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Letter from William Gordon to John Chamberlain
Gordon, William
May 13, 1709
Volume 01, Pages 708-715

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[From N. C. Letter Book. S. P. G.]

London, May 13, 1709.


I have already delivered to your honorable board a short account of my voyage and journey to North Carolina, the effects of my mission, and the reasons which induced me to leave the place; and since you desire to know something further of the state of the country and condition of the people, in relation to their religion, principles, and practice, I shall (by the help of the closest and justest observations I could make and the best informations I could get during my travels through the country) give you what satisfaction can be reasonably expected from so short a stay.

The Continent of North Carolina is part of that great tract of land granted by King Charles II. to several lords proprietors, whose successors and present possessors are William, Lord Craven, His Grace, Henry duke of Beaufort, Lord John Carteret, Maurice Ashley, esquire, Sir John Colleton, baronet, John Danson, esquire, etc., being in number eight.

There are few or no dissenters in this government but Quakers, who have been always the greatest sticklers against, and constant opposers of the Church and that with no small success; it will not, therefore, be improper to trace their rise with the privileges and immunities they still plead and contend for at the present day, to the great disturbance of the peace of that province, and the hindrance of good laws and other proper endeavours for its improval.

From the first settlement, I find for some years they were few in number, and had little or no interest in the government, until John Archdale, proprietor and Quaker, went over, by whose means some were made councillors; and there being then no ministers in the place, they began to increase and grow powerful; for the councill granting all commissions, in a short time they had Quaker members in most of their courts; nay, in some, the majority were such, who still, pushing at the government, were very diligent at the election of members of the Assembly; so that what by themselves, the assistance of several unthinking people, and the carelessness of others, they carried all in that meeting likewise; so far that no encouragement could be obtained for ministers, notwithstanding some endeavours which were used to procure them a very small and inconsiderable allowance.

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At last, after many attempts, the Churchmen carried an act, but by one or two votes, called “The Vestry Act,” by which twelve vestrymen are to be chosen in every precinct, who have power to build a church in each, and to raise money from the inhabitants for that purpose, with a sum not exceeding thirty pounds for a minister; whom they have likewise (by that act) power, not only to disapprove, but displace, if they see cause. I took a copy of it and some other papers, but, my servant and trunk being left behind by an accident, they are not yet come to my hand.

The Church party thought they had now made a good step, and therefore designed to improve it to the advantage of religion, and setting such a regular Church discipline as the lords proprietors were obliged by their charter to countenance and encourage; but herein they met with constant opposition from the Quakers, who, being still powerful in the council, numerous in the Assembly, and restless in their endeavours, spared neither pains nor expense to have this act repealed or altered; and by their continual cavils and disputes, lengthened out the time of the Assembly's sitting, to their great trouble and charge.

In the year 1704, the law made in the first year of her present majesty, entitled “An act to declare the oath coming in place of the abrogated oaths,” etc., reached Carolina, which the Quakers refusing to take, they were dismissed the council, Assembly, and courts of justice, and a law was made that none should bear any office or place of trust without taking the said oaths.

Some time after, the Quakers sent complaints against Colonel Daniel, then governor, deputed by Sir Nathaniel Johnston, in South Carolina. They prevail: Sir Nathaniel removes him, and sends one Colonel Cary in his room.

The Quakers then began their old game, and strive to get into the courts and Assembly again. This governor thereupon tenders them the oaths, which they refusing to take, are again dismissed, and an act made, that whoever should promote his own election, or sit and act, not qualifying himself first by taking the oaths, should forfeit five pounds. This so nettled the Quakers that, in the year 1706, they sent one Mr. John Porter to England, with fresh grievances and new complaints to the lords proprietors, who, by his cunning management, and the help of Mr. Archdale, a Quaker proprietor, obtained a new commission, by virtue whereof Sir Nathaniel Johnston's power in that province was suspended, Col. Cary removed, and several new deputations sent by the proprietors, with power to choose a president among themselves. Thus Porter, having

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procured a deputation for himself and some other Quakers, arrived in Carolina October 1707, about five months before we reached Virginia.

And here, sir, I could give you a large account of this man's management and the use he made of his new commission, with his many tricks to advance the interest of the Quakers, and the confusion and disturbance of which he was the chief or only occasion,—but this would be as tedious as his actions are in themselves unwarrantable.

In short, sir, as soon as he arrived, he calls the new deputies together, being most Quakers (without waiting for the governor and old deputies' presence, though they had all appointed a day for the whole council to sit, and settle the government according to the lords proprietors' instructions in that commission), and chooses for their president whom they imagine would be for their purpose; but he, taking the same method as their former governors did, disappointed Porter's expectation, who, for revenge, gets a meeting with both old and new deputies, reverses Glover's election, declaring it illegal, and so void and null, though he was the only promoter of it. The president and Col. Pollock, a councillor, protested against these proceedings; but Porter went on, strikes in with Colonel Cary, the late deputy-governor, whom he had by his complaints turned out, chooses him president by the votes of the very same councillors who had before choosen Mr. Glover, and all this by virtue of that very commission which removed him from the government. From this sprung the great confusions in which I left that poor, distracted colony. There were two competitors for command; each drew their party in arms to the field, one man was killed before I came away, and God knows how far they have carried these contentions since.

I did, at my arrival in England, lay the whole state of these affairs before the lords proprietors, who, no doubt, will take a speedy and effectual method, not only to suppress the present, but prevent such disorders for the future; and there is now a gentleman appointed governor of that province [Hyde] who, by his prudence, will in all likelihood cool the present heats, and lead them on gently toward a regular and lasting establishment, to the advantage of the proprietors and peace to the country.

And now, sir, I shall examine a little the Quakers' pretences, who plead that they were the first settlers in that country; but this (according to the best accounts I could get) seems false in fact,—that religion being scarce heard of there till some years after the settlement; it is true, some of the most ancient inhabitants, after George Fox went over, did turn Quakers.

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They allege they are the chief inhabitants, promoters, and upholders of its interests; but this must be either by their number, riches, or prudence. As to their number, they are, at this time, but about the tenth part of the inhabitants; and if they were more, they would be but the greater burden, since they contribute nothing toward its defence. Neither is it by their riches, there being but few or no traders of note amongst them; beside, the levy there is raised per poll, and not by the estimate of men's estates, so that the poorest pay as much as the richest. And it is so far from being by their prudence, that on the contrary, their ignorance and and obstancy are but too remarkable upon all occasions, of which they have given a very evident proof by being the great promoters of the present confusions of that colony; so that I see no right they have to such a share in the government as they pretend. The charter, I am sure, grants them none, nor does it give power to the lords proprietors to grant any, neither have they by their constitution done any such thing; and if there be any privileges granted to the inhabitants, it is to such only who bear arms, so that it was other dissenters, not Quakers, they intended to invite thither by those indulgences. As for liberty of conscience, none may more peaceably enjoy it, if they would therewith be content.

I could not but take notice of their irreverent carriage, in subscribing their solemn affirmation. Mr. Archdale himself uncovered his head to hear a foolish woman make an unaccountable clamor before meat, at his own table; but when he subscribed the oaths to be taken for putting in execution the laws of trade, he did it with his hat on, which is an error no Barclay has made an “apology” for.

I have observed, amongst the worst of the other sort, when they came to the Book they showed a reverence, and there appeared an unwillingness upon them, which serves the great end of God and the queen, in the discovery of truth, whilst the careless and unseemly behavior of those men is openly scandalous and profane.

I shall now, sir, give you some small account of the particular precincts. You will see, by the plain draft, the largeness of so much of the country as is laid down, the bearings of the land, the number of tithables in each precinct. The roads are generally very bad, especially in Paquimans and Pasquetank, which makes it a very troublesome work for one minister to attend two precincts.

Chowan is the westernmost, the largest and thinnest seated; they built a church some years ago, but it is small, very sorrily put together, and is ill looked after; and, therefore, I prevailed with them to build another,

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which they went about when I came away. The plan of it I brought over, and was desired to procure, if possible, from the society, as much glass as will be necessary for the windows, which by computation will amount to 325 feet.

There are, I think, no Quakers or any other dissenters in this parish: the people indeed are ignorant, there being few that can read, and fewer write, even of their justices of peace and vestrymen; yet to me they seemed very serious and well inclined, both in public and private, many of them being very ready to embrace (as far as they could) all opportunities of being instructed. The worst is, that the narrowness of their sense and conceptions occasions many differences and quarrels amongst themselves, for which no man can find any shadow of reason, but their ignorant mistakes of one another's meaning, and upon this account I found these more frequent here than in any other country I have ever travelled.

This precinct was one of the two I attended, and being very large, and divided by the Great Sound and several rivers and branches, was very troublesome; however, I was in all the parts of it, baptized almost a hundred children, distributed those small tracts which were sent over, settled a schoolmaster, and gave some books for the use of scholars, which the church-wardens were to see left for that use, in case the master should remove.

The greatest difficulty I met with was, in some, an obstinate aversion to god-fathers and god-mothers; neither sense or reason could prevail with them: in this, therefore, I bent my strongest endeavors with one or two, who, by their character for sense and sobriety, had some influence over the rest; with whom having prevailed, all were convinced and followed their example; and so they would oftentimes, in any thing else, without examining the cause or troubling themselves for reasons, this being a general rule for their practice in all other cases. However, I am confident they are yet, by the blessing of God on the pious care and prudent conduct of some diligent minister, in a capacity of being made devout Christians and zealous Churchmen; whereas, if they be left alone, the principles (and it is to be feared the practice too) of religion and morality will be, in a short time, quite defaced.

The next precinct is Paquimans, under my care equally with the other. Here is a compact little church, built with more care and expense, and better contrived than that in Chowan; it continues yet unfinished, by reason of the death of one Major Swan, about September, 1707, who zealously promoted the interests of religion in general, and forwarded,

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by his continual pains and expense, the building of that church in particular, when there was none in the country. Here is no library or other public books whatever.

The Quakers in this precinct are very numerous, extremely ignorant, insufferably proud and ambitious, and consequently ungovernable: this made my work more difficult than it was in Chowan. They doubled their efforts and contrivances against my endeavours; their meetings amongst themselves were more frequent, and their attacks upon others furious. However, as these things cost me the more pains, so I used the utmost circumspection both in public and private, and if at any time I took occasion to preach against their principles, as now and then I found it necessary, I was as moderate as was possible in my expressions, free from harsh reflections, and always pressed the truth, as much for its own sake as for the Church's which professed it; and this I found had a better effect than the rougher methods, which, it seems, had been formerly used with them; for by such means, and the success of some small favors I showed them in physic, they not only became very civil, but respectful to me in their way, and have many times entertained me at their houses with much freedom and kindness.

This precinct is not so large as Chowan, and, though the roads are worse, the journeys are shorter. Here are twelve vestrymen as in the rest, but most, if not all of them very ignorant, loose in their lives, and unconcerned as to religion; it was not in my power to get one meeting with them, while I was there, notwithstanding my best endeavors to obtain that favor. Their ill example, and the want of ministers and good books, have occasioned many who were better disposed, through ignorance, to join with the Quakers; being willing to embrace any thing that looks like a religion, rather than have none at all. Yet I am apt to think that some of these poor souls may be regained, several having told me they owed their first departing from the Church to the ill example and imprudent behavior of their ministers; and therefore it seems absolutely necessary that, if any minister be sent thither, he should, if possible, beside an exemplary life and diligent attendance on all the duties of his function, he should be as well read in men as in books, and will find as much if not more occasion for the one than the other.

And as he will meet with unaccountable tempers, so they will require uncommon methods to deal with them, in order to gain credit, and, consequently, an access to their hearts. Here and in Chowan the ways of living are much alike; both are equally destitute of good water, most of that being brackish and muddy; they feed generally upon salt pork, and

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sometimes upon beef, and their bread of Indian corn which they are forced for want of mills to beat; and in this they are so careless and uncleanly that there is but little difference between the corn in the horse's manger and the bread on their tables: so that with such provisions and such drink (for they have no beer), in such a hot country, you may easily judge, sir, what a comfortable life a man must lead; not but that the place is capable of better things, were it not overrun with sloth and poverty.

The next precinct is Pasquetank, where as yet there is no church built; the Quakers are here very numerous; the roads are, I think, the worst in the country; but it is closer seated than the others, and better peopled in proportion to its bigness. In their way of living they have much the advantage of the rest, being more industrious, careful and cleanly; but above all I was surprised to see with what order, decency, and seriousness they performed the public worship, considering how ignorant people are in the other parishes. This they owe to the care of one Mr. Griffin, who came here from some part of the West Indies, and has for three years past lived amongst them, being appointed reader by their vestry, whose diligent and devout example has improved them so far beyond their neighbors and by his discreet behavior has gained such a good character and esteem, that the Quakers themselves send their children to his school, though he had prayers twice a day at least, and obliged them to their responses, and all the decencies of behavior as well as others. After Mr. Adams was settled here I found it improper for Mr. Griffin to stay, and therefore, notwithstanding the large offers they made him if he would continue, he consented to fix in Chowan, where I left him, having procured for him a small allowance from the vestry; but I am afraid the hardship he will meet with in that part of the country will discourage him, if not force him from thence, though he promised me to hold out as long as he could.

Curratuck is the eastermost precinct, including the Sand Banks and some part of the south side of the Sound: a very incommodious place for damp colds in winter and musquitoes in summer. I never travelled through this parish, so I can give but a very little account of it. They have no church, nor ever had any books sent them. Mr. Adams has at present under his care this precinct and Pasquetank, from whom an account at large may be best expected.

Bath county contains most of that land which lies to the southward of Albemarle Sound to Pamplico River, and about thirty or forty miles more southerly to Neuse River, which (being but lately peopled with a few French who left Virginia) is not laid down in the draft.

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They have divided the whole into three precincts or parishes, though the inhabitants of all are but equal in number to any one of the other, most of which are seated on Pamplico River and its branches. Here is no church, though they have begun to build a town called Bath. It consists of about twelve houses, being the only town in the whole province. They have a small collection of books for a library, which were carried over by the Reverend Doctor Bray, and some land is laid out for a glebe; but no minister would ever stay long in the place, though several have come hither from the West Indies and other plantations in America; and yet I must own, it is not the unpleasantest part of the country,—nay, in all probability it will be the centre of trade, as having the advantage of a better inlet for shipping, and surrounded with most pleasant savannas, very useful for stocks of cattle.

In this as in all other parts of the province, there is no money; every one buys and pays with their commodities, of which corn, pork, pitch and tar are the chief: pork at 458 per barrel cent.—250 lbs. weight, pitch at 258 per barrel, corn at 250 per bushel, and tar at 152 per barrel, which prices (though fixed by their laws) they can seldom reach for it anywhere else, after considerable expense and risk; so that, by their computation, the difference of their money to sterling is as one to three; and if you buy a plantation there for £300 of their pay, they will much rather take £100 in England.

Thus, sir, I have, in obedience to your commands, given you this plain and, I am sensible, imperfect account of North Carolina, a country but wild and imperfect in its circumstances; and in all I have said to the disadvantage of the people in general, I must beg some exceptions, as few as you please, there being, here and there, a gentleman whose substance, sense in managing, and methods of living, somewhat exceed the rest; but they live at such distances, that, as by their example they have but little influence, so, upon the same account, they can as little contribute to the easiness of a missionary's condition, who is forced to take up with what conveniences he can find not too many miles distant from the churches he is obliged to attend; and this will necessitate any minister who goes over to purchase land, buy servants, build a church, and improve a plantation, before he can live tolerably; which will require more expense than the encouragement given will bear.

If, sir, you think this worth communicating to the honorable society, I leave it to your discretion, and am sir,

Your very humble and obedient servant,