Around Town

The unclear origins of the hornet’s nest symbolism

Have you ever noticed a strange cone-like shape on the Charlotte city seal, historical markers, police cars and badges, and more?

Our NBA team is named for the inhabitants of these cones and other organizations like the Girls Scout Hornets Nest Council have adopted it as well. The hornet’s nest is a long-standing symbol of Charlotte but its origins are not entirely clear.

Local historians have never been able to conclusively prove or disprove the most popular story associated with this symbol in which General Cornwallis, a British officer in the American Revolution, was supposedly heard saying that Charlotte was a “hornet’s nest of rebellion” as he fled the area after the Battle of Charlotte. Our town was a hotbed of resistance for the British Crown.

Jim Williams, who serves on the Mecklenburg Historical Association board, demystified some of the confusion around Charlotte’s love of the hornet’s nest for me.

Although the story that most Charlotteans have been exposed to cites the statement made by General Cornwallis about Charlotte being a “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” there is no verified documentation to prove this story, making it little more than a (really cool) legend.

In fact, the first documented reference to the hornet’s nest didn’t come until years after Cornwallis’ time in Charlotte.

It’s rumored that a letter written by William Polk, the son of Colonel Thomas Polk, mentions the idea of Charlotte as a hornet’s nest, but the original letter has yet to be found to corroborate this story.

William Henry Foote, a Confederate chaplain, wrote a history of North Carolina that mentions the hornet’s nest multiple times but without citing any sources. “Cornwallis marched towards Charlotte,” he wrote, “that hot-bed of rebellion, that hornet’s nest, as his lordship afterwards named it.”

So although there is little proof that Cornwallis actually coined this term, it has been folklore since at least 1819.

The phrase is well-loved because it speaks to Charlotte’s history as a place where locals don’t bend to the will of an aggressor simply because they are asked. Southern hospitality is alive and well in the Queen City, but so is Southern tenacity and resilience and there are numerous examples of these traits throughout our history.

The gold rush dried up, but we survived. Being a banking town in a recession was pretty crappy too, but we recovered and we are now the third fastest growing city in the country thanks to low unemployment and favorable cost of living.

We are a hornet’s nest of progress, a hornet’s nest of business and a hornet’s nest of potential.

While we’re still growing rapidly, we take time to care for what has been here long before us thanks to organizations like The Historic Landmarks Commmission. Check out the list of historic landmarks in Charlotte — you might be surprised by this history hiding in plain sight all around you.

Want more Charlotte history? Take a trip back in time and start your own research at the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room on the third floor of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in uptown.

Photo: Nicole Brantley