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carolina pioneer john culpepper

Carolina Pioneer John Culpepper…Rogue or Patriot

Early America, like today, had its controversial figures. Most early colonists came to America to acquire land and establish a home without much interference from a strong government and certainly no unnecessary taxes. The first European settlers who arrived in what is now the wilderness areas of North and South Carolina found vast amounts of unsettled land that at first required only negotiating with friendly Indians to acquire. Usually for a year or two, when the number of number of settlers in a particular area was small, Indians and settlers lived harmoniously with each other.

But as more colonists moved in, it became necessary to impose laws concerning such things as security and land acquisition, especially since most of the land was still claimed by the various tribes of Indians, some who were willing to sell and some who were not. Even Indians who had been friendly at first, began to resent large numbers of white settlers moving into their territory. Conflicts were frequent as the settlers pushed westward.

Since many of the settlers were tied politically to England, English laws applied to them even though their homes might be miles into the wilderness. Some settlers welcomed English laws, but many did not, especially when political intrigues in England influenced the ebb and flow of American colonization. One of the most important influences on Carolina colonization was the crowning of Charles II as king of England in 1660.

After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the government leader who had executed Charles I and ruled England for 9 years, most English people were ready to return to a monarchy. Charles I’s son who was the next in line for the crown had been living in exile in France and the Netherlands since the death of his father. Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard took his father’s place as English ruler but he was unpopular and did not last long in office.

Soon after Richard Cromwell left office, eight influential Englishmen began working together to bring the younger Charles to England and arrange to have him crowned king. Their plan succeeded, and King Charles II rewarded the eight men by giving them the entire colony of Carolina from the Savannah River north to the border of Virginia. Given the title of Lords Proprietors, they hoped to turn their thousands of acres of Carolina land into a profitable venture. Their plan was to grant, sell, or rent land to the colonists and then charge an annual tax on it. Plus, they would benefit from the goods exported from the colony. Their charter went into effect in 1663.

The first attempt at establishing a colony had been in 1663 on the lower Cape Fear River, south of today’s Wilmington, North Carolina and involved a group of Puritan settlers from New England who at that time were not under the Lords Proprietors charter. For some reason, this group did not stay long. The second attempt was made in early 1664 primarily by a group of wealthy sugarcane planters from the island of Barbados led by John Vassall. These planters were looking for cheap but fertile land which would yield a profit if the right crops for the area could be determined.  

The Barbadians were soon joined by another group of settlers, some British and some Barbadian led by John Yeamans who was more closely aligned with the Lords Proprietors than Vassall. Although in the next few months the colony grew to around 800 residents, the colonists faced a number of problems. The start with, Vassall and Yeamans had different ideas about how the colony ought to be governed and were constantly feuding. Then a large supply ship ran aground in the shoals of the Cape Fear River causing the loss of large amounts of food and needed equipment. Also, the settlers who were trying to establish farms and plantations along the river were having disputes with the local Indians. By 1667 the problems had become insurmountable and nearly all of the colonists packed up and went back to Barbados or England.

Two years later, in August 1669, the Lords Proprietors bought and outfitted three ships to transport settlers to another part of Carolina. This time they would attempt a settlement several miles south of Cape Fear at Port Royal Sound, an area near today’s Beaufort, SC that had been explored by William Hilton and Robert Sandford and found to be satisfactory for a settlement. But by 1669, a hostile tribe of Indians, the Westos, had moved into the area, so after stops in Barbados, Nevis, Bermuda, and Port Royal, the colonists decided to go north and settled in what is now Charleston Harbor. Two of the ships had been damaged along the way, but one of the three ships, The Carolina, made it to what is now Charleston, South Carolina in April 1670. Two other ships came to the new settlement named Charles Towne a few weeks later.

The colonists were far from home, not many miles north of Spanish Florida, and trying to build a colony on land occupied by a number of Indian tribes. It turned out that most of the coastal Indians they encountered were friendly and eager to trade deerskins and food for English goods, but threats from the Spanish drove the settlers to build a wooden palisade around the settlement and set up large cannons.

The political situation in Charles Towne, while not quite as bad as it had been at the Cape Fear settlement, was raucous and often adversarial. Many of the planters who had boarded the ships in Barbados were used to getting their way on matters such as using slave labor and how the government should be run. And to make matters worse, the fellow who had been appointed surveyor general responsible for laying out lots and parcels of farm land was not doing a good job. Land and lot boundaries were critical to people who had left their homes and sailed for months to build a new life in a strange land. They had to know the exact boundaries of what they owned from grants and purchases.

It was not long before many people were wanting to replace the surveyor, Florence O’Sullivan, with someone more competent. When it was discovered that John Culpepper, who had come to Charles Towne in 1671, had some skill at surveying and drawing, he was made a deputy to O’Sullivan and soon surpassed O’Sullivan as Surveyor General.  For about two years Culpepper “served with skill and diligence” and was chosen for the Charles Towne ruling council.

Then in 1673, a “civil disturbance broke out” and it was said that John Culpepper “headed the malcontents”. The nature of the disturbance seemed to stem from some provisions of the Fundamental Constitution, a document written by Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the Lords Proprietors, with the help of his secretary, the famous philosopher, John Locke.

The Constitution, intended to be the governing document for all of the Carolina colony, basically set up an aristocratic government similar to the English system with large scale landowners given the authority to make most of the rules as to how the colony was to be run. The Constitution was progressive in that it allowed a great deal more religious freedom than was found in most European countries at the time. And there was a modicum of democracy built in that allowed members of the lower assembly to be elected by landowners who owned at least 50 acres. Smaller landowners, however, had little involvement in the government. Apparently, Culpepper and his fellow rebels felt as if the system did not allow enough people to have a voice in how the colony should be governed. As one Carolinian put it, Culpepper got into trouble for: “endeavoring to set the poor to plunder the rich.” Could it be argued that Culpepper’s small rebellion was an early call for a more democratic form of government, a call that was heard more and more over the next decades, a call that eventually led to the Revolution of 1776?

John Culpepper Map Charles Towne 1673
John Culpepper Map Charles Towne 1673

Culpepper had done good work as a surveyor. He laid out lots in the original Charles Towne settlement and in 1672 followed the template of the Grand Model laid out for the new Charles Towne that was to be established on the peninsular between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, across the Ashley River from the original settlement. The map he drew showing the original Charles Towne lots and their owners in 1673 has become an important historical document. But the civil disturbance that Culpepper was involved in, grew to the point that he decided to leave the colony. He headed north for the Albemarle settlement in North Carolina.

Perhaps Culpepper desired to live in a less aristocratic, more democratic society, not ruled by large landowners. Like Virginia, South Carolina had been settled as a profit-making venture. The colony at Jamestown, Virginia, for example, was financed by investors who formed the Virginia Company and who expected a return on their investment. The Carolina colony was backed by the eight Lords Proprietors who planned to collect taxes from those who used their land.

The business idea had been tried earlier in North Carolina, but the profit-making ventures on Roanoke Island in the 1580s, backed by Walter Raleigh, did not survive. Several years later, settlers began to drift into North Carolina down from Virginia or up from South Carolina. One of the first settlers was Nathaniel Batts who had come from Virginia and set up a trading post on the west end of Albemarle Sound in 1655. In 1661 another early seller, George Durant, bought land from the Yeopin Indians and established a farm along Albemarle Sound. At the time there was little interference from government regulations and settlers were drawn to the land.

The colonies at Roanoke, Cape Fear, as well as Charles Towne had served two purposes: to make a profit for the backers of the expeditions, plus, establish an English presence to prevent further Spanish expansion into North America. Although the colonies did not prove to be highly profitable, they established English culture in North America.  However, the only profit-seeking at Albemarle was the individual farmers trying to make a profit from their crops.

By the time Culpepper arrived at Albemarle in late 1673, it had become a thriving community primarily based on the cultivation of tobacco, similar to their neighboring colony to the north. At that time, the influence of Anthony Ashley Cooper’s Fundamental Constitution was not strong. The Albemarle settlement had sprung up on its own, was gaining population, and doing fine without much government or proprietary guidance, and this seemed to suit Culpepper.

For the next four years, things seemed quiet at Albemarle but many of the citizens resented the fact that the Lords Proprietors, through their deputies, were beginning to impose laws and collect more tax than the populous deemed necessary. Like his neighbors, John Culpepper farmed and participated in helping make what few laws were necessary to maintain peace and stability in the community. He and his neighbors did not think the settlement needed a strong proprietary government based on the English system.

Another problem was a series of Navigation Acts passed by the English Parliament which required that exports from the American colonies only be shipped on English ships and go only to English ports. This made the shipping of such things as tobacco, furs, naval stores, and lumber, the mainstays of the Albemarle settlement, expensive and limited the markets for the goods. Colonists who depended on exporting goods resented the cost and limitations imposed by the Navigation Acts. To them it was just another form of unnecessary taxation.

The situation came to a head in 1677, when Thomas Miller, who was “collector of the royal customs” was considered to be a little too enthusiastic in his attempt to get better control of the tax collection system. Possibly inspired by Bacon’s Rebellion the previous year in Virginia which resulted in several deaths and the burning of Jamestown, Culpepper, George Durant and around 40 others staged a much less violent insurrection in which Miller, who was also filling in for the colony’s governor who was in London at the time, as well as several other representatives of the Proprietary government were arrested. Culpepper was appointed governor in Miller’s place and also became collector of customs. Because of his leadership, the insurrection came to be known as Culpepper’s Rebellion. In a short time, John Jenkins was made governor and Culpepper retained the title of collector of customs, although very little revenue was collected during his tenure.

Too much government intervention, too much taxation, and no desire for an aristocratic nobility system of government led to the revolt. Even at this early time in American history, the idea of a democratic government, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was brewing in people’s minds.

When word got to London about the rebellion, the Lords Proprietors sent men to escort Culpepper to London to stand trial for treason and that he had been derelict in collecting taxes. During the trial, it was brought out that Governor Thomas Eastchurch had not consulted the Lords Proprietors before appointing Thomas Miller as governor, thus, in the eyes of the Proprietors, Miller was not officially the governor. It was also brought up that Miller had at times used coercive measures to collect revenue. Based on these revelations, John Culpepper was found not guilty and he returned to Albemarle.

By the time Culpepper got back to Albemarle, a new customs collector, Robert Holden, had been appointed and apparently was more lenient than Miller had been. Miller had left the prison at Albemarle and was living in Virginia. The situation calmed down in Albemarle, but the hated Navigation Acts were still in place.

The Albemarle farmers stated that they wanted to ship their tobacco “when and where they pleased and not a farthing in custom should be paid.” To get around the Navigation Acts, which cut deeply into their profits, Albemarle farmers used New England shippers to smuggle their tobacco to a variety of ports in Europe. The circumventing of English laws and tariffs was technically illegal but seemed to be tolerated to a certain extent to benefit the farmers.

After Culpepper’s acquittal in London, he returned home and settled into the life of a farmer. He married Margaret Bird whose husband had died in 1679. They apparently lived quietly until John’s death around 1692.

John Culpepper left a mixed legacy. Some consider him a rebellious rogue while others see him as a patriot trying to rectify unfair laws. At least one of his contemporaries labeled him a “schemer” who was “never in his element but whilst fishing in troubled waters.” On the other hand, he stood up to help those who felt as if their views and grievances were being ignored by the government officials appointed by the Lords Proprietors. The farmers and ordinary citizens worked hard earning a living by tilling the soil, clearing land, or hunting. They had to cope with drought, floods, and crop failures. The last thing they needed was high taxes and restricted access to markets for their exports.

Over the next few years, a number of Lords Proprietors came and went. By the late 1600s none of the original eight were left. The proprietorships had been sold or passed on to others who attempted to make a profit from the Carolina colonies. But trouble had been brewing since John Culpepper and his followers had staged their rebellion. As time went on, the Carolinians, both north and south, grew more and more dissatisfied with Proprietary rule and their on-going efforts to make money from the colony. They ended it in December 1719 by having King George I set up the Carolinas as crown colonies with a governor, a council, and a House of Commons set up similar to the English parliamentary system. Insurrections such as Bacon’s Rebellion, Culpepper’s Rebellion and others planted the seeds for Americans who, in the next century, would break away from British rule. Documents such as the Mecklenburg Declaration of 1775 by which North Carolina became in effect the first American colony to establish its independence from Britain, and of course, the Declaration of Independence of 1776 which established America as a free and independent nation, established a government John Culpepper would, no doubt, have approved of.

Ted McCormack

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