The December 1677 overthrow of the government in Albemarle County in
royally chartered Carolina continued a long history of reaction to oppression. European
precedents for such reactions began as early as 1581 when the Dutch acted in their States
General in declaring their independence from the King of Spain as follows:
Subjects are not created by God for the benefit of the prince, to submit to all that he
decrees, . . . On the contrary, the prince is created for the subjects . . . if he . . .
endeavours to oppress and molest them and to deprive them of their ancient liberty,
privileges and customs and to command and use them like slaves, . . . his subjects . . .
must no longer recognize him as a prince . . . but should renounce him; in his stead
another must be elected to be an overlord to protect them."
Hugo Grotius in 1625 assembled his major work, De jure belli et pacis, which
reduced to writing for the first time the laws of national conduct. These two Dutch
examples gave to the Puritans resident in Holland a theory of freedom in political terms
based on their recent and effective implementations. The English Civil War, 1642-1646,
showed them the way toward different religious practices. A combination of these factors
was brought with colonists who settled in New England, and they later began to engage in a
soon flourishing trade with the settlers in the otherwise isolated Albemarle County, the
name given to the present Albemarle Sound region in North Carolina and the first populated
section under the 1663 Carolina Charter. Albemarle County inhabitants were a mixture of
adventurers, escapees from both civil and religious penalties, and younger sons of gentry
who had come to seek their fortune where land would not be withheld from them by ancient
traditions enforced by primogeniture. They were not well educated men, in the main, but
they knew when their rights were being infringed and took swift, bold action to remove
those trying to enforce laws or regulations which they thought improper. Unlike their more
religious New England trading partners, they based their government on physical and
martial strength rather than religion.
Into this disparate group of settlers in 1677 returned Thomas Miller, a man who would
be governor, but who had last been seen in the county in May 1676 as he was being escorted
in chains and under armed guard for trial in Virginia for blasphemy and treasonous words.
He was acquitted and went on to London where his tale of irregularities in both government
and customs collections was corroborated by Thomas Eastchurch, a former speaker of the
Albemarle County Assembly. Through a series of events to be discussed below, Miller
returned to Albemarle County in July 1677 to claim the position of acting governor. Within
less than six months he was removed in a coup d'état which is today known as
This paper will attempt to place that uprising in proper context with the events of
seventeenth-century England as well as with events in the nearby colonial areas. Central
to the problem being discussed here were trade practices both in the colonies and in
England. A century and a half later Alexis de Tocqueville would explain that the driving
factor behind this American turn to trade was that it offered "the quickest and best
means of getting rich." 2
Experience in England with a revolution and civil war which removed not only the head
of government but his very head, showed the American colonists that the time was ripe for
taking control of their own affairs. The governor of Maryland made an abortive attempt to
set himself up at the head of an independent colony. Nathaniel Bacon, Jr. also failed in
his attempt to take control of the Virginia frontier and to drive out all Indians be they
friend or foe. The Virginia governor, council, and burgesses acted to remove from office a
collector of the king's customs.
These events set the stage for unrest which followed the departure from Albemarle
County of Peter Carteret, the governor appointed by the Lords Proprietors, and the
concurrent attempt by Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia and one of the Lords
Proprietors of Carolina, to obtain sole control of Albemarle area from the other seven
Lords Proprietors. Government in Albemarle County became unstable. Acting governor, John
Jenkins, was overthrown by Thomas Eastchurch, who in his turn was thrown out. Miller was
taken for trial before the governor and council of Virginia only to return and take the
reins of government as the 1676 Indian wars in Albemarle County were being resolved.
Miller's rule fell apart in the unfortunate (for Miller) coincidence in the timing of his
order that citizens of Albemarle County turn in their arms to Miller and the arrival of
George Durant three days later. The people of Albemarle County were upset at the potential
loss of personal arms when the Indian situation was not yet fully settled, and Miller's
threat to hang Durant was shown to have real meaning in Miller's attempt to arrest Durant
on the day of his return to the colony from England. When these events were coupled with
Miller's past attempts, aided by two deputy collectors and the sometime use of a
merchant's shallop as a semi-official customs ship, to enforce the hated Plantation Duty
Act, the inhabitants joined to overthrow Miller. Miller was imprisoned in one of the first
known log houses in America where he would languish without visitors or writing materials
for almost two years before managing to escape.
(To Next Chapter).
1 E. H. Kossman and A. F. Mellink, eds., Texts Concerning the Revolt of the
Netherlands (London and New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1974), 217. (Return)
2 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer,
trans. George Lawrence, (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 552. (Return)
Copyright 1990. William S. Smith, Jr., All rights