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"A Trifling Place"

Book 1, Chapter 9
Hornets' Nest
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WITH independence, so boldly proclaimed in 1775, securely established by 1781, Mecklenburgers were free to contribute their energies to the peaceful pursuits of building a nation. The overthrow of British rule had been hardly noticeable in those six years of Mecklenburg's local government; the change had been in authority, not personalities. The same officials who had served under the King had continued to serve after Mecklenburg revolted.
So after Yorktown, they, like their comrades in the various provinces along the Atlantic seaboard, came home to undertake the tasks of peace. They repaired the little court house in Charlottetown, damaged in the Cornwallis invasion of September of the year before; they undertook to build new schoolhouses or give added support to those already started in such communities as Sugaw Creek, Rocky River, Poplar Tent, Steele Creek, Hopewell, Beatties Ford, Providence, Clear Creek, and Charlottetown; and they began to increase materially their crops of small grain, corn, and cotton.
Perhaps no period in Mecklenburg's two-hundred year history has been of greater significance in shaping her course than the period between the ending of the Revolution and the beginning of the nineteenth century, particularly the last decade of it. Even some of the less significant happenings of that era are memorable.
Hardly more than a year after this decade began, for instance, tiny Charlottetown entertained the infant nation's first President at a gala picnic supper in the yard of Colonel Thomas Polk's home at the northeast corner of Tryon and Trade streets. It was on a Saturday afternoon sixteen years after Tom Polk had read the Mecklenburg declaration from the court house steps - May 28, 1791. General Washington arrived about three o'clock that afternoon to be greeted by the villagers and many other Mecklenburgers, who had come in from farms miles around. That Charlottetown was no pretentious place is plainly revealed in the diary kept by one William Loughton Smith, a South Carolinian, who in his entry of May 6 - three weeks before Washington's arrival - observed: "Near Charlotte are some finely cultivated fields. This place does not deserve the name of a town, it consists only of a wretched Court House, and a few dwellings falling into decay. There is a good tavern kept by Mason, where, however, I paid the dearest bill on the road."
The President was on the return journey of his southern trip that had taken him as far south as Savannah and Augusta in Georgia. He and his party had left Crafword's at four that morning and after traveling eighteen miles had reached Harrison's, some three miles south of Pineville. After a brief rest there the party came on into the village and the President was escorted to the house that the year before for two tumultuous weeks had been the headquarters of Earl Cornwallis. There an elaborate feast had been prepared and doubtless many of Mecklenburg's notables were present, including members of the convention of May 19-20, 1775, and leaders in the Revolutionary War.
President Washington had been met near the Carolinas border by a group from Mecklenburg and Rowan who after welcoming him had escorted him and his party northward to the village. In this group was a nineteen-year-old youth from Salisbury who had been chosen to welcome the President on behalf of a military company from Rowan. Fortunately this young man, Charles Caldwell, who would later become a distinguished physician and teacher of medicine, recorded in his diary a detailed account of his meeting the President. He had been sent ahead of the Salisbury company in command of a detachment of thirteen riders. Delightfully he tells how he was so awed at his first sight of General Washington that for several minutes he was unable to speak. But he at length recovered his power of speech, he relates, and in reply to Washington's question, "Pray, sir, have you lived long in this part of the country?" he assured the President that he had since his childhood.
"You are then, I presume, well acquainted with it?" Washington asked, and when he told him he was, the President added the observation, "During the late war, if my information be correct, the inhabitants were true to the cause of their country, and brave in its defense."
Then young Caldwell, garrulous now, his diary discloses, sixteen years and one week after the May convention of 1775, made this significant observation to the President:
"Your information is correct, sir. They were, almost to a man, true-hearted Whigs and patriots, and as gallant soldiers as ever drew swords or pointed rifles in behalf of freedom. In Mecklenburg County, where we now are, and in Rowan, which lies before us, a Tory did not dare to show his face - if he were known to be a Tory. It was in a small town, which we shall pass, that Lord Cornwallis lay encamped, when he swore that he had never been in such a d-m-d nest of Whigs, for that he could not, in the surrounding country, procure a chicken or a pig for his table, or a gallon of oats for his horse, but by purchasing it with the blood of his soldiers who went in quest of it."
"Pray, what is the name of that town?" General Washington asked, says the Caldwell diary.
"Charlotte, sir, the county town of Mecklenburg, and the place where independence was declared about a year before its declaration by Congress. . . . We shall arrive at Charlotte tomorrow morning, where you will be received by five hundred at least - perhaps twice the number - of the most respectable inhabitants of the country, a large portion of whom served, in some capacity, in the Revolutionary war. . . When I passed through the town yesterday morning a large number of them had already assembled, and the crowd was rapidly increasing. And they are exceedingly provident." His diary entry goes on to give this picture of early Charlotte's preparing to entertain a President: "Convinced that they cannot all be supplied in the town, with either food or lodging, many of them have brought with them large and well-covered farm-wagons for their bedchambers and enough substantial food, already cooked, for a week's subsistence. Others again have already erected, and are still erecting, for their temporary residence, in the midst of a beautiful and celebrated grove (where a victory was gained by a company of militia riflemen over a party of Tarleton's dragoons), the very tents under which they slept as soldiers, in the service of their country. And they are about as obstinate and noisy a set of gentlemen as I have ever met, or even wish to meet again - especially when in a hurry. I was obliged, much against my will, to hold a long parley with them, yesterday morning, when I wished to be in motion to meet you, lest you might anticipate me in reaching the boundary line of the State.
"The General was evidently pleased with my narrative, and so diverted by the increased freedom and ease of my manner (for I was now perfectly myself)" he adds quite unnecessarily, "that though he did not actually smile (for he rarely smiled), he seemed, at times, as I fancied, more inclined to a little merriment than to maintain unchanged his habitually grave and dignified aspect."
The diary, as reproduced in Dr. Archibald Henderson's comprehensive study of the Presidential journey, Washington's Southern Tour, 1791, continued in considerable detail to record the conversation of the President and the youthful Caldwell:
"He at length inquired of me whether he might expect to meet at Charlotte any of the leading members of the convention which prepared and passed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, and especially whether my father would be there. I replied that my father was dead, and that Dr. Brevard, the author of the declaration, was also dead; that of the members of the convention still living, I knew personally but two - Adam Alexander, who had been president of the body, and John McKnitt Alexander, his brother, who had been secretary . . . that they lived at some distance from Charlotte, but that I felt confident their ever-green spirit of patriotism, united to their strong desire to see him, would bring them there, should they be able to travel."
This diary, therefore, provides additional testimony in support of the Mecklenburg declaration.
An article published January 9, 1898, written by G. R. Prowell, further records little Charlottetown's reception of the President:
"On this eventful Saturday, crowds of people on foot, on horseback, and the better order of the peasantry in vehicles, came to the little village of Charlotte to catch a glimpse of Washington. It was the first and only time that many of them had seen the tall and dignified form of the man who will always be marked as the greatest American. The streets and adjoining roads were lined with men, women, and children for hours before his arrival, for it was not as  certainty known when he would reach Charlotte."
That night President Washington and his party were put up at the inn on the north side of West Trade Street, a few paces from the intersection with Tryon, operated by a Captain Cook. Early the next morning the party started northward toward Salisbury. In his haste the President neglected to return his powder box to his dressing case. After he had gone, Mrs. Cook discovered that he had left it behind, and when several young ladies of the village hastened to the inn after the great man's departure, she powdered their heads with the President's powder. "Now you can always remember," she told them, "that you have had the distinction of having your hair powdered from General Washington's box."
The President, however, evidently was not particularly impressed with the county town of Mecklenburg. In his own diary of the southern trip he described Charlottetown as "a trifling place."
In the same year that President Washington visited Mecklenburg another man moved here. He, too, in his own way must have been a sturdy character, and he also recorded his coming, and his living here, succinctly and withal charmingly. His arrival likewise was significant, for he might well be pointed to as typical of a great proportion of Mecklenburgers of the closing years of the eighteenth century whose descendants would provide the county a staunch citizenship through succeeding generations.
His name was Sugar Dulin; he was a son of Thomas Dulin and his brother was Rice Dulin. Rice, appropriately enough, as a young man moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Sugar came to Mecklenburg in 1791, bought a large tract ten miles east of Charlottetown, and lived there until his death about 1845. But Sugar Dulin tells his own story more effectively: 

N.B. - I was Born in Onslow County, No. Carolina, the 23rd Day of April, 1763 as my parents sd any How Before I Mind & they Settled within Two miles of where Trentown in Jones County stands, & they sd Before I Mind they moved Ten Miles Higher up within one mile of old Daniel Shines & there I was Raised & lived until I went to the army & never farther from Home than to Nubern until I went to the army & then I made it my Home until I was married, and then I lived in sd County until 1791. I Removed to Mecklenburg County on the place I now live on. Now this the 1st Day of April, 1835 against the 21st of this Instant I have lived in Mclinburg County, No. Carolina, Forty Two years, &.

Done with my own Hand & the leading men of this County may Due the Ballance as to my Carretter, &.

Sugar Dulin.

I have lived with one wife going on 51 years & we Have Raised Five Sons & five Daughters & we this Day counted our Grand Children & we make them 94 that our Sons & Daughters has had & we Counted 13 great grand Children. This the 20th of March, 1837.

Sugar Dulin.

Mr. Dulin, like the great preponderance of Mecklenburgers in that day and for many decades afterwards, was a farmer, and doubtless raised some cotton, though in those years cotton was grown sparsely. There were several reasons. One important one was that producing cotton entailed much work. And after it was raised and picked, it required the separating of the lint from the seed, a tedious task. Cotton grown then, therefore, was generally for home use. Cotton would not become commercially of great value until ample slave labor permitted its extensive cultivation.
But the back country of the Carolinas had never been particularly favorable to the slave trade. The Rowan Committee of Safety almost a year before the Mecklenburg declaration's promulgation, in fact, had declared that "the African trade is injurious to this colony, obstructs the population of it by freemen, prevents manufacturers and other useful emigrants from Europe from settling among us and occasions an annual balance of trade against the Colonies."
The people of the back country were pioneers; most of them had traveled the long and arduous way from Pennsylvania and Maryland to open a new country, and bringing slaves, even had they owned them, hundreds of miles into a wilderness would not have been feasible. But these pioneers were not persons of wealth; few of them owned any slaves. They were in the main young people seeking an opportunity in a new land. They would themselves hew their living out of this wilderness.
So in the early days Mecklenburgers had few slaves. By 1790, two years after he had built his new brick mansion house, Rural Hill, Major John Davidson owned 26 slaves. The Polks and the Springses counted slightly more. John McKnitt Alexander's Cato, on the Alexandriana plantation, would perhaps be the best remembered; his name survives because it was to him that Alexander gave strict orders to burn down his barns and granary rather than permit the foraging Britishers in 1780 to plunder them.
But in this last decade of the century young Eli Whitney came down to Georgia from New England to teach school. Soon he realized the need of a machine to separate the cotton lint from the seeds, and he made a little boxlike contraption that would pull the lint form the seeds about as fast as five to ten people would be able to do it by hand. In 1793 he finished his working model and the next year he patented it. Some two years later a man named Holmes brought out an improved model, and litigation followed. But soon the gin was being manufactured and farmers were increasing their acreage devoted to cotton. And with the growing of more cotton, the holding of slaves became profitable, or seemingly so. Some historians would even maintain that invention of the cotton gin led to the War Between the States.
As cotton became king, a landed gentry grew up in areas that had been the homes of hard working small farmers and artisans. Soon the wealthier began to rely on their overseers and slaves and devoted themselves to the arts, sports, and the social graces. They hunted, raced their horses, attended balls and dinners, visited in Charleston, tidewater Virginia, and Philadelphia, even built up large libraries. In 1817, for instance a generation after the Revolution, the still back country region organized the Centre Library Society, and six years later the General Assembly granted a charter to the New Providence Library Association, whose laudable purpose was to promote "general reading and literacy culture."
So Mecklenburg, as the South did generally, gradually embarked upon the ruinous one-crop system that depleted the soil and enervated much of the citizenship. The smaller farmers and skilled artisans became competitors of the slaves. And soon many Mecklenburgers, both of the landed families and the less privileged, began to move farther south and west in pursuit of more land and greater opportunities. In Mecklenburg the developing aristocracy lived in the main outside the still unpretentious village of Charlotte, especially in the Hopewell, Sugaw Creek, Steele Creek, and Providence sections, and northward in the Centre community, and up and down on both sides of the twisting channel of the Catawba. But before the century was ended - in the last year of it, in fact - over near the present Concord in Cabarrus, which seven years before had been cut from Mecklenburg's eastern side, something else occurred that soon would prove of great significance in the life of the region.
On a Sunday morning while his parents were at church, twelve-year-old Conrad Reed, with his little sister and younger brother, slipped down to nearby Meadow Creek to try to spear fish with his bow and arrow. In the water he saw a shining bright object that he first thought was a fish. But when he investigated, he discovered that it was a very heavy object about the size of the flatiron his mother used. He took it home. His father carried it to a silversmith, but he did not know what the pretty "stone" was, and Reed took it home, where for two years or longer it was used as a doorstop.
Then in 1802 Mr. Reed carried the strangely heavy stone up to Fayetteville and showed it to a jeweler, who asked him to leave it there so that he might flux it; it was gold, he explained to Reed. And upon Reed's return, the jeweler showed him a bar of gold six or eight inches long, and asked him if he would sell it. Reed, thinking he would ask a high price, offered to sell it for $3.50! The jeweler promptly bought it.
On his return home, John Reed began to search for gold in the creek and the next year found a nugget weighing 28 pounds, said to be the largest ever found in the United States. Other large nuggets were found, some of them weighing as much as 16 pounds down to 13, nine, and two of eight pounds, and many smaller ones.
Discovery of gold in this section of Old Mecklenburg and subsequently in various sections of present Mecklenburg, including Charlotte, started a new industry. In the six decades before the War Between the States completely disrupted the life of the nation, mining came to be one of the region's most important industries. Charlotte became the mining capital of the United States, and prospectors, engineers, technicians accomplished in methods then in use, and laborers skilled in mining operations came here from all over the country and even from foreign countries. For an even half century form Conrad Reed's discovery until the Carolina gold rush of 1849, Mecklenburg was the center of the nation's mining activities.
So large did the mining industry of this community become that it was decided to erect a United States mint in Charlotte, and the cornerstone was laid in 1836. The structure was erected on the site of the present west wing of the Federal Building on West Trade Street, where it stood for a century. In 1936 the building was dismantled and then reassembled, stone by stone, in Eastover as the Mint Museum of Art.
In the first year of operation the Charlotte mint accepted deposits totaling more than $130,000, and coined gold of a total value of about $85,000. On May 20, 1861, it was occupied by Confederate militia, the Charlotte Grays. It was used as a hospital during most of the war. After the war it was reopened as an assay office, and it continued to operate until about 1913. During its service as a federal mint, coinage amounting to more than $5,000,000 was produced. In the two decades before it was razed it was used for various federal purposes, including Army and Navy recruiting, employment, and other services of the government.
The Mint, one of Charlotte's handsomest structures, was designed in the Federal style of the Republican period by William Strickland, Philadelphia architect who designed many famous buildings in that city. Its most prominent decoration was the great golden eagle over the door. Of this eagle, Stuart Warren Cramer, assayer at the mint from 1889 to 1893, once wrote that "This eagle was a landmark in Charlotte when I first came here, and a pet of Charlotte people, as well it might be, for it was perhaps the largest eagle in the world, being fourteen feet from tip to tip, and five feet high. When I had to redecorate it, it took over 165 books of gold leaf and ten books of silver leaf to cover it."
Extensive though intermittent operations were continued in Mecklenburg for a century and a half after Conrad Reed's original discovery, and although it is now considered not rich enough to warrant further mining, much gold-bearing ore remains. Charlotte streets, visitors are often told, are paved with gold. Actually some of the low-value ore brought up from mine tunnels burrowed beneath the city was used in paving some streets. A mural, sixty feet long and ten feet in height, on the south wall of the North Carolina National Bank's branch at North Tryon and Ninth Streets, done by Kenneth W. Whitsett, native Mecklenburger, vividly reviews the story of gold in old Mecklenburg.
But the last decade of the eighteenth century saw also the beginning in this era of another mining industry. Iron mining and processing along the Catawba River on the Lincoln County side quickly grew into an important business and several Mecklenburg families were to become affluent in it. Major John Davidson and two of his sons-in-law, Joe Graham, who had almost lost his life in the skirmish with the British in Charlottetown, and Alexander Brevard, purchased interests in the iron business in Lincoln county, and Vesuvius Furnace and Mount Tirzah Forge came to be widely known. Their products were sold as far away as Charleston.
Midway of this same decade, on November 2, 1795, a baby would be born in Mecklenburg who fifty years later would become President of the United States. During the administration of this Mecklenburger, who had been described as "one of the most completely successful presidents of the United States," the republic would expand to the Pacific coast; Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin would be admitted to the Union; gold would be discovered in California; the United States Naval Academy would be established at Annapolis; and many other developments significant in the life of the new nation would be recorded. And, perhaps not strangely, about his birthplace a controversy would arise, as it had in the case of Andrew Jackson. But this argument did not invoke any other state or any other county. It is argued that James Knox Polk, eleventh President, was born in the present boundaries of Mecklenburg County. But where? Was it near Pineville or near Huntersville?
Some years ago an unpretentious monument purporting to mark the birthplace of Polk was put up at the site just south of Pineville of the cabin in which Samuel Polk and his wife Jane Knox lived.
But substantial evidence can be presented to support the contention that Polk was not born in the Polk cabin, although he was taken there as an infant as soon as his mother was able to make the thirty-mile journey from the Knox home some two miles and a half southwest of Huntersville.
Like the Jackson controversy, the one over Polk's birthplace likely will never be settled to everyone's satisfaction. The D. A. Tompkins' History of Mecklenburg County, Volume I, published in 1903, makes the statement that "November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk, eleventh President of the United States, was born between Hopewell and Huntersville, at the home of his mother's parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Knox. His father, Samuel Polk, was a son of Ezekiel Polk, and in 1806, when James Knox Polk was eleven years of age, moved with his family to Tennessee."
But near the end of that same volume Tompkins also declares that "James Knox Polk, eleventh President of the United States, was born eleven miles south of Charlotte, near Little Sugar Creek church, November 2, 1795." And on a page facing the President's portrait two pages farther on, beneath the fanciful drawing of a one-room cabin, is the legend:

Cabin Near Pineville, Mecklenburg County, in Which James Knox Polk, Eleventh President of the United States, was Born November 2, 1795.

John H. Wheeler in his Historical Sketches of North Carolina, published in 1851, says that Polk was born "about eleven miles south of Charlotte on the land now owned by Nathan Orr, about two hundred yards south of Little Sugar Creek." He gives no supporting details.

In 1897 Dr. John Brevard Alexander, Mecklenburg physician-historian, a native of the northern section of Mecklenburg, in his Biographical Sketches of the Early Settlers of the Hopewell Section, declared that ". . . Samuel Polk married Jane Knox, a daughter of Captain James Knox, who lived four miles northeast of Hopewell Church. The Knox house has disappeared, but the foundation stones are still visible, and the spring that supplied the Knox family with waters still runs." The site, says he, "was made historic more than a century ago by being the birthplace of President James K. Polk. . . . At this home of James Knox, the father of Jane, who married Samuel Polk, was the child born who was afterwards President of the United States. How long Sam Polk lived here, or whether Mrs. Polk only returned to have her mother's care during her first trying ordeal, we are not informed. But we are informed there was a muster ground here known as 'Polk's old field.' This has very much the appearance that Sam Polk lived here for a while at least."

Dr. Alexander goes on to tell the story that "Peggy Alcorn, an Irish girl who came from Ireland with her mother when six years old, people of good character but very poor, was, when 13 years old, hired by Sam Polk to wait on his wife and nurse the baby, their first child. . . . This girl afterwards married Eli Alexander, who lived four miles southwest of Davidson College, where they raised a family, of which each member proved to be a good citizen. Ezekiel, Martin, Moses, and Eli were all staunch Presbyterians, and the two daughters, Malissa married John Bell and Mary married E. A. McAulay. No people in North Carolina have a better reputation for honesty, integrity and truthfulness, and they say it, and have told their children that their mother often spoke of the time she waited on Mrs. Polk and nursed the baby who afterwards became President."
In his History of Mecklenburg County, speaking of Peggy Alcorn, Dr. Alexander says that "Many years afterwards, when the girl had become an old woman, she said it was a common thing for a young woman to go back to her mother to be confined with her first child," and adds that "This very plausible version of his birthplace was given by my venerable friend, E. A. McAulay, Esq., who married a daughter of the nurse of the President."
Dr. Alexander also refers to a possible birthplace of Polk in Charlotte in reporting that Susan Barnett, who as Susan Smart was present May 20, 1775, at the Mecklenburg convention, had been quoted as having said that Polk was born "in the house occupied by Richard Carson, now owned by L. W. Sanders."
A memorial stone in the old Hopewell graveyard gives support to one version of the Huntersville birthplace contention. It marks the grave of "CAPT. JAMES KNOX - Who in hope of a glorious resurrection to eternal mark, deceased October 10th in the year of the Christian era, 1794. Aged 42 years."
James Knox Polk's maternal grandfather, therefore, died a year before his namesake was born. One tradition says that the widow Polk's daughter and her husband then came to live with Mrs. Knox and remained there until after the birth of their son. The other version is that Jane Knox Polk left her Pineville home shortly before the expected arrival of her child and came up to her mother's to await the baby's birth. Either version fits well the tradition, which declares the Alcorn child was employed to attend the young mother and care for the infant. In the Gilead community in northwestern Mecklenburg the story of Peggy Alcorn's being the future President's first nurse has persisted through the century and a half since Polk's birth. And even now an old spinning wheel thought to have been made in Ireland is pointed out as once having belonged to an Alcorn girl who first nursed James Knox Polk after his birth in the Knox home.


Blythe, LeGette and Brockmann, Charles Raven. Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961.