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Last Updated 7/16/01

Upheaval in Albemarle: The Story of Culpeper's Rebellion

The Slow Death of Rebellion

Like all battlefields when the fighting has ended, Albemarle was an unhappy place. The people appeared satisfied with Jenkins as acting governor, even though “Jenkins held the title, yet in fact Durant governed and used Jenkins as his property.” Customs were collected by Robert Holden without public protest, while the Assembly levied a tax to replace the customs revenues seized “in the tyme of the disorders.” An Act of Oblivion granted pardons to the “Rebels.” And in 1681 the Proprietors relaxed their claims on all products of the whaling industry for seven years to allow the inhabitants to steady their fortunes.

The Colony of Virginia still viewed Albemarle as but an extension of her own territory. In fact, when the Charter of 1665 had definitely placed Albemarle within the boundaries of Carolina, the Virginians had lodged a charge of treason against Sir William Berkeley for consenting to the enlargement of Carolina, as one of the Proprietors. Fresh complaints from Albemarle arose as a result of statutory discrimination by the House of Burgesses. In 1679 that legislature, finding that tobacco from outside Virginia “hath been found very prejudiciall to this country and the inhabitants thereof,” prohibited all but native tobacco from being shipped from its ports.

Further complications arose when Governor Thomas Culpeper of Virginia ordered the Sheriff of Lower Norfolk County to collect quitrents and taxes from the inhabitants of the communities of Blackwater and Currituck in Albemarle. And when, on July 3, 1681, the Burgesses followed his decree with a law, the people of Blackwater and Currituck were forced not only to pay these levies to Virginia, but also to secure new land grants from that colony. This in turn gave rise to a continuing dispute that did not subside until 1729, when it became known that North Carolina was to become a royal colony.

The economic isolation brought about by the Virginia tobacco statute of 1679 only encouraged the New England traders in their smuggling of Albemarle’s increasing crop of tobacco. Had the Proprietors seen fit to erect Admiralty Courts in Carolina, it is not unlikely that the practice might have been curbed. But they gave tacit recognition to this contempt for the law because Admiralty Courts, with their “Sallaryes and other great and expensive Charges,” were too heavy for their budget.

Seth Sothel, finally ransomed from the Turkish pirates, arrived in the colony in 1683. Rather than continue the former rebels in office as proprietary deputies, the Lords Proprietors sent over blank commissions, to be filled only by “such as are honest men and not concerned with the late disturbances.” And, they cautioned, to impress the inhabitants with the proper attitude of servility and respect, even the Councilors were to arise and remove their hats when addressing the governor, for in this manner they would not only be demonstrating the proper respect for the Proprietors, but also the King, the source of all colonial powers. And, it was also stressed that Sothel was to exercise his proprietary veto in the Grand Council as a measure to “hinder any Imprudent Resolutions they might take.”

Sothel, however, had his own plans. His behavior as governor seemed to indicate that he felt that he alone was Proprietor of his private domain of Carolina. If the charges that were levied against him be true, and there is reason to believe they were, he was one of the most corrupt and arbitrary governors ever to hold office in the English colonies. Timothy Biggs, although long of the proprietary faction, was among the first to suffer embarrassment. Appointed Comptroller of the Customs by the Commissioners of Customs in London, and newly re-appointed Surveyor General, he had returned to Albemarle to marry the widow of George Catchmaid. When Sothel refused to recognize the claim of Biggs’s wife to her former husband’s property, the well-traveled Biggs once again journeyed to London. Arriving there sometime before February, 1685, he indulged in what had become a habit with him—the submission of numbers of complaints, petitions, and affidavits. Biggs sang his old song that it was still impossible to get justice in Albemarle, for the persons chosen by Sothel to constitute his government were the same as those who had engaged in the insurrection. Now, however, Biggs’s charges were given additional importance by the complaints of Colonel Philip Ludwell of Virginia, who also had difficulty in persuading Sothel to recognize the claims of his wife to property of a former husband. Ludwell’s wife, incidentally, was the much married widow of Sir William Berkeley, who had wed Ludwell at Sir William’s death.

The Lords Proprietors were quick to note that Sothel had not only failed to send them the names of those he had selected as proprietary deputies, but had also failed to establish impartial courts to try cases arising out of the rebellion as he had been instructed. Neither had he dispatched quitrents to England. They were fearful of any new troubles in Albemarle becoming known in England. Charles II had died in 1685, and his brother and successor, James II, had a reputation for looking with disfavor upon proprietary colonies. There was a constant threat that the Carolina Charter would suffer revocation, especially after 1687 when the Crown had ordered the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General of England to initiate Quo Warranto proceedings against the proprietary colonies in America. Only the overthrow of James II in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 saved Carolina for the Lords Proprietors.

John Archdale, an acting Proprietor at this time, was sent over to the colony to record complaints and take depositions as well as to advise Sothel so that the Proprietors might better answer the “clamor of Mr. Biggs.” Archdale’s advice apparently went unheeded by the Governor of Albemarle, for the Proprietors were soon flooded with petitions from the colony complaining of the “arbitrary proceedings” of Sothel.

Sothel’s actions soon alienated those ex-rebels who had seemed willing to ally themselves with him in the beginning. This became especially evident after he had the temerity to arrest the politically powerful George Durant, who had uttered “some reflecting words” as to the Governor’s character. Durant’s estate was seized and converted to Sothel’s use. Personal gain seemed to be the governor’s ultimate goal. Two traders, bearing proper papers from the Governors of Barbados and Bermuda, were accused of piracy, and jailed by Sothel. One of them, Richard Humphreys, “dyed of grief and ill usage.” When Thomas Pollock, named as executor of Humphreys’ will, offered the document for probate, Sothel refused to admit it as a proper will, and confiscated the goods for himself. Pollock threatened an appeal to the Proprietors and soon found himself jailed for his audacity.

Other property, including several plantations of considerable value, found its way into Sothel’s hands. He was also alleged to have “detained” such valuable items as slaves, cattle, “seven pewter dishes,” and even a bit of “Narrow lace.” Anyone accused of felony or treason, it was charged, could see the indictments quashed if he were inclined to offer the governor a large enough bribe. Pirates, it was said, were welcome in Albemarle if Sothel was satisfied with their offerings.

Like a rubber band, the patience of the inhabitants of Albemarle was stretched until it snapped. Thomas Pollock, leading a group of malcontents, surprised Sothel upon his plantation “and clap’t him into a Logg House.” Announcing their purpose of sending their prisoner to England where formal charges would be filed, Sothel pleaded that they might not follow this course of action. He assured his captors that he would submit to a judgment by the General Assembly. Convicted on thirteen charges by the legislature, Seth Sothel was commanded “to adjure this Country for 12 months and the Government for ever.” Even then he was not released from confinement “until he renounced the Government and subscribed a strange oath too long to be here incerted.”

Although the other Proprietors agreed that it was best to suspend Sothel from any governmental functions during “these dangerous tymes,” that worthy fled to Charleston. Arriving there in 1690, he discovered the southern colony in a turmoil and greatly exercised by the actions of James Colleton (brother of Sir Peter Colleton), who had been sent out as Governor in 1686. Sothel managed to build himself a political clique of several hundred persons and by virtue of his status as a Proprietor, summoned a Parliament, banished Colleton, and proclaimed himself governor of the Ashley River settlement. He seems to have absorbed some wisdom and prudence from his experiences in Albemarle, for it is generally conceded that his administration in what was to become South Carolina shortly had much to recommend it. He served as governor until 1691, when Philip Ludwell was appointed by the Proprietors. Although remaining a Proprietor until his death, Sothel apparently returned to Albemarle to live out his days. And even after his death, the echoes of his administration continued to reverberate as a number of law suits brought against his estate cluttered the dockets of the Carolina courts.

Ludwell’s appointment marked the end of Albemarle as a separate political entity. From 1689 on, the governor ceased to be termed the Governor of Albemarle, but was now called the deputy governor of Carolina, the first of whom was Thomas Jarvis. Not until 1710 was there commissioned a separate Governor of North Carolina, “independent of the Governour of Carolina,” although as early as 1691 there had been references to Albemarle as North Carolina.

The last overtones of Culpeper’s Revolt died away with the banishment of Seth Sothel, but Albemarle had by no means achieved the peaceful disposition so long sought by the Proprietors. In fact, Ludwell’s appointment led one Captain John Gibbs to call the new governor a “Rascal, imposter & Usurper,” and “a Tatler against ye Truth.” So incensed was Gibbs that he pledged himself to carry on a campaign against Ludwell “as long as My Eyelids shall wagg.” Even as late as 1711, Edward Hyde, the first to be appointed as Governor of North Carolina, found himself opposed by the rebellious faction of Thomas Cary.

Tobacco smuggling by the New England captains continued to plague customs officials, and there was an almost constant agitation that “fitt persons” be appointed Governor to curb this practice. And the Virginians still continued to look down upon the Albemarle section as something of a redheaded stepchild, contemptuously dismissing it with “only tis a place which receives Pirates, Runaways and Illegal Traders.” Culpeper’s Rebellion had been born as the fruit of many trees. Economic in nature, its true basis lay in the peculiar geographic situation of the Albemarle colony, accentuated by the violence and destruction of nature’s capricious hurricanes and droughts. And the shallow inlets and sound had presented an open invitation to the light sailing vessels of the New England traders, who were not above evading the Navigation Acts if it meant a gold lining in their own pockets.

Political discontent found its stimulus in the negligence and vagaries of the Proprietors, who spent far too much of their energies in long-term dreams of profits without sufficient concentration upon immediate problems. And, because of the ever-present threat of a writ of Quo Warranto, they seemed loath to call attention to the upheavals in their colony by recognizing them and taking the necessary strong actions to put them down quickly. The reluctance of the people to pay quitrents and customs, stemmed from an existence bordering on the miserable. Vexation made them pliable and instilled in them a willingness to listen to the vague panaceas promised by the anti-proprietary faction. The Fundamental Constitutions, with its implications of a return to feudalism, was an additional irritant and was distasteful to a people already tender and rubbed raw with the unhappiness of their lot. In 1700 Governor Francis Nicholson of Virginia voiced an opinion that must be considered when constructing a summary of the revolt. While contrasting the activities of royal governors with those appointed by Proprietors, Nicholson felt that the governors of proprietary colonies had an opportunity (which they usually took advantage of) to seize more power than was granted them. And the political ambitions of the Quakers should be noted when casting about for the causes of rebellion. From all contemporary accounts, they were an ambitious group. As late as 1708 Edmund Jennings observed from Virginia, “I am informed from North Carolina that there are very great commotions in the Government occasioned chiefly by the Quakers,... they have had the cunning to set all that Country in a flame, and all but themselves in arms against one another.”

As for the rebellion itself, John Culpeper lent his name to the uprising in which he was not necessarily the major figure. Perhaps this arose from an effort to give cover to more important political figures who were content to remain as anonymous as possible. Then too, his assumption of the Customs office, and his trial for treason, thrust him into the forefront of the spotlight of history. Culpeper was at best a schemer, and “never in his element but whilst fishing in troubled waters.” One complaint stated that the one reason the people were willing to listen to him was his reputation as a trouble maker, and therefore they harkened to his words “for his experience sake.” And it must be remembered that the reason his name appears so frequently in the records of the revolt is that a majority of the depositions, affidavits, and petitions were drawn up in an effort to gain an indictment against him. One would guess that had George Durant been in London at the time, equally vigorous accusations would have been brought against him. Certainly the name of John Culpeper fades from the scene and he is given but scant mention after his acquittal of treason.

From the records, George Durant appears to have been recognized as the most powerful leader of the anti-proprietary faction of Jenkins, Jarvis, Willoughby, White, Blount, Foster, and Bird. When Jenkins was acting governor, it was charged that he was little more than Durant’s puppet. Even the accusations directed against Culpeper implied that Durant “was always a discontented man,” and responsible for the “Rebell rout,” and “hath all along when at home beene one of the most violent, active and most outrageous of all the Conspirators and Insurrecters.”

Yet neither Durant nor Culpeper alone could have carried out a revolt against authority. It was a lively group of politicians who led the people onto the periphery of treason. Some of the Proprietors felt that Crawford was almost solely responsible for the uprising through his plotting with the New England traders “to gitt ye trade in this part of ye Country into their hands.” And, they concluded, others in the plot feared that with the arrival of Eastchurch they would be held accountable for their past misdeeds. Gillam, when he was arrested in England, was also charged as one “of the Principall Contrivers & Promoters of the said Rebellion.” After their examination, the King’s Council bracketed Richard Foster with Culpeper as the parties most responsible for the revolt. Yet an anonymous representation to the Proprietors flatly stated that “Bird was their Leader and drew the first sword.”

Under the accumulation of this evidence, it can only be concluded that Culpeper’s Rebellion was a joint effort, with the names of Durant, Culpeper, Gillam, Foster, Bird, Crawford, Jenkins, and Willoughby listed most often in the accounts as instigators of revolt. A résumé prepared by Peter Colleton in 1680 listed them as the “Principall Autors & Actors in ye Late Comotion and Disturbances.”

In summary, and by stretching the imagination to bizarre extremes, it might be stated that Culpeper’s Rebellion constituted the first stirrings of an independence movement in that it was based on resistance to proprietary dictates and English statutes. If pared down to its core, however, it can only be termed a colonial reaction to the new policies in England as a result of the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England. The English Civil War and the period of the Commonwealth had meant little to the isolated settlers of Albemarle, but when they fell under the rule of the Proprietors with the realization that their future would be bound within the ambitions of that group, they resisted. It was, in essence, a rebellion against the new, but short-lived, colonial policy of Charles II.

The Lords Proprietors issued coins for their
colony. The halfpenny shown above is in
the collection of the Hall of History in Raleigh.
(Courtesy of North Carolina Department
of Archives and History).

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