A valley of malcontented humility

A valley of malcontented humility

A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713; by Noeleen McIlvenna; UNC Press, 2009

North Carolina comes by its contrarian streak honestly, according to the pages of A Very Mutinous People, a meticulously footnoted and indexed micro history by Noeleen McIlvenna of the region known back then as Albemarle. The 50-year span she deconstructs, which occurred well after the colony at Roanoke vanished into the saltwater mists, saw the emergence of North Carolina as a colonial entity and the underpinnings of an American thirst for democracy that, 100 years later, would lead to the American Revolution. The author begins the story in 1660, the year the monarchy was restored after the English Revolution, and her historical narrative has all the stuff of great fiction. In 1660, the area known as Albemarle occupied the northeast corner of what is now North Carolina, roughly from the Chowan River to the Outer Banks and from the Virginia border across the Albemarle Sound. Between the water and the tobacco plantations simmered the Great Dismal Swamp, 2,200 square miles of impenetrable pocosin, thick mire, dangerous flora and fauna. By 1660, the author describes American colonists who had seen their English King tried by the people and beheaded, seen a gentleman farmer, Oliver Cromwell, build a republic advocating religious freedom and meritocracy. They had powerful new ideas about authority, liberty, tradition and reason. They were angry enough to leave England as Charles II took the throne during Reconstruction; disdainful of Virginia’s landed gentry who had already carved that colony up into tobacco plantations, or the affected finery and slave-owning ways of South Carolina aristocracy. And they were brave enough — or desperate enough —to ford the Great Dismal Swamp. They were veterans of Cromwell’s army, Roundheads, sailors who could navigate the barrier islands and inner waterways. They were escaped slaves, indentured servants and debtors looking for open space and peace of mind. They were trappers and traders and fishermen, outcasts and hustlers and prisoners. Many of them sought religious freedom, like that most radical of dissident groups, the Quakers.

The first European settler on record is Nathaniel Batts, a fur trader who fled Virginia in disgrace, leaving behind a wife. He traded with the Yeopim Indians, eventually taking a native bride and buying land from the elders of the tribe. McIlvenna calls him the “unofficial governor” of the state in the 1660s, after boatloads of disillusioned Virginians settled there too. By the 1670s, the colony was home to an elaborate smuggling operation that flourished in the shadows of British tariffs and presaged an armed rebellion against the governor of Virginia. The man who laid claim to the position of governor of the colony in the 1680s was Seth Sothell. He came on the scene in 1681 after being ransomed by Turkish Pirates and quickly grabbed power and land. Over the course of the decade he would build a corrupt and terrible regime while pirates cruised the waters outside the barrier islands. Sothell was overthrown by a scorned ally as the century came to a close. The period in the state’s history is riddled with scoundrels, malcontents, revolutionaries and idealists. The man who gave his name to the Containment Area for Relocated Yankees, for example, Thomas Cary, led the colony after a soft coup that counted just one casualty. He was eventually deposed by a cabal with ties to Virginia and the Crown. Naturally, he then enlisted the aid of the Tuscarora Indians and led an armed rebellion, which was not quelled until the Virginia Militia, and Royal Marines drew close. McIlvenna, an assistant professor of history at Ohio’s Wright State University, uses primary source documents to make her case: letters, personal papers, journals, narratives

McIlvenna calls him the “unofficial governor” of the state in the 1660s, after boatloads of disillusioned Virginians settled there too.