Charlotte began on a big gamble - and a loss

The Queen Charlotte statue at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The Queen Charlotte statue at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Observer file photo
This year, Charlotte celebrates a big birthday. Festivities commence with evening fireworks on Tuesday and continue with many events lasting throughout the coming months.

It’s all in honor of the sestercentennial, or 250th anniversary, of the founding of Charlotte. On Dec. 3, 1768, the General Assembly passed a law establishing the city.

But the story is more interesting than that. The way that Charlotte came into being was unusual for the time and illustrates the spirit and vision that have so often been a part of Charlotte and of Mecklenburg County.

About 1750, European settlers began to come down from Pennsylvania into the western part of the Royal Colony of North Carolina. Within a dozen years these settlers formed a new county and called it Mecklenburg after the birthplace of their Queen Charlotte Sophia, who had come to England from Mecklenburg Strelitz, Germany. Seven men were appointed to purchase land and build a courthouse, then levy a tax to repay themselves. But there were not enough people in the new county to pay the expense, so they waited. For four years.

Then, in January 1767, they did something extraordinary.

Instead of just constructing an inexpensive courthouse on cheap land, three of the commissioners put up their own money and bought some of the best land in the county. It was 360 acres on the main road on a high hill and cost £90, a fortune at the time. There they built a courthouse raised up on pillars with market space below. Around it they laid out a town and began to sell lots.

The General Assembly met on Nov. 7, 1768, and five days later Thomas Polk introduced a bill to officially establish the Town of Charlotte. The bill passed both houses of the legislature on Nov. 23. Colonial Governor William Tryon signed it into law on Dec. 3.

The founders, Thomas Polk, John Frohock and Abraham Alexander, had taken a tremendous gamble. They had invested substantial money, built a two-story courthouse, laid out a town and sold lots, all in the hope that the Assembly would authorize the town, the governor would approve it, and that they would sell enough lots to repay their investment. They started this nearly two years before it was officially authorized. And they won – almost.

By the time the town was authorized they had sold 80 lots and seemed well on their way to prosperity. But then growth slowed. Within seven years the American Revolution had begun, commerce and development came to a stop and these founders never did make back their investment.

It took a long time, but eventually their faith was justified and Charlotte became the commercial center it is today. All because the founders took a chance 250 years ago.

Jim Williams is a long-time researcher with the Mecklenburg Historical Association. Learn more about the anniversary, including how you can participate, by visiting CLT250.com