Those Dreadful Borderers

“Carolina,” wrote Virginia Governor Thomas Culpeper in the 1680’s, “(I meane the North part of it) alwayes was and is the sinke of America, the Refuge of our Renagadoes.” The Rev. John Urmstone, minister of a local parish from 1710 to 1721, described the area as “an obscure corner of the world inhabited by the dregs and gleanings of all other English Colonies.” The Virginia aristocrat William Byrd II, who was part of a 1727 surveying party assigned to determine the exact location of the border, described the male inhabitants as “indolent wretches,” who had barely enough ambition to get out of bed, and survived only because of the industry of their wives.

They were describing the area just south of the Virginia-North Carolina border, the home of my earliest Bettis ancestors. Just north of that border, where my early Drew ancestors were then living, the inhabitants were only a little more respectable. Both sides of the border were inhabited to a large extent by free people of color who had moved south to avoid the Virginia’s increasingly restrictive racial laws, and by small farmers and former indentured servants, driven out of the more settled areas of Virginia by rising land prices.

South of the border, where Virginia’s laws had no force, the settlers included a good number of interracial couples, along with a large group of anti-establishment Quakers. Because North Carolina, in an effort to attract settlers, did not enforce payment of debts contracted in other states, there were also quite a few insolvent debtors.

In the comments of their contemporaries, one can see the first glimmerings of some traits that later came to be seen as characteristically American. They had come in search of opportunities denied them in the long-settled areas of the Tidewater: the opportunity to live independently, to make their own way, to own their own land, to practice their own faith, or to be treated as equals by their neighbors. The North Carolina historian Jack Temple Kirby describes their culture as “profoundly democratic,” and their territory as “a countercultural place, where people removed themselves from disagreeable institutions economic and social.” Their independence, and their rejection of most forms of traditional authority, prepared the ground for the religious revolution that was gathering force at the same time.

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