Disgruntled settlers in the Upper Tar River region, including men from present-day Edgecombe, Franklin, Granville, Halifax, Nash, Vance, Warren, and Wilson Counties, rioted in 1759 to protest unfair treatment related to the collection of taxes on their land. The seeds of their anger had been sown nearly 100 years earlier, and it would take a revolution to put an end to the trouble.
King Charles II of England issued the Carolina Charter in 1663 in an attempt to establish a framework for governing the Carolina colony, a vast area stretching from what is now the Virginia border to Florida and westward to the Pacific Ocean.
Eight noblemen known as the Lords Proprietors received equal portions of this land. They had the authority to grant real property to settlers (who did not own it in fee simple as landowners do today) and to collect annual property taxes known as quitrents.
In 1712, the colony was divided into North and South Carolina. The Carolina proprietary was a chaotic experiment that led the English Parliament in 1729 to appropriate funds for the purchase of seven of the proprietors' shares and, with King George II, to institute a system of royal government.
A descendant of one of the original lords, Earl Granville, refused to sell his share. In 1742, he agreed to a settlement that entitled him to a large portion of North Carolina, stretching some sixty-five miles south of the Virginia border. This situation made it very difficult for royal governors to administer the colony, because Earl Granville owned the most populous section and received the quitrents paid by settlers who lived there.
The behavior of Earl Granville's chief agent in the colony, Francis Corbin, made matters worse. A legislative committee complained in 1755 that Corbin and his subordinates granted the same land to multiple individuals, collected fees from each of them, and refused to refund the money. They declared the grants of earlier agents void and collected new fees for the same property. Moreover, Corbin and his subordinates exacted excessively high fees.
Many owners did not have clear title to their land, and it was difficult to determine what land was available for settlement. The committee complained that these actions were "great grievances" that undermined Earl Granville's interests and retarded the development of the northern portion of the colony.
When the royal government took no action to address these abuses, local men, many of whom appear to have been substantial property owners and officeholders, took matters into their own hands.
On January 25, 1759, a group of approximately twenty to twenty-five men from Edgecombe, Granville, and Halifax Counties went to Edenton, where Corbin lived, and kidnapped him and his coagent, Joshua Bodley. They took them to Enfield, where Corbin had a land office, held them for four days, and forced them to open their land records for inspection.
Corbin agreed in writing to refund fees that had been collected illegally. Then, on May 14, a mob converged on the jail in Enfield, broke it open, and freed those who had been arrested for kidnapping Corbin and Bodley. Earl Granville subsequently dismissed Corbin.
Dissatisfaction with officials in the Granville District continued. It was not until revolutionaries assumed control of North Carolina in the 1770s and a new constitution was adopted that the state was unified.
Published in The Franklin Times on March 6, 2014.
Sources: Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol. 5 (1887) and Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006).
Illustration courtesy of Learn NC.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.