Colonial Dixie: Early North Carolina and the Beginning of the Tuscarora War

Early settlement in North Carolina came in 1655, as Virginians began seeping southward into the Albemarle region. The first documented European resident was Nathaniel Batts, though he only stayed temporarily. Four years later came John Harvey and his family followed by several hundred more Virginians in the 1660s.

In 1663, Charles II gave the first charter for North Carolina to eight of his supporters that helped him, the Lords Proprietors. Initially, settlement was slow due to a lack of deep harbors and marshy terrain in the northwest of the colony, making it hard to enter. The proprietors didn’t help this either as they saw the colony as an easy way to make money with little effort. They established high taxes and inefficient government, which ultimately discouraged new settlers to come into the colony. Although, outlaws, squatters and entrepreneurs occasionally immigrated, leading to a slow but steady growth.

In the late 1600s, new immigrants settled at the base of the Cape Fear River and in present-day Onslow County. French Huguenots added to the southern settlements by establishing their own at the base of the Trent and Tar Rivers in 1690 and 1707, respectively. Another group that added to the complicated demography of early North Carolina was the Quakers. They were established in 1672 by William Edmundson and George Fox and, within a few years, had become a sizeable portion of the colony. Along with the Anglican establishment (though many Anglicans were irreligious), they vyed for influence in the colony.

In 1708 and 1709, the next wave of immigrants materialized as German protestants from the Palatinate fled their devastated homes, leaving for London where they became more or less squatters. When Christopher De Graffenried, a Swiss aristocrat saw this, he devised a plan to relocate several thousand of them to North America with financial aid from Queen Anne.

Christopher De Graffenried

After meeting John Lawson, a surveyor and explorer that had done work in North Carolina in 1701, De Graffenried agreed to make North Carolina the site for his proposed settlement. The settlement was arranged for more than Palatinate Germans however, and came to also include Swiss paupers and Anabaptists. 15,000 acres were secured at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers with another 25,000 on the White Oak River. 650 Palatine Germans were sent to the colony in January of 1710, though De Graffenried would come later with his Swiss settlers.

The voyage went poorly for the Palatines as many died during it and they were also attacked by a French privateer upon reaching Virginia. Once in Virginia, only half remained. They traveled through the Great Dismal Swamp and came upon Thomas Pollock’s plantation where they were given boat rides to where their colony was to be established. Once there, they did little more than wait for De Graffenried and the Swiss who arrived in late September.

Once De Graffenried was there he grudgingly paid off the nearby Indians that lived in Chattooka town and set about organizing the new city which was to be New Bern. Things began looking up for the Germans and Swiss as they got their land and began their new lives in North Carolina. But they had come during uncertain times.

Unrest in North Carolina had been characteristic since the 1670s when Culpeper’s Rebellion overthrew the appointed government but true unrest came in the early 1700s when Thomas Cary came to power for the second time as Chief Executive. Cary reformed quitrents in Bath County (the southern part of the colony) and removed test oaths, a move Quakers heavily supported. When Cary retired and Edward Hyde took over, Hyde sought to reverse Cary’s reforms. Cary, however, led a rebellion in Bath County. Hyde responded with 150 men and tried to arrest Cary though Cary dispersed them with artillery. Cary retaliated by sending a brigantine to attack Hyde but failed after Virginia Governor, Alexander Spotswood sent reinforcements to aid Hyde. After the failed attack, Cary was captured later in Virginia and sent back to England to face trial but was let go a year later.

After Cary’s Rebellion, North Carolina’s future looked bright and the colony was finally beginning to really expand outside of the small northeast pocket of the Albemarle which housed roughly 15,000 people. Now New Bern had been established, trade was up, immigration was up, and political unrest had been settled for a time, or so it would seem.

Though everything seemed all right to the Europeans, to the Natives, it was all coming to the brink of war. Abuses by European traders, squatters, slave raids, and European encroachment had convinced many of the largest tribe, the Tuscarora, that something needed to be done. They saw their chance when De Graffenried and John Lawson headed up the Neuse River to explore possibilities for future expansion. They were ambushed by the Tuscarora however and captured. They even mistook De Graffenried for the Governor of Carolina as he wore such luxurious clothes. After several weeks of debate, the Tuscarora decided that they would execute Lawson and a slave they had captured with him, while letting De Graffenried go.

On September 22, 1711, 500 Tuscarora warriors and their allies descended on the scattered settlements around Bath and New Bern. They attacked whoever they found, just like in Virginia in 1622, sparing neither age nor sex. Slaves were not spared either. Houses were burned, livestock killed and corpses mutilated. Atrocities were commonplace during these attacks as, “Women were laid on their house floors and great stakes run through their bodies. Others big with child, the infants were ript out and hung upon trees” (La Vere, 71). Attacks like these continued for several days and after they had stopped had left settlers too frightened to return to their fields.

The attack was still not as bad as it could have been. Only the Southern Tuscarora attacked while the Northern Tuscarora decided it was not worth cutting of trade with Europeans. The attacks also targeted the sparsely populated Bath County instead of the Albemarle settlements. As such, total casualties for the attack hovered at about 150. Still, life in that part of the colony was as David La Vere describes it, “touch and go” and life would now resume to normality for years.

The first Carolinian response came when popular William Brice gathered about 60 settlers to lead an attack. He was to be aided by 150 Albemarle militiamen, but they never would leave Bath and so he was left to lead his short campaign himself. Around October 12, Brice led his men to attack Catechna town where the leader of the Southern Tuscarora lived, King Hancock. They managed to capture several Indians and even a chieftain before they were ambushed by 300 Tuscarora warriors. After retreating, they were harassed until they got to Brice’s plantation. There they found that while they had sallied out, Brice’s plantation was attacked. To make matters worse, his prisoners rebelled once inside and it was only after killing them and dispersing the sieging party of Tuscarora did the Brice’s militiamen get any relief. Brice was able to keep control of 39 captives though, which he sold into slavery.

Life in Bath County had ground to an absolute halt that winter. The entire colony was in a state of fear. It seemed powerless. Fears also arose that the Seneca and perhaps the entire Iroquious would join the Tuscaroras as they had been antagonizing them into war and both peoples were closely related.

North Carolina was on the verge of destruction. Only help from outside could redeem it.

Vere, David La. Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers, and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies. Univ Of North Carolina Pr, 2016.

One comment

  1. Thank you for having shared this with us.

    Just this little excerpt refutes a lot of politically correct stereotype about what was what, when our Forefathers came here – particularly with regards to the allegedly helpless, peaceful, an omnipotently wise Redmen:)