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Before settlers established Charles Town in SC, the 1st Charles Towne lasted 3 years in NC

 WILMINGTON, N.C. — In 1666, four years before what would become Charleston was settled, colonists up the coast grew unsettled in another Charles Towne in the vast Carolina region that stretched from north Florida to Virginia.

Two years into their wilderness venture, about 800 people waited for new supply ships that would never arrive. They were at war after Puritan settlers kidnapped Native children into slavery. And factions sparred as the governor preferred a settlement farther to the south to make a statement against Spanish claims to the same land.

The settlement on what would become the Cape Fear River was in disarray, and England would send no help.

That same year, the bubonic plague ravaged London, fire decimated much of the city and the English were at war with the Dutch over control of the seas.

Carolina map

The Province of Carolina once stretched from Virginia to north Florida and westward to the Mississippi and beyond. Courtesy "Charles Towne on the Cape Fear" by Jack Fryar

With England preoccupied, settlers 4,000 miles away across the Atlantic were on their own.

Disillusioned, colonists began to flee, and the first Charles Towne in the Carolina territory wouldn't last another year.

From 1664 to 1667, English settlers from Barbados and a group of Puritans from New England labored to carve a home out of the unspoiled tangle of wetlands and woodlands in what is now southeastern North Carolina, but just about everything that could go wrong did.

Much-needed re-shipments of supplies sank, internal dissension grew, and in the fall of 1667 a massive hurricane swirled by before making landfall on the Outer Banks to finish off the doomed venture.

'Snake bit'

"They were pretty much snake bit from the get-go," said Jack Fryar, a historian in Wilmington, N.C., who chronicled the ill-fated attempt in his 240-page book "Charles Towne on the Cape Fear: The Rise and Fall of the First Barbadian Settlement in Carolina."

"It was a whole series of bad luck," Fryar said during a recent interview.

The initial group of settlers under John Vassall came to the area believing they had an agreement for more rights than those handed down by the Lords Proprietors who controlled the region. King Charles II had granted the land called Carolina to the eight men in 1663 as payback for them helping to hoist him to power and restore the monarchy three years earlier.

In 1665, another group arrived by mistake at Charles Towne, bringing a different set of rules.

John Yeamans and his contingent left Barbados with the intention of establishing a settlement at Port Royal, near modern-day Beaufort, "to poke the Spanish," Fryar said. But a storm blew them off course, and they eventually sailed into the Cape Fear area.

When Yeamans arrived, he was named governor through a decree from the Proprietors, while Vassall, who had been there more than a year, was named deputy governor.

To make matters worse, a supply ship brought by Yeamans sank at the mouth of the river, a resupply vessel dispatched to Jamestown foundered on its return, and the settlers found themselves operating under a new set of rules.

Under the 1663 regulations laid out for Vassall's group in the Declaration and Proposals, settlers could occupy the west side of the Cape Fear River (initially called Charles River). 

"They had a lot of latitude in how they managed the land," Fryar said.

Along with governance and security provisions, it also granted acreage based on stations in life. Free men and women got more land than indentured servants. Importantly, it did not require parcels that were settled to be adjoining.

Two years later, the Proprietors issued the Concessions and Agreement at the urging of Yeamans' representative in England. It was far different from the earlier document under which Vassall had settled Charles Towne.

Land by lottery

It allowed land to be distributed through a lottery system, with land grants made according to when a colonist arrived. This meant someone who had already settled land and carved out a farm for his family could lose it to someone else through an unlucky draw.

Land grants, some up to 22,000 acres, had to be contiguous.

Each lot of land had to be divided into 11 equal parcels, with one parcel set aside for the Proprietors. The new rule also required a parcel to be settled before an adjoining one. It also limited frontage along waterways to prevent anyone from monopolizing direct access to creeks and rivers, further encroaching on land already settled.

Under the previous agreement, colonists could put their settlement anywhere up and down the river, and they didn't have to be beside each other.

"The Lords changed the rules to mimic a system in New England where the lots were bumped up against each other," Fryar said. "That doesn't work too well down here."

Charles Towne on Cape Fear north of Town Creek

The lighter area next to the Cape Fear River just north of Town Creek near Wilmington, N.C., was the site of the first Charles Towne settlement in the vast territory from north Florida to Virginia originally called Carolina. Though it lasted only three years, Charles Towne was settled six years before what is now Charleston to the south. Courtesy "Charles Towne on the Cape Fear" by Jack Fryar

The Proprietors had little first-hand knowledge of the land and its watery geography. Since lots had to be contiguous, a colonist might end up with an unlivable swamp under the lottery system.

The terms of the Concessions and Agreement also favored settlements farther south.

For instance, settlers on the Cape Fear received a more generous land allotment than those who opted to settle in the Albemarle area to the north, but those who chose to join Yeamans' vision for a colony farther south at Port Royal would be awarded more land than those at Cape Fear.

Dissatisfaction over the land allotment changes and factions competing to stay or go south were coming to a boil, but some of the settlers themselves also led the colony to it demise.

Many of the Puritan settlers abducted Native children, saying they were civilizing them and teaching them Christianity, but they really saw the Native people as inferior and wanted to enslave them, Fryar wrote in his book.

That led the Native people to retaliate, often firing arrows at settlers tending livestock in their remote farms scattered some 60 miles up and down the river. All-out war erupted, leading financial backers in London and Barbados to be less willing to invest in the colony. 

'Don't waste your time here'

The Puritans also were not looked upon kindly by the Proprietors.

A group of Puritans from Boston had tried to settle along the Cape Fear River in early 1663, but they abandoned the effort within two months for various reasons and are believed to have posted an unflattering sign at the mouth of the river that would later prove to be prophetic.

"It basically said, '… Don't waste your time here,'" Fryar said. 

The Proprietors viewed Puritans as more closely aligned with Oliver Cromwell, the man who signed Charles I's death warrant and became Lord Protector during the Commonwealth of England until he died in 1658.

The Lords were Royalists, and they probably didn't want Puritans getting a foothold in the land the Proprietors hoped to colonize on their own terms, Fryar said.

King Charles II

King Charles II granted eight Lords Proprietors the territory called Carolina from north Florida to Virginia, where two different settlements were named after him. One of them, Charles Towne, failed in North Carolina while the other, now Charleston, endured in South Carolina. Courtesy "Charles Towne on the Cape Fear" by Jack Fryar

The Puritans' abrupt abandonment could also stem from hearing that Vassall's group from Barbados had petitioned the Proprietors for their own settlement at Cape Fear.

When another group from New England came back the next year to join Vassall's group, their treatment of the Natives didn't help the new settlement.

With England preoccupied with war, pestilence and destruction and the settlers getting no help or supplies from outside, many of them grew dismayed and began to drift away.

"People gave up in dribs and drabs," Fryar said. "Pretty soon, Vassall was left with six people."

Yeamans, who never favored a colony at the site, had returned to Barbados in early 1666, barely a month or so after landing in Charles Towne, and Vassall and the settlers were left to fend for themselves.

'The last straw'

In the fall of 1667, Vassall, with no supplies coming and colonists dwindling, abandoned the settlement.

"The last straw was a hurricane that came through that fall, and that was pretty much it," Fryar said.

Though a central compound was established at the site, no town ever evolved. With Vassall's departure, Charles Towne ceased to exist, and no other settlement would come to the region for 50 years.

Three years after the North Carolina attempt dissolved, another English expedition came to Carolina from Barbados. It settled up what became the Ashley River before moving to its more prominent spot on what would become the Charleston peninsula.

Charles Town in South Carolina flourished, Fryar said, because it had the support of the Proprietors under a new set of rules handed down in 1669 and because of their preference for a colony farther south to establish a beachhead against the Spanish.

"It also had no distractions," he said.

For a bevy of reasons, Fryar pointed out, "South Carolina has the famous Charles Town, and North Carolina has the first one."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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