The Royal Colony of North Carolina


The War of Regulation - The Regulators

1767 - 1771

Battle of Alamance May 16, 1771

A Regulator movement developed in the 1760s in western South Carolina among groups interested in establishing law and order. Outlaw gangs had formed in the area and the Commons House of Assembly failed on several occasions to provide funding for peace officers and local courts.

Organizations of citizens were formed to regulate governmental affairs and eventually operated the courts in some districts. Governor Charles Greville Montagu and the Assembly realized the legitimacy of the Regulators' cause and in 1769 enacted legislation providing for the necessary reforms.

After the Cherokee War, large numbers of new settlers poured into the South Carolina backcountry. By 1765, bands of brigands and marauders began to operate in the area. Since no assistance was received from the government in Charles Town, the local settlers formed vigilante groups to drive out this dangerous criminal element. Furthermore, the backcountry people were grossly under-represented in the South Carolina Assembly and although they paid much money in taxes, they received little support from the government of any sort. A group of the vigilantes began to organize into an anti-government group called the Regulators. The Regulators demanded more equal representation as well as the benefits of law enforcement, courts, jails, roads, schools, and judicial districts.

The year 1768 stands out in South Carolina's settlement history for several reasons. In that year, South Carolina's effort to attract new settlers by offering payment of passage came to a close in July 1768, with the expiration of the General Duty Act. Also, the Provincial Government in Charles Town successfully confronted backcountry "Regulators" and averted a civil war. After heated debate, and a threatened march on Charles Town by these backcountry men, the Circuit Court Act was passed, authorizing a system in South Carolina of seven Judicial Districts. These districts, activated in 1769, for the first time provided local courts to serve the backcountry.

By the end of the 1760s, South Carolina was divided into two distinct cultural groups. In the coastal tidewater, large plantations owned by a "gentlemanly" leisure class but worked by slaves predominated; the cultural focus was the city of Charles Town and the prevailing religion was that of the Anglican Church. Conversely, the inhabitants of the backcountry, above the Fall Line, were mostly hard working, small farmers, who owned few if any slaves; their religion, if any, was primarily Presbyterian or Baptist.

The Circuit Court Act of 1768 notwithstanding, the backcountry people were still grossly under-represented in the Common House of Assembly and there was no love lost between the two cultural groups. As the colony drifted toward Revolution in the early 1770s, the backcountry tended to be predominantly Loyalist in sentiment, while the tidewater planters leaned toward the Patriot cause.

The Regulator movement in North Carolina was quite different and for different reasons.

Farming interests in western North Carolina resented the actions of local court officials. This feeling was particularly strong in Anson, Granville, Halifax, Orange, and Rowan counties, which were growing faster than the eastern counties.

Efforts to reform the assessment of taxes and fees were unsuccessful; the courts and the General Assembly were not responsive and seemed to favor the causes of the wealthy tidewater elements. North Carolina Regulator groups arose to close down local courts (which in this era were analogous to county commissions) and suppress tax payments; rioting broke out in several counties. In May of 1771, Governor William Tryon led militia forces against the Regulators and defeated them handily at Alamance Creek.

Most of the rebels were pardoned, but seven of the leaders were hanged. The movement did not survive, but tensions between east and west remained.

The following account comes from "A History of Chatham County, North Carolina With Sketches of a Number of Its Prominent Citizens," published in The Chatham News, January – April 1932 and December, 1931, Marks 161st Anniversary of Chatham County

By Walter D. Siler:

For twenty years immediately preceding the organization of Chatham County as a political subdivision of the state of North Carolina, the territory now embraced within its boundaries was a part of the county of Orange. The parent county had been formed in the year 1751 from Bladen, Johnston, and Granville, and as Chatham lies within the original domain of the last, our county may be properly termed a daughter of Orange and a grand-daughter of Granville.

It is more than probable that some of Lawson’s party were the first white men to come into what is now the county of Chatham, but this is merely conjecture, while as to the identity of the first white persons to make permanent settlement within its confines, even tradition is silent.

However, long before the controversy between the Crown officers and oppressed and discontented settlers, which was to culminate in the Regulation movement, had its birth, many immigrants, having secured land grants from the Earl of Granville, bringing their families, slaves and household goods, had taken possession of many of the broad acres along the rivers and amidst the hills of what was then southern Orange.They had cleared land for cultivations, erected crude but comfortable log dwellings, and soon thrifty settlements dotted various sections of that locality.

Like the early settlers in all piedmont North Carolina, those first to take up their abode in what was destined to be Chatham County, were, for the most part, of Scotch-Irish and German stock, who had come from Pennsylvania and Virginia though not a few were of English extraction who had come from the eastern section of the state: Chowan, Halifax and possibly other of the coastal and tide-water counties having contributed many families to the rapidly developing community.

Our earliest settlers were not adventurers, who came in quest of gold, nor were they of the turbulent and violent classes, who had departed from the older and more populous centers to escape the avenging arm of the law.They were of that sturdy, independent, liberty-loving type, such as Bancroft, the historian, had in mind when he said: “North Carolina was settled by the freest of the free; by men to whom the restraints of the other colonies were too severe.”

These settlers, who poured into the valleys along the Deep, Haw, and Rocky Rivers, located on the Hickory Mountain and amidst the verdant hills and along the gentle streams that wend their way toward the sea, were enemies of tyranny and oppression. Their surroundings were the most primitive and they were forced to dwell remote from the centers of culture and social advantage, but they remained gentle in their tempers, serene in their minds and strict in their abhorrence of bloodshed and violence.

Love of liberty and hostility to outside interference with their domestic concerns was their most prominent characteristic, as was soon to be demonstrated in the controversy, which had been precipitated by the arbitrary acts and oppressive conduct of Edmund Fanning, Register of Deeds of Orange, and other colonial officers, whose arrogance and rapacity had raised a storm that was to end in strife and bloodshed.

As the War of the Regulation is credited with having occasioned the creation of our county, and for the further reason that many of the inhabitants of the Chatham that was soon to be received into the sisterhood of counties, were active participants in both the agitation that led to the armed conflict and later in the battle that followed, brief mention will here be made of this interesting event in our state’s history.

While there has been considerable controversy among historians as to whether the Regulators should be regarded as devoted Patriots, who at Alamance were beginning an offensive against the mother country that was to culminate in the war for American Independence, or a poorly organized band of anarchists who were fatally bent upon overturning all form of government and destroying the safeguards that protected life, liberty and property, it is now pretty generally conceded that neither is correct. The conditions which led to the conflict were due to abuse, extortions, excesses and oppressive exactions on the part of the Crown officers on the one hand, and a determination on the part of the people to remedy the evils, and reform a system which had become hash, burdensome, and galling, on the other.

The chief causes of popular complaint were high taxes, corrupt and rapacious officials, and extortionate fees. The system of taxation, which had apparently been devised without regard to justice or fairness, provided that all taxes should be levied on the poll, so that the owner of a single ox was required to pay the same as was the owner of a ten thousand acre farm and the cattle on countless hills. Money was, as is always the case in rural communities, distant from the marts of trade and centers of commerce, scarce, and this fact made it all the more easy for designing and dishonest officers to levy upon the property of delinquent tax-payers, collect an additional fee for so doing, and sell the property to some friend at a fraction of its real value. This system, which in this day would be termed “grafting,” was claimed to be a fixed policy and a constant practice with many tax collectors, and, of course, became the object of violent complaint and bitter resentment. Fees exacted by officers were claimed to be exorbitant, while the officers themselves were, so far as a large number were concerned, either corrupt or inefficient, and in many cases, both.

As early as the year 1761, dissatisfaction with conditions had become so general that concerted efforts were beginning to be made for redress, and at a meeting held on Deep River, on August the 20th of that year, resolutions were adopted appointing a committee to attend a general meeting at Maddox’s Mill on the Eno River, a few miles from Hillsborough, on October the 10th.

“Where they are judiciously to examine whether the freemen in this county labor under any abuses of power, and in particular to examine into the public tax, and inform themselves of every particular thereof, by what laws and for what uses it is laid, in order to remove some jealousies out of our minds.

“And the representatives, vestrymen and other officers are requested to give the members of said committee what information and satisfaction they can, so far as they value the good will of every honest freeholder.”

At an Inferior Court held in Hillsborough in the latter summer an address containing the foregoing resolutions was read in open court, and the officers of the county promised to attend the meeting. But when the day came, though twelve delegates appeared on the part of those who were demanding relief, no officer was in attendance; such failure, it was charged, being due to the influence of Edmund Fanning, who, deeming the meeting an insurrection, had counseled his fellow office-holders to remain away.

The Maddox meeting seems to have resulted in nothing except the proposal that the people hold such meeting annually to discuss the qualifications of legislative candidates, advise the representatives of their wishes, and to investigate the conduct of public officials.

Though the cause of complaint remained and the agitation was kept up, organized opposition to the royal officials remained dormant until about March, 1768, when the storm broke with redoubled fury. Besides the original grievances there was added the additional complaint that the Assembly had arranged to erect for the Governor a “Palace,” at the cost of fifteen thousand pounds.

On March the 22nd, 1768, there was a petition presented to the authorities of Orange styled, “The request of the inhabitants on the West side of Haw River, to the Assembly and Vestrymen of Orange County.” After reciting the fact that the officers had violated their agreement to meet the committee at Maddox Mill in obedience to the agreement, and reiterating the complaint as to the levy of illegal taxes, it was declared:

“We are obliged to seek redress by denying paying any more taxes until we have a full settlement of what is past, and a true regulation with our officers.

“Until such time as you will settle with us, we desire the sheriffs will not come this way to collect the levy; for we will pay none before there is a settlement to our satisfaction.”

This action brought no result, save to arouse the anger of the officials, who were so bitter in their denunciations of the “inhabitants of the West side of Haw River,” that many residents of that territory, who had taken no part in the movement heretofore, now joined their fortunes with that of their neighbors.

At a meeting held on April the 4th, 1768, the name “Regulators” was adopted by those who had been agitating for the reforms demanded by the meetings already held, and thereafter they were so styled. It was at this time also determined to request the sheriff and vestrymen to meet a committee and produce for inspection a copy of the list of taxables, a list of the insolvents, with an account of how the money was applied and to whom paid. Before the action of this meeting had been made known to the authorities, the sheriff of Orange seized a horse, bridle and saddle, the property of a Regulator, and sold the same for taxes. This, as might have been anticipated, brought matters to an immediate crisis.

No sooner had the seizure of their comrade’s property been learned by the Regulators, that [Herman] Husband says:

“They immediately rose to the number of sixty or seventy, rode to Hillsborough, rescued the mare, and fired a few guns at the roof of Fanning’s house to signify they blamed him for all this abuse.”

When Fanning, who was in Halifax, was advised of this rather drastic conduct on the part of the Regulators, he ordered into service seven companies of the Orange militia and hastened home to assume command. The governor [William Tryon], apprized of the situation, approved this course, and authorized him to quell the disturbance or insurrection, as it was termed in royal circles, and called the militia of Halifax, Granville, Anson, Mecklenburg, Johnston, Cumberland, and Bute to mobilize, subject to Fanning’s call. In addition, the Governor issued a proclamation to be read to the people, while the council endorsed the Governor’s action and denounced the conduct of the offending Regulators as an insurrection.

At this juncture an effort seems to have been made to compose the differences between the warring parties, the officers agreeing to meet the Regulators with a view to an amicable adjustment. The latter appear to have entered into the negotiations in good faith, while the former, true to their usual custom, were utterly insincere in their supposed desire for reconciliation. Immediately after this agreement the Regulators appointed a committee to gather information and facts regarding taxes, fees, etc., and required its members to take an oath to do justice between the officers and the people. While the data was being collected, Fanning, who was the dominating personality of the office-holding class, at the head of an armed posse went to the Sandy Creek settlement, and arrested William Butler and Herman Husband, two of the most prominent Regulators, upon a charge of inciting rebellion, and conveyed them to Hillsborough, where they were incarcerated in jail.

The arrest and imprisonment of the two Regulators, not only aroused the frenzy of their fellow clansmen, but enlisted the sympathy of many who had never been identified with the Regulation movement, and who now armed themselves and joined a force numbering nearly seven hundred, which marched on Hillsborough to release the prisoners. Notice of their intended attack preceded them, and so alarmed the crown officers and their adherents that the imprisoned Butler and Husband were hastily released, and with them, the governor’s private secretary hurried to meet the oncoming throng. This official, in the name of his royal principal, assured the people that if they would quietly and peacefully disperse, and return to their homes, and petition the governor in the proper manner, that full justice would be done them. To this the Regulators acceded, only to be again deceived and imposed upon, for the governor declined to ratify the conduct of his secretary, and, refusing to deal with them as an organization, demanded that they disband.

On the 21st of May, 1768, a general meeting of the Regulators was held at the home of George Sally, where:

“It was unanimously agreed to continue our petition agreed upon at our last meeting to the governor, council and Assembly, for redressing very grievous, cruel, and oppressive practices of our officers, which we generally conceive to have labored under for many years, contrary to law.

“And in pursuance of a verbal message from the governor, sent us express by his secretary, we agree to renew our petition, and being conscious of our loyalty to King George the Third, on the present throne, and our firm attachment to the present establishment and form of government, which we firmly believe all our grievance are quite contrary to, by downright roguish practices of men who have crept into posts of office, and have practiced upon our ignorance and new settled situation.”

In June, the proceedings of this meeting were delivered to the governor, and he answered in a letter, in which, among other assurances, he declared:

“You may depend upon it, I shall, at all times, endeavor to redress every grievance in my power that His Majesty’s subjects may labor under.”

He closes his communication by advising that the tax for 1767 is seven shillings a taxable, and stating that he will be at Hillsborough the beginning of next month.

In July, true to his promise, Governor Tryon went to Hillsborough and while there he was in communication with the Regulators, several letters passing between him and them. On August 18th, he addressed a letter to the meeting that had been called by them, in which, after reproving them for their course in refusing to pay their taxes, and their threats against the lives of many of the inhabitants of the county, he closed by requiring that twelve of the principal Regulators furnish him bond in the sum of one thousand pounds, as a security that no rescue should be made of Husband and Butler, who were to be tried at the Superior Court of Hillsborough to be held in September. The bond was not given and to the end that the court might not be interfered with in its deliberations, the governor called out the militia.

When the trial of their chiefs came on, more than 3,600 Regulators assembled at Hillsborough, but the presence of the military force had the governor’s desired effect, and the cases were tried without any interference. Husband was acquitted, while Butler and two other Regulators were convicted, but were pardoned. Found guilty at this term of court of extortion, Fanning appealed, and the Attorney General of England declared that the charges were groundless. All in all, it would seem that the session of court might be regarded as a triumph for the Regulators.

But they seemed to have felt little inclined to be content with what they had gained, and so, impatient for a more speedy relief than either the courts or the Assembly seemed willing to secure for them, that they now entered upon a career of excesses that lost them, to a considerable extent, that popular sympathy that had heretofore been theirs.

At a court held in Hillsborough in September, 1770, a mob of more than one hundred and fifty Regulators, headed by Herman Husband, Rednap Howell, William Butler, and James Howell, armed with clubs and bludgeons, entered the court house during the sitting of the court, drove the presiding judge from the bench, beat up William Hooper and John Williams, two prominent attorneys, dragged Edmund Fanning through the streets, and after whipping him severely, destroyed his furniture, valuable papers and other personal effects, and demolished his house. After maltreating and abusing several other prominent gentlemen, they took possession of the court house, organized a mock court, and having secured possession of the court dockets, made many scurrilous and profane entries therein.

In the midst of the excitement, which followed these outbreaks, the Assembly met in New Bern on December the 5th. It was evident that something must be done and that quickly, to restore tranquility and a respect for law and order, or the entire colony would be reduced to anarchy. The Assembly at once entered upon the task of trying to devise by legislative means some method of restoring order, and consequently acts were passed relative to the selection of sheriffs and defining their duties, regulating the fees of public officers and reforming the court procedure.

What was know as the Johnston Act, so named because it was introduced by Samuel Johnston and which contained drastic provisions for the prosecution and punishment of all such as might incite and participate in a riot in any Superior Court of the province, was also enacted.

As a further means of bringing peace and quiet to the disturbed and distracted section, it was determined to create a number of new counties in the territory where the Regulation sentiment was most pronounced, so that large bodies would have less occasion to assemble at any one place in the disaffected district. As a consequence bills were introduced providing for the creation of Chatham, Wake, Guilford, and Surry, and were all speedily enacted into law, the act establishing Chatham being ratified on January the 26th, 1771.

All these measures proved disappointing results, for the Regulators became more violent in their denunciation of all governmental authority, and the situation became so acute that the judges protested against holding court at Hillsborough in March, assigning as a reason that it would be impossible to despatch business with any feeling of personal safety to themselves.

In view of this alarming state of affairs, the council advised the governor to call into service the militia and to move upon the Regulators, “with all expidition.” The Chief Executive acted upon this advice without delay, and soon had orders issued for the mobilization of 2,500 volunteers.

With 1,068 militiamen, commanded by himself, the governor reached Hillsborough on May the 9th, having encountered no opposition on the march. On the 14th, he camped on Alamance Creek, some miles from Hillsborough. On the 16th, his troops, in line of battle, moved on the Regulators, who had assembled to the number of 2,000. Neither force seemed to have a great thirst for battle, and the Regulators sent a communication to the governor asking for permission to lay their grievance before him. He replied that he could have no parley with citizens in a state of armed rebellion, and ordered them to disperse and submit to the laws of the province. He gave them one hour in which to determine their course, at the expiration of which he sent for the reply; the officer who went for it advising that unless they dispersed the governor would fire upon them, whereupon they replied: “Fire and be damned.”

The troops commanded by Governor Tryon were commanded to fire, which, after a short delay, they did. The Regulators returned the fire, and the battle was on. The engagement continued for two hours, when the Regulators, defeated by the organization and discipline of the militia, were thrown into confusion and driven from the field. As a result of the battle, the royal forces lost nine killed and sixty-one wounded, while the Regulators had nine killed, quite a number wounded, besides fifteen captured.

While Governor Tryon’s course in immediately extending pardon and amnesty to all who would submit to the government and take the oath of allegiance, a few persons being exempted from the benefits of his proclamation, would indicate a spirit of great leniency and forbearance, his conduct at the trial of the prisoners, six of whom were hanged, was marked with such cruelty and inhumanity as to clothe his name with eternal infamy.

The victims of the gubernatorial wrath were neither traitors nor outlaws, and their summary execution for having, though in an unwise and unlawful manner, sought a redress of their grievous wrongs, was a cruel, vindictive and despotic act of folly characteristic of a tottering government soon to be overthrown.

The colonial office-holder, who more than all others, by his conduct, furnished the principal cause and excuse for the Regulation movement, was Edmund Fanning, chief representative of the royal government, and the dominating factor in Orange County. He was a native of the state of New York, an alumnus of Yale College, having graduated from this renowned institution with distinction, in the year 1757, a lawyer of splendid ability and a man of commanding talents.

By the Regulators he was regarded as a dishonest and rapacious official, who was systematically despoiling the people, and while evidence is inadequate to convict him being the corrupt and venal character that he has sometimes been painted, it is easy to understand how one with his insatiable thirst for office and his success in satisfying it, would not be regarded with much popular favor. He was at one and the same time, member of the General Assembly from Orange; Register of Deeds for the same county; Judge of the Superior Court, and colonel of the militia.

In addition to these positions of trust and profit, Fanning, it would appear from the records, managed to become a member of all such committees and commissions as had in charge the expenditure of public funds, as is illustrated by the fact that he was named in the bill creating Chatham as a member of the commission to “employ workmen to build a court house, gaol, and stocks.” With all these sources of income, he soon became a man of wealth, and whatever may have been his charm of manner and however honest may have been his official dealings, to the hard-working, overtaxed countrymen of Orange he appeared to be endowed only with “winning ways to make men hate him.” He was the first of the detested race of carpetbaggers to appear in our midst, though it should be said to his credit, that his administration, bad as it was, might be easily termed a visitation of mercy, in comparison with the havoc wrought by the horde of the same breed that followed him nearly a century later.

As might have been expected, he adhered to the cause of the British government when the Revolution came, and in 1777, while living in New York, where he had followed Governor Tryon, he recruited a corps of Tories, called by him the “Kings American Regiment.” He fought through the war and became a general in the British Army.

His affinity for office followed him wherever he went, and he was in turn, Surveyor General of New York, Councilor and Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, and in 1786 became Royal Governor of Prince Edward Island, which office he held for nineteen years. He died in the city of London in the year 1818, leaving a son who became an officer in the British Army, and two daughters, each of whom married a titled Englishman. He had two nephews who became distinguished American soldiers in the War of 1812, and they rendered valiant service in behalf of the republic to whose liberties their uncle had always been an enemy.

The most active and influential character among the Regulators, and the one most potent in the dissemination of propaganda and the organization of the movement, was Herman Husband, a Quaker preacher from Pennsylvania, who had several years before moved to North Carolina and settled on Sandy Creek, in what is now Randolph County.

He was a man of much native ability, better educated than the people among whom he lived, and seems to have been as noted for his business shrewdness, energy and thrift as for his predilection for political strife. Personally popular with a people groaning under the burden of high taxes and exasperating local government, he soon secured a considerable following and was twice elected a representative from Orange to the General Assembly. From this body he was expelled in 1770, and committed to New Bern jail for an alleged libel on Judge Maurice Moore and for being “a principal mover and promoter of riots and seditions.”

His conduct in industriously creating a discontent and counseling and advising his associates to violence and excesses, and then fleeing when the conflict for which he was so largely responsible came, left a stain upon his memory, that no explanation of his most ardent admirers has ever been able to remove.

Deserting his followers on the eve of the battle of Alamance, he made his way to Pennsylvania and settled near Pittsburgh. Though exempted from the general pardon issued by Governor Tryon and a reward of one hundred pounds and a thousand acres of land offered for his capture, he was never apprehended. After the Revolution, he returned to North Carolina, but only remained for a short time.

An agitator, rather than a patriot, his subsequent career showed him to be, for in his old age, he became involved in the Pennsylvania Whiskey Insurrection of 1794, and, as a result, was arrested and put in jail. He is said to have been released by the efforts of David Caldwell.

Though never a resident of Chatham or what is now Chatham, he owned considerable land within its boundaries, as court records show, all of which he sold after departing from the state.

He is reputed to have been a land surveyor, and tradition credits him with having laid out and surveyed the old “Stage Road,” which traverses the county and was for many years the line of travel from the western and central section of the state to Raleigh.

The land owned by him was in the western section of the county, in the vicinity of Siler City, he having acquired by grant from the Earl of Granville, the plantation now owned by Messrs. C.N. and N.B. Bray, and other tracts in that section.

After Husband, the most prominent actors on the part of the Regulators, were Rednap Howell, a native of New Jersey, who had many years before come to North Carolina, and James Hunter, a Virginian, who had settled in the Sandy Creek section. The former, an itinerant school teacher, was styled the “Poet of the Revolution,” he having made war on the Orange officials in “ambling epics and jingling ballads,” while the latter seems to have been a man of greater strength and character. He was known as the “General of the Regulators,” though he declined to command at Alamance and advised that every man “command himself.” Though outlawed and forced to leave the province, when the American Revolution began he returned to North Carolina, joined the American army, and became a brave and fearless soldier.

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