The Regulators of North Carolina: Outraged OpressorsThe history of colonial North Carolina is bombarded with frequent strife andturmoil. The people of North Carolina, because of a lack in supervision fromthe British monarchy, learned to possess an independent spirit. The colony remainedisolated from the rest of the country because of several geographicalconditions such as poor harbors, the abscence of navigable rivers, numerousswamps, and bad road conditions.
Due to these conditions, communitiesthroughout North Carolina became widely seperated. The colony was initiallyset up by the Lords Proprietors, an English founding company that helpedfinance early American exploration. When North Carolina was freed fromBritish proprietorship, the Granville family, descendants from the originalLords Proprietors, con-tinued to hold their land rights. This area, whichbecame known as the “Granville District,” was the scene of many disputes overland grants, taxes, British support, and a great deal of lesser issues. Settlers in the back country (Piedmont) felt particularly oppressed by the laws drawn up by an assembly largely composed of eastern landowners.
“Local”officials in many counties, particularly in the western segment of the backcountry were not local men at all, but friends of the royal governor, WilliamTryon. These so-called “friends” often collected higher fees than authorizedby the law while obtaining tax money or divided a single service into manyservices and charged fees for each. Lawyers who followed the judges aroundthe colony also fell into the same habit. The citizens of Anson, Orange, and Granville counties were the first to makethemselves heard. In 1764, this band of citizens, referred to as the “mob,” created a number of local disturbances until Governor Arthur Dobbs passed a proclomation forbidding the collection of illegal fees, the practice that the people complained of the most.
Their protests were calmed only temporarily. However, the efects of the new law wore off soon enough and sheriffs and other county officers returned totheir old dishonest practices. Citizens complained largely in part becausemoney was so scarce; local trading was almost limited to barter. Often,property was seized and resold, and citizens felt that their property wasbeing sold to a friend of an official for much less than its true value (1).
People among the Granville District were anxious to revolt and needed only a leader to provide the spark that led to the fire of the War of Regulation. Aman named Hermon Husband became actively involved and was referred to as aleader several times, despite the fact that he was often nothing more than anagitator. Husband reprinted patriotic flyers with messages dealing withtaxation withour representation hoping that citizens would call for reform. However, at no time during the Regulation was there an actual leader (2). Orange County was an early center of Regulator activity.
Colonel EdmundFanning, holder of numerous offices in the county including the prominent Clerkof the Recorder””s Court at Hillsborough, became a prime target along withRoyal Governor William Tryon, who took office in 1765. Tryon was hatedbecause he aimed to use taxes to build Tryon Palace in New Bern, a verycostly residence for himself, as well as the seat for the colony””sgovernment. The Regulators, “who named themselves after a group of countryreformists in South Carolina (3)” shortly after Tryon””s announcement to buildthe palace, had no sympathy with the governor””s desire for a fancy residence. The War of Regulation was not limited to Orange County.
Outbreaks ofviolence during the collection of taxes in Anson County and several riotsthroughout the Granville District were sure signs of what was to come. A group of men, apparently enthusiastic over the success of the Sons ofLiberty in resisting the Stamp Act, called citizens together to determinewhether they were being treated justly or not. Edmund Fanning denounced thismeeting. Little was accomplished at the meeting, but this is where theRegulators proclaimed themselves as a radical political group (4). Minor oppositions continued to occur until the spring of 1768 when the sheriff of Orange County announced he would be collecting taxes at certain areas of thecolony only, and if colonists did not pay at these particular locations acharge would be incurred. This occured at about the same time Tryon gaveword about the construction of Tryon Palace.
This was very inconvenient forthe sttlers for two reasons. The widely scattered population made itdifficult to arrive at these tax stations. Lack of money was also a concern. Opposition to these moves influenced people to join the Regulatorassociation. The Regulators declared their purpose in a proclamation soonafter claiming they would: “assemble ourselves for conference for regulatingpublic grievances and abuses of power, in the following particulars.
. . thatmay occur: (1) We will pay no more taxes until we are satisfied that they areagreeable to law, and applied to the purposes therein mentioned, unless wecannot help it, or are forced. (2) We will pay no officer any more fees thanthe law allows, unless we are obliged to do it, and then show our dislike andbear open testimony against it. (3) We will attend all of our meetings as often as we conveniently can. .
. (4) We will contribute to collections for defraying the necessaryexpenses attending the work, according to our abilities. (5) In case ofdifferences in judgement, we will submit to the judgement of the majority ofour body. (5)” The Regulators also did not allow drinking of alcohol attheir meetings because they knew that different opinions could result in aninternal clash. At an unfortunate moment with feeling between the two opposing sides ata peak, officials in Hillsborough seized a Regulator””s horse, saddle, andbridle and sold them for taxes. Outraged, a band of Regulators rode intoHillsborough, rescued the horse, and before leaving town, fired several shotsinto Edmund Fanning””s house.
Fanning, who was in court in Halifax,immediately ordered the arrest of three Regulators who played a big role inthe Hillsborough horse incident, William Butler, Peter Craven, and NinianBell Hamilton. Citizens of Orange County were very sympathetic with theRegulators. Hermon Husband was chosen as one of two delegates to meet withofficials to discuss the incident. Before the meeting could be held, Fanninggathered a handful of armed men and assisted the sheriff in arresting WilliamButler and Hermon Husband. The two men were charged with inciting the peopleto rebellion and were confined in the Hillsborough jail. Enraged by the officers, the following morning seven hundred men, some ofwhom were not Regulators, went to Hillsborough to rescue the prisoners.
County officials, becoming alarmed, released the prisoners in time to speedthem away to meet the approaching mob of men. The governor””s secretaryinformed the protestors that Governor Tryon would receive their petition toinvestigate conditions in Orange County and would see that they received fairtreatment at the hands of county officials. Due to this incident, support forthe Regulation movement spread (6). The Regulators pursued their purpose with tremendous force.
They oftenbroke into courts of justice, drove judges from the bench and set up mock trials. They dragged unoffending attorneys through the streets almost until deathand publicly assaulted peaceful citizens who refused to express publicsympathy for the Regulation. In September, 1770, Judge Richard Henderson waspresiding over the superior court in Hillsborough when a mob of one hundredfifty Regulators, led by Husband, armed with sticks and switches, broke intothe courthouse, attempted to strike the judge, and forced him to leave thebench. They next attacked and severely whippped John Williams, a practicingattorney. William Hooper, who later would be a signer of the Declaration ofIndependence and an assistant attorney general was dragged through thestreets to be humiliated and violently abused. Edmund Fanning was pulledfrom the courthouse by his heels and dragged from the courthouse before beingbrutally whipped.
The mob then broke into Fanning””s house, burned hispapers, destroyed his furniture, and demolished and burned the building. Many others were whipped as the Regulators rioted through the streets ofHillsborough. Windows of private homes were broken and the inhabitants of the town wereterrorized. Court was adjourned when Judge Henderson was unable to keep order(7). The assembly of Governor Tryon set about at once to draw up a series ofreform measures.
Acts were passed dealing with the appointment of sheriffs andtheir duties, fixing attorneys”” fees, regulating officers”” fees, providingfor more speedy collection of small debts, and the creation of the countiesof Wake, Guilford, Chatham, and Surry in the areas of the region where theRegulators were the most numerous. These laws were designed to meet thedemands of the Regulators, but while the assembly was vigorously passingthese laws word arrived that the Regulators had assembled in CumberlandCounty and were preparing to march to New Bern, the current capital of NorthCarolina and residence of Royal Governor William Tryon. A complete changecame over the assembly and thoughts turned toward punishing measures (8). The assembly adopted the “Johnston Act” introduced by Samuel Johnston, who would later be a member of the Continental Congress and a senator from NorthCarolina in the First Congress of the United States. This act was to beenforced for one year only.
It stated that the attorney general couldprosecute charges of riot in any superior court in the province. All whoavoided the summons for court for sixty days were declared and liable to bekilled for treason. In addition to these drastic steps, the governor wasallowed to call the militia out to enforce the law. The Regulators, asanticipated by the governingauthorities in North Carolina, reacted withdefiance. To promote and strengthen their organization they sent messengersto nearly every county to encourage supporters and organize those who wouldjoin them. The people of Rowan County were extremely cooperative due totheir hatred of the Johnston Act (9).
Governor Tryon, in March 1771, ordered a term of superior court to be heldin Hillsborough, but judges filed a protest with the council. Under the riotousconditions existing in that part of the province, they felt that they couldnot hold court with any hope of prosecution. They also feared for theirpersonal safety because of what previously occurred in Hillsborough in thecase of Judge Richard Henderson. After this appeal had been made, thecouncil decided that it was time to take a stand against the lawlessness ofthe citizens (10). Protest from the Regulators came strongly, but Tryon paid no attention. On March 19, 1771 he called for volunteers for the militia and when enlistmentsbegan slowly he offered a payment of forty shillings.
The offer helpedtremendously, and on April 23 the troops got under way. Guns, ammunition,and other equipment for these troops had been sent at Tryon””s request fromFort Johnston on the Cape Fear River. General Hugh Waddell had already beenordered to march to Salisbury to halt the advances of the Rowan Regulators,to retrieve the western militia, and march to Hillsborough from the west. At the Johnston County Courthouse troops from Craven, Cateret, Orange, Beau-fort, New Hanover, Onslow, Dobbs, and Johnston were joined by the Wakemilitia. They made their way to Smith””s Ferry beside the Neuse River whereTryon reviewed the troops on May 3, 1771.
There were 1,068 men; 151 wereofficers. Pleased with his recruitment, he broke camp and advanced towardHillsborough. General Waddell and his 284 officers and men were approachingSalisbury from the Cape Fear River. Governor Tryon and the militia reached Hillsborough on May 9. GeneralWaddell left Salisbury that same day, but while crossing the Yadkin River he was metand stopped by a large group of Regulators.
Waddell retreated back toSalisbury. Intending to help General Waddell, Tryon left Hillsborough on May 11 leadingthe militia through the heart of “Regulator country. ” On the fourteenth day theyreached the banks of Alamance Creek where they rested for a day. On May 16,1771, Tryon ordered his army into battle formation. The companies fromCateret, Orange, Beaufort, New Hanover, and Dobbs counties, plus theartillery, were in the lead, followed by companies from Onslow and Johnston. With these troops Tryon set out to destroy a large body of Regulatorsreported assembled five miles ahead.
The Regulators, estimated at about 2,000, were waiting for Tryon””s confrontation. They lacked adequate leadership, a clear purpose, efficient organization, andeven sufficient arms and ammunition for battle. The Regulators must havefelt that simply by making a display of force they could frighten thegovernor into granting their demands. Among their number were many noisy andrestless individuals and many who seemed not to realize the seriousness ofthe situation lying ahead. Earlier that week, some of the Regulatorscaptured Colonel John Ashe and Captain John Walker of Tryon””s militia whilethey were scouting, severly beat them, and made them prisoners.
So careless were the Regulators and so unaware of the situation most of themwere wrestling and playing around when an older soldier who happened to beamong them warned them to expect an attack at any minute. Shortly after, thefiring began. Before the shooting began, the Regulators were given a choiceto retreat and dissolve their group or be fired upon. In the one hour theyhad to decide few were considering their lives. The Regulators gave noresponse and thus the Battle of Alamance began. Tryon””s well-equipped troops soon put the Regulators to flight.
The Regulators had no officer higher than captain and each individual company foughtindependently. Tryon””s artillery fire was very effective in the beginning, but manyRegulators later found refuge behind trees and rocks. The Regulators weredeserted by many of their own comrades and took early leave of thebattlefield. The Battle of Alamance lasted two hours. Tryon””s forces lost nine to deathand sixty-one wounded, while the Regulators lost the same number killed and had alarge, but undetermined number of people wounded. Tryon took about fifteenprisoners and executed one on the spot with the idea of striking terror intothe hearts of the Regulators.
This action, I believe, was uncalled forbecause of the decisive military defeat. Despite his evil display ofcharacter during the battle, Tryon had his own surgeons treat the woundedRegulators (the entire battle has been summarized from source #11). The Regulators attempt to secure reform in local government by forceapparently failed completely. The Regulators were compelled to retreat from society andlive life in the wilderness. Many migrated, some going to Tennessee and downinto the Mississippi River Valley.
Others followed Daniel Boone””s trail intoKentucky. In fact, by 1772, just one year later, about 1,500 of the formerRegulators left North Carolina (12). The importance of the Battle of Alamance and its proper place in Americanhistory have been topics of discussion not only in North Carolina, but acrossthe country. I gathered this fact from the area from which my sources came. I noticed that the efforts of the Regulators is very similar to that of thecolonists efforts to gain independence, only on a much smaller scale.
TheWar of Regulation should be regarded as one of the primary thrusts of NorthCarolina””s role in the Revolutionary War. Because of the research I havedone I am encouraged to find out more about the history of North Carolina. The Battle of Alamance should be covered in every American history course simply because it illustrates the desire for independence many colonists had during this time period. Endnotes1.
Nelson, Paul David. William Tryon and the Course of an Empire: A Life inBritish Imperial Service. The University of North Carolina Press,Chapel Hill. 1990. 2.
Dill, Alonzo Thomas. Governor Tryon and His Palace. University of NorthCarolina Press, Chapel Hill. 1955. 3. Dill, Alonzo Thomas.
Governor Tryon and His Palace. University of NorthCarolina Press, Chapel Hill. 1955. 4.
Spindel, Donna J. “Law and Disorder: The North Carolina Stamp ActCrisis. ” North Carolina Historical Review. vol 57: 1980. pp.
1-16. 5. Henderson, Archibald. “Origin of the Regulation in North Carolina. “American Historical Review.
21: 1916. pp. 320-32. 6. Lefler, Hugh T. “Orange County and the War of Regulation.
” in OrangeCounty, 1752-1952. ed. Hugh T. Lefler and Paul Wager. Chapel Hill: 1953.
pp. 22-40. 7. Fitch, William Edwards. Some Neglected History of North Carolina.
Neale Publishing Company: New York, New York, 1905. 8. London, L. F. “The Representation Controversy in Colonial North Carolina. “North Carolina Historical Review.
vol 11: 1934. pp. 255-76. 9. Newsome, Alber Ray and Hugh T.
Lefler. The History of a Southern State. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1973. 10.
Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1734-1776. Knopf Publishing, New York NY, 1968. 11. Edward, Brother C.
“The Regulators: North Carolina Taxpayers Take Arms Against the Governing Elite. ” American HistoryIllustrated. April 1983: pp. 42-48. 12. Stumpf, Vernon O.
Josiah Martin: The Last Royal Governor of NorthCarolina. Carolina Academic Press for the Kellenberger Foundation:Durham, NC, 1986.