Culpeper’s Rebellion (Part II)

Written By North Carolina History Project

[Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series on the rebellion against British control in 1677. Part I can be found here. Part III is here.]

Shortly after his arrival in Albemarle, John Culpeper joined John Jenkins and other antiproprietatary faction members in a plot to arrest Thomas Miller, the proprietary leader in the colony.  Despite Miller’s widespread political influence, he drank alcohol excessively, and when drinking, Miller uttered what Jenkins and Culpeper considered treasonable and blasphemous statements.

In March 1676, Governor John Jenkins arrested Thomas Miller on charges of blasphemy and treason during a regular meeting of the colony’s Assembly.  Jenkins was aware that the higher, proprietor-dominated Palatine Court would likely acquit Miller of these charges, so Jenkins ordered Miller to be imprisoned until May.  Despite the convincing case that Jenkins and the antiproprietary faction had crafted, Miller was acquitted of all charges in his trial at the Palatine Court.  After the trial, Miller sailed to England to explain his actions to the Lords Proprietors.

Miller’s arrest increased tensions within the colony.  When Thomas Eastchurch attempted to appeal a county court decision to the Palatinate Court, Justice John Willoughby “refused on grounds that his court was final authority.”  Eastchurch responded by having Willoughby summoned to the Palatinate Court as a result of the ruling. Not only did Willoughby refuse to comply with the indictment, he also “thrashed” the court officer who had served him the subpoena. The Albemarle Assembly outlawed Willoughby for his actions and he fled to Virginia. Soon after the Willoughby incident, another antiproprietary member on the council, Thomas Cullen, was also expelled from the Assembly for trading with Indians.

With increasing momentum behind the proprietary party, Eastchurch decided he would takeover the Albemarle government.  Eastchurch encouraged the Council’s decision to remove Jenkins and imprison him in September 1675. But Eastchurch would not hold this position for long.

In March of 1676, George Durant led a counter coup that forced the Assembly to close. Durant and his supports chased Eastchurch from Albemarle into Virginia.  He then fled to England. Jenkins was reappointed to the Governorship and the antiproprietary faction was left in complete control of the county.

By early fall of 1676, Eastchurch and Miller had arrived in London and had gained the ear of the Proprietors.  Eastchurch smoothly obtained the appointment to the Governorship of the County.  Eastchurch even managed to have his friend Miller appointed as secretary and collector of customs.  With their new appointments, Eastchurch and Miller set sail for the Carolinas with a planned stop in the West Indies in the summer of 1677. While in the West Indies, Eastchurch met an heiress whom he quickly married. Eastchurch decided to stay in the islands with his new bride for an extended honeymoon.  To enable this extended stay in the West Indies, and without any authority to do so, Eastchurch appointed Miller to serve as Governor of Albemarle County in his place.

Within a few days of Miller’s arrival in Albemarle, Patrick White, who vowed he would “never allow for the customs duties to be collected,” assaulted the new Governor. Although he was met with violence, Miller successfully summoned the assembly and began to conduct business. One of Miller’s first actions as Governor was to replace the previous customs collector, Bird, with Henry Hudson. Miller also raised a militia to enforce the collection of customs. In the first few months after Miller’s return it appeared that he had successfully gained control over the colony.  As Miller’s power in the colony increased, he started to arbitrarily arrest and excessively fine antiproprietary men who had reason to unite once gain again.

Tensions boiled over when Durant returned from England on December 1, 1677.  Upon the Carolina’s arrival, Miller boarded the boat and demanded accounts of the tobacco shipped for the past year.  However, when Gillam produced said records Miller refused them and placed Gillam and his crew under arrest.  That night, Miller learned that Durant was also aboard the Carolina so he returned to the ship and arrested Durant at gunpoint.

News of Durant’s arrest prompted the antiproprietary faction to take action. On December 3rd, John Culpeper led an armed party to Timothy Biggs’ home. The group captured Biggs and all of the county records that he was holding in his home. After capturing Biggs, Culpeper wrote Remonstrance, which encouraged the entire county to revolt against Miller’s government. Culpeper’s group continued the following day by capturing Miller and John Nixon, a proprietary member of the council. After successfully arresting Miller, Culpeper wrote to Richard Foster, the political leader of Currituck, and told him to arrest Henry Hudson and to bring him to trial at Durant’s house. Culpepper’s force continued on into Chowan County where he and his men seized that county marshal along with all of his records.

Back in Currituck, Foster seized Hudson and called for a meeting to elect burgesses to represent the Currituck precinct at the coming assembly. Meanwhile, Culpeper’s group had turned into a mob in Albemarle. Encouraged by the new shipment of rum from Gillam’s ship, the mob placed Miller in Irons and destroyed the stocks and pillory.

Foster’s party arrived from Currituck on the 24th or 25th of December and joined Culpeper’s men to form an assembly of eighteen members, which elected Thomas Cullen as speaker.   The assembly also voted to establish a court with Richard Foster serving as Chief Justice. Durant, who became the rebel government’s Attorney General, sailed for London to inform the proprietors of the change in leadership.  Historian Lindley Butler writes that John Jenkins, former deputy governor, more than likely returned to his leadership position as head of the rebel council.  The only remaining opponent to the rebel government, Governor Eastchurch, passed away within a few weeks after the coup from a fever he contracted in the islands.

The rebel government seemed to have the colony under control, until Timothy Biggs escaped from prison and fled to London to report on the colonists’ actions.  Upon his arrival in London, Biggs easily gained the attention of the Lords Proprietors who were fearful that the Crown might use the rebellion as justification to recover the proprietary colonies. In an effort to appease Biggs and maintain control over the colony, the proprietors appointed Biggs comptroller of customs and surveyor general of the colony in September 1678. A proprietor, Seth Sothel, was appointed governor in hopes of regaining control over the colony. However, en route to Albemarle, Sothel was captured by Turkish pirates and held for ransom in Algiers. When the other proprietors learned of the kidnapping, they simply appointed John Harvey, who had respect from both factions, as president of the council and acting governor. Yet controversy remained about the appointment of Biggs to comptroller of customs, so Robert Holden was appointed in his place. On the way to Albemarle, Holden stopped in Boston to check on the New England traders. While there, Holden decided that Culpeper had not been collecting customs correctly. But Holden evidently changed his mind upon arrival in Albemarle, and was effectively collecting customs in the county and sending their returns within a month.

In response to Biggs’ claims, Culpeper sailed to London to explain his actions in the summer of 1678. In a trial held by the proprietors, Culpeper admitted his rebellious actions and placed himself under a five-hundred-dollar bail with the stipulation that he returned all missing customs receipts within a year. The proprietors were satisfied with Culpeper’s self-imposed punishment and hoped the conflict had been resolved.

But the proprietors’ problems with Albemarle County were far from over. In August of 1679, Miller was brought to trial before the Palatinate Court for the same charges as before, treasonable and blasphemous words. Upon his release to the county marshal’s custody, Miller escaped and fled to London by way of Virginia.  Once in London, Miller appealed directly to the King with a petition concerning the rebellion.  The King responded by issuing a warrant for Culpeper’s arrest on December 19.  After weeks of internment, Culpeper requested to be brought to trial. In turn, the King ordered the proprietors to present a copy of their charter along with their full report on the rebellion.

Assuming that a Culpeper conviction for treasonous activities would reflect poorly on the proprietors’ ability to control the county, the proprietors decided to defend the antiproprietary rebellion leader, John Culpeper.