ALEXANDER SPENCE: A PASQUOTANK PIONEER
Alexander Spence was the second son of Maryland settler David Spence (c1639-1679), whose Somerset County patent was named “Despence”. The family was Scots, believed to have descended from a family long associated with the area around Edinburgh, Scotland.
David and his wife, Anne, had five children: David Jr., Alexander, John, James, and Anne. At David’s death in 1679, they were 13, 10, 7, 5, and 2, respectively. Nothing is known of their childhood, but surviving records indicate that none of David’s sons remained in Maryland once they reached adulthood.
His eldest son, David Jr. (1666-1725/26), seems to have made an exploratory trip with his brothers to North Carolina, but from age 32 was firmly settled in the well-established Virginia colony, living out his life near Coan, in the Newman’s Neck area of Northumberland County.
His three younger sons cast their fortunes with the newly established province of North Carolina, created in 1663 by Charles II to reward eight men who had helped him to regain the English throne.
This enormous expanse of land along the eastern seaboard, with its deeply indented bays and broad rivers, was initially named Albemarle County. Most of its settlers came from Virginia and South Carolina, rather than from overseas, and were generally yeoman farmers, although a land-owning aristocracy did arise with connections to the two older colonies. Land usage reflected a mixture of plantations and farms, which concentrated on tobacco cultivation but also produced a considerable quantity of naval stores and provisions.
North Carolina society was never as homogeneous as that in Virginia and South Carolina. There was a wide range of religious groups, and many of the waves of colonists came from traditionally independent ethnic and national groups such as the highland Scots, the Scotch-Irish, and the protestant Germans. The state had no deep-water ports, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds being shallow and Cape Fear River having a treacherous sandbar at its mouth. As a result, no central port city developed to draw the colony’s citizens into close and regular contact and to make North Carolina easily accessible to its proprietors and to the Crown. This may explain how the colony came to have a reputation as a center of political discontent and to develop a tradition of opposition to authority that was described by Governor George Burrington in 1732 in the following manner.
“The inhabitants..are not Industrious but subtle and crafty to admiration, allways behaved insolently to their governours. Some they have Imprisoned, drove others out of the Country, at other times sett up two or three supported by Men under Arms…All the Governors that ever were in this Province” he observed, “lived in fear of the People…and Dreaded their Assemblys.”
David’s three younger sons lived out their lives in North Carolina and at least one (Alexander) seems to have played an active part in its civic and political life, perhaps being one of the “subtle and crafty” inhabitants whom Governor Burrington decried.
In 1670, four precincts had been carved from the great east coast forests of Albemarle County, among them Currituck, bordering the Atlantic; Pasquotank, next inland and stretching from the Virginia border south across the Albemarle Sound; Perquimans, moving further west; and Chowan, surrounding the western end of the wide but shallow Albemarle Sound. Settlements followed the rivers which drained the great swamps of the low-lying coast. There were creeks in abundance, and, moving inland along the sound’s northern bank were the North, the Pasquotank, the Flatty, the Little, and the Perquimans Rivers. Each successive wave of settlers pushed further inland along the rivers, and by 1700 lands were being granted along the upper reaches of the Pasquotank in what would, in 1777, become Camden County, NC.
Adding to the difficulties of establishing homes and farms in what was, most likely, a swampy tangle of vegetation, there was constant military turmoil in NC in the first two decades of the 1700’s, both internal and external. The presence of French and Spanish vessels off the coast from 1702 to 1713, and occasional incursions by their crews, made it necessary to organize and arm for defense.
In 1708-1711 came Cary’s Rebellion, one of the many periods of resistance to royal or proprietorial govenment that characterizes NC history . The Tuscaroras massacred 130 settlers in surprise attacks in 1711, and no sooner had NC troops and their Indian allies supressed this uprising than the colony was called upon to come to the aid of South Carolina against the Yemassee Indians. In the following year, an epidemic of yellow fever claimed many victims.
In his 1902 “History of Albemarle County”, J. R. B. Hathaway comments: “It is hard to realize the serious inconveniences, privations and hardships” of the early settlers of Carolina. “The country was sparsely settled, neighbors were frequently miles away. Without roads or public conveyances they were forced to make their journeys on foot or horseback along Indian paths or trails, with the savage and wild beast roaming at will the dense forests surrounding them on every side.” Edenton, then known as the Port of Roanoke, was the sole “metropolis”, and settlers having business there or were required to travel from sixty to seventy-five miles through the wilderness, and frequently to cross the Sound in small canoes. Communication was exceedingly difficult, as there were no mail routes and letters had to be entrusted to the vagaries of travellers. “Deeds were allowed to accumulate in a neighborhood until the number justified the appointment of some one person” who, armed with powers of attorney, would make the difficult journey to the “nearest place of Probate” to have them properly recorded (hence why we find the same witnesses and dates on many documents).
Money was scarce and rarely used, tobacco and pork being the common and legal tenders of the era.
Marriages were frequent and early. Both men and women married as soon as they were physically adult, often in their mid-teens. Divorce was unknown, but many early settlers married four or five times as illness and accident took their mates.
There were no institutions of learning and few churches (none prior to 1702; and only three as late as 1708). Children learned what their parents could teach them, which in many cases, did not include reading and writing.
After about 1718, NC gradually entered into a six-decade long period of prosperity that would not again be equalled until the advent of World War II. The Indian “menace” was eliminated, piracy surpressed, and government (which was in 1729 returned to the Crown) was more efficiently administered. As the result, population increased rapidly; agriculture and commerce were stimulated; and living standards rose considerably. Roads were laid out and more comfortable dwellings were erected. While the north side of the Pasquotank did not contain many individuals of great wealth, there were several whose possessions enabled them to live comfortably and leisurely and who were recognized as members of the planter class. Their plantations, or farms, contained from a few hundred acres upward, and these men were dominant factors in the economic as well as the social life of the area. Their chief interests were their households and friends and, in the words of Dr. John Brickell, who lived in Edenton in 1730 and who wrote The Natural History of North Carolina, “…you seldom hear them Repine at any Misfortunes in life, except the loss of Friends, there being plenty of Necessaries convenient for Life: Poverty being an entire Stranger here, and the Planters the most hospitable People that are to be met with…”.
ALEXANDER SPENCE, second child and second son of David and Anne Spence, was born September 13, 1669 in Somerset Co., MD. He was only ten when his father died, and nothing is known of his education and upbringing. He may have spent some time in Northumberland Co., VA, but should not be confused with the Alexander Spence (possibly a cousin) of Westmoreland Co., VA, son of Patrick and Dorcas Youell Spence, who was a noted surveyor and attorney there in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.
At his father’s death in 1679 Alexander inherited 125 acres in Somerset County, MD, being half of the plantation called “Spence’s Choice” David Sr. had patented March 17, 1673. On April 4, 1681, the 12-year-old Alexander, his older brother David, and his 4-year-old sister Anne, recorded livestock marks in Somerset County, indicating that some sort of farming operation was being continued by the widow and her children, but the records are silent for the next fifteen years.
In that time, Alexander presumably was educated, found a bride, and determined to try his luck in a newer province, for in October 1697, the 28-year-old Alexander was granted “rites” for the transport of his wife, “Dorety” (whose maiden name is believed to have been Trueman) and brothers, “John, Daved (David) and James” to Perquimans Precinct, Albemarle County, North Carolina.
Why did Alexander and his brothers leave Maryland? A close perusal of his father’s will shows that while land was left to the two older boys (David and Alexander), and the main plantation (Despence) was left to the two younger boys(John and James), then ages 7 and 5, all the “goods, chattels & substance & all belonging thereto both without doores & within” were left to their mother, Anne. That is, the farms were left to the sons, but the means of farming were left to the mother, who apparently remained in control of the main plantation until her death in 1711.
Alexander’s wife, Dorothy, is believed to have been the daughter of John Trueman, who was born ca 1620 in Gelding Parish, Nottingham, England and who emigrated to Maryland with his wife, Anne Storer, and brothers John, James, and Thomas. A controversy regarding this last brother, Major Thomas Trueman, who was impeached, fined and imprisioned for murdering five Indian chiefs in 1675 may have led to John’s relocation from St. Mary’s, Calvert Co., MD to the Eastern Shore of VA sometime after that date. John had three daughters: Dorothy, Elizabeth, and Catherine, and, upon his death in 1686, assigned them to the guardianship of Richard Stevens, John Booth, and James Daishell, respectively. Note that Daishell was a neighbor and family connection of Alexander’s father, David, and that John Booth also had a daughter, Esther. Given that the families were of relatively even social standing and would have been involved in the same social activities, it would only have been natural that the Spence boys paid court to the Booth and Trueman girls. James married Esther Booth, while Alexander and brother John married two of the Trueman sisters…Dorothy and Catherine, respectively.
Alexander spent several years in Perquimans Precinct, where a son, James, was born sometime in 1697 or early 1698, and the family was increased by another son, Alex-ander Jr., on March 8, 1699. The elder Alexander seems to have been a civic-minded man, for his name regularly appears in North Carolina colonial records in various community and civic endeavors. He served as a grand juror for the Precinct “Att a Generall Court holden at the house of Mrs. Eliz. Godfrey the Twenty fourth Day of March” 1697 and, with his brother John, was reimbursed thirteen shillings and four pence each for expenses incurred in attending court in October 1698 as “evidences” against a William Mansell. Like his brother David in Virginia, Alexander was appointed overseer of “ye high Wayes from Suting Creek to (illegible)” in April 1699, some five months before his 30th birthday.
(Perquimans Precinct lay west of the Little River, one of many feeding into Albemarle Sound. Albemarle also included Pasquotank, Currituck, and other precincts, all of which later became counties. Currituck was the east-most, bordering the Atlantic behind a narrow strip of sandy outer banks. Pasquotank came next, running from the western bank of the North River to the eastern bank of the Little River, where it cojoined Perquimans. Pasquotank was further divided in 1777, with the land northeast of the central Pasquotank River being renamed Camden County.)
From 1670, each of the first four precincts had been entitled to five representatives in the NC House of Commons, or Burgesses. While the actual date of his election is unknown (the early journals of this legislative body having been lost), Alexander was at some point elected as a representative (for Perquimans or Pasquotank) and was a signatory on a 1712 petition from that body to Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Virginia, requesting that a force of 200 men be sent to aid the North Carolinians against what were characterized as “inhuman barbaritys of the Indians”, referencing a series of attacks by the Tuscaroras (who, from their perspective, were simply retaliating for depredations by the colonists).
Alexander was again called as a juror in the General Court for the precinct on Tuesday, March 31, 1713, the panel finding that William Willson had, indeed, uttered “false feigned Scanderlous malicious & abrobrious words” about Joseph Jordan, but quite sensibly awarding Mr. Jordan only £5 instead of the £500 asked by his lawyer, Edward Moseley.
Where in Perquimans Precinct Alexander lived is unknown, but by January 28, 1715 he is found on the northeast side of the Pasquotank River where he received a patent for “100 acres in Pasquotank precinct, joining the mouth of a branch, Daniel Phillips, Thos. Barkett, and ye swamp of ye river”, and a second patent for “273 acres on ye N. side of Pasquotank river, joining a small swamp”. The swamps referred to are, presumably, part of what is now called the “Great Dismal Swamp”, out of which the Pasquotank River drains. He was, at that time, about 45 years of age.
Alexander was one of the first vestrymen appointed when in 1715 the province of North Carolina established the Church of England as the province’s official church and divided the province into parishes. In Alexander’s case, he served on the Northeast Parish of Pasquotank, along with Thomas Miller, John Solley, John Relfe, John Bell, Samuel Bernard, Capt. John Norson, Gabriel Burnham, Thomas and Robert Sawzer (probably Sawyer), Henry Sawyer, and John Upton. Alexander and his closest co-religionists in the northern part of the county , including Thomas McBride, Patrick Kelly, John Jones, William Joy, Robert Edney and Robert Taylor, build a place of worship called “Forke Chappell” near the Fork Bridge on Joy’s Creek, close by Alexander’s homeplace. The creek was named for William Joy, one of the first settlers in the area. In modern Pasquotank (now Camden Co.), the name has been corrupted to “Joyce’s Creek” and few know its historical roots.
The 1718-19 tax list of Pasquotank Precinct shows Alexander as listing three “tythables” in his household, and 570 acres of land, together causing him to be taxed £3.1.7. Tithables at this time included free, white males 16 years and older, as well as slaves 12 years and older, whether male or female. It is possible that his eldest son James, who would have been around 20 years of age at this time, had set up his own establishment, and that the tax list represents Alexander Senior (age 49) and his next two sons, Alexander Junior (19) and Truman (about 18). Sons Joseph (about 8) and Robert (about 1) would have been too young to be counted. Given the 15+ year differences in the ages of the two younger boys and their three older brothers, it is interesting to speculate that the younger boys might have been the sons of a second wife. The era was also one of high infant mortality and devastating epidemics (such as the yellow fever outbreak of 1712) so it is equally possible that Alexander and his wife had other children during that period who did not survive their infancy.
On July 18, 1721, Alexander bought a parcel of land from Griffin Jones for 10 pounds, and received a third patent on 10 July, 1722 for 318 acres of land on the NE side of the Pasquotank River. The land is described as “joining a branch, Capt. Salley, Richd. Ferril, Ross (?) and the river pocoson”. (Capt. Salley may have been John Solley, while Ross is probably Abel Rose, an adjacent landowner mentioned in Alexander’s will.)
Alexander remained active in the affairs of the community, being listed with his brothers, son Alexander Jr., and nephew, James Jr., as #143 on the 1723 list of jurymen in Pasquotanck Precinct.
On April 9, 1724, he sucessfully petitioned the Council at Edenton to grant him a lapse patent for 74 acres in Pasquotank that had been first patented in 1716 by Griffin Jones but not cultivated “as the Law directs”. The parcel lay on the north side of the river, joining Richard Gregory and John Trueblood, who were surely related to the James Gregory from whom he bought another small parcel of land on October 7, 1730 “containing by estimation 20 acres on the NE side of the Pasquotank River”, and to the Amos Trueblood to whom the parcel was adjacent.
Alexander witnessed several deeds 13 July 1731 and, in November of 1732, he witnessed the will of a “free man” named William Wood. By 19 Feb 1733, his neighbors included the above-mentioned John Trueblood, James & Margaret Gregory, Benjamin Kowing or Knauing (most probably, Koen), John Gray, and John Soley (Solley). Other neighbors or business acquaintances between 1721 and 1734 included Jonathan Jacocks, Capt. John Relfe, Mary Relfe, Anthony Walkins, William Minson, Thomas Palin, Jarvis Jones, Thomas Sawyer, and Jeremiah Murden. Many of these names reoccur in the business and matrimonial dealings of Alexander’s children and their cousins.
From all evidence, Alexander was a man of substance and of some importance in the area. He is cited as one of the four most influential men in the province by Jesse Forbes Pugh in his book, “Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank”, which says…”The population of the Camden area in 1733 must have been upwards of a total of three hundred; nevertheless, in Colonel Edward Moseley’s opinion there were only four men hereabouts who were important enough to merit a reference on his map. Those four individuals were John Hawkins, Griffith Jones, Alexander Spence (then age 64) and Gabriel Burnham.”. Col. Moseley’s 1733 map of the Pasquotank area clearly identifies Alexander Spence’s holdings as lying in the fork of “Joy’s Creek” . (today, Joyce Creek), some miles east of that creek’s confluence with the Pasquotank and of present-day South Mills. Interestingly, a “Spence’s Lane” is shown on current NC maps along Hwy 343 some few miles north of South Mills, although it appears to be some miles west of the location indicated in this patent.
Sometime in early 1734, Alexander (or his estate) paid to the Crown half the quitrent in arrears (from September 1729 to March 1732 and totaling a little more than £9) on two parcels of land in Pasquotank precinct, one the 318 acres patented in 1722 and another of 200 acres, not specifically identified, but presumably the 200 acres on the south side of the river referenced in his will. The issue of whether quitrents were to be paid to the Crown in specie (in return for the remission of earlier arrears) or in commodities or paper money according to local custom, was part of the reason Governor Burrington so dreaded the Assembly, and was not finally settled until 1754. Alexander’s partial payment, along with those of his brothers and nephew, may have represented a further “subtle and crafty” move on the part of the landowners.
When Alexander died “very sick and weak of body” in Pasquotank Co., NC August 24, 1734, shortly before his 65th birthday, he was survived by sons James, Alexander Jr., Joseph, Robert and Truman; and daughters Jane Sawyer and Catherine Sawyer. As his wife, Dorothy, is not mentioned, it is presumed that she predeceased him. (However, a Dorothy Spence is on record as witnessing the 1763 will of Joseph Solley, who left his family land out of Alexander Spence’s patent and a tract known as Robin Spence’s. Alexander’s widow would have been quite ancient by this time (at least 80 and probably older), so it is more likely that the 1763 Dorothy was a namesake descendant.)
Alexander’s will refers to him as a “planter”, a title well substantiated by the quantity of land he left his heirs. To his “eldest” son, James, he left 240 acres on the Eastern Shore in Maryland “joining William Ellgate”. It appears that this bequest included the 125-acre half-share in “Spence’s Choice” Alexander inherited from his father in 1679, but the source of the remaining 115 acres is not known. A William Elgate did patent a plantation in 1664 along the Marumsco River in Somerset Co., MD, some distance southeast of the family’s original plantation, “Despence”. Unfortunately, none of the holdings adjacent to “Elgate” appear to have been named “Spence’s Choice”, and William Elgate sold out in 1672, a year before David Spence patented the “Choice”.
Alexander left 200 acres on south side of the Pasquotank River in NC to son Joseph; 100 acres “where I now live, joining Richard Faril, Abel Rose, John Trublood” to son Robert; and to son and executor, Truman, the”remainder of the land where I now live, my Mark belonging to all my creatures (his stock brand or mark) and likewise all my moveables and remaining part of my Estate within and without.” To his daughters, Jane Sawyer and Catherine Sawyer, and his son Alexander Jr. he left only 10 shillings.
The will is signed “Alex Spence” in an uneven but legible hand, and was witnessed by Jeremiah Murden, Thomas Sawyer, and Evin Lurry.
Contributed by Janie Spence Keenum