May 16, 1771 First Blood

At a place called Alamance, North Carolina Regulators sought justice under prevailing law. Four years later the two sides met once again, at  Lexington & Concord. This time, the choices came down to Liberty, or death.

The English Civil War of 1642 – 1651 is often referred to as a single event, a war fought over religious freedom and issues of governance, over the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. The conflict pitting Royalists (“Cavaliers”) against Parliamentarians (“Roundheads) may be looked at as two or even three separate events, culminating in 1649 with the death by decapitation, of English King Charles I. There appeared for a time an interregnum, governed first by “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell and later by his son, Richard.

Cromwell died unexpectedly in 1658 most likely, from complications of a urinary infection. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father but, with no base of political support, the younger Cromwell was out within a year. By 1660 the dead King’s son Charles II was invited to return from exile, to rule over a restored monarchy.

Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey on January 30, 1661 and “executed”, his head fixed to a pike and body thrown in a pit. Some will tell you Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Others attribute the idea to Niccolò Machiavelli. Whoever it was, the man got that right.

Three years later, Charles II rewarded a group of 8 political allies for their support, in restoring him to the crown. A colony of their own in the New World, the lands between Virginia and Spanish Florida. The Province of Carolina, the name a Latin tribute to Charles (Carolus).

The land proved unwieldy to govern. So it was that deputy governors were appointed in 1691, to govern the separate provinces of north and south Carolina.

The region was no stranger to English settlement. Ananias and Eleanor Dare welcomed a daughter into the fledgling colony on Roanoke island on August 18, 1587, Virginia, the first English child born in the New World.

Virginia Dare would disappear along with the entire settlement, leaving only the cryptic words “Croatan” carved into a post and “Cro”, carved into a tree.

The child’s grandfather John White and others would search for the settlers, in vain. What became of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery, to this day.

Other efforts failed to establish permanent settlements in North Carolina until 1648, when Virginians Henry Plumpton and Thomas Tuke purchased tracts of land from indigenous tribes. Other Virginians moved in over the next ten years either buying land from native Americans, or obtaining grants.

By 1729, the 8 “Lord Proprietors” had sold their interests. The colonies of North and South Carolina, reverted to the crown.

Following the union of England and Scotland to form the “United Kingdom” in 1707, waves of Scottish immigrants arrived in the colonies. Some 145,000 Lowland Scots, Highland Scots and Ulster “Scots-Irish” arrived over the next seven decades.

Early arrivals among the latter encountered intolerance and violence in the New England colonies. Philadelphia became for a time the preferred destination, but the Pennsylvania frontier was already suffering the early raids from what would become the French and Indian War. By the 1740s, the vast majority of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants were headed for North Carolina.

Poorer than their English counterparts, these Scots and Scots-Irish newcomers turned west to farm the familiar, rolling hills of the Piedmont and Sand Hills. In the 1760s, great waves of internal migrants left the eastern cities in search of better opportunities in the rural west. The merchants, businessmen and lawyers of this second wave upset the social order and long-established political customs of the region,

Class differences were exacerbated by a long period of drought. Poor “Dirt Farmers” increasingly went into debt to these new arrivals. Between 1755 and 1765, court records reflect a sixteen-fold increase in collection actions. Such suits often lead to planters losing homes and property. Newly arriving lawyers used superior knowledge of the law, many times to unfair advantage. To their victims, this “Courthouse Ring” was seen as grabbing political power for themselves. Grasping clerks and sheriffs in pursuit of taxes from cash-strapped farmers did little to lessen the sense that newcomers, were using the system for their own enrichment.

As Sons of Liberty groups from Wilmington to Boston protested the Stamp Act of 1765, a schoolteacher named Sims delivered the “Nutbush Address”, railing about abuses of county clerks, lawyers and sheriffs and demanding the preservation, of equality under the law. The poor farmer he argued, was often subjected to fees in excess of the debt in question.

Resentments grew and deepened with the arrival of royal Governor William Tryon, in 1765. A system depending on the integrity of extortionate and self-dealing officials could not stand. Governor Tryon’s support of these people formed the tipping point.

Tryon Palace, built 1770

Tryon went directly to work on a residence, befitting a man of his exalted stature. Additional taxes were levied on already strained farmers and, in 177o, Tryon moved in with his English heiress wife, Margaret.

Groups of self-styled “Regulators” had already risen up by this time, to demand honest government and fair taxation. The Tryon Palace was the final straw. In Orange County alone some 6,000 to 7,000 of the 8,000 residents at this time, supported the Regulators. No matter. To the wealthy businessmen, politicians and lawyers of the new social order, theirs was nothing but a peasant uprising, and would not be tolerated.

In 1768, a group of Regulators assaulted the courthouse, at Hillsborough. Lawyers were beaten and the shops of local businessmen, ransacked. With cases pending against several of their leaders, Regulators demanded that they themselves, be appointed jurors. Judge Richard Henderson adjourned the court with a promise to return in the morning but instead left town, in the dark of night.

Regulators deposited human waste on the judges seat. A long-dead slave was laid out on the lawyer’s bar. The mob looted and burned the judges home, stables and barn, but not before drinking all his alcohol.

Acts of violence became a regular of the western counties. On May 9, 1771, Governor Tryon showed up in Hillsborough at the head of 1,000 troops and 150 officers, to put an end to it. Not far away some 2,000 Regulators, some say as many as 6,000, were spoiling for a fight. More a leaderless mob than a disciplined force, the two sides first clashed on May 15, when Regulators captured two of the Governor’s militia.

As far as Tryon was concerned, these people were in open rebellion. The Regulators appear not to have understood the seriousness, of the situation. At 8:00 the following morning, the column approached the Regulator camp.

Captain Philemon Hawkins II came forward with a message:

Alamance Camp, Thursday, May 16, 1771

“To Those Who Style Themselves “Regulators”: In reply to your petition of yesterday, I am to acquaint you that I have ever been attentive to the interests of your County and to every individual residing therein. I lament the fatal necessity to which you have now reduced me by withdrawing yourselves from the mercy of the crown and from the laws of your country”…

William Tryon

Reverend David Caldwell departed the Regulator camp with one Robert Thompson, to negotiate. Caldwell was warned away but Tryon took Thompson, as hostage. History fails to record what was said but, in a moment of anger, the governor grabbed a musket from his militia and shot Robert Thompson, dead. Tryon’s flag bearer was fired upon and responded, “Fire and be Damned!. When the shooting stopped, both sides counted nine dead. Dozens to as many as 200 regulators, were wounded.

With 13 Prisoners, the royal Governor executed one of them, a man named James Pugh, right there in camp. Tryon hanged six of the remaining twelve in the following days. The other six were pardoned, in exchange for oath of fealty.

Was the Battle of Alamance the first action of the Revolution? Historians differ but, this is certain. A year later and a day’s drive on modern highways, Rhode Island Sons of Liberty burned the customs schooner HMS Gaspée to the water’s edge. The King’s “Tea Act” lead to the Boston Tea Party, a year later.  A blizzard of regulations came down in 1774, called the “Intolerable Acts”. The “Liberty and Union” flag, the first distinctly American flag in history flew that October, above the Massachusetts town of Taunton. Something had begun, not to be denied.

At Alamance, Regulators sought justice under prevailing law. Four years later later the sides met once again, at  Lexington & Concord. This time, the choices came down to Liberty, or death.