Squatters in Orange County in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Squatters in Orange County in the 17th and 18th Centuries


In the 1740s there were two very hot properties in what would, in the 1750s, become Orange County, North Carolina.  Those were the Haw Fields and the Forks of the Eno.   They were attractive for different reasons; the Haw Fields for fecundity, and the Forks for transportation accessibility........probably.  We'll deal with the Haw old fields another time.  This note is about the forks of the Eno.

We are only beginning to get a vague image of European settlement in what would become Orange County, NC.  Until recently "settlement" was presumed to have begun with deed recording in Orange's parent counties; normally thought of as Johnston, Bladen, and Granville Counties.  We know, though, that folks were making "tomahawk" claims on land in Carolina long before law came to town.  We just don't know how many folks were in the area or where they were.  They were, though, in the area, probably in increasing numbers from the mid-17th century onward. Some were escaped indentured servants as well as escaped slave and, after Bacon's Rebellion (1676), traders moved into the back country too. In the first decade of the 18th century they were joined by farmers, probably Quakers from the Albemarle settlements who move away from Anglican government during and after Cary's Rebellion.

The Quakers would have been welcomed by natives and newcomers alike as they came  down Thigpen's Trace, a military road pioneered between 1702 and 1704, with all their possessions. They had built an excellent reputation with Native Americans, including the Occaneechi who lived in the Piedmont and according to Occaneechi lore Quakers became the patrons and protectors of the remainder of a tribe decimated by war, slaving raids, and disease. Traders would have been delighted to have a new market for trade goods brought down from Virginia.

It is just that we don't know who they were or where they were for sure. There are, though, sufficient clues to surmise they were here.

English land law in colonial times recognized quite a few "interests" in land that didn't get transferred completely to American common law  Among these were limited but legal rights to possess "waste land", land owned by another but, for one reason or another, unused.  A person could squat on that land and make it productive and in the process establish rights in the land.  These rights were severely limited but were rights non-the-less.  For example, removing such folk required legal processes and frequently entailed compensation for improvements expropriated by an evicting land owner (cf Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History., 2002).

In a slightly different mode, skilled tradesmen were often given free, unrecorded use of land so as to hold them available for the landowner's use as needed.  Manual agriculture is seasonal and requires large numbers of laborers in planting and harvest season.  The rest of the year this labor was of little or no use to land owners, but having craft-people at hand had great value. Unrecorded in public records, this type of land tenure was probably a common feature of colonial Carolina, especially in the Piedmont districts. 

It seems there were quite a number of these unenumerated, non-property owning, yet not undesirable people in North Carolina.  For example, a  study by Larry Babits (East Carolina university), "Military Records and Historical Archaeology," Chapter 10, revealed that 60% of property owners in NC who had property confiscated by Cornwalli' troops (1781) appear in no other public records; not militia, not juries, not road crews, nowhere. Yet these unrecorded people had property worth confiscating. This is fairly strong evidence of the existence of a class of landless squatters who were not paupers but rather fit the description of what were known in some parts of England as "cotters."

So, though Babits demonstrated that our understanding of colonial demographics is at best questionable, we have a suggestion that sixty percent of that demographic was unrecorded. Where they were remains unanswered. It may, though be extrapolated from eviction actions in the Haw Fields between 1750 and 1790. One  group of significant size and importance were the founder of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange County as many of them appear to have been evictees from the Haw Fields. There were also a number of land grants made in the Haw Fields in the period in question that included barns and houses, fences and crops. These land grants may provide a map of shift from Quaker/Presbyterian dominance in the county to Anglican dominance after the Battle of Alamance (1771).

Hillsborough, when it was founded, was surrounded by Quakers. Arthur Dobbs, scion of a Cromwellian Irish landlord, became North Carolina's Governor in 1752. Immediately upon entering into his new office he created thirty-three Anglican vestries in a colony that had only six Anglican ministers. Mapping those vestries will probably provide a good map of Quaker and Baptist settlements.

This I call "the Irish Solution" as Cromwell used the same method to disempower and subdue Irish Ireland. Vestries are the governing body of an Anglican Parish and the beneficiaries of tithes paid by residents of the vestry's lands no matter what their religious convictions. To be a vestryman, one had to swear fealty to the Anglican church, something no good Catholic or member of the Church of Ireland could do. Thus in very short order Ireland acquired an Anglican government.

The Cromwellian Solution consisted of locating Anglican parishes in Catholic market towns. Those parishes quickly attracted placement, under-employed but ambitious men able to swear an oath to the crown and its church. Because they controlled the vestry, they controlled the law and quickly imposed "test oaths" on public servants. These oaths were anathema to Quakers as they had been to members of the Church of Ireland and had the immediate effect of precluding their serving in government and the courts.

As noted, Hillsborough was located in Quaker dominated country, and the Quakers were well established in both their dominance and their freedom. Some of them may have arrived in what became the county in the first decade of the 18th century. Dobbs challenge was to bring them to heel and begin collecting both quidrents for the use of land and tithes for the Anglican parishes. Needless to say this led to considerable friction. Ultimately it produced the War of the Regulation.

That war was a muddled affair involving religious contests as well as political contests. Economic interests were the only thing that held the Regulators together, a weak reed at best. Regulators were Albemarle Quakers, the earliest Europeans settled in the area, Pennsylvania Quakers who began arriving as a dribble in the 1740s that became a flood in the 1750s, Presbyterians who were early squatters, and Baptists. It appears that, for the most part, Presbyterians stood aside from the Regulation as after the Battle of Culloden (1746)  Presbyterians were exempt from paying Anglican tithes.

Dobbs imposed his Irish Solution in the 1750s, then having governed for ten years without collecting much in the way of quidrents, and being quite old, with a very young wife he decided to return to England but died (1762) abed before he could leave. His subordinate, William Tryon, a professional English soldier and aspiring politician, thoroughly familiar with Dobb's goals and methods, was left to bring the goal to fruition. He did so admirably well.

Long story short, as the backcountry grew more and more disgruntled under corrupt Anglican government, Anglican Sheriffs, and Anglican Judges and juries the appeals for relief grew more shrill. Good soldier that he was,  in 1768 Tryon made a tour of the backcountry, listened to complaints accepted petitions, and dealt with his peasants while one of his aides, a Swiss artillerist drew maps of the strategic towns of the colony.

He went home and prepared a campaign. He returned with a small army in 1771, challenged the Regulators and did battle with them at the Battle of Alamance. Their, with only their economic interests to hold them together, the Regulators collapsed in defeat. After which, Tryon executed some conspicuous Regulators on the battlefield and then made a retribution, terror tour of the back country trailing Regulator captives in chains and burning Regulator properties all the way to the Yadkin River. Then he returned to Hillsborough, hung a half dozen more Regulators, then left to become Governor of New York.

In the end, the squatters , it seems, supported the Revolution and all those corrupt placemen who had filled parish management and pilfered crown coffers became patriots and founding fathers and probably continued pilfering the new government's coffers.

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