This is not an encyclopedic
history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The story is too complex
and too big for the scope of a project such as this. There are important
parts of the history of this community that are left out or barely
mentioned. What this writer attempts to do is highlight the major themes
and pivotal periods of our past and tell dramatic tales that document
the nature and significance of each. The story ends in the early 1980s,
because everything thereafter is current affairs.
This writer asserts that two major
themes have been present in the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg
County from the earliest days of Scots-Irish and German settlement in
the 1740's until today. One is an intense desire for economic
development and expansion. The other is the on-going saga of race.
Whenever the pressures of the two have come into direct conflict,
especially in the 1890s and in the 1960s and 1970s, economic
considerations have won out.
This writer has depended heavily upon
the research and scholarship of others. Especially helpful were several
M.A. Theses written by graduate students at the University of North
Carolina at Charlotte. Sadly, these manuscripts lie mostly unused and
ignored. One must also make special mention of the superb scholarship
produced by Paul Escott, Thomas W. Hanchett, Janette Greenwood, Jack
Claiborne, Mary Norton Kratt, Mary Boyer, Frye Gaillard, Ken Sanford,
and Alex Coffin. Hopefully, this book will encourage others to speak and
write about this community's fascinating past. Remember, history is the
past from the vantage point of today. That's why it is so instructive.
This writer is deeply indebted to his
wife, Mary Lynn Caldwell Morrill, who in this as in all other aspects of
his personal life has shown untiring support, patience, and
understanding. A direct descendant of Alexander Craighead, she possesses
all of the best qualities of her Scots-Irish heritage. This book is
dedicated to her.
Native Americans and the Coming of
The White Man
Off Elm Lane in southern Mecklenburg
County there is a massive boulder that sits majestically beside the bed
of Four Mile Creek. Children from a nearby suburban neighborhood often
scamper to the top of the so-called "Big Rock," hopefully unaware of the
hate-filled graffiti that mars its ancient face. This is an evocative
place for those who care about the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg
Location Of The Big Rock
The Big Rock was a campsite,
rendezvous point, and observation post for the first human beings who
inhabited what is now Mecklenburg County. They were Paleo or Ancient
Native Americans whose forbearers had migrated from Asia across the
Bering Strait made dry by advancing glaciers some 40,000 years ago.
These initial nomads reached the Carolina Piedmont about 12,000 years
ago. They had wandered over the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains in
pursuit of big game. Living in highly mobile and lightly equipped
groups, the Paleo Indians ambushed their prey, principally now extinct
giant mammals, by thrusting spears into their flanks at close range.
The Big Rock is an ancient campsite and
The first Native Americans who resided
here lived in tiny bands of one or a few families, rarely came in
contact with other human beings, and inbred for centuries. They have
left no evidence of permanent settlements, burial sites, pottery or
agriculture; and, like the great majority of Native Americans, they
never developed a written language. Despite the harshness of their
existence, Paleo Indians saw their numbers increase in North America.
Only the hardiest had completed the long trek from Asia, and the cold
climate of the Ice Age may have eliminated many disease-causing
Shelter In The Big Rock
There is a small crevice or
indentation on the backside of the eastern wall of the Big Rock. It
would have provided protection from the strong, cold winds that blew
across the almost treeless grasslands that covered the surrounding
countryside in ancient times. Imagine what it must have been like for
the small bands of Paleo Indians who spent wintry nights at the Big Rock
thousands of years ago. The howl of wolves would have echoed in the
pitch-black darkness. The men would have chipped stones into spear
points, and the women would have roasted hunks of fatty meat in the
flickering flames of the campfire. Arising at first light, these small
assemblages of nomadic hunters would have resumed their ceaseless chase
after the herds of mammoth, horses, camels and bison that meandered
across the Piedmont landscape.
About 10,000 years ago the glaciers
started to retreat and deciduous forests began to predominate in this
part of North America. Their habitat destroyed or massively altered,
some large mammals, like the mammoth, disappeared, while others, like
the camel and the horse, moved elsewhere. Paleo Indian traditions began
to die out as the Native Americans adapted to their new environment.
Archeologists have named the next cultural customs the "Archaic."
Archaic people, who also visited the
Big Rock, foraged for plants and hunted smaller game, such as rabbit,
squirrel, beaver and deer. Still nomads, they roamed within smaller
territories than had their predecessors, because to succeed as hunters
and food gatherers they had to become intimately familiar with local
plant life and with the habits of indigenous animals. Indians of this
era were more technologically proficient than their forbearers. One of
their most ingenious inventions was the
atlatl, a spear-throwing device that enabled them to kill deer and
other large game more easily. They also used grinding stones and mortars
to crush nuts and seeds, carved bowls from soapstone, and polished their
spear points into smooth and shiny projectiles.
A momentous event in the
history of the Native Americans of this region occurred about 2000 years
ago. Indians of the so-called "Woodland"
tradition began to practice agriculture and establish permanent
settlements. Interestingly, the great majority of the Native Americans
who inhabited what is now the Carolina Piedmont, including the Catawbas
of this immediate area, were still following these Woodland customs when
the first white men arrived in the 16th century. People of
this tradition developed a sophisticated culture, replete with religious
ceremonies and complex ethical systems. Their religion was polytheistic,
meaning that Woodland Indians believed in many gods. Unlike followers of
Judeo-Christianity, who divide existence into heaven and earth or
separate celestial and terrestrial realms, Native Americans held that
many spirits inhabit this world and that they must be appeased.
Woodland Indians also had no concept of private property. Land was for
use, not for ownership. Native Americans believed that carving up the
earth into separate plots and fencing it off was as senseless as
parceling out the air or cutting up the water. Such notions would come
into direct conflict with the cultural values that white settlers would
bring to the Carolina Piedmont.
Replica of Woodland Indian Structure.
The original permanent English
settlement in North America appeared on the James River in Virginia in
1607, although European explorers had made contact with Native Americans
along the Carolina coast as early as 1524, and the so-called Lost Colony
had been established on Roanoke Island in 1585. Named in honor of the
reigning King of England, James I, Jamestown struggled to survive until
the discovery of tobacco gave the settlers a cash crop. Thereafter, new
people began to arrive from Europe; and some traveled south from the
James River into North Carolina in search of game and better land. The
great majority of the white settlers of the Coastal Plain were
Englishmen and Englishwomen who had come to the New World in search of
greater economic opportunity. By the mid-1700's, writes historian Tom
Hanchett, "the ports of New Bern and Wilmington, North Carolina, and
Georgetown and Charleston, South Carolina, flourished where major river
systems emptied into the Atlantic."
The first English-speaking people to
move through this region were merchants who brought finished goods, such
as iron utensils, pots, and axes, on the backs of horses or on their own
backs to trade for animal hides prepared by the Catawbas and other
Native American tribes. The Catawbas and other inland tribes also
traveled widely. Long before the arrival of the white man, Native
Americans had established trade routes along footpaths that stretched
from the mountains to the sea. White explorers and traders became
familiar with this system of reliable, well-established Indian trails
and adopted it for their own use.
Title Page Of Lawson's Journal.
On December 28, 1700, John Lawson set
out in a large canoe from Charleston, South Carolina and headed upriver
with ten companions and a favorite dog to explore the Carolina
backcountry for the eight Lords Proprietors who had been awarded all the
land south of Virginia and westward to the "South Seas." His journal
paints a fascinating picture of the customs and habits of the Native
Americans who resided in the Piedmont. Indigenous people lived along the
banks of the rivers in small villages of bark-covered houses, each tribe
controlling a few miles of a particular stream's course. Lawson and his
compatriots saw countless corncribs as they paddled inland. Corn was the
staple crop grown by North Americans of this region in soil that Lawson
said was "red as blood"
When Lawson traveled through the
Piedmont there was a population of 4000 to 5000 Indians in at least six
villages scattered along a twenty-mile stretch of the Catawba River.
Here the Catawba, a branch of the Souian language group, enjoyed the
advantages of fertile soil, a fish-filled river, abundant wildlife and a
hospitable climate, though they also faced periodic battles with their
Cherokee neighbors to the west. In 1650, a legendary military engagement
was fought at Nation Ford near present day Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Approximately 1100 Cherokees and 1000 Catawbas were killed in a single
day. The ensuing truce granted the Catawbas an area along the "Great
River" from near its headwaters in North Carolina to what is now Chester
County, South Carolina.
A fundamental transformation of the
Yadkin-Catawba territory occurred in the 18th century when
the era of Native American domination of the region came to a
precipitous end. European civilization became predominant within a very
few years. The initial white settlers drove their covered wagons into
the Carolina Piedmont in the 1740s, mostly along ancient Indian trading
paths. First in a trickle then a virtual flood, these immigrants, who
were mostly from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, came swarming
down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road to establish farms and homestead.
Unlike the white traders who had preceded them, these families planned
to stay. The road that brought these hardy souls into the Carolina
hinterland was described during the 1750s as "a seldom trodden rocky
farm road to the back field" amidst a "vast primeval wilderness arched
high overhead by large wide spreading branches of majestic trees, ash,
walnut, oak, pine, poplar and chestnut." Luxuriant forests and meadows
abounded with game, including bear, deer, quail, and pheasant.
Early Scot-Irish and German Settlers House Type.
The pioneers changed what they found.
To them the ancient home of the Native Americans was a wilderness to be
tamed. The white settlers built houses, taverns, mills, established
ferries, and cleared fields. The Catawbas were powerless to resist. "The
Catawbas, like coastal tribes nearly a century before, found themselves
in the midst of a growing swell of European immigration they could no
longer resist," writes one scholar. By the 1760s, after only a decade of
persistent white occupation, much of the Catawba's lands had been sold,
bartered, or lost. The Catawba nation had dwindled to a population of
about 1000, for in addition to tribal warfare they suffered from contact
with European diseases and vices: chiefly smallpox and whiskey. In 1764,
two years after the death of the last famous Catawba chief, King
Haiglar, the colonial governor of South Carolina granted the Catawba
fifteen square miles on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina.
By 1840 the area had dwindled to 652 acres, and there were only
seventy-five Catawba left. Little was thought about the surviving
remnants of the Catawba until 1977, when Chief Gilbert Blue laid claim
to the original fifteen square miles granted to the Catawba in 1764.
Catawba Indian Pottery
Unlike the white settlers who had
migrated to the Coastal Plain a century earlier, most of the pioneers
who moved into the Piedmont in the mid-1700s were Scots-Irish
Presbyterians or German Lutherans. Their primary reason for coming was
to escape oppression and to be "left alone." Certainly that sentiment
was paramount among the Scots-Irish. Scotsmen and Scotswomen who had
moved from Scotland to the Ulster region of Ireland in the early 1600s,
Scots-Irish were only too aware of the discriminatory actions the
English could enact. Under provisions of the Test Act of 1703, the
Church of England had refused to recognize the legitimacy of
Presbyterian rites, including communion and matrimony, and had ordered
Presbyterian ministers defrocked. After the Scots-Irish had succeeded in
establishing a strong regional economy based upon raising and shearing
sheep, Parliament had enacted legislation that excluded Irish wool from
English markets. Adding insult to injury, English settlers proceeded to
push the Scots-Irish off the best Irish land. The response of growing
numbers of these beleaguered Presbyterians was to move again, this time
to North America.
About 250,000 Scots-Irish immigrated
to the New World in the first quarter of the 18th century,
most entering through Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Lewes, Delaware.
Learning that the land near the coast was already taken, the former
residents of Ulster trekked inland and created farms until they reached
the Alleghany Mountains. They then turned south and began filtering into
Virginia and the Carolinas. Although both arrived in the Yadkin-Catawba
region during the same years, the Germans and the Scots-Irish did not
live side by side but settled in separate church-centered communities,
the former along Buffalo Creek in what is now Cabarrus County and the
latter in the southern reaches of the Catawba territory along the banks
of Mallard Creek, Reedy Creek, Sugar Creek, Long Creek and the Catawba
Tradition holds that the first
Scots-Irish pioneer to bring his family to Mecklenburg County was Thomas
Spratt. A marker in the 1900 block of Randolph Road marks the spot where
Spratt constructed his home. Erected by the Colonial Dames in 1926, the
SITE OF THE FIRST COURT HELD IN
FEBRUARY 26, 1763. HOME OF THOMAS
SPRATT, FIRST PERSON
TO CROSS THE YADKIN RIVER WITH
WHEELS. HERE WAS BORN
ANNE SPRATT, FIRST WHITE CHILD BORN
& YADKIN RIVERS.
The chief spokesperson for the
Socts-Irish settlers of what is now Mecklenburg County was the
indefatigable and peppery
Alexander Craighead. He was summoned to be minister at
Presbyterian Church and Rocky River Presbyterian Church in 1758.
Before Craighead's arrival, itinerate ministers had met with the
Presbyterian faithful in local farmhouses. Only the chimney remains at
Richard Barry's house across from the intersection of Neck Road and
Beatties Ford Road in northwestern Mecklenburg County, where John
Thompson, a Presbyterian preacher, held worship services in the early
Craighead, whose grave is located in
the oldest burial ground of Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church on Craighead
Road off North Tryon Street, was born in Donegal, Ireland and died in
Mecklenburg County in March 1766. He traveled as a child with his
parents to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. Ordained in 1735, Craighead
became an outspoken critic of the Church of England and even succeeded
in alienating the majority of his fellow Presbyterians because of his
extreme views on religious issues and because of his intemperate
criticisms of the king. Craighead accompanied
George Whitefield in Pennsylvania and became a participant in the
Great Awakening. He also was heavily influenced by the teachings of
Gilbert and Charles Tennent. In 1733 Gilbert Tennent insisted that only
those preachers who were pure in heart should be allowed to conduct
services. He also began preaching in an emotional manner, even
encouraging church members to stand and shout. Craighead followed the
same pattern. In 1736 he began emoting from the pulpit and even refused
to let his wife take communion because she was not sufficiently
contrite. Several of his own church members said Craighead "was under
some dreadful delusion of Satan." Finally, in 1741, the
traditionalists, who insisted only on commitment to the Westminster
Confession of Faith and formal religious education as requirements for
preaching, ousted the New Side preachers from the Synod of Philadelphia.
Location of Alexander Craighead's Grave
To Craighead's way of "New Side"
thinking, even the Presbyterian Church was tainted because of its
commitment to maintaining traditional dogma rather than emphasizing the
importance of faith and spontaneous emotion in religious matters and
because of its willingness to make peace with British officials.
Craighead preached fiery sermons and exhorted his flock to resist any
threats to their independence. He warned his people that Presbyterian
leaders were allowing "swarms of profane Creatures" and "scandalous
Persons" to come into the churches. The Philadelphia Synod finally
expelled Craighead from Pennsylvania because of his radical views. It
was only on the frontier that ministers of Craighead's persuasion and
penchant toward emotionalism were able to establish themselves and
preach and administer the rites of the Presbyterian faith as they
Alexander Craighead faced a monumental
challenge in Mecklenburg County. This was a raucous place in the
mid-1700s. After all, it was on the frontier. The great majority of
people were illiterate. Squabbling and fighting were routine. Men
purposely allowed their thumbnails to grow long so that they could more
easily gouge out the eyes of their adversaries in a brawl. Drunkenness
and fornication were widespread. Modern concepts of hygiene, derived
largely from the advent of the germ theory of medicine, had no place in
18th century life. The most common house form was the log
cabin, sometimes with three walls. Typically, the only opening in the
exterior wall was for an entry door. The floors were dirt. A permanent
fire in a large fireplace at the end of the main room billowed smoke
into the cramped living quarters, frequently turning the air into an
acrid cloud. Privacy, even for the most intimate acts, was virtually
Arthur Dobbs, the Royal Governor of
North Carolina, visited what is now Mecklenburg County in 1755. He
observed that the great majority of the inhabitants were impoverished.
Most families had six to ten children, all "going barefooted," and the
mothers were barely clothed. A good place to visit to get a feel for the
harshness of 18th-century farm life is the President James K.
Polk Birthplace Memorial near Pineville. The log outbuildings at
Plantation in Latta Plantation Park off Beatties Ford Road can serve
the same purpose. Their authenticity, however, would be enhanced if they
were less tidy and more malodorous.
Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister, described the Scots-Irish
residents of Mecklenburg County as "vile, leveling commonwealth
Presbyterians." They are, he continued, "profligate, audacious Vagabonds
. . . Hunters going Naked as Indians." C. W. Clerk, a companion of
Woodmason's, found them "Rude - Ignorant - Void of Manners, Education or
Good Breeding." (Click
Here To Read About Sexual Habits) Andrew Morton of the Church of
England visited the Catawba-Yadkin region in 1766 and wrote a similarly
unflattering description of the settlers. He told his superiors in
London that "the Inhabitants of Mecklenburg are entire dissenters of the
most rigid kind." Admittedly, officials of the Church of England were
predisposed to castigate the Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the Carolina
hinterland. Still, their observations were not created entirely out of
whole cloth. There was considerable truth in what Woodmason and his
associates wrote about the early white settlers in Mecklenburg County.
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