This is Part 8 of 50 in an occasional series …
My original plan was to write the first thirteen of these state origin stories in the rough order of earliest European settlement, but here’s where I run into some tricky chronology issues. The conceit automatically ignores any Spanish settlement, an issue I’ll explain in more depth when I get to Florida. The format as it stands would have me do Delaware next, as the first European settlers landed in Delaware at roughly the same time the three New England colonies that weren’t Massachusetts were getting started. But Delaware’s story makes more sense if it comes after Pennsylvania, so that’s where I’m putting it. This takes me to the Carolinas, then, but you can’t really tell the story of the Carolinas one at a time. Their tales are wrapped around each other, so this one will come off as kind of a two-parter, with North Carolina getting enough of an edge to go first.
The first Europeans to wander past the Carolinas were a group of French people who ambled up the coast in about 1563 and named the whole thing for the French king, Charles IX. (I’m not enough of a linguist to know how you get from the French form of "Charles" to "Carolina," but I do know it involves a detour through Latin.) The French could have made life difficult for the English if they’d landed and maybe built a town, but they didn’t. The name was the only French thing that stuck once the English took over, and the English only kept that because by the time they got around to settling the Carolinas, they had a King Charles of their own, so nobody had to change the letterhead. The name came to be applied to all the territory between the 30th and 36th parallels and, by the English way of thinking, everything from the Atlantic Coast all the way to the Pacific. This sea-to-sea notion was actually included in the charters of several colonies, and it would be many years before anybody realized just how far you’d have to run a border to make that happen and just how absurd an idea that would be. It didn’t matter at the moment, anyway, as everybody was still sticking to the coast.
In 1663, English King Charles II granted a charter that gave most of the Province of Carolina to a group of eight men, naming them all Lord Proprietors. But the Lord Protectors were slow to do anything with their charter, and by the time they got around to it, people had already started building towns. In fact, there were already Europeans living in the future state of North Carolina when the charter was granted, as in 1653 Virginians had built the Albemarle Settlements in the swampland just inland from the northern end of the Outer Banks. King Charles and the Lord Proprietors (sounds like a band name) rolled with this once they figured it out, and Charles issued an amendment to the charter in 1665 that absorbed Albemarle into the Carolina Province. So the Lord Proprietors got their colonization off the ground without having to do anything, and already the project was paying off. Even then, though, the border between the colonies was vague, and nobody would know where exactly the line ran until a survey marked it in 1728.
Meanwhile, as Charles was futzing with the borders and the Lord Proprietors were still messing around in London, a group of Massachusetts Puritans came down in 1663 and tried settling in what is today southern North Carolina at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The Puritans hated the place, though, and they left almost immediately to go back to Massachusetts. Two years later in 1665, a group of English adventurers from Barbados landed at the same spot the Puritans had abandoned and, ignoring a sign warning people off the Puritans had posted in some obvious place, set about building the Clarendon Colony, Carolina’s second permanent settlement.
It turned out that the Lord Proprietors who were supposed to be the founders of the Carolina Colony were actually the third group of Europeans to build anything there. This group, led by Lord Proprietor and devoted loyalist to the crown Sir George Carteret and guided by one of those Barbados adventurers, landed in 1670 at a harbor near the present location of Beaufort, South Carolina. In what seems to be a trend among Carolina settlers, though, they soon decided they didn’t like the spot and moved a north to build their colony a short distance inland along the Ashley River. In 1680, the group moved again to the mouth of the river, where they founded the settlement that would become Charleston, and South Carolina was born.
The trajectory of the three Carolina settlements began to diverge almost as soon as Charleston started rising from the tidewater swamp, in part because this is the moment the English decided to get experimental with forms of government. In 1669, the Proprietors had the famous philosopher of law and human consciousness, John Locke, draw up the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, the document that would supposedly chart the path of Carolina civilization. But this was still kind of early in Locke’s career, and there were aspects of the thing that needed to be worked out. For instance, while everybody seemed fine with the religious tolerance aspect–Locke’s document left room even for Indian idolators and Jews–they were more troubled by the tax rate. Because, as I’ve often said in the past, if there’s any one constant throughout American history, it’s that nobody ever wants to pay for anything.
This is perhaps an unfair application of that constant, though, as the thing the Carolina colonists were being asked to pay for was mostly a disinterested, apathetic, self-serving pseudo-government of absentee Lord Proprietors who had taken a decade to even get started on their project and then only ever halfway paid attention to it. Things were especially bad in the northern settlements, so bad, in fact, that Clarendon went broke in 1671, and most of the settlers went off to live in Charleston. Those who stayed behind fell into the jurisdiction of Albemarle, which marks the moment the true separation of North and South Carolina was cemented in place. But Albemarle was already overextended, presiding over dozens of little settlements built in tiny clumps scattered across vast stretches of swampy lands where it was hard to grow anything, and where any form of colonial administration would have been difficult to manage even if the Proprietors had been more hands-on management types. What little money the colonists managed to pull from the ground kept getting swallowed up by the disinterested Proprietors and their royal government, either in taxes or through the oppressive trade restrictions imposed by the Navigation Acts.
In the late 1670s, the Albermarle settlers decided they’d finally had enough. They’d spent years by this point asking the Lord Proprietors for tax relief, and the Lord Proprietors kept turning them down. And so in 1677, a band of about 40 reputed troublemakers led by a guy named John Culpepper grabbed some guns, arrested Albemarle’s leaders, and declared themselves the lawful government of the north Carolina country. The revolt didn’t last long, as one of the deposed leaders managed to escape and somehow made his way back to England. Culpepper followed to plead his case, but while he easily could have been hanged, the Proprietors decided it would be better marketing to keep a lid on the whole thing. So they wound up defending Culpepper, saying the law had been so lax in Albemarle anyway that maybe Culpepper’s band had had a point. Culpepper was sent back to the colony as a hero, and the Lord Proprietors appointed one of their own, Seth Sothel, as governor and sent him to go and get a handle on things.
Sothel’s arrival in the colony was delayed by pirates, and by the time he finally got there, the colonists had taken care of most of the problems on their own. This left Sothel to see where he could profit from the thing, and the cycle started over again.The problem wasn’t worked out once and for all until 1691, when Sothel died and was replaced with a Virginia Quaker named Philip Ludwell. Ludwell finally convinced the Lord Proprietors to ease up on the tax thing and simplify the bureaucracy, and the new philosophy happened to coincide with an influx of new immigrants fleeing foreign wars. Things finally seemed to be on track in North Carolina.
But what about South Carolina? That will have to wait until next time.