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-great-great grandfather was captured, convicted for his role in a pre-Revolutionary War uprising and sentenced to die.
Five years before the American Revolution officially began — under orders of North Carolina Royal Gov. William Tryon, being carried out by Col. Edmund Fanning — grandpa James was placed atop a barrel (by most accounts) in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The noose of a rope secured to a tree limb was looped around his neck, and he was permitted a few last words.
“The blood that we have shed will be as good seeds sown in good ground — which soon shall reap a hundredfold!”
On the gallows, grandpa James — and who could blame him for being verbose, given the circumstances — reviewed the causes of the conflict he’d been captured during. He explained that the band of rebellious backwoods farmers he’d been swept up with, known as the Regulators, were 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, 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.”
Speaking from atop the barrel, and apparently still well within his 30-minute time limit, grandpa James worked in one last verbal jab at Col. Fanning — a Yale-educated dandy (my words) — calling him ”unfit to hold any office.” Fanning, whose home had been ravaged by rioting Regulators the previous year, ordered a soldier to kick over the barrel, snapping grandpa James’ 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 grandpa James, who was convicted not of murder but of violating a government order aimed at quelling uprisings, was later buried, in whole or in parts, along the peaceful green banks of the Eno River, along with five other Regulators captured and hung after what’s known as the Battle of Alamance.
Fortunately — for me anyway — great (times eight) grandpa James had already sown his personal seeds by then, or at least the one from which I, many generations later, would sprout.
I did not learn of grandpa 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, sporadically, 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 have described the bloodshed at the Battle of Alamance — grandpa James being responsible for much of that spillage — as that war’s first battle.
That, I’ve concluded, despite it being engraved on at least one historical marker, is a bit of a stretch. Historical markers, like the Internet, are not to be trusted.
My family connection with a pre-Revolutionary revolutionary, a rabble rouser before it became cool, has prompted some personal speculation.
I don’t put much stock in genes being the force that primarily shape us — at least not when it comes to our hearts (in the non-organic sense) and minds and personalities — yet still I’ve wondered if grandpa James might be the source of my rebellious streak, my disdain for bureaucracies and my belief that public disturbances are often OK, because sometimes the public needs a good disturbing.
Might it explain — even though it existed long before I heard of him — my opposition to capital punishment, not to mention decapitation and bowel burning?
Or, conversely, might his abrupt demise — that rudest of interruptions — be the reason I don’t talk too much? I think not, since learned experiences aren’t passed on through genes (despite what pit bull haters may say), especially those lessons learned a millisecond before, or at the time of death.
Most of all, as I look at the family tree, nooses and all, I wonder: Do I come from righteous activist stock, or rowdy outlaw stock, or is the line between those two sometimes so thin that its hard to separate one from the other? Was great-times-eight grandpa a felon, or folk hero?
(Am I going on too long? If so, I most kindly beg your indulgence.)
Since my return to North Carolina — place of my birth, my college graduation, my roots — I’ve made some effort to sift through the fuzzy history of the Regulators, and how their reputation has been shaped and reshaped over time.
I went to the battleground where grandpa James — a gunsmith who’s said to have been the sharpshooter of the ragtag band of insurgents — mowed down a dozen or more members of the governor’s militia. I read a couple of books, attended a seminar on the battle, viewed items uncovered during a recent archaeological dig at the battleground, and, along with Ace, visited the memorial in Hillsborough that marks the site where grandpa James and five other regulators were hung.
My conclusions (with help from real historians): The cause of the Regulators was just; their motives were noble; their methods were mostly by the book, though sometimes a little over the line; and as for what they were revolting against, it wasn’t so much the crown as the courthouse good old boys — those local and provincial government officials and other fat cats who were padding their own pockets at the expense of citizens.
What’s 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. Had it not been for the Microtel refusing to accept dogs over 80 pounds — a villainous and discriminatory rule, in our view, deserving of protest — Ace and I would have spent the night there on our recent visit.
Instead, we had a fine meal at the Gulf Rim Cafe, dining al fresco not far from the courthouse where grandpa James was sentenced. We observed a couple moments of silence at the Regulator Memorial, located at the site of his hanging. Then we moved on, having a date with the beach.
In 1770, the Regulators rioted in Hillsborough. They dragged government officials through the streets, beat up lawyers (Fanning included) and left a pile of human waste in the chair of a judge, historical accounts say. They also vandalized Fanning’s residence, destroying his furniture and drinking all of his alcohol.
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 — again, not aimed at the form of government, or the official government 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, what would become known as “Tryon Palace,” in the provincial capital of New Bern, was a huge and opulent residence that took four years to build. Tryon moved in in 1770 — the same year as the riot in Hillsborough.
The riot prompted the legislature to pass 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 government officials. Before the assembly, that same year, Tryon spoke of the danger posed by the insurgents.
One of Tryon’s last acts as provincial governor of North Carolina — he was named governor of New York not long after moving into his comfy new mansion — was to order his militia to confront the Regulators ”and reduce them by force to an Obedience to the laws of their country.”
Getting word that the militia was on way, the Regulators — except for the Quaker members whose beliefs kept them from taking part — gathered and encamped in what’s now Alamance County, bringing with them what weaponry they had, which 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 a message to him, urging him once more to hear their grievances and avoid a battle.
The message Tryon sent back ordered them to lay down their arms and “submit yourselves to the laws of your country” to “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.”
There were further efforts at compromise, but on May 16, the assembled Regulators received one last warning from Tryon to surrender before his militia opened fire.
“Fire and be damned,” was the Regulators reply.
The militia answered with five cannons, leading to an exchange of gunfire that lasted, at most, two and a half hours. The outgunned Regulators retreated into the woods. At one point, Tryon ordered the woods set on fire.
“There was such confusion as cannot well be described,” read one 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 …
“They all soon fled and left the field except James Pugh from Orange County, 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 (sic) 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, Pugh was taken prisoner: the others made their escape.”
The battlefield statistics vary, depending on which historian you believe. Some say there were nine 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.
After the battle, Tryon moved deeper into Regulator territory, intent on intimidating and punishing those who questioned his authority. His troops set fire to homes and barns and helped themselves to supplies. Tryon, according to “Farming Dissenters,” a new book by Carole Watterson Troxler, is said to have preferred Baptist beef and Quaker flour. 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 for New York.
In the news coverage of the day, such as it was, the Regulators were roundly viewed as ruffians and thugs. Then again newspapers, it has been said, provided the “first draft of history.” ( Today, Twitter provides the first draft of history — though it’s not really a draft; it’s more like that half written sentence that, because it sucked, we once ripped from the typewriter, wadded up and tossed in the trash can.)
But I digress. Back to our history lesson. Harsh public sentiments toward the Regulators lightened up somewhat after the one-sided battle. The Revolutionary War, which came along five years later, 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 more so in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Hugh Williamson saw them not as heros but as ruffians. Joseph Seawell Jones and others had a kinder view, and saw 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, wrote: “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.”
To Fitch, not one to shy away from flowery prose, or, it seems, overstatement, the Regulators never received “due mention or proper credit … The Battle of Alamance was the first battle of the American Revolution.”
Clearly, there are two sides to every story, or at least there were until the Internet came along. Now there are about 16 million sides. By the late 1800′s, though, North Carolina seemed to have chosen the version in which the Regulators are heroes who paved the way — even before much pavement existed — for the American Revolution.
In 1880, a monument was erected at the site of the battle proclaiming the Battle of Alamance the “first battle of the Revolution.”
The battleground became state property in 1950s, and now falls under the auspices of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Earlier this summer, the 240th anniversary of the battle was celebrated with reenactments, presentations by historians and the unveiling of artifacts found in an archaeological dig at the site, which also was a field of battle during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
In addition to a symposium nearby, the state historic site festivities included cannons being fired and reenactors dressed in period garb. I’m not sure how many hard feelings remain about what happened to the Regulators, but entertainment at the event included a shooting gallery, called “Regulators’ Revenge,” where one could fire rubber band guns at Fanning and Tryon.
As for me, I’m not one to feel responsible for, or defined by, the behavior of my forefathers. Somewhere around great great grandfather, I stop feeling a strong sense of connection. And I hesitate to brag about great, etc., grandfather James because, even if he was a certified and accepted hero, I’m sure it’s equally possible, were I to further sniff at my roots, there might be villains there as well.
Nevertheless, I admit to feeling a slight sense of pride when I visited the memorial in Hillsborough, in the shade of a big tree behind the Orange County Board of Education building – not far from the unpinpointed site where James Pugh is buried.
I’ll admit to feeling a tinge of anger, too, all these years later — about his hanging, about him being cut off while speaking, and about fat cats everywhere who, while profiting off the hard work of the common man, demand blind obedience from him, turn a deaf ear toward him, and expect him to be mute.
(PHOTO CREDITS: Historical photos from North Carolina History Project,; John and Ace photo by Will Richardson, 14, of Hillsborough; other photos by John Woestendiek)