Historical Heavyweights: A frontiersman who became Charlotte’s most important founding father

Plus the news of the week: New top federal prosecutor nominated, former school board chairman mounts comeback, IPO ahead for AvidXchange, and maybe you heard something about Mick Jagger

Today’s Charlotte Ledger is sponsored by Fox Rothschild, whose Charlotte-based attorneys provide litigation, real estate, labor and employment, corporate and a wide range of other services to clients in a variety of industries.


Thomas Polk: He brawled with loyalists and led soldiers in the Revolutionary War. His Trade & Tryon home? George Washington slept there.

Editor’s note: You see their names on street signs or parks, but who were some of the big-name people from decades ago who shaped Charlotte? They have fascinating stories, and on Saturdays in October, we’re sharing them with you.

by John Short

Charlotte doesn’t lend itself to tall tales. Maybe it’s because of the Scots-Irish heritage of the first Charlotteans who settled the area, the focus on efficiency of a textile mill or a culture of risk-aversion at the large banks that employ vast swaths of today’s Charlotteans. Whatever the reason, Charlotteans aren’t keen to celebrate the scurrilous or to embellish.

That’s a shame, because some of Charlotte’s most important historical characters have some incredible stories and accomplishments that could have used a white lie or two to broaden their reach.

One such Charlottean is perhaps the most important of Charlotte’s founding fathers: Thomas Polk.

Polk was Charlotte’s first rags-to-riches story. He lived out his 59 years in the Carolina backcountry as a pugnacious frontiersman, civic leader, decorated Revolutionary War veteran and ultimately a refined dignitary.

Thomas Polk arrived in Charlotte in 1753 from Pennsylvania and — in a city now known for real estate wheeling and dealing — executed one of the most shrewd real estate moves in Charlotte history: He built a home on what is now “The Square” at Trade and Tryon streets. At the time, those streets were overgrown paths. But Polk would wind up more or less building the city around his modest homestead and farm.

Polk asserted himself as an early leader in 1765 during the “Sugar Creek War.” To colonists, he was a hero; to British landed gentry, a villain. The “War” was more like a fistfight outside a small claims court between Polk and his buddies and George Selwyn’s “land agent,” Henry Eustace McCulloh.

The dispute hinged on a British colonial survey law that required paying back taxes to Britain. Polk and the dozens of other settlers of the time didn’t see the need to pay the crown for the newly surveyed land they had been calling home. But the British wanted to be paid precisely what they were owed right now, thank you very much.

Polk and the eventual Charlotteans objected to this impolite invoice. They threatened and physically intimidated the surveyors and broke their equipment.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and after reaching an agreement with the British, Polk was instrumental in establishing “Charlotte Town” as the county seat of Mecklenburg County in 1768. Polk would go on to serve as Justice of the Peace for Mecklenburg County as well as the first treasurer of Charlotte. The county courthouse also happened to be erected across the street from the Polk residence. (Polk was no NIMBY.)

Years later, as tensions with the British escalated to a slow boil, Polk also was part of the group of Charlotteans that drafted and adopted the historically verifiable Mecklenburg Resolves in 1775, which expressed exasperation with the crown. And, if you have an imagination and enjoy fun, weeks before the Mecklenburg Resolves, Polk was involved in the very real and in no way fabricated Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, whose date of adoption is so little in dispute that it’s enshrined on North Carolina’s state flag.

Beyond drafting statements of agitation against the British crown, Polk’s contribution and service to the American Revolutionary effort as a soldier and leader was also commendable. He served as a colonel in the militia and led the Mecklenburg County Regiment in early battles. Polk was retired from military command during the Battle of Charlotte in September 1780, but the primary action of the battle was near the courthouse across from the Polk property. This battle famously earned Charlotte the nickname “a hornet’s nest of rebellion.” Go Hornets!

Polk’s status as Charlottean Emeritus was cemented in 1791, when, during George Washington’s tour of the Southern states, the president himself dined and crashed at Polk’s home at Trade and Tryon. Polk’s hospitality was certainly the best the very small and very rural Charlotte had to offer. But Washington’s visit was sadly commemorated in the president’s notes with a passing reference to Charlotte as “a trifling place.”

Polk likely never learned that the president gave him a one-star review on Yelp, as he died in his home at Trade and Tryon a few years later, in 1794.

If you are paying attention in uptown, you’ll see some evidence of Polk’s legacy. He has a park named after him (Polk Park at the corner of Trade and Tryon), and he scored a plot at the uber-exclusive Settlers’ Cemetery on Fifth Street, just up the road from where he made his home.

He also saved some face from a presidential perspective as well. While Polk himself didn’t stick around long enough to run for the highest office in the land, his grand-nephew, James K. Polk, was elected the 11th President of the United States.

Not so trifling now, is it, George?

John Short is a freelance writer and co-host of The Charlotte Podcast who loves digging up Charlotte’s past and pondering its future. Say hey when you see him on the streetcar. 

➡️ Further reading: If you’re interested in learning more about Thomas Polk, check out “Eminent Charlotteans: Twelve Historical Profiles from North Carolina’s Queen City” by Scott Syfert.


Today’s supporting sponsors are Payzer

… and Soni Brendle:


This week in Charlotte: A new U.S. Attorney, hearings on liquor shortage, AvidXchange files for IPO, going gaga over Mick Jagger

On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.

Local news

  • New U.S. Attorney nominated: (Observer) President Biden nominated Dena King as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. She’s a South Meck grad who joined the U.S. Attorney’s office a year ago as its deputy criminal chief of violent crimes and was previously a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District who specialized in narcotics cases. Biden also nominated Mike Easley Jr., the son of the former governor, as U.S. Attorney in Eastern North Carolina.

  • Liquor shortage hearing: (Ledger 🔒) State legislators in Raleigh grilled the warehousing and distribution vendor at the center of North Carolina’s liquor shortage, who told them that many different factors are leading to supply shortages at ABC stores across the state. But the chairman of the committee doing the questioning said that despite the two-hour hearing, “the cause is yet to be really discovered.”

  • Tent City residents: (Axios Charlotte) Of the 214 people who moved from Charlotte’s “Tent City” into hotels in February, 38 have been placed in permanent housing and seven are in transitional housing, while 59 people left or were asked to leave because of illegal activity or unsafe behavior.

Education

  • Virtual school: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is establishing a virtual instruction option for students who are “medically fragile” in grades K-2. Doctors would need to sign off on online instruction. Enrollment will be Oct. 4-10 and students who are accepted will start virtual classes Nov. 1.

Politics

  • Arthur Griffin’s comeback: (QCity Metro) Former school board chairman Arthur Griffin says he’s running for an at-large seat on the Mecklenburg County commission. Griffin, 73, served on the school board from 1988 to 2003. He says he’s running because he wants to continue his “life of service in this community.”

Business

  • AvidXchange plans to go public: (Ledger 🔒) AvidXchange, the Charlotte-based payment software company, has filed for an initial public offering. It said it plans to raise up to $100M and for the first time disclosed its finances.

  • Where will those duplexes be built? (Ledger 🔒): A new study by a city consultant predicts that most duplexes and triplexes built under forthcoming development rules will be located in south Charlotte — not in economically vulnerable parts of the city, as some residents had feared. The city’s 2040 Plan allows duplexes and triplexes on lots now zoned for single-family homes, and planners are working on a new ordinance to implement that change.

  • Covid firing: (Washington Post) Novant Health fired about 175 workers for failing to comply with its Covid vaccination policy. “The mass termination of unvaccinated hospital system employees is among the largest of its kind to date,” the Washington Post reported. Novant says more than 99% of the system’s 35,000 workers complied with the policy.

Good reads

  • Catching up with a South End pioneer: (Ledger 🔒) Longtime Charlotte business columnist Doug Smith catches up with Tony Pressley, the developer who is credited with launching the revitalization of Historic South End. Pressley, who is retired and lives out of town, recently toured the area and said it surpassed his expectations.

  • Mick Jagger beer-drinking investigation: (North Carolina Rabbit Hole) In case you can’t get enough about Mick Jagger’s visit to a Plaza-Midwood dive bar this week, Jeremy Markovich goes all “CSI” on the photo of Jagger drinking a beer — lightening it with Photoshop, zooming in on Jagger’s surroundings, scouring Twitter for clues and speculating on why Thirsty Beaver regulars didn’t recognize one of the world’s best known rockers. (CNN even mentioned the column.)

  • When a bar gets boisterous: (The Food Section) In her new newsletter on Southern food, former Charleston Post and Courier writer Hanna Raskin shares the engaging story of a battle between a Charleston neighborhood and a popular hangout offering beer, live music and food trucks. “In a scenario that’s become familiar across the South, an outgrowth of the city’s flourishing food-and-beverage sector was threatening to destabilize an aging, working-class community.”

From the Ledger family of newsletters

  • Bookstore shortages (Monday): Add books and printed materials like calendars to the long list of shortages. Local booksellers say they’re hearing that certain titles might not be available as holiday shopping season looms.

  • Modified plans for the Silver Line: (Transit Time) Transportation planners this week provided new details on the proposed Silver Line, the light rail line envisioned to run from Gaston County to the uptown area to Union County. It will take longer to build and cost more than previously envisioned, and planners detailed several changes on station locations and the route.

  • Ballantyne townhomes: (Friday 🔒) A developer filed plans with the city to build townhouses near the StoneCrest at Piper Glen shopping center in Ballantyne, an area that is becoming increasingly wary of new housing developments.

  • Longtime Dilworth cleaner closing: (Wednesday 🔒) Longtime Dilworth dry cleaner Long’s Cleaners and Laundry is closing on Morehead Street on Oct. 8. Something is up in that area, as there are demolition permits filed for nearby buildings.

  • A nun remembered: (Ways of Life 🔒) Bessie McCarthy, a Sister of Mercy in Belmont, was focused on serving others. “She always looked out for the underdog,” a friend said. “If she were driving in the car and she saw somebody on the side of the road, we would stop somewhere, get something and give it to them.”

  • Covid hospitalizations (Monday): Covid numbers in Mecklenburg County are continuing to improve but are still far higher than figures in June and July.

  • Falfurrias hungry for acquisitions: (Friday 🔒) Charlotte private-equity firm Falfurrias Capital Partners has been on a buying binge of food companies lately. This week, it announced it is buying a maker of raw honey, and a subsidiary is buying a salsa company. A Falfurrias partner told The Ledger that buying food companies is part of a deliberate strategy.


Coming next week: A Ledger online event on navigating the college admissions process

On Thursday, Oct. 7, at 7 p.m., we’re holding an online event exclusively for Ledger members. It’s focused on helping parents navigate the college admissions process in a way that preserves your sanity and your relationship with your teenager.

We’re holding it in partnership with our friends at Jumbo, a Charlotte company that builds live-streaming platforms.

Our panelists are:

They’ll cover topics from timelines to college visits to scholarships and more. The Ledger’s own Cristina Bolling will moderate.

➡️ For details and the link to register, check out this post.

We hope to see you there!


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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory