In the spring of 1765, men from the Sugar Creek and Reedy Creek settlements of Mecklenburg County attacked a surveying crew attempting to plot plantations on land granted to English merchant Henry McCulloh nearly two decades earlier. The ensuing riot focused solely on the actions of land speculators such as McCulloh and John Selwyn, who were attempting to secure their property in southwestern North Carolina.
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McCulloh and Selwyn were among a group of landlords, including Governor Arthur Dobbs, who had received enormous land grants from the Crown with the agreement that they would settle the land with one settler per 200 acres. McCulloh, Selwyn, and Dobbs however faced a wave of immigrants from Pennsylvania and Virginia who were unready to accept the fact that the vacant land they had settled on and improved actually belonged to someone else who could charge them rent for it.
Resistance to surveying crews sent out by McCulloh had begun ten years earlier. Locals living along the Yadkin River in Rowan County intimidated a surveying party into withdrawing using “Guns, swords, clubs and staves.” In 1762, a surveying party mounted by Governor Dobbs was similarly assaulted and driven away from the Reedy Creek settlement in Mecklenburg County. Dobbs himself arrived shortly thereafter, but was confronted by an armed mob of twenty men, who threatened to carry him to jail in Charleston if he persisted in claiming "their" land.
Two years later, McCulloh’s son Henry Eustace McCulloh, attempted once again to properly survey the lands. He struck a deal with four representatives of the area in an effort to avoid further resistance and potential violence. He reported to them that his crews would begin their work in February 1765. When they finally arrived in March 1765, a full month late, they did so amidst rumors of discontent. They met with 150 settlers at Abraham Alexander’s house. Negotiations began over what rent price the settlers were willing to pay, but McCulloh found all their offers insulting. The following day settlers, led by Thomas Polk, one of the original four representatives with whom McCulloh had negotiated, broke McCulloh’s survey chains and posts.
McCulloh retreated for several days, but sent a new team out in late April. He did so with some trepidation, as Dobbs had died in March, and newly appointed Governor William Tryon had ordered that all surveying cease until the Colonial Assembly could take up the matter. McCulloh refused Tryon’s order, attempted to evict Thomas Polk from his land, and continued surveying.
On May 7, 1765, the settlers of Sugar Creek and Reedy Creek attacked McCulloh’s surveying party who were surveying “Widow Alexander’s property.” One member of the party was publically whipped, while another suffered a cracked skull from the blow of a rioter’s club. McCulloh saw the event as a propaganda windfall, and immediately wrote to his friend Edmund Fanning, “Should I submit to these Sons of Bitches? May quick Perdition catch me if I do!”
Fanning in turn took the report of the attack to the governor and his council. Tryon, faced with such evidence, changed his stance, and supported McCulloh. Polk and forty-seven other settlers were charged with inciting riot and violence. All of the accused posted bond and the case was continued. Tryon put forth a proclamation offering pardon to any two of the rioters who turned state’s evidence against their colleagues, but when none stepped forward, and no further supporting evidence could be found, the charges were dismissed in 1766.
Although a minor event, the “War of Sugar Creek” highlights tensions that existed on the frontier between settlers and their absentee landlords such as McCulloh and Selwyn. As such, the riots along Sugar Creek were part of a broader development of resistance to authority later exemplified in the Regulator War.
William S. Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
William L. Saunders, Colonial Records of North Carolina (1886-90)
Wayne Lee, Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina (2001)
Marjolene Kars, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina (2001)