by Clarence E. Horton Jr.
Three hundred years ago there was a special place in the vast new lands of the new world, a mesopotamia between two great rivers which would later be called Yadkin and Catawba. There canebrakes grew up along creeks which fed the area's on river, and provided shelter for the buffalo which lived in the land. There were hardwood forests, separated by rolling meadows of grass six feet high. Wild game lived along the edges of the forests, giant wild turkeys lived in the forests, and great flocks of passenger pigeons regularly darkened the sky. It is little wonder that the first European to describe the area, a surveyor named John Lawson, was to describe the land as a “delicious country”.
A high ridge ran through the middle of the land, and provided first a dry footing for an ancient Indian trading path and then for a road hewn out with axes and called the Great Wagon Road. By the third decade of the eighteenth century, pressures for cheaper land and more religious elbowroom were building in the heavily settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania and northeastern Maryland. Down the Wagon Road from Pennsylvania would come large groups of lowland Scots, who came to the new world from the Ulster section of Northern Ireland, and German Lutherans fleeing the endless wars of Europe.
In 1732, according to established Cabarrus County tradition, a young Scots–Irishman named John Rodgers followed the old Warriors’ Path from Pennsylvania through the Valley of the Shenandoah into the fertile lands of piedmont North Carolina and began building his cabin along Back Creek, near its junction with the aptly named Rocky River. That land, which is today Cabarrus County, was in the boundaries of New Hanover County, with its seat of government in Brunswick. He was soon joined by his countrymen, who usually “came in a company;” this hardy race, more properly called Ulster Scots, were fiercely independent and particularly well suited to hold their new land. Kenan Professor R. D. W. Connor’s description of the Scotch–Irishman is classic: “He was loyal to his own kith and kin, but stern and unrelenting with his enemies. He was brave, and he loved the stir of battle”.
It is generally accepted that these first Scotch–Irish settlers claimed the richer “black jack” lands of western and southern Cabarrus County, so that German settlers arriving in the 1740s amiable entered the eastern portion of the county, claiming lands on both sides of Dutch Buffalo Creek. To their west, along Cold Water Creek, lived a colony of Welsh–English, who brought their Baptist religious traditions with them.
As the backcountry gradually became settled, new counties were formed so that those early settlers would be closer to the county courthouse. Thus in 1734, Bladen County was formed from New Hanover; by 1749 or 1750, the frontier was sufficiently settled to require the formation of Anson County. It is then that written records can first be found, as the earliest deeds for Cabarrus County land are recorded in the old courthouse at Wadesboro. Otherwise, there is little knowledge or notice taken of our pioneers until Governor Arthur Dobbs visited our area in 1755 to survey his extensive land holdings. In 1745, Dobbs and Colonel John Selwyn purchased a tract of 400,000 acres located in present Mecklenburg and Cabarrus Counties from Henry McCulloh of London. We are indebted to his Report to the Board of Trade for the first glimpse of our county where he found 75 families living. He found an “industrious people,” with five to ten children in most families, raising horses, cows, a few sheep, and hogs. In addition, they raised crops of Indian Corn, wheat, barley, rye and indigo. Their trade was primarily with Charleston, as there was already a two hundred–mile road to the South Carolina seaport and trade with eastern North Carolina was hampered by the rivers which cut across the land.
Despite the large families, they lived in one–room cabins of logs, the furniture hewn from local trees, and the cooking done in an open fireplace. Iron was scarce and expensive, and even tools were often fashioned of native wood. There were few luxuries, for those must be carted from distant Charleston, but crops grew well and wild game was plentiful. The hard work and loneliness of pioneer life brought our early settlers together, and established a tradition of community spirit which still exists. They sought diversions in community gatherings such as log-rollings and barn buildings, in corn–huskings, quilting parties and in plowing–bees.
The greatest source of strength of those who first settled this land came from their strong religious traditions. Although the Scotch–Irish Presbyterians and Lutheran and Reformed Germans moved into the wilderness without ministers, they brought with them their Bibles, their catechisms, and “books of devotion.” They built homes, planted crops, and began to build houses of worship and petition for ministers. The first of the country’s great colonial churches, St. John’s Lutheran Church, dates from about 1745, while Poplar Tent and Rocky River Presbyterian churches were in existence about 1751. Cold Water Church apparently began as a union church, with both German Reformed and Lutheran members, by 1766. Early records are scanty, but Bethel Methodist was organized as Taylor’s Meeting House between 1780 and 1783. By 1790, a Baptist congregation along Cold Water Creek had been formed. That the doors of those early churches are still open – and the churches growing – is a tribute to the strong religious foundations laid down by our ancestors.
In those early churches are also to be found the roots of our educational system. As soon as our pioneers built churches, they began to teach their children. They had had their fill of kings and tyrants, and came to this land to build a new life for themselves and their generations. They saw in education the path to self–government and independence. Thus in 1772 the Lutherans at St. John’s Church joined with others and sent two emissaries to Germany to obtain a minister and a schoolteacher. During the midst of the Revolution, in 1778, a classical school opened at Poplar Tent Church; it was to remain open for a century and produce some of the leading scholars in the backcountry. Under the direction of Reverend John Robinson during the four decades from 1801 to 1841, the school produced seven ministers, three governors, four congressmen, several judges, and 15 doctors. Charles Wilson Harris, first presiding professor at the University of North Carolina, received his early education there. In that same community, Professor Harris’ uncle, Dr. Charles Harris presided over what was likely the first medical school in North Carolina, graduating some 90 young men as doctors. A classical school at Rocky River Presbyterian Church was incorporated in 1812. Under the direction of Reverend John Wilson, 25 young men became ministers, 15 of them from the Rocky River section.
They were law abiding people, and had little love for a government they found to be corrupt. By 1771, their sympathies were heavily with the Regulators, frontiersmen who resented the excessive taxes and fees imposed by the appointees of the Royal Governor. Near the historic Phifer Inn on the Great Wagon Road, nine young men of the Rocky River Section blew up three wagonloads of gunpowder and supplies which was to be used against the Regulators at Hillsboro. They blackened their faces with soot to escape detection, so that future historians would name the group “The Cabarrus Black Boys”. Their exploit so enraged Governor Tryon that he refused to pardon the young men involved in “blowing up General Waddell’s Ammunition”, and the boys were forced to go into hiding.
In that early act of protest, many have found the seeds of revolution, which came to full bloom on May 19, 1775. The area which became Cabarrus was then a part of Mecklenburg County, which was formed in 1762, and so sent delegates to a countywide meeting in the village named for Queen Charlotte to discuss the worsening relations with England. During that meeting, a messenger arrived to announce that British troops, 6 companies of royal infantry, had fired on about 70 minutemen on the village green at Lexington, killing several men. The large crowd thrilled as the messenger repeated the words of the American commander, directing his men to stand fast and not to fire unless fired upon, “but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here”.
Aroused by the news, the delegates chose three of their number, one of whom – Hezekiah Balch – was a Presbyterian minister from the region which would become Cabarrus County, to draft a document declaring that they would no longer be subject to a king who had fired upon their countrymen. That document, finished after midnight by candlelight, was read to a large and approving throng from the steps of the log courthouse the next day by Colonel Thomas Polk, leader of the local militia. History knows the document as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Scholars debate its terms and authenticity, but North Carolina proudly placed the date of its completion May 20, 1775, on the state flag in 1861.
The revolutionary fire in the backcountry did not burn out, as Lord Cornwallis was to find to his sorrow in 1780 when he invaded Charlotte from South Carolina. He had been misled into thinking he would find a land of plenty to supply his troops for an invasion of North Carolina. Mecklenburg marksmen used the bright red coats for target practice, and ambushed the food-gathering parties until the nervous British fired at every sound. Cornwallis was to write Sir Henry Clinton that the citizens of Mecklenburg and Rowan County were “more hostile to England than any in America”.
The “Hornet’s Nest” tradition of fierce patriotism is a rich part of Cabarrus County history. Her young men and women have answered every call to the colors from the War of the American Revolution to the War in the Desert. Cabarrus County volunteers marched to the Horseshoe Bend in Alabama in 1814 to help out a former neighbor, Andy Jackson, sailed to Mexico by steamship in 1846 to serve with Zachary Taylor, kept watch along the Mexican Border in 1916 with Black Jack Pershing, were with the Tar Heels in the 30th Division when it broke the Hindenburg Line in 1918. They were in North Africa, in Italy, and Iwo Jima; landed with McArthur in Korea, cut their way through the jungles of Vietnam and survived the heat of the Saudi Arabian desert. Although many were opposed to civil war in 1861, all stepped forward when their state called for volunteers, as their sons did in 1898 when the call came for soldiers to help free the Cuban people from Spanish oppression. Some were wounded or taken prisoner; many did not return. Never did the flag for which they fought suffer dishonor. We celebrate today that unbroken line of courage and patriotism.
The desire for self–government continued after the Revolution. A leading patriot, Martin Phifer, his comrade in arms, John Paul Barringer, along with many others, began to seek the formation of a separate county for the Rocky River Country. After years of effort, the Assembly was persuaded to form a new county from northeastern Mecklenburg on December 29, 1792. It was named Cabarrus, in honor of the popular Speaker of the House of Representatives, Stephen Cabarrus of Chowan County. A dispute over the location of the public buildings continued until 1795, when a site was agreed upon and a town to be named Concord was laid off on a 26 acre tract of land near the old Indian trading path. There a courthouse for the new county was built in the intersection of its primary streets named Corbin and Union. The Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, first governing body of the county, was composed of three of the Justices of the Peace for the county. It met quarterly to deal with administrative and minor judicial matters. The Justices governed the County until 1868 when the County Commission form of government replaced the old form.
Until 1839, the wealth of the county was in its agricultural products and in gold, which was first discovered in Cabarrus in 1799. Conrad Reed, a twelve year old boy, discovered a large nugget while fishing in Meadow Creek one Sunday morning and began the Carolina Gold Rush, although it was several years before the “rock” was identified. More important, however, was the discovery that the “black jack” lands of western Cabarrus were ideal for the growth of cotton so that by 1839 the area was one of the leading producers of the southern piedmont. An economic depression during the 1830s had softened cotton prices, however, and Paul Barringer and John T. Phifer determined to build a cotton factory in Concord to provide a market for the local product and strengthen prices. Although the little cotton factory was not a great success in the long run, and was finally sold in 1877 at public auction, its purchaser J.M. Odell saw the promise of the land and began to build a textile empire on the old foundation stones. Ten years later, a successful Concord merchant named James W. Cannon imagined cotton being grown, processed and sold in the south rather than being shipped north for processing. He opened his first plant in 1887, a second in 1892, and today a great empire of looms stands as a monument to his courage and vision.
Much of the success of those early textile plants can be credited to the nearby railroad, opened in 1855. Near that same railroad, the vision of Jim Cannon would lead him to begin construction in 1906 of giant manufacturing plants and a “model mill village” which would be called Kannapolis. His son, Charles A. Cannon, would build on his father’s beginnings and join the separate plants into a company whose name would become famous nationwide. He would leave not only a company employing thousands of workers, but a heritage of churches, schools, a great hospital, and charitable trusts and a foundation which continues to work to enrich life in the communities he loved. The lovely “Williamsburg style” downtown business district of Kannapolis is a legacy from Ruth Coltrane Cannon.
We cannot hope to capture all that makes this county a special place in a few lines. Our riches are in our heritage of patriotism, of a strong religious tradition, love of family, independence of spirit, an unquenchable thirst for freedom – in all those ancient foundation stones on which we continue to build a community. Even as we claim that rich heritage, however, let us look forward to our third century as we celebrate the challenges and opportunities of a limitless future.