Piedmont

Conceived in the broadest possible geographic terms, the Piedmont region extends from the Hudson River Valley in New York to central Alabama and comprises the foothills of the Appalachians. As it relates to American history before 1776, however, people usually define the Piedmont as consisting of the combined backcountry of the colonies of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. In fact, this Piedmont region served as a sort of laboratory of colonization, in which English planters, diverse native communities, African and African American slaves, and non-English European immigrants (mainly the Scots-Irish) lived in close proximity and often came into conflict.

Native settlement in the Piedmont had occurred by 10,000 b.c.e. On the eve of European colonization, several paramount chiefdoms in the Mississippian tradition had risen and fallen, leaving smaller, autonomous tribes in their wake. These were the predecessors of colonial-period communities like the Catawba, Monacan, Tuscarora, and Cherokee. Most native groups practiced corn and squash agriculture in addition to hunting, fishing, and foraging for wild food. In many cases, agriculture provided for settlement in large villages.

Although the Spanish under Hernando de Soto brought a fair amount of death and destruction to the Piedmont’s inhabitants, they did not establish permanent settlements in the region. But in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, immigrants from English colonies did just that, with disastrous effects on the region’s native peoples. By the time of the War for Independence, many native groups had been dispossessed or weakened by disease. The presence of expanding English colonies, first in Virginia and later in the Carolinas, exerted new pressures on the area’s native groups. Although some English planters moved from the Atlantic coast into the Piedmont region, many chose to remain in what they considered to be more civilized areas surrounding Charles Town and Williamsburg. This reluctance, combined with the fact that river-based travel was difficult in the Piedmont, prevented the development of large towns in the region for much of the eighteenth century.

Migration to the backcountry or Piedmont occurred in two streams. In Virginia, larger landholdings were more common, as were African slaves and tobacco plantations, spurred on by the colony’s more extensive network of navigable rivers. A new generation of Virginia planters grew to prominence in the Piedmont.

Farther to the south, the Carolina backcountry was also populated by some immigrants from the East, but a large number of Scots-Irish and Germans descended into the region, following what was known as the Great Wagon Road. Their landholdings were often smaller than those in Virginia, and these yeoman farmers tended to focus on livestock and cereal grain agriculture. While nonnative settlement remained minuscule in the Piedmont, the area’s population exploded in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The population increase in the backcountry sometimes spurred conflict with older, more established areas. The conflict between eastern and western Virginia was more subdued. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 had some of these trappings, but it was more about patronage than political representation; in any event, Bacon’s own plantation was not really in the Piedmont region.

South Carolina and North Carolina’s Piedmont regions both were the sites of violent Regulator movements in the 1760s. Frustrated by their lack of representation in the colonial legislatures and the dearth of courts and public officials, backcountry residents took the law into their own hands in what has been viewed in some instances as vigilantism and in others as effective political protest. One prominent scholar has shown that the people ordering the violence were planters trying to bring order to the backcountry, not just a disorganized mob.

The War for Independence brought more violence to the Piedmont region. Supporters and opponents of the actions of the Continental Congress waged what amounted to a civil war against each other in some instances, burning each other’s homes and property. Additionally, British and American forces moved back and forth across the region, particularly in the war’s later stages leading up to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Although the Piedmont was an important region in colonial America, it would really come into its own after the War for Independence. Cotton agriculture would spread through the region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Matthew Jennings See also: Appalachia; Environment and Nature; North Carolina; South Carolina; Tidewater; Virginia. Bibliography Billings, Warren E., John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, NY: KTO, 1986. Coggeshall, John M. Carolina Piedmont Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Lefler, Hugh T., and William S. Powell. Colonial North Carolina: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.

Piedmont Photo Gallery



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