Roots of rebellion: The noose that dangles from my family tree

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Our travels have taken us into the past again — this time pretty far, 240 years or so, when my great great great great great great uncle was captured, convicted and sentenced to die for his role in a pre-Revolutionary War uprising.

Five years before the American Revolution officially began, under orders of North Carolina Royal Gov. William Tryon, great (times six) uncle James was placed atop a barrel (by most accounts) in Hillsborough. N.C. The noose of a rope secured to a tree limb was looped around his neck, and he was permitted a few last words.

SONY DSCNot exactly circumstances conducive to free speech, but it hadn’t been invented yet.

Despite that, great uncle James spoke his mind.

Among the things James Pugh said, and the quote that still lingers — it being a precursor of what Nathan Hale would far more famously utter from the gallows years later — was this:

“The blood that we have shed will be as good seeds sown in good ground — which soon shall reap a hundredfold!”

With the noose around his neck, great uncle James — and who could blame him for being verbose under the circumstances — reviewed the causes of the conflict. He explained that the band of rebellious backwoods farmers he was part of, known as the Regulators, was seeking only a redress of grievances. And he reiterated the call for an end to unfair taxation and local government corruption, especially in the sheriff’s office.

He had been granted 30 minutes to talk, which might be considered generous were it not for the sentence that was to be carried out when he finished. It had been prescribed by the court thusly:

“That the prisoner should be carried to the place from whence he came, that he should be drawn from thence to the place of execution and hanged by the neck; that he should be cut down while yet alive; that his bowels should be taken out and burned before his face; that his head should be cut off, and that his body should be divided into four quarters, which were to be placed at the king’s disposal, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

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Edmund Fanning

Speaking from atop the barrel, and apparently still well within his 30-minute, great uncle James worked in one last verbal jab at Col. Edmund Fanning, calling him “unfit to hold any office.”

At about that point, Fanning, whose home had been ravaged by rioting Regulators the previous year, ordered a soldier to kick over the barrel, snapping James Pugh’s neck in mid-sentence.

Whether the additional terms of his sentence were carried out — the bowel burning and quartering and such — seems lost to history.

But great uncle James, who was convicted not of murder but of violating a government order aimed at quelling protests, was later buried, in whole or in parts, along the peaceful green banks of the Eno River, along with five other Regulators tortured and hanged after what’s known as the Battle of Alamance.

I did not learn of great uncle James until I was in my 40’s, which is maybe a good thing because it would not have made for a nice bedtime story.

Once I did, I began researching, off and on, the history of the Regulators, who over the centuries have been viewed as everything from outlaws to heroes to hillbillies to the true instigators of what would become the Revolutionary War. There are some who described the bloodshed at the Battle of Alamance — great uncle James being responsible for much of that spillage — as that war’s first battle.

That, despite it being engraved on at least one historical marker, might be a bit of a stretch. Historical markers are only slightly more trustworthy than the Internet.

Since Ace and I ended our year on the road, and returned to North Carolina, I’ve been delving a little more into the history of the Regulators, and into my connection with the pre-Revolutionary War revolutionary.

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Ace and I visited the battleground where James Pugh — a gunsmith who is said to have been the sharpshooter of the ragtag band of insurgents — mowed down a dozen or more members of the Royal governor’s militia in the Battle of Alamance.

I’ve read a couple of books, attended a seminar on the battle, viewed items uncovered during an archaeological dig at the battleground and, along with Ace, visited a memorial in Hillsborough that marks the site where six of the Regulators were hung.

James Pugh was a brother of my great great great great great grandfather, on my mother’s side.

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John and Ace

I’m pretty sure my rebellious streak — generally surfacing when I hear of something really unjust, or getting royally screwed over (as great uncle James was), or being kept on hold for too long — doesn’t come from him.

It’s not likely my opposition to capital punishment is a result of what happened to great uncle James. I was opposed to the death penalty — and decapitation, and bowel burning — long before I learned the circumstances of his demise.

And my tendency to think public disturbances are not always bad — that sometimes the public needs a good disturbing — is probably more a result of coming of age in the 1970’s than a being distant kin to a gunsmith who was shooting down the Crown’s militia members in the 1770’s.

Still, the more I’ve learned, the more I relish the family connection with the rabble rouser/outlaw/folk hero. (Pick your choice).

History-wise, I’ve concluded (with help from real historians) that the cause of the Regulators was just, their motives were noble. It was just their methods that often went a little over the line. As for what they were revolting against, it wasn’t so much the Crown itself as the courthouse good old boys who served as its colonial representatives — those local provincial government officials and other fat cats who were padding their own pockets at the expense of citizens.

What is now Alamance County was part of Orange County then, and the courthouse was in Hillsborough, a charming little town these days just up the road from Chapel Hill.

The Regulator Memorial is located there,  in the shade of a big tree behind the Orange County Board of Education building. It’s where great uncle James and five other Regulators were hung, though I don’t know if it was from that same tree.

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In 1770, the Regulators rioted in Hillsborough. They dragged government officials through the streets, beat up some lawyers (Fanning included) and left a pile of human waste in the chair of a judge. They also vandalized Fanning’s residence, destroying his furniture and drinking all of his alcohol, historical accounts say.

What were they so mad about? To name a few, illegal fees, dishonest sheriffs, obstacles to establishing legal ownership of land, and a lack of representation in an assembly controlled by the eastern half of the province.

The Regulators — mostly of Scotch and Irish descent, mostly Quakers and Baptists — had formed in 1768. They held meetings, wrote letters, distributed pamphlets and filed petitions seeking redress of their grievances. They were complaining not so much about the Crown-imposed rules, but at abuses of them by government officials and their cronies.

One of the biggest sore points was the governor’s new mansion. Paid for by taxes on citizens, “Tryon Palace, as it would come to be known, was located in the provincial capital of New Bern. It was a huge and opulent mansion that took four years to build. Tryon moved into it in 1770 — the same year as the riot in Hillsborough.

The riot prompted the passage of the Johnston Riot Act the following year. It required any group of 10 or more people to disperse within an hour of being ordered to do so by provincial government officials, and it was clearly aimed at the group of insurgents known as the Regulators.

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Battle of Alamance reenactment, 2011

One of Tryon’s last acts as provincial governor — before was he called upon to become governor of New York — was to order his militia to confront the Regulators and “reduce them by force to an Obedience to the laws of their country.”

It didn’t take a capital “O” to let the Regulators know he meant business. They knew his well armed militia was on the way.

A large group of them gathered and established a camp in what’s now Alamance County, bringing with them what weaponry they had. It wasn’t much compared to what Tryon’s militia was toting.

The Regulators, most historians say, were hoping that a big show of numbers might sway Tryon into agreeing to a compromise. They sent him a message, urging once more that he hear their grievances and avoid a battle.

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William Tryon

The message Tryon sent back ordered them to lay down their arms and “submit yourselves to the laws of your country. Only that, Tryon said, would prevent “an effusion of Blood, as you are at this time in a state of war and rebellion against your king, your country and your laws.”

“Fire and be damned,” was the Regulators reply.

Tryon’s militia answered with five cannons, leading to an exchange of gunfire that lasted more than two hours.

The outgunned Regulators retreated into the woods. At that point, Tryon ordered the woods set on fire.

“There was such confusion as cannot well be described,” read a subsequent newspaper account. “Some who had no guns attempted to rally those that had; and some gave up their guns to such as were willing to face the enemy.” (Many of the Regulators were Quakers, whose beliefs discouraged them from engaging in battle.)

James Pugh was one of those who tried to hold the Regulators’ ground.

“They all soon fled and left the field except James Pugh,” the newspaper reported, “… and three other men who had taken a stand near the cannon.”

“They were defended by a large tree and ledge of rocks. Although half the cannon were direct against them, they could not be driven from their position, until they had killed fifteen or sixteen men who managed the cannon. Pugh fired every gun, and the other three men loaded for him, but at length they were surrounded.”

James Pugh was taken prisoner, while the other three men escaped.

The battlefield statistics vary widely, depending on which history you are reading. Some say as few as nine were killed on each side; others say about 70 members of the governor’s militia were killed, and more than 300 Regulators.

Twelve of the Regulators were tried for violating the Johnston Riot Act, convicted and sentenced to death, though half of them would receive pardons. Great uncle James was among the six who did not.

SONY DSCAfter the battle, Tryon moved his troops deeper into Regulator territory, intent on intimidating and punishing those who had questioned his authority.

His troops set fire to homes and barns and helped themselves to supplies. Tryon, as he went about his pilfering, was said to have a liking for Baptist beef and Quaker flour, and helped himself to both, according to “Farming Dissenters,” a book about the Regulators by Carole Watterson Troxler,

Fanning and Tryon then returned to Hillsborough for the execution of the convicted Regulators.

Six of them were hung on June 19 — James Pugh, Robert Messer, Benjamin Merrill, Robert Matear (sometimes spelled Matter) and two whose identities have been lost to the ages.

Eleven days later, Tryon and Fanning sailed to New York.

In the news coverage of the day, the Regulators were roundly viewed as ruffians and thugs. But the harsh public sentiments lightened up after the one-sided battle. And when the Revolutionary War came along, five years later, it served as further proof that rebels can sometimes be right. Historical accounts, initially unkind toward the Regulators, started shifting in their favor after the Revolution, and even more so in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Historian Hugh Williamson saw them not as heroes but as ruffians. Joseph Seawell Jones and others had a kindlier view, seeing them as forerunners to, or even prototypes for, the American Revolution. E.W. Fitch, the historian who probably did the most for the Regulators’ reputation, went so far as to write this:

“The struggle for American Liberty and Independence began at the Battle of Alamance.” It “kindled the flame” that “spread with the rapidity of a wild forest fire until the oppressed of the thirteen colonies were aflame with righteous indignation and unitedly determined to throw off forever the yoke of British oppression.”

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“The Battle of Alamance,” he wrote, “was the first battle of the American Revolution.” By the late 1800’s, North Carolina seemed to have chosen that version of the story.

In 1880, a monument was erected at the site of the battleground proclaiming it to be the site of “the first battle of the Revolution.”

The battleground became state property in the 1950s and now falls under the auspices of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

The 240th anniversary of the battle was celebrated in 2011 with reenactments, presentations by historians and the unveiling of artifacts that have been found in an archaeological dig.

The festivities indicated at least some hard feelings remain about what happened to the Regulators. One booth featured a shooting gallery called “Regulator’s Revenge,” where one could fire rubber band guns at Fanning and Tryon.

Quite sure I didn’t inherit the sharpshooting skills of great uncle James, I didn’t try my hand at it.

Still, knowing my connection, and still in the process of learning more about it, I’ll admit to a small sense of pride as I strolled the battleground — and a tinge of anger, too.

It’s not just about my distant relative being strung up, and not just about how they so rudely kicked the barrel out from under him before he got a chance to finish. It’s about fat cats everywhere who, while profiting off the hard work of the common man, demand blind obedience from him, turn a deaf ear to him, and expect him to be mute.

Does that make me a revolutionary? If so, fire and be damned.

(This is a corrected version of a post that originally appeared Aug. 10, 2011)

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