Photo of modern day Dellinger Grist Mill dating from ca. 1901. Precious little remains of Polk's Mill. This photo is illustrative of what it "may" have looked like on or about 7 October 1780 (1)
A Chapter in the Forthcoming Book by Russ McCullough; 1780 - The Year The Presbyterians Saved America
"...the counties of Mecklenburg and Rowan were more hostile to England than any others in America."
- Banastre Tarleton
- Banastre Tarleton
In the whole scheme of man's 6,000 year history being 232 years removed from 1780 seems insignificant. That assumption will not hold water. 1780 in the Carolina's had more in common wth 1,500 B.C. than it does with 2012! Grain was ground pretty much the same way as it was in antiquity. Corn was not harvested in July like it is today but rather in October after it had dried out on the stalk. The only thing that was different was the plenitude of much water here in the Catawba River Basin. A stream would be dammed up with a spillway for overflow. The water would flow through a culvert, or flume as it was called, to the side turning a water wheel. The water wheel would turn two large grist stones against one another, in between which the dried corn would be turned into meal. The bottom stone was called the bedstone and it was stationary. The top stone was called the running stone and moved around on the bedstone. Grooves allowed the corn to enter and the flour to exit. This technology prevailed until electricity became prevalent in the early 20th century. Once electricity became available the old mills fell into disuse, were torn down and the dams and spillways destroyed. Such was the fate of Polk's Mill. Greater Charlotte today is urbanized, industrialized and digitized 180 degrees from the wild and woolly wilderness that was 1780 up and down the Catawba River Basin. Of the 24 operating grist mills in Mecklenburg County in 1780, none remain today. The closest thing? The ruins of a mill on the campus of Myers Park High School in Charlotte, the 1857 Issac Newton Alexander Mill.
Europeans had been in these parts of the Carolina's for only about 30 years in 1780. They were almost all Scot-Irish, almost all Presbyterian and almost all displaced from western Pennsylvania. The British ran as many Presbyterians as they could out of Scotland and Northern Ireland in order make subjugation and tyranny easier. They had, at first, been warmly received by the Quakers. The Presbyterians served as a buffer between the coastal dwellers in and around Philadelphia and the Indians still roaming the forests in far western Pennsylvania and Ohio. It was a flawed plan. The Scot-Irish flourished and threatened to become more numerous than the Quakers themselves. Soon they came under persecution. Their solution? Move as far away from "civilization" as they could without moving further west, a fatal solution had it been tried due to the fact that western migration was outlawed at the time past the Appalachian Mountains into was then solid Indian territory. The Shenandoah Valley was a natural highway and brought the Presbyterians to the Catawba. The Carolina foothills, therefore, became home to the Presbyterians. Even today the largest concentration of Presbyterians in the South live within a 50 mile radius of Charlotte. The lay of the land reminded them of their ancestral home, had wild life in abundance and plenty of rivers, streams and creeks. Along these waterways sprung up numerous grist mills providing food and economic growth for the newcomers, both man and beast.
Picture taken from the likely location of Polk's Mill. Scene is looking east down a steep bank to what is now known as Irwin's Creek. The mill, blockhouse, dam and spillway disappeared sometime after 1904. Image by JTC Media.
The last thing the Presbyterians wanted was another confrontation with the brutal English. The so-called "revolution" was another mans fight, not theirs. Isolation, self government and self reliance was all that any of them wanted. Charlotte Town, Lord Cornwallis, the Presbyterians and 1780 converged to change everything about their wishes. Charlotte Town was occupied, the country side was pillaged to feed the British army and the Presbyterians awoke to fight. So fiercely did they fight back, in these parts, the American Revolution is known as the Presbyterian Rebellion. 1780 was quite a year.
Looking north from the Remount Road bridge onto the likely ruins of both the dam and spillway of Polk's Mill. Image by JTC Media.
The occupation of Charlotte Town began on 26 September 1780. (2) The English were hungry and so were their horses. In order to procure enough food, Cornwallis unleashed his forces to occupy and confiscate the various grist mills around Charlotte Town. In fact, so abundant were these grist mills, their presence became the singular drawing card for Cornwallis. One such mill was Polk's Mill. In addition to stealing the Presbyterian's corn, Cornwallis planned on using the mill as a staging point for horse mounted foraging, another word for theft. (Cornwallis would pay hard money for any forage "IF" the owner would surrender his rifle and sign a loyalty pledge to the king!) Polk's Mill was quite the prize. Cornwallis seized some 28,000+ lbs. of grain upon arrival as it was "corn pickin time." Polk's Mill was located on the west bank of what is now known as Irwin Creek just north of Remount Road and just west of Interstate 77. It lies just inside what is now Revolution Park in Charlotte, NC.
Col. Thomas Polk was Charlotte Town's leading citizen. He lived in what was called "the only painted house in town." (3) It was certainally the nicest! Cornwallis chose it as his headquarters. In addition to Polk's Mill, Polk owned two others as well. (4) In May of 1775 it was Polk that called the for the meetings that would, on the 20th of that month, produce the Mecklenburg Declaration now known simply as the Mec Dec. As the closest printing press was all the way on the coast at New Bern, no copies of Mec Dec are now extant. (5)
Image of the West Point Mill dam and spillway in Durham, NC. The dam and spillway of Polk's Mill likely looked much like this. Image via: http://www.enoriver.org/eno/parks/WestPoint/westpoint.html.
Being just 2 miles away from Charlotte Town, Polk's Mill was very quickly taken over. A very young officer, Lt. Stephen Guymon, effectively occupied and defended Polk's Mill with a force of about 60 men. Guymon commanded the 23rd Regiment of Foot - Royal Welch Fusiliers. Making up that command was a core of 20 Welsh guards with the remainder being Tories of various sorts. Sadly, the capable, gallant and brave Guymon would perish a year later at Yorktown. (6)
Records are scant and there are conflicting dates for the battle of Polk's Mill. October 7, 1780 is the most likely point in time. The overall commanding officer opposing Lt. Guymon was a Col. Philip Taylor, assisted by Maj. William Hunt. The Patriot force was a combination of a new unit, the Granville County of Mounted Volunteers Militia and the North Carolina State Cavalry - Western District Regiment. under the command of the much acclaimed Maj. Joseph Dickson who was very likely not present that day. (7)
Looking west from the likely location of Polk's Mill up the knoll to a clump of trees where the blockhouse was likely located. Image by JTC Media.
Taylor rounded up a substantial force of 120 men on horseback that circled Charlotte Town looking for pickets, supply trains and couriers. The disruption to the British was intense. Guymon had the mill grinding night and day for the army had to be fed. The Patriot force surrounded Polk's Mill and engaged the enemy. Guymon took his entire force and placed them in the loop hole block house building up the hill from the mill itself. In the Catawba most mills had been built with these small fortress to protect the Presbyterians from Indian attacks, attacks that were common up through the 1760's. Polk's Mill was no exception and, even though outnumbered 2 - 1, the British held their position. Pension petition accounts from the 1830's indicate that Taylor was unaware of regular troops on station, thinking initially he was dealing only with Tory militia. The blockhouse provided a superior field of fire with little likelihood that return fire would have any effect. The Patriot's, however, were not without some success. One British picket sentinel and 7 Tories were captured. Taylor's force lost one dead and one wounded. The dead patriot was a man by the name of Hugh Gray. William Husbands also took a severe wound to the leg, Being obvious that they could not take the fort by assault and that a siege was not possible due to the mill's proximity to Cornwallis' main force just 2 miles away, Taylor withdrew. But...the Americans were not through with Polk's Mill that day! That same night, they came back and carried off 50 horses, leaving the British no choice but to withdraw back to Charlotte Town. (8)
The Battle of Polk's Mill is a memory disappeared in the minds of most. However, the intense resistance of the Presbyterian Patriots to the invaders of the Catawba was such that Lord Cornwallis withdrew from the area in a little over 2 weeks. Within a year he would surrender his army at Yorktown. That surrender took place, in part, because the Presbyterian Patriots of the Catawba denied him the grain he needed from Polk's Mill on October 7, 1780. In fact, Col. Tarleton later recalled that Rowan and Mecklenburg counties in NC resisted the British more than any other counties in all of America!
Standing here one would hardly know that anything happened here on the banks of Irwin Creek in 1780, or at any time for that matter. Other than the two millstones, nothing remains of either the mill or the blockhouse. The last we hear of the mill is in 1904 when it was last known as "Wilson's Mill." The blockhouse was likely located at the top of the ridge which now contains a playground, a parking lot and a tennis court. In addition to the park, I look around and all I see is little more than a big urban drainage ditch, a noisy road, and the skyline of Charlotte (Town), NC. Then...I open my eyes and I see what is really here, a beautiful tile in the precious mosaic of liberty, the War for Independence. Huzzah! Their sacrifice is our legacy, let's not let it slip away.
Though not as old the Issac Newton Alexander Mill on Briar Creek is representative of what was Polk's Mill. Check out this video as it is quite informative:
Russ McCullough - 19 April 2012
(1) Photo courtesy of: http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images?_adv_prop=image&fr=ush-mail&va=dellinger+grist+mill (2) http://jrshelby.com (3) Ibid. (4) Ibid. (5) Ibid. (6) Ibid. (7) http://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_polks_mill.html (8) op. cit., jrshelby.com
Russ McCullough is a historian, writer and speaker on all things War for Independence in the Carolina's. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for the presentation needs of your church, school or civic organization. His services are made available to the public by JTC Media.