Some Charlotte History
Authored by former MVA Of Counsel Bob King
What we know today as “The Square” and the symbols of success that surround it would not have happened had Pennsylvanian Thomas Polk not been terminally smitten with a neighborhood lass named Susannah Spratt. Susannah’s dad, Thomas Spratt, was one of 250,000 Scots Irish immigrants who flocked to the mid-Atlantic area in the first half of the 18th Century. By 1750, some of these hardies – including Mr. Spratt – decided to escape the urban sprawl by going south in search of more elbow room. This decision brought him and his family – including Susannah – to a new homestead at what’s now the 1900 block of Randolph Road. (A stone monument on the north side of the street marks the spot.)
Love-struck Thomas Polk’s reaction to the Spratts’ departure was to take out after them. His effort was rewarded in 1755 when he took Susannah’s hand in marriage. For a home site, Thomas acquired the property on which the Bank of America Corporate Center currently sits at the intersection of the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road (a/k/a Tryon Street) and a well-traveled east/west Indian trading path (a/k/a Trade Street). While it must have been tempting to live in Eastover like the Spratts, Polk obviously (a) thought it would be best to live at least a mile and a half from his in-laws, and (b) had a hunch that property at The Square would be a very sound investment. Polk also had the foresight, over time, to accumulate 15,000 acres of land.
In 1762, the royal bureaucracy in London chartered “Mecklenburg” as a county. Its central village was “Charlotte Towne.” The settlers’ selection of both names was a transparent attempt to curry favor with George III and his German queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg. The strategy obviously worked as Charlotte Towne was made the county seat by the Crown in 1768. It helped that the only courthouse in the area, a sturdy log cabin affair, was located in the middle of the Square.
Not only was the Polk house well-sited, it was also destined to become famous. In 1775, Thomas Polk and his friends had outgrown their affection for, and allegiance to, the King. On May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg became the first body politic in the colonies to formally declare its independence (a historical fact that is not universally conceded). The shooting had already started in Boston and five long years of war ensued. Eventually, the fighting came to Charlotte Towne in the person of General Charles Cornwallis and his army of 2,300 redcoats and Tories fresh from their conquest of Charleston. Cornwallis’ advance up South Tryon toward The Square was contested by Col. William R. Davie and his 300 mounted militiamen. Cornwallis prevailed in Charlotte Towne and spent 16 days in the residence of Thomas Polk, which he appropriated to his own use. Cornwallis, incidentally, had initially described Charlotte Town as “an agreeable village,” but after experiencing Col. Davie’s sniping and the surly attitudes of the other residents, he ungraciously characterized the town as “a damned hornet’s nest of insurrection.” Had this attitude surfaced in the 1760s before the settlers toadied up to the King, our city and county would doubtless have been given solid American names like “Susannah” and “Spratt.”
When the Brits and their sympathizers were routed at nearby King’s Mountain in October 1780, Cornwallis took off for Virginia. This ended the fighting in this area. A year later, the war itself ended when General Washington assisted by Lafayette and the French fleet, whipped Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Peace and prosperity then set in and nothing else of historic significance occurred until 1791 when former President Washington stopped in Charlotte on his southern tour. “His Excellency”, as he was known in many quarters, was feted at a front yard picnic at the home of our friend, Thomas Polk. Washington spent that night at an inn on West Trade Street and his diary records a more vicious cut than that of Cornwallis. He noted that Charlotte was a “trifling place.”
The Thomas Polk clan continued to thrive and prosper. Years later, the patriarch’s grand nephew, James K. Polk (whose home was near Pineville) became the 11th President of the United States. President Polk’s forceful and effective service as commander-in-chief produced a victory over Mexico in 1848, an event which enlarged the territorial United States by fifty percent.
Conclusion: How the West Was Won, etc.
Had Thomas Polk not followed Susannah south and married her, Charlotte’s center city might still be “trifling”, Cornwallis and Washington would not have slept here, Col. Davie would probably not have had the clout to found UNC, James K. Polk (as we know him) would not have been born, the alternate war President might have been ineffective, Mexico would probably have won the war, and the United States would not presently include Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, etc. Ain’t love grand? Oh, Susannah!
This historical record explains why all of us are so proud to be here.
A “trifling place?” Hardly. That gratuitous label affixed to Charlotte Towne by President Washington in 1791 is clear evidence that he – at least on that occasion – had trouble with the “vision thing” (as it came to be called later). As he strolled about the Thomas Polk homestead – what is now The Square – he did not foresee that by the first decade of the 21st century:
- Charlotte would be the 19th largest city in the United States with a population of 700,000, or
- that nearly one million people would live in Mecklenburg County, or
- that over seven million people would live within 100 miles of the Square, or
- that Charlotte would be the hub of the sixth largest urban area in the United States.
Apparently, His Excellency did not envision that the Queen City would one day become:
- the nation’s second largest banking center, or
- the location of the headquarters of nine Fortune 500 companies, or
- the location of 487 foreign businesses, and facility sites of 328 of the Fortune 500 companies, or
- the site of the nation’s 12th busiest airport offering 670 daily nonstop flights to over 150 cities, or
- the home of four universities – Queens, Johnson C. Smith, UNCC and Johnson & Wales – with Davidson College just up the road, or
- the center of the largest consolidated rail system in the United States.
G.W. might also be surprised to know that in 217 short years, the “center city” where he slept would contain 13,000 residents, 65,000 office workers, as well as Moore & Van Allen’s primary office, the headquarters of two of the nation’s largest banks, Bank of America and Wachovia, the playing sites of the NFL Panthers and the NBA Bobcats, Discovery Place, Imaginon, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as well as scores of multi-star restaurants and hotels.
We would doubtless get a nunc pro tunc revised evaluation by the Founding Father if he heard that only one other U.S. city has a municipal bond rating as favorable as Charlotte’s and that our tax rates are the 20th lowest in the country.
If His Worship cares about his cannot-tell-a-lie reputation, he would surely admit that “Charlotte rocks!!” Especially if next time he stays at our shiny new Ritz-Carlton.