07 September 2007

How Chatham County Got Its Name

The story goes that the slave found the huge diamond while working the mines, then cut a wound in his calf to make a place to hide it. From the mines of Parteal in south central India he escaped to the seacoast, where he offered the stone to an English sea captain in return for passage to a free country. The captain agreed, then set sail, took the diamond, and flung the slave into the ocean.

The captain sold the 410-carat piece to a prominent diamond merchant named Jamchund. But how could fate permit the murderous captain to live well? He took to drink and dissipation, lost his mind and hung himself. A rabbit who studies the affairs of humans gets used to tales of pointless cruelty, but with this one, perhaps one of you can explain to me ... why not just give the slave his freedom?

In December 1701, the gems dealer Jamchund approached the "President of Fort St. George", or the British colonial governor in the Indian city of Madras, and offered to sell him the large diamond. He asked for a sum approaching £85,000, but the governor knew his way around a deal. He had made his fortune on the Indian seas as an interloper, or a rogue trader, operating in contravention of the East India Company's legal monopoly. Then he parlayed that wealth into property that granted him a seat in the House of Commons. The influence that he gathered to himself and his reputation as a savvy trader compelled his old nemesis, the East India Company, to charge him in his present position. The governor passed on purchasing the diamond and the dealer departed.

Jamchund returned in February to offer the stone again. The governor and the dealer haggled until the price came down to £20,000. The governor's son returned with the stone to England, where a two-year project of expert cutting produced a flawless 136-carat brilliant. Relieved of his post in Fort St. George, the father returned to England and became so paranoid about possessing the diamond that he never showed it to anyone or slept under the same roof two nights in a row.

In 1717 the financier John Law brokered a deal to relieve the former governor of the burden of owning the finest diamond in Europe. The sale to the French regency netted £135,000 whereupon the stone became known as the "Regent". Louis XV wore it on his crown for his coronation, then took to wearing it on his hat. Marie Antoinette wore it and Napolean Bonaparte, after taking the title of First Consul by coup d'etat, hocked it to the Dutch for funds to
consolidate his power and finance an adventure or two. He later redeemed it and set it in the hilt of his sword. It resides now in the Louvre.

It's a good story, but what's it doing here? What's its relationship to the clay backroads and rustic farms of Chatham County, North Carolina? Shouldn't rabbits concern themselves wi
th the most delicious lettuce in the fields, rather than the finest crown jewels of Europe?

After its cutting the diamond was known as the "Pitt", for Thomas Pitt, the colonial governor who acquired the stone and made a fortune from it. With that profit, he established his family's enduring fortune. Thomas Pitt's eldest son, Robert -- the one who shepherded the stone back to
England -- sired William Pitt, a prominent Whig politician and British statesman. William distinguished himself in two ways: first, as a savvy architect of British empire, and second as a staunch supporter of leniency, though not independence, for the colonies in America. In 1766, as Prime Minister of Great Britain, he took the title Earl of Chatham, created especially for him.

Thomas Pitt was as self-made a man as any in Great Britain at the turn of the 18th Century. The wealth he gained early in life earned his family a seat in the House of Commons. Still, it's doubtful that his grandson would have reached the levels of power and influence that he did without the fortune brought to the family by the sale of the Regent diamond.

In December 1700, not long after the diamond turned up in the mines of Golkonda, Englishman John Lawson set out to explore the Carolina backcountry. His journey carried him up the trading paths that connected the Yadkin River Valley to the Eno. He praised the regio
n highly, and the map that appeared in his 1709 account labeled the area between the Deep and Haw Rivers as "no poor Land here." Of his visit to a Native American village in the area now Hillsborough, Lawson famously declared, "The Savages do, indeed, still possess the Flower of Carolina, the English enjoying only the Fag-end of that fine Country."

Over the following decades, drawn by the perfume from that flower, European settlers nibbled at the edges of the area of what's now Chatham County. They came along the trading paths to the northwest or up the Cape Fear and then past its confluence with the Haw. By mid-17th-Century a handful of households stood within the area that was then southern Orange County. The place always presented challenges to travelers. Crossed by several prominent rivers prone to flooding, rocky and bypassed by the trading paths, it attracted a rough-and-tumble sort. No surprise, then, that these industrious and hardy farmers joined the Regulator movement that protested the corruption and unfair land management practices of the colonial government.

In November of 1768, the month after William Pitt resigned as Prime Minister, a group of men from around the border between sprawling Orange County and Cumberland County to the south got together and wrote a petition. To the governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, they argued:
[T]he petitioners live at to [sic] great a Distance from the Several Court houses Occasioned by the great Extent of Orange and Cumberland Counties Several Rivers frequently unpassable by Reason of freshes &c. To the great hinderance of Juries Election and general Musters for which we are liable, to fines if we do not appear, &c. We therefore pray that as Several Counties of less Extent have been divided for like Reasons that a New County may be laid out which we pray may Begin where Johnston and Orange meet Cumberland and with a North Course 12 Miles thence West 42 miles thence South 34 miles thence Est [sic] 42 miles thence North to the Beginning ...
Two years later, in December 1770, the Assembly introduced "An Act for establishing a New County between Campbleton and Hillsborough, by taking the Southern Part of the Inhabitants of Orange County, and by erecting the same into a distinct county, by the Name of Chatham County, and St. Barholomew Parish." A few months later, the bill passed, and within weeks, the Regulator movement ended in the bloody Battle of Alamance Creek.

But the new county had come to be. No doubt the Assembly were trying to tell the Regulators something by naming it after that advocate of indulgence, leniency and forebearance -- but not independence -- for the colonies, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. In 1781, the county seat of Pittsborough was established and named after William's son, William Pitt the Younger, who had just himself entered the House of Commons. William, however, did not inherit the earldom of Chatham, which went to his eldest brother, John Pitt. On the latter's death in 1835, the title became extinct.

One more thing to know about William Pitt the Elder. He was enormously popular as a politician, but when he gained the seat of Prime Minister he accepted his earldom and held a gala event in London. At that instant his popularity dissipated. It doesn't do for a Whig to act a Tory, as William's grandfather Thomas would have told him, and probably did. William earned a new name for his family, but a generation later, and Chatham was gone from the peerage. What can we say? Thanks for the name, William!


Dalton, Cornelius Neale. The Life of Thomas Pitt. Cambridge: The University Press, 1915.

Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And a Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, &c. London: [s.n.], 1709.

Streeter, Edwin W. "The Pitt or Regent," in The Great Diamonds of the World: Their History and Romance. London: George Bell & Sons, [1898?].

Wheatley, Henry B. "Precious Stones: A Chapter in the History of Personal Ornaments." The Antiquary XIII (1886), 152-157.

The Correspondence of William Tryon and Other Selected Papers. Edited by William S. Powell. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History and Division of Cultural Resources, 1981.

Chatham County, 1771-1971.

Davis, et al. "Map of the study area locating Occaneechi Island, Occaneechi Town (Fredricks site), and Upper Saratown." Excavating Occaneechi Town. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998.

Wikipedia articles accessed September 5-7, 2007:
Image of the Regent diamond hotlinked from "Diamond, known as the 'Regent'", Louvre web site.

Image of William Pitt borrowed from "Secretary Pitt", the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

1 comment:

Cottonmouth said...

Here are two more biographies worth reading:

The Elder Pitt by Stanley Ayling, 1976

William Pitt the Younger by William Hague, 2005 (Hague is an interesting biographer, having himself led the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001, and also served in various capacities in the government)