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Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History: Electronic Edition.

Johnson, Guion Griffis, 1900- 1989


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           THE TRIP in 1840 over the newly completed railroad from Weldon in Halifax County to Wilmington on the coast was a humiliating experience to a North Carolinian. He was "certain to have his feelings wounded at the sneering remarks of scoffers and witlings as they defamed the Old North State for her poverty of soil and primeval style of log cabins," wrote a state-proud Tar Heel to the Fayetteville Observer in 1856. "Sixteen years ago, I passed over the road, and as I heard the carping, captious remarks of travellers . . . I blushed, and dared not vindicate our State fame, so greatly were the odds against her." 1

           On every hand were sterile pine barrens, acres of sickly weeds or riotous masses of honeysuckle, cabins weathered and beaten by the pulsation of generation after generation of grubbing poverty. A swarm of barefooted children with only a shift to their backs played in the hog wallow at the door. In the distance were the toiling bodies of father and mother, bent indifferently over hoe or ax.

           Thirty years after joining the Union, North Carolina had sunk into vegetative indolence. "She has become, voluntarily, the tributary to other states," mourned "Aristides" in the Western Carolinian of November 14, 1820, "and has habitually yielded to their pretentions, until she is viewed with that contemptuous indifference which a want of personal dignity never fails incurring. . . . She is ignorant of her own resources and passive under the neglect and obloquy of her sister states."

           When Governor Swain made a stirring speech to the Legislature of 1833, in which he likened the State to Rip Van Winkle, he was but using a figure of speech long a "pleasant sarcasm" among the newspapers of the nation. During her heavy slumber she has, like Rip Van Winkle, "grown poor and ragged," wrote the New York Evening Star, "from permitting her native energies and

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strength to lie for so protracted a period dormant and unemployed." 2

           In 1845 Governor Graham was still reminding the Legislature that it had done little to elevate the national character of the State. "We cannot delude ourselves with the belief, that our advancement in prosperity and wealth, has equalled that of most of our sister States, . . . Such has been the flow of emigration, that our population has not yet doubled its number at the first Federal census in 1790. . . . The inlets on our coast have undergone no change for the better; but few of our rivers have undergone in navigation, though all have obstructions, and that extended tract of country lying between this capital and the Blue Ridge, and north-west of the Cape Fear, comprehending more than one-third of our whole territory, population and taxable wealth, enjoys but little better facilities of transportation than when it was traversed by the baggage wagons of hostile armies, in the midst of the Revolution." Humanitarian reforms "have as yet no foundations among us; and although a Common School system has been commenced, a surprisingly large part of our people are yet destitute of the first rudiments of education." 3

           By 1851, however, the Raleigh Register could write: "A change in our Legislative halls, manifested during the last two sessions of the Assembly, might lead to the hope, that Old Rip may wipe the dew out of his eyes and wake up to a sense of his real dignity. . . . Nothing checks us but our own indifference in gaining an equal footing with other States not more favored than our own." 4

And the Tar Heel who was painfully chagrined on his trip from Weldon to Wilmington in 1840 could write in 1856, "Less than sixteen days ago in passing over the same route, my State pride was exalted in listening to encomiums on the style of buildings and crops of grain and fruits and grass that met the eye, as the steam horse sped along its iron track."

           But North Carolina had so long been the target of newspaper ridicule that when Frederick Law Olmsted, a New York journalist, came to estimate the character of the slave states in 1856 he placed North Carolina at the bottom of the list. Pointing out that one-fourth of the native white adults could neither read nor write, he said:

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           For more than a century, the State's public men had been pointing out the same facts. "Our wide extent of territory and sparseness of population, together with those geographical disadvantages which prevent that speedy interchange of sentiment between one portion and another of the people, enjoyed by other states, renders it necessarily very slow in collecting, and, therefore, in expressing, the public sentiment of our State," declared Robert Strange at a Southern Rights Meeting in Wilmington in 1850. "This slowness of expression has been usually attributed to some peculiarity in the people themselves, involving the imputation of Boeotian stupidity or phlegmatic indifference. Never was there greater error." 6

           Although there was cause for North Carolina's poor reputation abroad, perhaps no State in the Union was exposed to such extravagant misrepresentations. Instead of being "deficient in moral, physical, and intellectual resources," 7

the State was merely a land-locked, agricultural province exhibiting the usual characteristics of such a region: provincialism, sectionalism, conservatism, individualism, and superstition.


           "It is a singular circumstance, that North Carolina, with a wider sea coast 8

than any State in the Union, and the fifth in extent

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of territory and in population, has less commerce and fewer important towns than any of her Atlantic sisters," reported the Board of Internal Improvements to the Legislature in 1833. "The effect which this condition has produced upon the prosperity of the State and the character of its citizens is apparent." 9 Any region without a large commercial town to tie together the common interests of its people and to focus the rays of fashion and science is necessarily provincial.

           The most striking feature of North Carolina's transportation 10

problem was the fact that various sections of the State were more isolated from one another than from neighboring States. For instance, as late as 1850 a large part of western and southwestern North Carolina found a market in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina; while the northern and parts of the eastern and central sections sent produce to Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk, Virginia. Under such circumstances, it was difficult for the public men of the State to unify State enterprise or to obtain a concert of action. When legislators met they bristled with sectional prejudices and frittered away their time over small issues. Vexed with session after session of the General Assembly which did "nothing for the honor and advantage of the Old North State," the Fayetteville Observer said bitterly in the issue of January 25, 1843, "We think it will be acknowledged that never were $40,000 of the public money more uselessly expended, . . . than in paying a set of young men 'fresh from School,' and of old men, some of whom are greener still, for the 'child's play' in which they have been engaged for the nearly 70 days past."

           Even before 1800 a few public men saw the necessity of binding together the different sections of the State if the provincial outlook of its people was ever to give way to a common interest in the State as a whole. Such a goal could never be reached until the farmers could find accessible markets within the State for their produce. In 1812 that idealist and fervent North Carolinian,

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Archibald D. Murphey, urged such a course upon the General Assembly. Under his influence, the General Assembly did open the State purse beginning with 1815 and let out small driblets for river improvement, but the returns from such a reluctant policy were negligible. 11

           Murphey had dreamed of a complete system of inland transportation which would connect every portion of the State. The Roanoke River and its tributaries would have had an outlet through Albemarle Sound. The Tar and the Neuse would have been connected and given an outlet through Ocracoke Inlet. The Yadkin and the Catawba would have been joined to the Cape Fear with its outlet at Wilmington. The rest of the State would have been connected with these water routes by a system of turnpikes and thus the State would have become an economic unit. 12

           Whatever such a system might have meant to the prosperity of the State, the magnitude of the undertaking was clearly beyond the capacity of the Legislature to realize. It was not until the beginning of the railroad era 13

in 1836 that Murphey's dream was even partly accomplished. Two years after the building of the first American railway, President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina wrote a series of newspaper articles called "The Numbers of Carlton" in which he urged North Carolina to build a railroad from Beaufort to the Tennessee line. For the first time public sentiment was aroused. In 1834 the Legislature chartered the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad Company, but work on the road did not get well underway until 1837 when the Legislature under Governor Edward B. Dudley's influence gave financial support to the company. In 1840 the road was formally opened. It covered a distance of 161 miles and connected Wilmington on the coast with Weldon, a point on the Roanoke River near the Virginia line.

           Once having committed itself to a policy of State aid, the Legislature went steadily forward with the work. In 1838 it gave assistance to the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad Company which had been chartered in 1835. By this route the State capital was connected

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with the Greenville and Roanoke Railroad in Virginia and indirectly with Petersburg. The Legislature of 1848 chartered the North Carolina Railroad Company with a capital stock of $3,000,000, two-thirds of which was to be subscribed by the State. The course of the road was from Goldsboro on the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad to Charlotte, by way of Raleigh and Salisbury. By 1856 the road had been completed, a distance of 223 miles, proudly called "the longest railroad in the world." There now remained the task of connecting East with West. In 1852 the Legislature chartered the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad Company to connect Beaufort Harbor with Goldsboro, and the Western North Carolina Railroad Company to connect Salisbury with the French Broad River within the vicinity of Asheville. By 1860 the Atlantic and North Carolina line had been completed and the Western road to within five and a half miles of Morganton. In 1854 the Legislature chartered a company to build a railroad from Wilmington to Rutherfordton by way of Charlotte, and by 1861 the line had been extended out of Wilmington as far as Rockingham. By the close of the period North Carolina had a total of 889 miles of railroads, constructed at a cost of $167,709,793.

           The effect of the system upon the people and upon the State's reputation abroad was immediate. "Those who fail to see and appreciate the enterprize and talents of 'Old Rip,' as some do most scandalously call her, must themselves be sound asleep," said the Danville, Virginia, Reporter, in 1845. Is it nothing to have one of the longest railroads in the Union? 14

In the first year that the Wilmington and Weldon railroad was opened to traffic, the farmers within its reach were able to rush their wheat to Petersburg to take advantage of a temporary rise in price. 15 No longer need the farmers' crops moulder in granaries at home because of the high cost of getting them to market. From one end of the State to the other, the people thrilled to "the echoes of thundering wheels" and to the promise of prosperity which the reverberation held out.

           "Whose heart would not beat with quickened vibration at the idea of meeting his brethren from all parts of the State at Raleigh, in 12, in 24 hours! for either religious, political, or other purposes," cried the Asheville Messenger in 1852. "What poor man could not then visit his friends and relatives, and make life more

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social and endurable. We now pay $40 to get to Raleigh and lose ten days." When the Western Railroad is completed we will "lose three and pay $12!" Look at our markets that will be built up; the impetus that will be given to erect manufactories which will attract capital at home and abroad; the inducement that will be held out to labor; the incentive that we will have to improve our crops and our stock! 16

           The railroads, however, still left a large portion of the State with no better transportation facilities than it had during the Revolution. Of the important towns only Charlotte, Salisbury, Morganton, Rockingham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Goldsboro, Wilmington, and New Bern had railroad connections. In 1850 more than half of the State was still dependent on the old four-horse wagon system for transportation over a distance of from fifty to four hundred miles to market. 17

As late as 1870 Greenville, South Carolina, was still the town within easiest reach of Haywood County and neighboring sections. 18

           Had North Carolina connected its railroad system to the rest of the State by a system of public highways the picture of prosperity which the Asheville Messenger drew in 1852 might actually have been realized and the spirit of localism which stalked the land might have given way sooner to one of laudable State pride. The Legislature did actually give some aid in the building of public highways, but the amount spent was insufficient to build roads which would stand the wear of more than a few years. The famous system of plank roads which Fayetteville built to connect that town with points in the West was popular for a decade after 1848, but the roads were profitable for only a few years. 19

The Legislature of 1850 chartered companies to build roads out of Charlotte, Concord, Salisbury, Asheville, Oxford, and Wilmington; and the Legislature of 1852 chartered forty-one plank road companies.

           The road system of the ante-bellum period made transportation along the public highways often difficult and uncertain. Supervision of roads, ferries, and bridges was under the jurisdiction of

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the county courts. 20 Each court annually appointed overseers of public roads who were alloted portions of convenient length to keep in good order. These overseers, who were not compelled to serve more than one year in three, acted without remuneration but were liable to fine if they refused to serve or if they neglected to perform their duties when appointed. All white males between the ages of eighteen and forty-five and free Negro males and male slaves between the ages of sixteen and fifty were subject to work as hands under the direction of the overseer.

           The upper classes substituted slave labor for their personal service or paid the fine of one dollar a day imposed on those refusing to work. This forced labor was a source of bitter complaint but in most instances the inhabitants preferred it to a money tax. The result was that the county roads were usually in need of repair; bridges were built slowly, and ferries established only where the streams were so deep as to make fording dangerous.

           In 1800, for instance, a wagon from Chatham County on its way to New Bern with two hogsheads of tobacco fell into the river while crossing the bridge over the Neuse at Kinston and the driver and three horses were drowned. "This accident," wrote the Raleigh Register, "was owing to the very shameful state of the bridge, the planks covering which, lying aslant and loose, gave way. How can those who have the charge of public bridges acquit themselves for suffering them to remain in such a state?" 21

In 1802 when Congress was preparing to extend the great northern and southern stage mail through North Carolina, a congressman wrote home hastily, "If a little more attention were paid to the roads and bridges on the main line, it would tend greatly to the advantage and credit of the State." 22 In October, 1834, the Hillsborough Recorder declared that wagoners between that town and Fayetteville found the roads so bad that they were forced to leave a part of their loads on the way and that all returned from the trip with broken-down horses. 23 In 1846, however, when Professor Elisha Mitchell of the State University examined for the Legislature the main road from Raleigh west through Salisbury and on

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to Asheville, he reported that the system of local road police answered very well except in places where the nature of the soil made road building difficult. But he strongly urged the State to build a main turnpike west to attach the interest of the western people to North Carolina. "An intelligent gentleman in the western part of the State," wrote Professor Mitchell, "remarked to me that as things now are he has less to do with people on the northern side of the Albemarle Sound than with those on some of the remotest regions of the globe." 24

           The poor mail facilities within the State, especially before 1820, also contributed toward its internal isolation. The bad condition of the roads was partly responsible for the poor mail service but it was a fact, often complained of by leading citizens of the State, that the people themselves were indifferent as to whether they received mail and consequently would not demand better postal service of Congress. In 1800 North Carolina had sixty-eight post offices serving her sixty-one counties. 25

At that time the most frequent mail service was three times a week. The first mail stage from the North running as far south as Augusta, Georgia, was begun in 1803 and passed through Raleigh, causing the Raleigh Register to rejoice that "the means of diffusing information" was so much greater than "the contracted limits of a few years since." 26 The first six-day service in the State was begun in 1813 as an experiment during the remainder of the war with Great Britain. By 1820 Raleigh was receiving a daily mail from the north and south and had a connection with some points in Western North Carolina as often as three times a week. By 1826 mail stages were penetrating the West. The first mail stage between Salisbury and Lincolnton was established in that year and all the mail carried at one trip instead of being left to accumulate in the post office at Salisbury. Sometimes packages had been left behind as long as two weeks because the saddle bags were too small to contain them.

           By 1835 Raleigh had two daily mails, one from the north and the other from the south; a mail service from Greensboro, New Bern, and Tarboro three times a week; from Oxford twice a week;

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and from Roxboro and Haywood once a week. 27 With the building of railroads the mail was carried by train, but long after the ante-bellum period it was still delivered by a carrier on horse-back in many sections of the State.

           Newspapers constantly complained even to 1860 of the failure of the mails to arrive according to schedule. 28

Usually the failure was due to swollen streams or impassable roads. In the issue of December 26, 1820 the Western Carolinian of Salisbury complained that "the bare appearance of a cloud above the horizon" was sufficient to interfere with the weekly mail service. William White, the Raleigh postmaster, thought that no State in the Union or at least none of the old States was as poorly provided with mail service in 1851 as was North Carolina. 29 He attributed this fact to the apathy of the people and urged that a movement be started to procure a daily mail west as far at least as Greensboro if not to Salisbury.

           The improvement of the transportation system in the State greatly increased the use of the mails. Postmaster White of Raleigh estimated in 1851 that the movement to build a railroad to Asheville had increased the mail to the western towns by 20 per cent. 30

The decreases in the postal rates also greatly encouraged the use of the mails. Letters which had formerly cost 18¾ cents to be sent from Asheville to Raleigh cost only 10 cents in 1860. 31 In 1853 the postmaster of Fayetteville estimated that the cheaper postal rates had more than doubled the use of the mails. One daily mail to Wilmington, he said, contained more letters, newspapers,

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and periodicals than passed in a month through the Fayetteville office to the South in 1818 on the great northern and southern route. 32 Yet private conveyances were still being used extensively for sending mail even after 1860.

           The coming of the telegraph in 1848 also helped to break down the isolation of the State. 33

The line ran from Virginia through Raleigh and Fayetteville. From that time the leading newspapers of the State began to carry telegraphic news, and as the years advanced toward 1860, the newspapers themselves began to play a more important role as a medium of communication. In 1849 a correspondent of the Raleigh Star called attention to the influence which the press had exerted in the development of the State, declaring that the local newspapers had done much to advance "the enterprise, prosperity and independence of our people." 34

           In 1810 there had been only ten newspapers published in the State. By 1850 this number had increased to fifty-one, but at no time during the period was the circulation of any State paper very large. 35

Most of the editors complained of being able hardly to keep alive on the patronage received. 36 Nevertheless, the total circulation of local periodicals in 1850 was one for every three white adult males. 37 At the same time one in every four adult white males could neither read nor write, while 29 per cent of the total white adult population was illiterate. 38

           The majority of the people in the State had few contacts with the outside world; they did not come in touch with advanced ways of living and thinking; and provincialism was the inevitable result. Traveling was fashionable among the upper classes who used malaria and ill health as an excuse to make frequent trips to the North as well as to the resorts in Piedmont and Western North Carolina; among the lower classes, however, there was practically no traveling except to carry produce to market. It often happened that a person lived and died without ever having gone beyond the bounds of his native county.

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           The experience of being in Washington as United States congressman had a broadening effect upon John H. Bryan, a prominent ante-bellum lawyer. In the first few weeks of his residence in Washington he thought the society of New Bern superior to that of the capital city, but after a few months he came to regard his home town as a "confined circle" and wrote to his wife that the great advantage of travel and residence in a place like Washington was "to enlarge and inform the mind, to emancipate it from the shackles of habit & prejudice which a constant residence in a village like ours very frequently imposes upon it." 39


           The sectional character of life in ante-bellum North Carolina was as pronounced as its provincialism. Indeed, her public men often declared that sectionalism was at the root of the State's do-nothing policy and responsible for the backwardness of the people. "Too long has North Carolina been rent assunder by sectional jealousies and paltry local feuds," lamented fourteen of the State's ablest men in 1833 at a public meeting in Raleigh on internal improvements. 40

"Sectional feelings and jealousies" have always "distracted our public councils and retarded our prosperity," declared a committee reporting to the Legislature later in the same year. 41 "All are trying to elevate themselves," wrote home Charles B. Shepard in despair during his first term in the Legislature in 1832. "Local parties are struggling to gain ascendency & none, not one, wisely endeavouring to raise the character of N. C., to bring to light her vast resources, & to enrich & honor her people." 42 The Legislature, said Frederick Blount in 1834, "has always been controlled by a few little demagogues who live in fear of a loss of personal popularity in their native districts." 43

           Sectionalism had characterized North Carolina society since the first adventurers pushed beyond Albemarle Sound and settled on the Pamlico. As the Neuse and Cape Fear regions were settled, they, too, became separate sections with separate interests. They quarreled over land patents, representation in the provincial assembly, and over the location of the seat of government. 44


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jealousies continued through the revolutionary and federal periods and on into the ante-bellum period.

           The location of the seat of government at Raleigh had been a sore point with the sections around Edenton, Wilmington, and Fayetteville. In 1804 when the Raleigh boarding houses advanced their prices as the session of the General Assembly opened, an indignant representative from Cumberland County moved that the Assembly "adjourn from this place and meet at the town of Fayetteville." 45

No sooner had the capitol burned in 1831 than the question of locating the seat of government had to be settled again. ". . . if the Cape Fear men . . . should next session be assured of the seat of government being fixed at Fayetteville," wrote Richard Dobbs Spaight, senator from Craven County, in December, 1831, "they would give up everything else." 46

           The location of the county seats was contested with almost as much bitterness as was the location of the state capital. The General Assembly usually tried to get around these local quarrels by requiring that the courthouse be situated as nearly as possible in the exact center of the county, but the records of the General Assembly are crowded with such controversies throughout the ante-bellum period. The settlement of boundary lines, the control of navigable streams, the erection of bridges and ferries, the composition of the county courts, all were subjects which led to sectional disputes within a county. A conflict between upper and lower Pasquotank, which resulted "after sundry political contests," finally degenerated about 1808 into a quarrel over the possession of a ferry across Pasquotank River. 47

           In Wayne County a contest between two factions arose over the position of clerk of the county court. 48

To make certain of the office, one faction obtained the appointment of nine new justices of the peace whose vote could be depended upon. Some time previous to the sitting of the court, the question arose as to what business should be transacted first when the court should meet. Those who had the ascendency in court insisted that it was necessary to proceed at once to the appointment of a clerk, while the

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group to whom the new justices were attached was equally insistent that they be qualified first so that they might vote in the election. The latter faction, fearing the strength of the opposing group, assembled their new justices at the courthouse shortly after midnight of the date set for the meeting. As one of the acting justices began to administer the oath to the new members, their opponents who had been on watch, opened battle. The lights were extinguished, and "some other Business done not strictly characteristic of a Court of Judicature." The result was the formation of two courts and the appointment of two clerks who at once entered suit for the possession of the office. The case was settled, but the discord continued, creating "lasting and deep-rooted animosities" tending "very much to sour society." 49

           The most apparent sectionalism in the State in the ante-bellum period was that which existed between the eastern and western counties. The interests of the sections were divergent. They did not grow the same crops or market their produce at the same towns. In the eastern counties there was a concentration of slave labor, while in the West free labor predominated. The East was settled chiefly by the English, while in the West there was a large proportion of Scotch and German settlers who still retained many of their native customs.

           The poor transportation system in the State kept the two sections apart so that even during the ante-bellum period the people never really came to know one another. In 1833 his hosts in the East had filled Henry Barnard with such fearful tales of Western North Carolina that the young New Englander, after leaving Charlotte for Morganton, at once began to fear for the safety of his watch and purse. 50

As late as 1856 an Easterner wrote patronizingly in the Raleigh Register of his visit to the West: After returning from a trip to Asheville in 1859, F. L. Wilson of the North Carolina Standard wrote that such a trip was "calculated to soften the asperities of sectional feelings, and to convince the Eastern people that the people of the West are neither savages nor ignoramuses; but on the contrary, that they are intelligent, high-minded, hospitable, and civilized." 52

           The section known as the West was a changing area, but in general it was thought of as being located beyond the fall line of the rivers. If a north and south line were drawn, with some reference to the coast line of the State, along the eastern boundaries of Person, Orange, Chatham, Stanly, and Anson counties, it would designate the East and West of the ante-bellum period. 53

In 1770 the two sections had come to blows in the War of the Regulators and twice during the ante-bellum period they almost clashed.

           The social and economic differences which separated the two sections had political manifestations which widened the breach. The Constitution of 1776 gave the East a predominance in the General Assembly. The county was the basis of representation, each being allowed one senator and two members of the House of Commons. 54

The West, which was divided into counties of large areas, thus had fewer representatives in the Assembly than the East. At the same time the West was increasing more rapidly in population than the East. 55 The movement for reform began shortly after 1790, but the East successfully withstood it until 1835. The East was really divided in two sectional parties, the East and the Cape Fear. By this trio--East, Cape Fear, and West--"all questions must under the present unequal basis of representation be referred and decided," wrote the Rutherford Spectator in 1831. "And who is able to say where this dragooning and log rolling system will lead or what will be its consequence." 56

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           About 1820 the West began insistently to demand reform. The Western Carolinian, which had been established in Salisbury in 1820 "to achieve the independence and obtain the equal rights of the western part of North Carolina" declared that the West was in a great moral and political awakening brought on by repeated oppression. 57

In 1834 a correspondent demanded that the General Assembly call a constitutional convention. "Let us ask," and let us "ask but once more--from our brethren of the East, for Justice," he cried. "Justice is all we want. If we are refused it, I hope my countrymen will show they still possess the same abhorrence of oppression that distinguished their fathers in the field of Ramsour's Mills." 58

           The East, however, was powerful enough to hold off the back country for fourteen years. By 1834 the excitement in the West had reached such a tension that even the conservative Raleigh Register became alarmed and warned the Legislature "that unless the grievances complained of be speedily redressed, the yeomanry of the West will take the remedy in their own hands." 59

The Constitutional Convention which was called in 1835 compromised on the differences between East and West by fixing the representation in the Senate on the basis of public taxes and in the House of Commons on the basis of federal population.

           The Constitution still retained the property qualification required in voting for senators, and it was upon this provision that the western leaders next made their attack.

           In the meantime, a more liberal spirit was growing throughout the State, an aggressive spirit of reform which came in time to view manhood suffrage as an inalienable right. It chanced, therefore, that when the Democratic Party was casting about for a candidate for governor in 1848, it hit upon David S. Reid of Rockingham County. Reid would not consent to make the race unless the party endorsed free suffrage, and thus it happened that a party whose stronghold was not in the West championed a reform which this section had been advocating for many years. 60

During the nine years that the Democratic Party sponsored the reform, the

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West, as in 1835, threatened to revolt unless a speedy redress of grievances was made. For instance, "Buncombe," writing in the Whig Raleigh Register of July 10, 1850, declared: "Such, Freeman of Western Carolina, is the history and fate of this question,--slighted in '35, laid on the table in '40 and '41 and killed in '48 and '49, . . . The West has been borne down by the unequal influence of the East." We have "no desire to wage a sectional warfare against our brethren of the East. But sirs, . . . this thunder triumphed before. Remember 1835. And mark my prediction, it will triumph again." It did triumph, but not until after seven more years of controversy. By the Constitutional Amendment of 1857, every free white man, twenty-one years of age, who had paid taxes, was entitled to vote for a member of the Senate for the district in which he resided. 61

           Yet social and economic differences between the two regions still remained. A few months after the passage of the Constitutional Amendment of 1857, Samuel H. Wiley, contributing editor of the North Carolina Journal of Education, predicted that it would be a long time before eastern and western prejudices would be broken down:


           The reluctance with which North Carolina changed its constitution to fit the needs of its aggressive western population is

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typical of the way the State met nearly every important issue which arose during the ante-bellum period. The people, as a whole, were conservative and proceeded cautiously to adopt new ideas. They looked upon untried methods suspiciously; the "way of the fathers" was the only safe policy. "We are opposed to innovations," wrote the Cape Fear Recorder in 1820 when the agitation for constitutional reform became a major political issue, "for experience shows, that when once we commence, it is uncertain where we will stop. . . . We have tried the constitution: the innovators may, perhaps, and only perhaps, make it more perfect . . . we view it as a sacred bequest of the heroes of the revolution and shall approach it with the utmost sanctity."

           As early as 1790 a few public leaders sought to obtain a penitentiary system for the State to ameliorate the bloody criminal code, but the movement was successfully defeated throughout the ante-bellum period. The code had been approved by the revolutionary fathers; change would be madness, especially since it would involve an expenditure of public funds. More than fifty years of agitation were necessary to obtain a public school system for the children of the State. The Legislature evidenced the same conservative spirit in regard to the chartering of banks, the encouragement of transportation, the establishment of public institutions for the care of the underprivileged, in fact toward the adoption of any significant change. Such a hesitant policy led to shame at home and sarcasm abroad. Newspapers humorously referred to "North Carolina's army of leather-headed apostles and do-nothing sons." 63

"Ignorance is the inseparable companion of poverty," wrote the Raleigh Register in 1824 in explaining North Carolina's conservatism, "and a country thus cut off from the facilities to wealth and knowledge has been seldom blessed with the kindly influences of a liberal policy. This latter is the humiliating situation of N. Carolina" and her name has been "stamped with contempt." 64

           Disgusted by the State's do-nothing policy, Frederick S. Blount, a young North Carolina lawyer, migrated to Alabama where he viewed with deep mortification the proceedings on internal improvements in the North Carolina Legislature of 1833. "The period of action had arrived," he wrote home to a relative, "and

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the energies of the people had been awakened to the importance of an uniform and centered movement on a subject of such vital importance to themselves and their children. . . . I have given up my state--and shall hereafter associate imbecility and impotency, as terms synonymous with North Carolina." 65

           Many of North Carolina's most enterprising and able citizens had earlier come to the same conclusion; and, like Frederick Blount, migrated to the new and prosperous regions in the West and Lower South. The following table showing the low rate of increase in the population of North Carolina as compared with that of Mississippi and Indiana, two states, one slave and the other free, which drew large numbers from North Carolina, indicates the drain which was being made upon the State's population:



Year North Carolina Mississippi Indiana
1790 ..... ..... .....
1800 21.4 ..... .....
1810 16.2 355.9 403.0
1820 15.0 87.0 500.2
1830 15.5 81.1 133.1
1840 2.1 174.9 99.9
1850 15.3 61.4 44.1
1860 14.3 30.4 36.6

           In the decade from 1830 to 1840, which marked the low tide of population growth in the State, the increase was only 2.1 per cent, while in Mississippi it was almost 175 per cent and in Indiana nearly 100 per cent. The increase in Virginia for this decade, however, was only 2.34 per cent and in South Carolina only 2.27 per cent, in both cases but slightly more than in North Carolina. Throughout the period, Virginia shows a slightly lower average rate of increase than North Carolina, and South Carolina a slightly higher rate. But neither state was held up to the world as the

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seat of backwardness and desolation as was North Carolina. Indeed, Virginia was considered one of the wealthiest states in the Union.

           But when an artist of Ohio wished to portray the rise of the West, he entitled his picture "Emigration from North Carolina." The signboard which guided the exhausted travelers pointed west to Ohio through green fields and stately woods, while in the distance lay the barren hills of North Carolina. The picture was exhibited in the rotunda of the national capitol, much to the indignation of North Carolinians who considered it "a slur on the state." "Had such a picture described Maryland or Virginia," declared one hotly, "it would have been removed immediately from the Capitol; or, if not, it would have been thrown out. No one bears with patience to see the nakedness of his country exposed." 66

           It is difficult to estimate the exact amount of population which North Carolina lost in the ante-bellum period, but certainly its people were on the move southward and northwestward from the opening of the century. In 1818 Governor Branch urged the Legislature to adopt measures at once "to arrest the progress of emigration" and make "our citizens contented and happy to remain at home." 67

In 1827 a correspondent from Buncombe County wrote to the Western Carolinian that "during the last four months the flow of emigration through Asheville has surpassed any thing of the kind the writer has ever witnessed. It was not uncommon to see eight, ten, or fifteen waggons, and carts, passing in a single day. . . . The great body of the emigrants were from the middle or eastern part of the State, wending their way to the more highly favored climes of the West." 68

           In 1834 the Raleigh Register urged: "North Carolina must do something NOW or be content to take a position lower and lower in the Confederacy, until she becomes without weight in the National Scale. . . . Our wealth is decreasing daily--our commercial towns present decayed wharves, dilapidated warehouses and untenanted dwellings; while in the country, may everywhere be found deserted plantations and abandoned settlements. Our roads are thronged with emigrants to a more favored Country; who

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have been forced unwillingly to forsake the homes of their fathers." 69 In 1838 the Internal Improvements Convention, meeting in Raleigh, petitioned the Legislature, saying, "More than a half million of our people have left the place of their nativity and carried with them wealth, talent, and enterprise." 70 Still the stream of emigration continued. In 1845 the Greensborough Patriot recorded: "On last Tuesday morning nineteen carts, with about one hundred persons, passed this place, from Wake County, on their way to the West. And thus they have been going almost every day from the lower counties." 71

           At the close of the period, 272,606 native North Carolinians were living outside the State as is shown in the following table:



State Number
Slave State
Free State
Tennessee 55,227 .....
Georgia 29,913 .....
Indiana ..... 26,942
Alabama 23,504 .....
Missouri 20,259 .....
Mississippi 18,321 .....
Arkansas 17,747 .....
Kentucky 13,609 .....
Illinois ..... 13,597
Texas 12,138 .....
Virginia 9,978 .....
South Carolina 7,818 .....
Ohio ..... 4,701
Iowa ..... 4,690
Florida 4,168 .....
All others 3,212 6,782
Total 215,894 56,712

           The total number of free persons born in North Carolina and living in the United States in 1860 was 906,826. Of this number 30 per cent lived outside North Carolina. One out of every five, or 20 per cent, of those leaving North Carolina went to free states.

           The reason for this general exodus is to be found in the widespread belief that the soil of North Carolina had been exhausted,

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in the high cost of transportation within the State, in the better adaptation of the Lower South to the growth of cotton, and in the conservative policy which the State Legislature followed. 73 The result was a loss in capital, labor, and creative ability. In 1829, for example, the heads of the Navy, War, and Post Office departments of the national government were all natives of North Carolina as was also the minister to Colombia and eight of the forty-eight senators in Congress. Colonel William Polk in an "Address to the Citizens of North Carolina" in 1833 sadly pointed out that the bench, the bar, the legislative hall, and the drawing-room in other states were "graced with genius, and sparkling with wit and elegance which a narrow course of State policy has driven from North Carolina." 74 A year later James H. Ruffin, writing from Alabama to his brother Thomas Ruffin, who had recently been appointed chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, said, "I was almost in hopes, her wise men would have abolished her Supreme Court, and by that means have driven from the State the eminent men who yet linger within her limits, thereby leaving her barren of talent and a prey to the silly demagogues who rule her destinies." 75

           By 1820 North Carolina had been popularly dubbed "the Boeotia of America," or "the second Nazareth." 76

Archibald D. Murphey, discouraged by repeated failures to steer the General Assembly to a liberal state policy, described the spirit of North Carolina as "radically mean and grovelling." "The Mass of the Common People in the Country," he said, "are lazy, sickly, poor, dirty and ignorant." 77 It is undoubtedly true that emigration took from the State many of its best citizens and left behind the reactionary and the conservative.


           If the average North Carolinian was a conservative when in the legislative hall, he was an individualist when dealing with his

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neighbors. Individualism is a characteristic of all frontier societies, and North Carolina society at the opening of the nineteenth century had not yet left the frontier behind. During the ante-bellum period the spirit of individualism expressed itself in an unwillingness to wait for the delays of judicature, in an emphasis upon the rights of the individual as opposed to those of the State, in a freedom of speech which sometimes ran to license, and in a contempt for the value of human life.

           When an issue arose between individuals, the yeomanry was likely to resort to a trial by physical combat, while the gentry and middle class proceeded according to the elaborate code of duello. Sturdy North Carolinians did not as early forget their frontier tactics of gouging and biting as their betters would have desired. In the issue of May 31, 1810, the Raleigh Star was indignant at the publication in the Augusta, Georgia, Centinel of the insinuation "that a North Carolinian cannot salute you without putting his finger in your eyes." While the Star acknowledged that quarrels in North Carolina were at one time conducted with less regard to etiquette than a modern duel, he insisted that the practice of gouging had long since "yielded to the advance of civilization and refinement" and had "retired to Georgia and the wilds of Louisiana."

           In 1816, however, there were twenty-two indictments for mayhem in the State, and a few such indictments as late as 1840. 78

Laws against mayhem had been passed in 1754 and in 1791 but a more stringent measure was enacted in 1831. 79 Punishment for the first offense of malicious maiming was a sentence of two hours in the pillory and thirty-nine lashes on the bare back, while for the second it was death without benefit of clergy. Maiming without malice was punishable by fine and six months imprisonment.

           Throughout the period, indictments for assault and battery far outnumbered all other offenses tried in the county courts. In 1839, for instance, all but three out of sixty-nine indictments in Buncombe County were for assault and battery. 80

Instances are on record in which parties, dissatisfied with the results of a case, agreed to settle

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the dispute by a physical contest. 81 Occasionally a litigant would refuse to accept the court's verdict and would take the law in his own hands. For example, in September, 1809, Mrs. Mary Connelly of Currituck County bought at a sheriff's sale property belonging to William Etheridge which he afterward refused to give up. She brought suit against him and the sale was confirmed, but when she went to claim the property, Etheridge shot her down as she entered the gate, 82 doubtless justifying himself on the ground that the State had no right to take in payment for taxes the property which his industry had earned.

           In ante-bellum days duelling 83

was the most honorable method of settling a quarrel. The duel between former Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight and John Stanly of New Bern in 1802 was one of the famous duels of the period. The controversy, which commenced a few days previous to the election for the Legislature, arose from General Spaight's having been informed that Stanly had stated publicly that the General "was no Republican and that the Federalists never lost a question whilst he was in congress for want of his vote." 84 Spaight at once challenged Stanly who immediately offered an explanation. But the General was not satisfied and Stanly, wishing to avoid a difficulty, wrote a second and a third letter. The last was accepted on the condition that it should be published. When he had it printed, Stanly also inserted a certificate of the words which had given rise to the difficulty. The General replied and the correspondence was continued in every issue of the paper from that date until the duel. Finally, Stanly published a handbill in which he pictured Spaight as attempting "to play the hero, to strut the bravo, to ape the duellist," insinuating that Spaight's former sensibilities had been appeased easily. A few hours later the General responded with a handbill, concluding, "In my opinion, Mr. Stanly is both a liar and a scoundrel,

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and although I hold his character in so contemptible a point of view, yet as he had the confidence of the people of this district, I shall always hold myself in readiness to give him satisfaction, and to assure him, if he asks for it once, he shall not be under the necessity of doing it a second time." The duellists with their seconds met the next day about five o'clock. Upon the exchange of the fourth shot, Spaight was wounded in the right side. He died the next day, and "his remains were deposited in the family vault, at his principal country seat near Newbern, with expressions of universal sorrow and all those testimonials of respect . . . due to his acknowledged merit."

           Some attempt was made by Stanly's political enemies to make an example of the case, but the only definite result was the law of 1802. This law made liable to indictment any person sending, accepting, or bearing a challenge to fight a duel, and on conviction made him subject to a fine not exceeding $200. Such a person was rendered ineligible to any office of trust, honor, or profit in the State, "any pardon or reprieve notwithstanding." 85

If the duel resulted in the death of one of the participants, the survivor, together with his abettors or aiders, should suffer death without benefit of clergy. An unsuccessful attempt was made the following year and on several occasions thereafter to repeal or modify the law. From the first the law was inoperative. Those desiring to engage in duels usually, but not always, withdrew to another state. In 1833 the Legislature itself flaunted the law in restoring to James Madison Baird of Asheville "all the privileges of a free man and a citizen" after he had been convicted of sending a challenge. 86

           Leading newspaper editors, notably Joseph Gales of the Raleigh Register and Edward J. Hale of the Fayetteville Observer, consistently opposed duelling. On one occasion Gales wrote after a duel in Virginia between two young men without seconds and at a distance of only two paces: "The blood-thirsty and lawless custom of duelling is so repugnant to religion, justice & mercy, and so strongly tinctured with the barbarity and ignorance of the Gothic ages which gave birth to it, that every fresh instance is a reflection on the humanity and policy of civilized nations." 87


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the custom continued throughout the period. In 1845, for instance, Thomas L. Clingman of North Carolina and William L. Yancey of Alabama, both members of Congress, fought with "smooth-bore pistols of the usual duelling length" near Beltsville, Maryland, and were "reconciled" after an exchange of shots. 88 It did not always happen that a duel ended so happily. In 1856, for instance, Dr. William C. Wilkings and Joseph H. Flanner, Esq., of Wilmington fought at Marion, South Carolina, with pistols at the usual distance of ten paces, or thirty feet. Even after two unsuccessful shots, the contestants were unwilling to compromise and on the third fire Dr. Wilkings received a wound from which he died immediately. "The parties were very much esteemed here by their friends and acquaintances," wrote the Wilmington Journal, ". . . this tragical result has cast a gloom the like of which, we trust, may never occur again." 89

           Trials of honor were frequent, for unrestrained freedom of speech was the custom throughout the period. Slander suits were likely to be employed only by women, cowards, and those religiously opposed to engaging in the more speedy processes. In 1741 profane swearing 90

was made subject to a fine of twenty-five cents, but in 1801 it was complained that the penalty was not sufficient to prevent the practice and that foul names often provoked innocent persons to break the peace. 91

           Despite their hue and cry against "the lawlessness of the period," local newspapers encouraged personal abuse by the publication of scurrilous advertisements. 92

It was not unusual before 1830 for an opponent to delineate in several columns of a state paper the details of a personal quarrel, concluding with the statement

Page 46

that the public should beware of the "liar and scoundrel." Early in January, 1810, a controversy, which continued in almost every issue of the Raleigh Register and the Halifax Journal until well into March, began with an advertisement in the Register over the names of Thomas Telfair and Benjamin B. Hunter: "Beware of Robert Joyner, of the State of N. Carolina and the county of Halifax, . . . Altho' the proofs of . . . [his] villianous conduct are founded on facts indisputable, but too delicate to trust to the inclement storms of public scrutiny; yet, thro' the medium of this paper, we avail ourselves of the opportunity of proclaiming to the world, that this Robert Joyner is a Calumniator, and a Scoundrel, whose tongue, like the stroke of the Torpedo, paralizes every object with which it may come in contact." 93 At length, Joyner forced his assailants to reveal that the cause of their attack was that he had whispered around the streets of Tarboro that Telfair and one of the Hunter girls had been taking "private walks" and that "the young lady had left home on that account." 94

           Personal quarrels frequently continued over a period of years and as a rule were upheld by all members of the contending families. Frederic Beasley, of a respectable family in Edenton, on learning of an attack made on his brother through the local newspaper, wrote to his mother that it must have been launched by some of their old family enemies, "for it seems," he said, "as if our family was perpetually pursued by them." 95

The feud which arose between the Culpeppers and Foremans of Camden County over the possession of a swamp resulted in the murder of Henry Culpepper in 1823 and the organization of a Foreman gang to protect them in the ownership of the land. 96 On being pursued, the gang would take refuge in Virginia and thus elude arrest.

           In 1856 the Fayetteville Observer attributed the "increasing number of murders in the United States to the habit of carrying deadly weapons, bowie knives, revolving pistols, &c." In former days it was considered "an evidence of conscious unmanly fear" to wear arms habitually. Instead of its being "a word and a blow," as in old times, it was now "a word and a stab, or a word and a pistol ball." 97

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           The case of William Waightstill Avery, prominent lawyer and Democratic leader, is a significant example of an encounter between an armed and an unarmed antagonist. 98

Samuel Fleming, who was armed, attacked Avery unexpectedly in Marion. Having disabled his opponent by a blow with a stone, Fleming publicly cowhided him. Shortly afterward, while serving as counsel in a case on trial at Morganton, Avery saw Fleming enter the courtroom. He immediately arose from his chair and shot Fleming down. When Avery was tried for manslaughter, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, acceptable to all except Avery's political opponents. W. W. Holden, who had supported Avery in politics, summarized public opinion on the case, in an editorial published in the Standard at the close of the trial:

           Had more ante-bellum characters been as generous as L. T. Sawyer of Edenton was in his controversy with Dr. James Norcom, the history of the period might have been somewhat different. "This is to request," he wrote Dr. Norcom in July, 1828, "that all that has passed between us of an unpleasant nature may be forgotten and buried in oblivion. On my part, I regret it exceedingly, and being far your junior in years, am free to admit that you have not been treated by me with the decorum which your age, your character and your standing in society merited." To this Dr. Norcom replied, "Letters of this kind are rare; but they are far more honourable than a thousand victories gained by treachery or the sword!" 100

Rare, indeed, was any admission of fault in an ante-bellum controversy. Had Sawyer's fellow townsmen known that he had written such a letter they would probably have branded him as a coward, lacking the fortitude to carry on a man's fight in a man's world.

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           A characteristic of ante-bellum North Carolina which was intimately associated with the daily lives of the people was the prevailing belief in the supernatural. Popular superstitions are an interesting indication of the status of social progress. In some instances, they represented the advance of scientific method rather than a blind reverence for the mystical. For instance, the planting of crops according to the signs of the zodiac was at one time the most advanced method of farming known. While it had been generally disproved by the nineteenth century, this method of agriculture was still the one most commonly known to the majority of North Carolinians during the ante-bellum period. William Boylan, portly editor of the Raleigh Minerva, was once saved from being forcibly dragged into a country dance near Pittsboro when a friend whispered about the crowd that he was the almanac maker. 101

Looks of scorn turned to awe when it was known that a man who could foretell thunderstorms was present.

           Only the most educated and skeptical were free from popular superstitions. While both the Indians and Negroes practiced maleficium, it cannot be said that they are responsible for the tendency among the whites. The colonists undoubtedly brought the fundamentals of the creed with them. 102

Dr. John Brickell, writing of North Carolina about 1730, attributed powers of witchcraft to the Indians. Several planters told him that the Indians "raise great Storms of Wind and that there are many frightful Apparitions that appear above the Fires during the time of their Conjuration." 103

           The Reverend Brantley York, born in Randolph County in 1805, writes in his Autobiography that belief in witchcraft was general in that section of the State prior to the Civil War. At any neighborhood gathering the most prominent topic of conversation related to witches, ghost-seeing, and shape-shifting. The people "believed that a witch could transform herself into any animal she chose, whether bird or beast." A witch could "creep through a

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key-hole, by the magic of a certain bridle called the witch's bridle--she could change any person on whom she could place it, into a horse; and then what is still more remarkable, both could come out through a key-hole, and, being mounted, she could ride this remarkable horse wherever she chose, nor could such an animal assume its identity till the bridle was removed." 104 A witch could withstand lead balls when shot from a rifle but no magic was proof against silver. She could place a spell on a gun so that it could not hit the object aimed at, a spell on growing crops or on a piece of work undertaken by an enemy. She could cause illness and the afflicted person would not get well as long as the witch retained in her possession something belonging to her enemy. 105 Some witches professed to hold communion with the dead and to have nightly séances with departed spirits. An instance is on record of a North Carolina woman who requested a "male witch" to call up the spirit of her husband so that she might learn where he had hidden his money. 106

           Some persons who were not witches, nevertheless, had the power to make a magic grease which would make invisible the person on whom it was rubbed. In 1828 Dr. Elisha Mitchell of the University of North Carolina, while on a geological tour in Western North Carolina, found an old man who knew the wonders of magic ointment:

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           In almost every neighborhood there existed some one who had the peculiar power of breaking spells. When such a reputation was once obtained, the popularity of the possessor soon spread to many sections. When Old Bass came to Brantley York's home professing to be a Portuguese fortune teller with influence over witches, the whole community stopped work, and spent the day having Bass break spells.

           More prevalent than belief in witches but closely related to it was faith in signs. A natural phenomenon never failed to arouse the anxieties of a large part of the inhabitants. The fall of meteors in 1833 caused a general alarm, 108

and an unusual storm following a night session of a camp meeting in 1837 so excited the people that they crowded in great numbers around the preachers' tent loudly crying for more preaching as a protection against the elements. 109 The so-called shower of flesh and blood in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1841 caused considerable fright in North Carolina and the report was circulated that similar showers had taken place in this State. 110 The phenomenon was explained as being the discharge of a reddish fluid by a species of butterfly on emerging from the chrysalis state; but the terror which had taken hold of the popular mind was not allayed by so simple an explanation.

           Even those who ridiculed ghost-seeing and shape-shifting were not entirely free from other superstitions. A fortune teller was able to support herself in almost any community in the State. In 1850 it was proved in the famous trial of Mrs. Ann K. Simpson of Fayetteville for murder of her husband by poisoning that she often visited Mrs. Anne Rising, the village fortune teller. Mrs. Simpson herself frequently told the fortunes of her friends. On various occasions, she would take coffee or tea cups and, turning them about in her hand, declare that she saw the future unfold. On the day before her husband's death she took his cup and said, "I see a sick bed, a coffin, and a dark and muddy road with clouds around." 111

           One of the most common superstitions of the time was the belief that knocking on wood prevented unhappy consequences

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of idly spoken words. 112 To begin a piece of work on Friday meant certain ill fortune, while to wash clothes on New Year's Day would bring death to a member of the family. If an amorous maiden could induce her lover to wind a ball of thread with her, marriage would inevitably result. 113 Before the thread was wound, however, a circle must first have been made in the front yard with the handle of a frying pan. All human relations, in fact, could be governed or foretold by a knowledge of signs and their interpretation. It was rare, indeed, for a person of the lower classes to escape the effect of such beliefs. Nor has the present generation even yet entirely freed itself from such superstitions. An issue of a prominent state paper in March, 1935, contained accounts of a Negro conjure doctor and of a man who had become endowed with the power of the devil by chewing the boiled bones of a black cat. 114

           Society in North Carolina in the period prior to the Civil War was permeated by superstitious notions; but this was only one characteristic of a people whose chance for getting ahead in life was limited and whose opportunity of learning new ways of doing things was circumscribed by conditions which made travel difficult and expensive. Isolation had produced a provincial and sectional society which reacted conservatively to innovation. Enough of the frontier characteristics still clung to the people to make them individualistic. Another aspect of ante-bellum society was the division of the people into well-defined social classes.

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