Thomas Burke

3rd Governor of the State of North Carolina - 1781 to 1782

Date Born: c.1747

Date Died: December 2, 1783

Place Born: Galway, Ireland

Place Buried: Prospect Hill, Orange County, NC

Residence: Orange County, NC

Occupation: Doctor, Lawyer


Thomas Burke was born in Galway, Ireland around 1747, the son of Ulick Burke and Letitia (Ould) Burke. By 1764 he had emigrated to Virginia and practiced medicine for a number of years. He studied law, and began its practice in Norfolk, VA. He became an early supporter of the American Revolution, writing tracts in opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765.

On March 28, 1770, Thomas Burke married Mary "Polly" Wilson Freeman in Norfolk, VA. They had one known daughter, Mary Wilson Burke. In 1772, Thomas Burke and his small family moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina. There, he practiced law and operated his Tyaquin plantation.

In 1775, Thomas Burke was first elected as one of five men to represent Orange County in the:
- 3rd Provincial Congress that met in August of 1775
- 4th Provincial Congress that met in April of 1776
- 5th Provincial Congress that met in November of 1776 - in a special election after voting irregularities found

In the last Provincial Congress, Thomas Burke had a major part in the debate that led to North Carolina's new state Constitution.

Thomas Burke was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress on December 20, 1776 and arrived in Philadelphia to take his seat on February 4, 1777. He was a strong state's rights advocate, although he moderated this view somewhat by 1781. In September 1777 most of the Congress were preparing to flee Philadelphia as the British advanced. Burke instead went to join Brig. Gen. Francis Nash's North Carolina Continental troops defending the city. He was present at the Battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania before rejoining the Continental Congress.

Also in 1777 and 1778, Thomas Burke was elected to represent Orange County in the North Carolina House of Commons, but he could not take his seat since he was in Philadelphia. Special elections were held to replace him.

Upon his return from the Continental Congress in 1781, the General Assembly elected him as the third governor of North Carolina. Gov. Thomas Burke assumed office during a turbulent time - Loyalists and Patriots were embroiled in America's first civil war. Gov. Burke desired a return of law and order, so he, according to historian Michael Hill, took “extraordinary measures to reform the militia, increase essential revenues, banish intractable Loyalists, and defend against renewed British attack from Virginia and South Carolina. Acting on his own authority, he established special courts and assumed for himself veto power over legislative acts.”

In a daring and completely unexpected raid, Loyalist Col. David Fanning surprised everyone on September 12, 1781 when he captured Gov. Thomas Burke and over 200 men in Hillsborough. Col. Fanning paroled most of the prisoners, but he took Gov. Burke and several others to Wilmington and turned them over to British Maj. James H. Craig who led the occupation force there.

Soon thereafter, Gov. Thomas Burke was transferred to the British occupying force in Charlestown, South Carolina and he was placed in rather austere accommodations on James Island. Gov. Burke was convinced that his life was in danger, so he wrote the British commandant in Charlestown, Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie, to either be paroled somewhere else, or to be exchanged. Maj. Gen. Leslie never responded to his many letters. On January 16, 1782, Gov. Thomas Burke managed to escape his imprisonment and made his way back home.

Frustrated that most of his contemporaries scorned his daring escape instead of praising it, Gov. Thomas Burke retook the reins of the state government, but resigned ten months after taking office in April of 1782.

In 1783, Thomas Burke was elected as one of two men to represent Orange County in the House of Commons of the:
- 7th General Assembly that met in April to May of 1783

Thomas Burke died on December 2, 1783 and was buried at his plantation north of Hillsborough, NC.


Thomas Burke, born about 1747 in Galway, Ireland, moved to Orange County in North Carolina about 1772 from Virginia. He was elected governor in 1781. On September 12th of that year, Gov. Thomas Burke, his Council, and over seventy-one Continental soldiers were captured by Loyalist Colonel David Fanning at Hillsborough and taken to Wilmington. In October, he was transferred to Charlestown and confined on James Island. After having his appeals for release refused, Burke escaped and returned to North Carolina.

He was so disturbed to find himself criticized for violating his parole and taking office again that he retired to his plantation, Tyaquin, near Hillsborough. His grave is located off of Route 57, north of Hillsborough off of the Gov. Burke Road. The gravesite is in a cowpasture approximately fifty yards from a farm road on private property. The Dan River Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution clean the grave yearly.


Thomas Burke was born in Galway, Ireland in 1747. His education was attained in Ireland, where he studied medicine. After immigrating to the United States in 1764, he studied law in Virginia, and then established his legal career in Norfolk. Burke entered into politics after moving to North Carolina in 1771. He served as a delegate to the 1775 and 1776 state conventions; was a member of the State House of Commons in 1777; and served as a member of the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1781. Burke next won election to the governorship in 1781. During his tenure, war issues consumed the majority of his term. On September 12, 1781 he was captured in a Loyalist raid led by Col. David Fanning, and subsequently was imprisoned in Wilmington, then on James Island, near Charlestown, South Carolina. Four months into his captivity, he escaped. He then returned to North Carolina and resumed his gubernatorial duties. Governor Thomas Burke never fully recovered from his days in prison and passed away on December 2, 1783. He was buried in the Mars Hill Churchyard near Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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