was elected “Generalissome” to command the troops and eventually to take over the reins as Governor. Durant was named to his old post of Attorney-General, while John Culpeper became Collector of the Customs.

This “Parliament soe called” named Richard Foster and five othersóJenkins, Crawford, White, Blount, and Birdóto serve as judges in the court for the trial of Miller. A Grand Jury was empaneled “out of ye souldiers and confused Rabel.” As foreman, Mordecai Bowden, a New England trader who Henry Hudson claimed was much in debt in the way of customs, was appointed. There was still the question of a specific charge. It would have been dangerous to use the primary complaint against Milleróefficiency in the collection of the customsóas an indictment, for such would give the uprising the taint of rebellion. Similarly, there was doubt that his arbitrary government and harsh measures would support a charge, for his authority had been derived from Governor Eastchurch, the duly appointed executive of the Proprietors. The question of legality would have to be determined by a higher court than any that could be erected in the colony. So it was that Miller was placed in double jeopardy when the old chargeóof which he had been acquitted by the Virginia Councilóof speaking treasonable and blasphemous words was revived. And although the two previous witnesses, Will Cockin and Thomas Willis, had fled Albemarle, “run away,” said Henry Hudson, “under horror of Conscience,” the old depositions were presented once again as evidence of guilt.

Hudson, who had acted as Millerís attorney in the past, later swore on oath that he witnessed Bowden ask Culpeper just what verdict should be returned by the Grand Jury. The Jury was out only briefly. Their verdict rocked the court, for rather than endorse the “Billa vera,” or true bill, Bowden reported a Bill of Error. Culpepper, snatching the paper from him, shouted that this was a mistake, to which Bowden blurted out that they had followed exactly the instructions of Culpeper. The Jury, fortunately for the rebels, proved pliable in its convictions, and quickly returned a true bill without leaving the room.

With Miller formally indicted, the sheriff, whom Miller accused of “being stark drunk” off Gillamís whiskey, was directed to empanel a petit jury to try the former Collector. Again a New England ship captain, Joseph Winslow, also suspected of smuggling, was chosen foreman. The prisoner expected little justice from the jury of “scandalous, infamous and illiterate persons.” Even as they took their places, it was obvious that they were determined that the prisoner should suffer death. They freely expressed themselves in voices so loud that all Miller could hear were “the threats, vows, and bloody oathes of stabbing, hanging, pistolling or poysoning.” Others vented their spleen with the declaration “that they would never depart thence until they sawe ye said Miller dead or alive under ground.”

There is little question that the verdict would have been death, but the trial was brought to a halt “at ye very nick of tyme” by the arrival of a proclamation from Governor Eastchurch in Virginia, where he had arrived just the week before. Culpeper refused to make public this pronouncement, and the copy that he made for the records was stripped of its meaning.

The Governorís arrival in Jamestown compounded the illegality of the proceedings. Yet the rebels, urged on by George Durant, were determined he should not return to Albemarle. Neither would they release Miller, although any thought of further trial was too risky. The “Parliament” was convened once again, this time at the home of John Jenkins. They now directed that Miller should be henceforth confined “at one old Wm. Jennings his house,” along the upper reaches of the Pasquotank River. Later, a log jail, ten by eleven feet, was constructed to hold the prisoner. Not only was Miller “clapt in irons,” but he was allowed no communication with anyone and was treated in what he claimed was “a cruell & barbarous manner shut up from all society.”

Governor Eastchurch remained as the greatest threat to the rebels. There was little doubt that upon his arrival in Albemarle the leaders of the rebellion would be tried for treason. It was with this in mind that armed troops were sent to the border to guard the approaches from Virginia against his return. Eastchurch promptly applied to Governor Berkeley for an armed force to invade Albemarle. A call for volunteers was issued. Berkeley, who had himself just experienced the rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon, and who had hanged William Drummond, Albemarleís first governor, for his participation in that revolt, promised 200 men. But before they could be assembled and organized, Eastchurch fell ill of a fever and soon was dead.

No longer threatened by the presence of a duly authorized government, the rebels began to fashion their own, with Durant, Jenkins, and Culpeper as the principals. They were given strong support by Willoughby, Crawford, and Blount. With Culpeper acting as Collector, the people got what they wantedóno duties on tobacco. The money, tobacco, and other valuables confiscated by Miller were in turn confiscated by the rebel faction to finance their own government. Henry Hudson later stated, under oath, that not only did Culpeper allow ship captains to sail without proper clearances or payment of duties, but he struck out the Kingís mark on those hogsheads which Miller had set aside as customs collections. Crawfordís plantation on Albemarle Sound seems to have been the spot from which most of the tobacco was shipped.

After about seven weeks imprisonment, Timothy Biggs escaped and made his way to England to report the turmoil in Albemarle. The rebels immediately started going through the confiscated records and papers, carefully selecting those best suited to justify their cause. Durant and Willoughby were selected to sail for England to present their case before the Proprietors. Although there is a hiatus in the records, it appears that only Willoughby made the quick voyage, recorded the rebel case, and returned.

In any event, the Rebellion was destined to die a slow death.


* Landgrave and Cacique were among the titles of nobility established by the Fundamental Constitutions referred to earlier in this pamphlet.

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