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The Beginnings

Book 1, Chapter 1
Hornets' Nest
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MECKLENBURGERS insist that few counties in America have as intriguing a story to tell as their own. They are convinced that Mecklenburg is unique; they declare that they can trace through their region's history from the earliest days a pattern of attitude and action demonstrably different from that of even the closest neighbors.

Many persons not of Mecklenburg birth or ancestry will agree. Scratch beneath the epidermis of a modern Mecklenburger whose forebears came to this section two centuries ago, those who are familiar with the county's history and tradition will suggest, and presently one will come upon old Squire John McKnitt Alexander himself. Nor is the statement entirely fanciful. The secretary of the convention that adopted Mecklenburg's declaration of independence had an elder son whose fourteen children were also prolific.
That Mecklenburg is recognized as being somewhat different is shown in references to this county, frequently and rather invidiously made in the legislative halls in Raleigh, as "the State of Mecklenburg." Nor has the designation always been given because of the fact that the county is North Carolina's most populous and affluent. It is a recognition rather of Mecklenburg's individuality.
One characteristic that seems to have been preserved intact through two centuries of seven or eight generations is an exuberance of determination not to be shoved or driven. Mecklenburgers, like most Americans, have been amenable to tactful leading, but inevitably they have balked at the first sensing of any effort to drive them toward an action or an attitude. They have been that way since the county's beginning.
"One needs no further proof of the authenticity of the Mecklenburg declaration of independence than to live a few years in this county," an outsider-moved-in commented. "My next-door neighbor's great-great-great-grandfather signed that document of May 20, 1775. Doubt it? Not I! I'm quite certain that old colonial gentleman signed that paper. My neighbor is a living, breathing, walking document supporting that claim. He would have signed such a paper. He would sign one now."
Mecklenburg does have a dramatic story. And through the years the county has had the good fortune to have had her story recorded in published volumes. Even more fortunately, numerous documents contemporary with the making of its history have survived to authenticate the accounts related by the historians.
Within a century of the first settlers' coming, in fact, books recording the county's exciting and significant early years were being published. These earliest books have the authenticity and the freshness of the contemporary view, because in collecting material for these works their authors were able to talk with men and women whose fathers and mothers, and in some instances the persons themselves, had been actual participants in the stirring events of those pioneer times. Consequently, although history and tradition inevitably after a while begin inextricably to blend one with the other, Mecklenburgers can maintain logically that this county's actual history must have been little different from traditional accounts of it. Certainly any variance provable would not be found substantial enough to affect materially the Mecklenburg story as long recorded.
On what day the first white settler came into the region of the present Mecklenburg and exactly where he settled, for example, are facts that likely will never be definitely ascertained. Tradition long has held that Thomas Spratt in coming with his family southward from Pennsylvania was the first man to venture on wheels into the lush lands between the Yadkin and the Catawba. Tradition adds, charmingly and with documentary support, that a young fellow named Thomas Polk, enamored with the Spratts' daughter Susannah, or Susan, as she was called, followed them, and when they halted their wagon and settled a few miles south of what soon would be little Charlottetown, settled with them and before long married Susannah.
In the middle of this century it is of little importance to any one, except perhaps the professional historian or the genealogist digging among musty records, to be able to say on what day or month or even year the Spratts and Thomas Polk arrived in Mecklenburg. But it is immensely important that they came. Tom Polk in a few years after his coming would be one of Mecklenburg's leaders, the colonel of its militia, a man in the forefront of the early movement for independence, a determined and able fighter in the Revolution. And, more importantly, there would be many like him.
A great number of them would come southward from the Maryland and Pennsylvania border country; it was from this region that the Spratts and Tom Polk had set out toward the Carolina backwoods. Some in this venturing migration would stop before they reached Mecklenburg, but only for a few years; later they would cross the Yadkin and push to the Catawba's eastern bank, as did John Davidson, another sturdy figure in Mecklenburg's developing history.
In the main these people were descendants of Scots and Englishmen who, a century and a half earlier, had immigrated to Ireland. Differing in background and religion from the majority of the Irish, there had been very little intermingling of the races through the generations. The Irish called these people Ulstermen after the name of the province in which they settled. In America they are called the Scotch-Irish. The Scotch-Irish of early Mecklenburg were strongly Presbyterian in their determination to have both freedom of religion and government, along with freedom of the one from the other.
But some, too, would be coming into this country from other directions. Northwestward from South Carolina's low county, through the port of Charleston, past swamps and flatlands into a rolling region of great forests and open waving-grass prairies, a country more to their upbringing and liking, would come other Scots, and Germans, Huguenots from France, even Swiss form their towering mountains. Another tide would roll down from Virginia, principally Englishmen, as Samuel Wilson, seeking new opportunity; some would continue westward, but others would be content to venture no farther.
Though these people were the first settlers, they were not the first white men to come into the western back country. A tradition strongly supported says that the Spaniard Hernando de Soto, crossing up from Florida in his vain search for gold, passed not far southwest of Mecklenburg; that was two centuries before our first settlers came, and De Soto entered the country of the Cherokees, it is thought, through Hickory Nut Gap. Others followed De Soto. John Lederer, an Englishman, was said to have pushed westward over an Indian trail that many years later along a mile or two widened into Tryon Street.
But the stories of these explorers and first traders are all but lost in the gathered mist of many years. Happily, however, we do possess a fairly clear picture of the movements and the peoples converging upon our wilderness region after 1740 to establish their homes and become the progenitors of our citizenship and our civilization.
"Steadily, in lengthening and thickening streams they came - southward, northward, westward - some on horseback, some afoot, some riding in their tough two-wheeled carts and wagons, many of them bearing few possessions beyond stout hearts and great courage and simple abiding strong faith," the narrator in Voice in the Wilderness would proclaim 200 years later in 1955 to a great audience in cosmopolitan Charlotte. "So they came to Mecklenburg in the middle years of the eighteenth century, and they raised their sturdy log houses of peeled and hewn pine or oak or hickory or ash, and burned over the wild grasslands and chopped out clearings, and planted crops and reaped harvests, and reared families. They were hardy souls, those invaders of the wilderness who came seeking a better chance for themselves and their children in an undisturbed free land, a land in which they could dream and work to build their dreams, where they could live their own lives. For always in the forefront of their dreaming, always uppermost in their striving, was their determination to live and work and love and worship in freedom."
The story of Mecklenburg's four decades from the early seventeen-forties to the ending of the Revolution, then, is the lively narrative of the people's determination to be free and of their struggle to win and establish that freedom. And significantly, though not strangely, the definitely traceable beginnings of that determination go back to the first years of the eighteenth century and particularly to a youngster in the province of Ulster, in Ireland, who years later as a Presbyterian preacher in Mecklenburg would become the flaming evangel of freedom, the passionate exhorter to independence.
Two decades before American independence was achieved, this man was preaching in stentorian tones that men should not live under tyranny. In that early day no voice in all the colonies was raised more eloquently to bestir Americans to the asserting of their rights.
His name was Alexander Craighead. No name stands higher in the 200-year span of Mecklenburg's recorded story.
Craighead came as a seven-year-old boy with his parents and neighbors to Boston in 1714 from Ireland's County Donegal. After nine years in Massachusetts, the Craigheads moved to New Jersey and then into Delaware. In 1733 they went over into Pennsylvania, in whose Lancaster County that same year a baby was born to the James Alexanders and named John McKnitt. A year later young Craighead was licensed to preach.
But Craighead was an independent-minded minister and soon he was in trouble with his church courts. So he pushed on southward into the Valley of Virginia, from where in late January of 1758 he journeyed to Mecklenburg and visited the recently organized Rocky River Presbyterian Church. In April that congregation called him to be its pastor and in November he was duly installed as pastor of both Rocky River and the nearby Sugaw Creek Church. Quickly, as the colonists' difficulties with the King's agents increased, Pastor Craighead became the impassioned voice of Mecklenburg's protesting. But eight years later, a decade before the adoption at Philadelphia of a national Declaration of Independence, he was dead.
In the short years of his southern ministry Alexander Craighead had helped stir into motion a current that soon, like a mighty tide rolling across the colonies, would seep away the tyrannical power of the British Empire's uncomprehending and uncompromising government. Under the influence of his still powerfully inspiring fiery spirit, Mecklenburg patriots would be among the first in America to challenge that government.
Until within little more than a decade before Pastor Craighead's arrival in what is now Mecklenburg, few permanent homes had been established in the region. Some six years before Craighead came, another Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John Thomson, whose Synod of Philadelphia had instructed him to make a missionary journey into the back country of North Carolina, visited his daughter, the wife of Samuel Baker, who lived near what is now the Mecklenburg-Iredell boundary line above Davidson. The minister's wife had died, and he established his residence at his daughter's; the son-in-law built for him a cabin in the yard of their home, and from it John Thomson went out to preach in the communities along the Catawba. The first sermons heard in Mecklenburg, tradition says, were those of the Reverend Mr. Thomson. One of these, there is evidence to indicate, was preached beneath a great tree that until a few years ago stood at the southern edge of Davidson. A recorded preaching site that has been marked was in the yard of Richard Barry's home about a mile north of where a few years later Hopewell Church would be built. Other places to which this early evangel brought the gospel included Cathey's Meeting House in Rowan - that would become Thyatira Church - and Sugaw Creek, and perhaps Rocky River, Poplar Tent, and a grove of great trees that one day would be the grounds of Charlotte's First Presbyterian Church.
But this minister's work in Mecklenburg soon was finished. Some two years after he came, even before the arrival of Craighead, he was dead. Tradition relates that he was buried beneath the floor of his little cabin, and adds that the strange resting place of John Thomson became Baker's graveyard, one of the oldest burying grounds in this area, perhaps the oldest. Soon this ancient graveyard will be lost within the vast area covered by Duke Power Company's Lake Norman.
After John Thomson went to his long rest in the red soil of Mecklenburg, another evangelist rode southward under instructions to make a missionary tour of the province of North Carolina's western regions. This man was Hugh McAden, born, like many Mecklenburgers, in Pennsylvania of Scotch parents. Like others who would venture southward from the Pennsylvania-Maryland border country, McAden had been educated at Princeton. In his diary under date of October 12, 1755, when he reached Rocky River, he made the notation that here he preached to "some pretty judicious people - may the Lord grant His blessing." A week later, he further records, he was preaching at Sugaw Creek.
So, under the occasional ministering of a visiting man of God and, after Craighead's coming, his impassioned preaching, the settlements in Mecklenburg expanded, and as other settlers moved in, communities began to grow out from the centers of Hopewell and Sugaw Creek, down in Steele Creek and Providence, up at Centre in what is now southern Iredell, and over at Poplar Tent across the line in present Cabarrus.
The year before Craighead died, just a decade after Hugh McAden had ridden in, a man named Henry Eustace McCulloh as agent for Augustus Lord Selwyn donated a tract of 360 acres for the purpose of establishing a town upon it. In granting a huge tract to Lord Selwyn, the King had stipulated that the owner would be required to settle on it an average of one person for every 200 acres. The development of a town within the borders of his grant, Lord Selwyn saw, would raise materially and quickly his population average and thereby fortify his claim.
Already Mecklenburg was an established county. Three years before, on December 11, 1762, the Provincial Assembly had drawn a western boundary for Anson and proclaimed the territory west of it as Mecklenburg. The Selwyn contribution of 360 acres had been made to three commissioners empowered to hold it in trust for the new county, which should raise on it a court house, prison, and stocks.
But quickly the residents of the Rocky River community eastward began to protest that the courts should be held nearer them. The next year, 1766, the year of Preacher Craighead's death, Martin Phifer of Rocky River introduced in the Assembly a bill permitting the commissioners to lay off streets and lots in this tract given by Lord Selwyn and build a court house, prison, and stocks. But Phifer's bill did not provide that the new town would be the county seat at which the courts would sit on. So Thomas Polk, who with Phifer represented Mecklenburg, caused the bill to be defeated.
That same year, because of the continuing fast growth of settlements west of the Catawba, a proposal was made that a new county be formed by drawing a western boundary of Mecklenburg at the Catawba and giving to the new county the territory west of the river. Should this be done, Polk and other residents of the area embraced by the lines of the present Mecklenburg realized at once, the town they were proposing to be the county seat would be considerably west of the center of the county, which in those days extended eastward to embrace the later counties of Cabarrus and Union. Clever strategy was required, canny Tom Polk and his neighbors realized, if the Rocky River citizens were to be outwitted. So they pooled forces in what would be perhaps Charlotte's first civic effort - a century and a half before the formation of the Chamber of Commerce - and built in the intersection of the roads a log court house and prison and stocks.
This little court house was soon succeeded, about 1774, it is believed, by another that would become the most storied structure in the county's history; a frame building, it sat on eight pillars ten feet high, of brick likely kilned nearby, high enough to permit a marketplace underneath, with rock walls three and a half feet high between the pillars. No authentic likeness of either building has survived, though partial sketches have been left by persons who had seen them and fanciful sketches have been drawn from these descriptions.
When Mecklenburg's legislators returned for the 1768 session of the Assembly, agitation for the establishment of a new county was renewed and grew more determined. At the same time Tom Polk was pressing for the incorporation of his town, called Charlotte for England's queen. Charlotte, they thought, was a pretty name and euphonious. But, more importantly, naming the new town Charlotte would be a smart move politically. Mecklenburgers even then understood quite well the meaning of the word expediency.
Polk won. On November 7, 1768, Charlotte was incorporated and commissioners were empowered and instructed to lay off a hundred acres in one-half-acre lots on which houses should be erected. Already some eighty lots had been taken and on them several houses had been built.
But 200 years later to a Mecklenburger interested in obtaining a behind-the-scenes appraisal of those legislative activities of 1768 there must be readily apparent a definite parallel between the doings of legislators then and today. Tom Polk's victory must have resulted from his willingness to engage in political horse-trading, because a month later - on December 5, 1768 - an act was passed providing that on or after "April 10, 1769, the county of Mecklenburg shall be divided into two separate and distinct counties and parishes by a line beginning at Earl Granville's where it crosses the Catawba River; and the said river to the line of the South Carolina line; and that all part of the said county which lies eastward of the said dividing line shall be a distinct county and parish, and shall remain and be called Mecklenburg County and St. Martin's Parish, and all that county lying to the westward of the said dividing line shall be one other distinct county and parish and called Tryon County and St. Thomas' Parish." The act further provided that courts for the new county should be held on the fourth Tuesdays of April, July, October, and January.
But what of the courts for the territory that remained Mecklenburg County?
Here, the researcher into colonial history must strongly suspect, the clever Polk collected Mecklenburg's political payoff. Even Governor Tryon may have given his wink toward its accomplishment. In August the Governor had visited Charlotte and in honor of that visit and ostensibly to commemorate it, but more likely to curry His Excellency's favor, the citizens of the village had named the principal street Tryon. The new county west of the Catawba likewise had been named Tryon, at Polk's suggestion, it might be surmised, surely with his approval.
But at any rate and however Polk accomplished it, the Assembly decreed that for the next seven years the courts of Mecklenburg should hold their sessions in the newly built court house in Charlotte. It was not until 1774, when the seven-year period had almost expired, that the still determined Tom Polk managed to obtain passage of his bill designating Charlotte as Mecklenburg's county seat. But, practically speaking, "auld Tam," early Mecklenburg's master politician, had won his battle that day in 1768 when he eased his seven-year provision through the legislative mill.
There were politicians, too, in those days.


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.