Culpeper’s Rebellion (Part I)

Written By North Carolina History Project

[Editor’s note: This essay discusses the roots of Culpeper’s Rebellion (1677). See Part II and Part III.]

Some historians have argued that the Albemarle colony’s location, an isolated one in the frontier backwaters of colonial northern Carolina, fostered the development of individual initiative and self-governance in the region.  It seems that the Albemarle region did indeed have a culture of independence that nourished seeds of liberty (or rebellion to some); at least five rebellions occurred there before the American Revolution. Culpeper’s rebellion, the most significant rebellion of the proprietary period in Albemarle Colony, exemplified the area’s dedication to opposing unfair taxation and demanding sovereignty in affairs.

By 1663, mostly Virginia planters had settled the Albemarle region and in five years had transformed the area dominated by the Dismal Swamp into a habitable settlement. When King Charles II extended a charter for Carolina to eight Lords Proprietors in 1663, Albemarle settlers reluctantly accepted the new government. The appointment of William Drummond of Virginia as governor brought proprietary authority to the settlers in Albemarle, and in less than a year courts and a representative assembly were established in the county.

In January of 1665, the proprietors formulated a governing document entitled “Concessions and Agreement.”  It established a unicameral assembly composed of a governor, the council, and elected representatives and offered the Albemarle settlers considerable political independence. The Albemarle region apparently began to follow the document within the year.

By 1670, however, the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina” became the law of Albemarle Colony.  This document primarily protected the Lords Proprieters’ interests and instituted a complicated feudal system that fostered discontent among the pre-proprietor settlers.

Episodic severe weather, that included droughts and hurricanes, made growing sufficient crops in the Albemarle colony nearly impossible.  By 1672, Governor Phillip Carteret planned to travel to England to request aid from the Lords Proprietors in England.  Before crossing the Atlantic, John Jenkins, an influential council member, was appointed deputy governor.  He was authorized to act as governor until Carteret returned or the proprietors appointed another governor.

Carteret’s efforts proved unsuccessful in securing any assistance for the struggling colony. By the time Carteret arrived in England, the Lords Proprietors were preoccupied with another issue concerning the colony—the appointment of William Berkley, governor of Virginia and a proprietor of Carolina, as sole proprietor of Albemarle County.  Negotiations concerning the appointment of Berkley took several years, and the Lords Proprietors made few decisions regarding the colony while negotiations were ongoing. Virginia’s attempt to lay claim to the Albemarle settlement only complicated the situation more.  As a result of such proprietary neglect, the Albemarle settlement had a weak government.

Poor communications existed between the Lords Proprietors in England and the Albemarle settlement. The barrier islands that surrounded the colony, known today as the Outer Banks, prevented travel to England and made trading with New Englanders difficult. Despite these difficulties, Albemarle’s economy relied primarily on tobacco by the 1670s.  In an effort to prevent Dutch trade with the American colonies, England passed navigation acts favoring English traders while making colonists pay the cost. The Proprietors further attempted to curb tobacco trades that were suddenly considered illegal under the navigation acts. The Plantation Duty Act (1673) placed a tax of a penny per pound of tobacco to be paid at the port of purchase.  This legislation became a financial burden on most colonists’ shoulders.  In Albemarle, according to the accounts of Peter Carteret, the market price for tobacco was only two cents per pound at the time that the Plantation Duty Act was enacted.

Given the economic strain that the Plantation Duty Act placed on the colony, Jenkins, a member of the anti-proprietary or popular faction that was comprised mostly of pre-proprietary settlers, was not concerned with enforcing the Act.  However, some council members, such as Thomas Eastchurch, were determined to enforce the Act despite threats from New England traders to double shipping prices. Once Albemarle farmers heard these plans and subsequent threats, they in turn threatened council members to prevent the Act’s implementation. A seemingly immanent conflict was avoided with the appointment of Valentine Bird as tax collector. Bird was a member of the antiproprietary faction, who appeased the antiproprietary settlers by collecting the taxes “halfheartedly and inefficiently.” However, by the summer of 1675 the proprietary faction had already ascended to power.  Meanwhile, the anti-proprietary faction welcomed a new leader who had contributed to political unrest in South Carolina, and would continue to do so in Albemarle–John Culpeper.