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This webpage reproduces an item in
The North Carolina Booklet

Vol. 3 No. 5 (Sep. 1903), pp5‑21

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p5 Social Life
in Colonial North Carolina


By Charles Lee Raper, Ph. D.,
Head of the Department of Economics and Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina.

The social life of any people has so many phases that to discuss it in a very limited space is almost impossible. To trace out, with any detail, all the social aspects of North Carolina during its colonial period would require much energy and time, and this tracing would fill the pages of a book of large proportions. Such a tracing, if done by an historical student and literary artist, would, however, be a thing of great interest and value. To my mind, North Carolina as a colony is there is virgin soil for such an artist; the social life of its colonists is still almost wholly unknown. To be sure, we know something of certain phases of this life, but only in a loose and disconnected way; and we know almost nothing of the economic life of these pioneers.

To know the different races and religious sects which came to our soil during the first hundred years of our life, where they settled and lived from generation to generation, how they supported themselves and their families, how their married and intermarried, the kind of homes which they established as the centers of their affections and the birthplaces of their children, their ideals of marriage and the purity of their homes; to know of their educational opportunities and standing, their p6schools and school-masters, their libraries and literature; to know of their churches, their ministers and acts of devotion to the religious idea; to know of their social intercourse and pleasures, their holidays, their frolics and drinkings, of their low as well as of their high status of moral conduct — all of this would be most valuable and charmingly interesting.

But much of this can never be done, at least at all accurately. For such a picture to be made for us would not only require the student and the literary artist, but also the sources of information; and many of these are no longer within our reach. Pioneer peoples, as were our early ancestors, the settlers and colonizers of North Carolina, are not the ones to leave behind them full records of their life work; they care rather little whether the future shall know them as they were or not. Though the records left us are meager in many places, still from them we could, if we would, reconstruct a picture of ourselves, incomplete to be sure, during our infancy as a people.

It is the purpose of this paper to begin such a work, to lay the foundation, with the hope that at later times we may be able to build up certain parts of it, somewhat in detail. At present many of its parts could not be constructed, as the material for these is not yet collected. However, there are some phases of our social life the records of which have been brought together, and of these the historical student can now speak.

The colonists who settled in the province of North Carolina were, to a large extent, from England, directly or indirectly. p7There were, to be sure, some other nationalities among them. A few Huguenots, a very few, came and settled near Bath and on the Trent river, between 1690 and 1707, bringing with them distinct ideas of industrious and sober living. Some Swiss and Germans, from the Palatinate, made a small permanent settlement at the confluence of the Neuse and the Trent rivers early in the eighteenth century, founding the town of New Bern, one of the first in the province. Other Germans, from the south-western part of their fatherland, came and settled along the Yadkin and Catawba rivers, then the western frontier of the colony. They reached North Carolina soon after 1750, having come first to the province of Pennsylvania. These brought with themselves their purity of religious devotion and their ideas of simple and active living. But next to the English, in numbers and strength, came the Scotch-Irish and the Scotch, from 1730 to 1770. These settled along the Eno, Hawaii and Catawba rivers, and in the present counties of Bladen, Cumberland, Robeson, Moore, Richmond, Scotland and Harnett. And with these came ideas which have had much to do with our political, industrial, social, intellectual and religious growth and development. More churches were built, and these became centers of great activity. Schools were now established throughout the middle and western portions of the province, and many of these became famous for their learning and influence.

These colonists, whether of one nationality and racial traits or of another, left their mother or fatherland before Europe p8had become a great industrial country. The English colonists came to North Carolina when their mother country was still in a primitive condition and type of agriculture, industry and commerce, before the great industrial revolution had come, when the economic life was not much advanced over that of the feudal period. Crude tillage was to be found everywhere in England, and scientific fertilizing and rotation of crops were as yet almost wholly unknown. Their manufactures were still entirely of the guild or domestic type, carried on upon a very small scale and with the least possible skill, method and organization; their products were made in the homes of the artisan or of the small farmer, and for the most part by the hands of unskilled men and women. The trading, as a rule, was not extensive and in a comparatively small number of products. The other colonists came from countries even less advanced in their economic life than was England.

In every case these colonists, whether English, Swiss, German or Scotch, brought with themselves when they came to our soil the institutions of their mother country, social and economic, as well as political and religious; and they could not do otherwise, as their ideas, customs and institutions were inseparably connected with themselves. For the most part they were accustomed to the farm; they knew little about the skill of the finished artisan, of the sailor or the dealer in merchandise. Have been farmers in the old world, it was most natural that they should become farmers in the new. The necessities of the situation drove them to that occupation p9which they knew best, both by training and tradition; and they soon found a soil suited to an easy living, being easily tilled and fertile. All the first colonists, and for the most part those who came during the eighteenth century, took up farms and established homes along the chief rivers, on the fertile lands of the valleys. Here it was most easy to produce their grains and breadstuffs, much of their meats being supplied out of the abundance of nature, out of the rivers and from the extensive forests. Here also it was possible to transport their surplus products to their neighbors, to the other colonies or to the old world, water being an easy means for such transportation. Finding the soil so fertile and fish and game so abundant, they cared little to enter the industrial and commercial fields, except in a very small domestic way. To be sure, they many manufacture some articles — materials for their cabins and houses — 'though in some cases these were brought from England, some implements of tillage and of troop, canoes and small boats, crude mills for converting their grains into breadstuffs, the coarser cloth with which to cover and protect themselves, hats and shoes, and some of the utensils of their housekeeping. But their manufacturing was on such a small scale, even during the latter part of the colonial period, that this part of their life never became a very important one. There are no records of the colonists of North Carolina making complains against the famous trade acts of England, as which was done by many of the New England and middle colonists, these acts having practically no effect in colonial North Carolina. This very fact — p10that no complaints were made against the trade acts — is strong evidence that we did not carry on any extensive manufacturing, for had these acts restricted us in a material way we would unquestionably have complained; we, as colonists, were quite fond of making complaints, and even of going as far as violent conduct whenever our rights were infringed upon. In commerce the colonists did something, but never to any great extent. They sold the surplus products of their farms — corn, tobacco, cotton, meat and hides. They also, to an extent, sold clapboards and ship timbers.

Being largely agricultural in their occupation, it was very natural that towns should develop very slowly. In fact, during the first forty years of their life not a single town or village was developed, and during the latter part of the colonial period there were only a few. As late as 1750, almost one hundred years after the beginnings of the province, there was not a single town with a population of one thousand. Bath had been founded as a town in 1704, New Bern in 1710, Edenton in 1714, Beaufort in 1723, Brunswick in 1725, Wilmington in 1734, but these were very small and unimportant, even throughout the whole colonial period. Charlotte, Salisbury, Hillsboro and Fayetteville were organized as towns between 1758 and 1762, and none of these during the colonial period became important for their population or industrial and commercial activity. In short, town life never became very attractive to many of the colonists of North Carolina, and what few towns there were became much more important as centers of political activity than they did of p11commercial, industrial or social life. They were centers of local government, and often of political conflicts. They were places where a few products were bought and sold — not places of their making. The surplus products of the farms for miles about them were taken there and exchanged for a few simple articles, salt being a very important one, and now and then converted into currency. At times they were centers of religious devotion and of intellectual life. There churches were erected, but during the last fifty years of the province more places for religious worship were to be found in the country than in the towns. Here were a few schools and libraries, but there were more in the rural districts.

So, then, for the most part our study is of the farmer, and of that farmer who lives, as do all colonists in a new country, close to the elements of nature, with environments on every hand which create and cultivate individuality and self-reliance, As we have seen, the North Carolina colonists did not, as a rule, congregate together in towns, nor did they so often live close to each other in the country; they scattered far and wide, ever moving westward in search of fertile lands. Their families were large, as is always the case with colonists in a new and fertile country; a large number of children was the ideal of each family. Parents living the life that the colonists must live, and having the strong, vigorous blood which flows in the veins of pioneers, were blessed with a great offspring. And to rear these children was a very simple task; as a rule they repaid their parents the expenses of their rearing, even during the first twenty years of their life.

p12 These North Carolina farmers, during the colonial period, were as a rule much unlike the farmers of Virginia and South Carolina. They were rarely great landlords, as was the case in these two provinces. The territorial policy, both under the Properties and the Crown, looked to the establishment of a system of small land-holdings in North Carolina. Six hundred and forty acres were, as a rule, the largest number of acres granted to any one person. There were, however, a few exceptions to this policy, but only a very few. To be sure, a few very large tracts were granted by the Crown to certain London merchants, but these were made for purposes of speculation rather than settlement. This policy of small grants made it possible for almost every man or boy to become the possessor of a farm. To lease this or to purchase it did not require much money, as the quit-rents were small and the purchase price low. With easy and cheap lands and with large families, it was most natural that marriage should take place at an early age. Marriage at thirteen was so unusual, and at fifteen was most common. There was therefore a high birth rate; the population increased rapidly by means of the excess of births over deaths and as a consequence of much immigration, especially after 1735. With such a territorial system we would not expect to find many great farmers during the colonial period of North Carolina, and they did not develop to any great extent. To be sure, one farmer could purchase the lands of some of his neighbors, especially so during the latter part of the period, and this was done here and there, but to no great extent. In p13short, then, we must study the farmer colonists, and for the most part of the smaller type. And in this particular the subject of our study is quite different from what it would be were we to study the social life of South Carolina or Virginia — the homes of great landlords, with the show and power of feudal barons.

Now, having defined to an extent the subject of our study, and having given to it a certain general setting, we are able to take it up somewhat in detail. We may now study our farmer colonist in some particular phases of his social life. The remaining portion of this paper will be devoted to that phase of his life known as his education and culture.

I believe that it is now well established that most of the colonists came to North Carolina for economic, not religious, reasons. They came to improve their means of living and to add to their wealth and well-being in the material things of life. To be sure, the prospect of religious freedom was also attractive to them, but it was by no means the determining element in their coming. After they became colonists they paid no great attention to the securing of ministers or the erection of places of worship. As evidence of this, there were but two or three Anglican churches in the whole province prior to 1729, though this was the established church from 1701 to 1776. There were during the early period a few places of worship for the Quakers, but not many. After 1735 the Presbyterians and Baptists established churches in several places in the western portion of the province; and so did the Germans after 1753. But upon the whole the first p14hundred years of the colony saw no great religious activity. There were, as we have seen, only a few churches, and there were at times practically no ministers to serve these. So that upon the subject of religious instruction not much can be said beyond the statement of its great scarcity and inefficiency.

What was the condition of secular instruction among the colonists? Here the picture is even less bright. During the first fifty years of the province there were but two or three little schools, and during the latter years, while there was an improvement, still it was by no means marked. It seems that as late as 1776, when the province was transferred by its citizens into a state, secular as well as religious instruction was in a low status; education was still almost wholly neglected by the great majority of the colonists, and so was it now by the masses of the people in the old world. While this was the condition of the bulk of these farmer colonists, still some of them were well educated, either by private tutors or in the schools of Virginia, New England or old England. However, most of the farmers lived an easy life, a life near to nature; and though they were unpolished in many ways, still in them the love of personal freedom became a great passion. For a long time the province was very thinly settled, the population being along the rivers and streams, which were often far separated from each other. The means of communication between these settlements and between North Carolina and the outside world were very few and inefficient. In fact, the American colonists as a whole were far away from p15the great heart pulse of intellectual life and culture. They were separated from England and Europe, the source and center of this life and culture, by more than three thousand miles of space. To traverse this space during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was no easy or quick task; it required months. Not only was North Carolina, as the other provinces, separated from home by this great distance, but her means of communication were far less efficient than were those of many of the other colonies. She had few good harbors and few ships; she came in touch with the life of the old world largely indirectly — that is, through her neighbors to the north or south. It was therefore most natural that education should develop very slowly in North Carolina.

As we have stated, there were some educated and cultured people in the province of North Carolina. They had libraries of their own. There were some books in the colony as early as 1680, and three or four libraries during the first decade of the eighteenth century. Most naturally these were in the northeastern part of the province, the oldest and wealthiest part. In the Cape Fear and western sections there were no books prior to 1750, but from this time to the close of the provincial period we find books and libraries belonging for the most part to the Presbyterian ministers and school-masters.

In the education of the colonists, whatever it was, the Anglican Church played a most important part, especially so during the time prior to 1760. In fact, all of the educational effort in the whole province prior to this date came p16from this source. The English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which was formed about the first of the eighteenth century and was in operation until the close of the provincial period, took the leading part in this work. It had great influence upon the colonists, especially in giving religious and secular instruction; it was the great teacher of the North Carolina colonists for more than fifty years. According to Dr. S. B. Weeks, whose statements are always found to be accurate, this society sent to the colonists at least six hundred bound volumes and a large number of tracts. It did more than send books and tracts. It sent missionaries and teachers, and established schools as well as libraries. As far as the evidence goes, Charles Griffin was the first professional school-master in North Carolina. He came and settled in Pasquotank county in 1705. He was during this year appointed by the vestry as reader, and then opened a school the first one in the province. This was attended by a number of children, among whom were Quakers. Three years later, in 1708, the province was to have another teacher — Rev. James Adams. He was directed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to settle in Pasquotank county and to assume the control of the school which Griffin had established. Griffin was transferred to Chowan, where he opened another school and acted as reader and clerk. In 1712 we find record of another school-master at work in the province, at Saram on the frontier of Virginia as well as of Carolina. He, like Mr. Griffin, was a layman, and his name was Mashburn. That he held any position under the p17vestry we cannot find out, but that he was under the general direction of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel there is sufficient evidence.

These three school-masters carried on for a few years successful local schools. Whether there were others devoting their energies to the instruction of the youth of the colonists during the proprietary period, 1663‑1729, we cannot say; if so, they have left no records to speak for themselves. For some time after the Crown assumed control in the government of the province, local schools were apparently unknown. As far as we know, Rev. James Moir, a representative of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, was the next school-master after Mr. Mashburn. In 1745 he opened in the town of Brunswick a little school, using the first story of his dwelling-house for such purposes. In 1759 Colonel James Innes, by will, left his plantation, Point Pleasant," near the town of Wilmington, his large personal estates, his library and one hundred pounds sterling, to be used for school purposes. Apart from the donations of books and tracts by the English missionary society, of which we have spoken, this was the first gift made to education in North Carolina. Four years later a high school was opened at Bandon, not far from Edenton, by Rev. Daniel Earl and his daughter. Mr. Earl was a minister in the Anglican Church, being the rector of Saint Paul's Parish of Chowan. This high school of Mr. Earls' was to be followed by others of the same type, by the declaims of New Bern in 1764, and of Edenton in 1770. The academy in New Bern was established by a Mr. Tomlinson, p18most probably under the influence of the English missionary society. His efforts were so successful that the society gave him an annual grant on his salary. After this school had been in successful operation for about two years, it was incorporated by an act of the provincial legislature. It was by this act Middle Ages public school for the town of New Bern. The trustees appointed by the act were required to take the oaths of the government and subscribe the test, thereby becoming public officers. Though now made a public school, it was still under the direction of the Church of England; its master and teachers must belong to this church. But this was most natural, as the Anglican Church was the provincial establishment; and it was in accord with the provisions of the schism act. Not only was it made a public institution, but the legislature gave it financial aid. A duty of one penny per gallon was levied on all rum and other spirituous liquors imported into the Neuse river for the period of seven years. The academy of Edenton was chartered in 1770‑1771, with practically the same provisions as the one in New Bern, except the one granting financial aid from the provincial government.

So far we have traced the efforts and their results of the Anglican Church in the cause of education during the colonial period. We have also spoken of the two successful efforts on the part of the provincial legislature. This body made several other attempts to establish schools for the province and to found a public school system, but they were for one reason or another unsuccessful. Had such a system been p19established it would have been under the direction of the Anglican Church, as the provisions of the schism act required; and this act was in force in North Carolina, theoretically at least, from 1730 to 1773. It practically forbade any one keeping a school, public or private, unless he was an Anglican in regular standing. Had it been rigidly enforced in the province of North Carolina, our paper would now come to a close, as there would have been no other schools for the colonists. But, luckily for North Carolina, the provisions of this act were not rigidly enforced. The scattered settlements of the middle and western parts of the province and the great numbers of Dissenters in these localities, especially after 1740, made it impossible for the provincial government, which had its residence for the most part along the sea coast, to carry out such provisions. The result was that western North Carolina was to have during the last few years of the colony's life several academies, apart and distinct from the anglican Church. Of these we shall now speak for a few moments.

As we have stated, many Scotch-Irish and Scotch Presbyterians came to North Carolina from about 1735 to 1770. These came by different routes, but when they reached the province they to a large extent settled in one section, the Piedmont region. Here they mingled and intermingled with each other. Here they established a good many churches, and wherever a church was established they also built a school. These Presbyterians were the leaders of the intellectual and religious growth of the colony during its latter p20years. They were an energetic people; they were vigorous in teaching others their ideas of a moral and religious life. And not only this, but these North Carolina Presbyterians were to be stimulated by those in the provinces to the north. As early as 1744 the Synods of Pennsylvania and New York began to send missionaries to the Presbyteries in the southern colonies, especially in North Carolina, and these continued to come until the close of the provincial period. In the number of those who came in this capacity to our province, and many of these became famous for power and influence, Princeton College could claim most of them as her sons. It is perhaps safe to state that the Synods of New York and Pennsylvania, under the leadership and inspiration of such an institution as Princeton College, had more to do with the education of North Carolina during its last fifteen years as a province than all other forces combined. They did for the colonists, especially those in the western part of the province, during 1760‑1776, what the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had attempted to do during the first fifty years of the eighteenth century. The schools — and these were of the classical type — established by them were great in their influence. To do more than name them would not be in harmony with the other parts of this paper, though a detailed statement of their history would be most interesting. The most important of these high or classical schools were: Crowfield, near Davidson College, opened in 1760; Caldwell's "Log College," near Greensboro, with the famous Dr. David Caldwell as its master, in 1766; Queen's Museum, at Charlotte, p21in 1767; and the schools of Rev. Henry Patillo in Orange and Granville counties. Not only were these schools for the Presbyterian youth, but for the sons of other religious faiths. Neither were they local; to them went boys from all parts of the province. They soon became the really great educational centers of the whole colony.1


The Author or Editor's Note:

1 For a much more detailed statement see Week's Libraries and Literature, Week's Beginnings of the Common School System in the South, and Raper's The Church and Private Schools of North Carolina.


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