Balfour’s Murder

A Child Witnesses Tragedy

Location


View Larger Map

Other maps: Bing, Google, MapQuest.
Coordinates: 35.6429, -79.9012.

Type: Sight
Tour: Guilford Battle
County: Randolph

Access LogoPartial

A small set of trees in the field on the right surrounds the Balfour family graveyard. Look for a small roadside sign that says, “Randolph County Historical Landmark.” Beside it, an unpaved vehicle track runs through the field to the graves. They and the homesite can be seen from your vehicle if necessary, by driving first to the graveyard, and then back to and up Doul Mountain Road to the summit.

However, the property is publicly owned, so feel free to wander. But don’t go too far downslope. That area is posted against trespassing because it is under the flight path to the nearby airport. You might see a small plane flying low enough to make you duck!

Context

As part of an ongoing civil war between partisans after the main British and Continental armies left the state in 1781, units under Patriot Col. Andrew Balfour and Loyalist Col. David Fanning have been skirmishing.

Situation

Loyalist

Fanning is based at Cox’s Mill south of today’s Ramseur. He handpicked 25 men and had them create intimidating uniforms. They then rode west to ambush Balfour and other Patriots in this area.

Patriot

Balfour is on leave at his plantation home, perhaps recovering from a camp illness. With him are his sister Margaret and his young daughter Isabel, called “Tibby.” He had planned on having his wife and other children in Connecticut join them here years earlier, but the shift of the war to the south in 1780 caused a delay.

Date

Sunday, March 10, 1782.

Timeline

Red tee shirt saying "Do Whig Out!" on a parchment scroll

Imagine the Scene

A Seeker of Success

Walk to the top of the hill above the graveyard. Though the exact location of the Balfour home is unknown, typically it would have been here at the highest and flattest point. Stand where you would have built it!

Born into a high-society family in Scotland and educated at Edinburgh University, Andrew Balfour became a merchant but suffered a business failure. Deeply embarrassed, he left his wife Janet and baby Isabel behind in Scotland, informing her by letter, and took his chances in America. He partnered with a New York merchant, intent upon paying his debts and bringing his family over. Yet again his business failed, and he set up in Connecticut to try yet again. Meanwhile he learned Janet was dead from scarlet fever.

After the American Revolution began, he arranged for his sister Margaret to take Isabel (nicknamed “Tibbie”) to Charleston where his brother lived, thinking them safer there. He then married Elizabeth Dryton in Connecticut. But again he left behind a child and (pregnant) wife, this time to visit Charleston. While there, he decided to set up a salt-mining business. Then Balfour’s father bought him 1,900 acres here. In 1779 his enslaved workers built a house, Margaret and Tibbie joined him, and he joined the county militia (part-time Patriot defense force) despite his brother being a Loyalist (“Tory”).

Photo looking up a grassy hill with a few trees clustered near the top
Homesite at summit on left, with copse above graveyard at right (AmRevNC photograph)

The next year he was elected to the General Assembly and raised to colonel. The war’s focus had shifted south, so Elizabeth remained up north given the danger and Balfour’s military service. At least once he was captured in South Carolina, only to be rescued by Patriot militia on the way to prison.

In 1781 after the British and Continental armies left the state, Balfour sparred with the notorious Tory Col. David Fanning. In one skirmish Fanning tried to arrange a truce, and Balfour told his messenger, “there was no resting place for a Tory’s foot upon the Earth.”[1]

His War Ends

You are standing in the Balfour home, most likely a well-built, multi-room log cabin. Farm buildings are nearby, and in the distance, cabins for enslaved people. (By standard practice, they might have been downhill near the creek on the far side of the graveyard). Some slaveholders allowed people a degree of freedom on Sundays, so perhaps that is why it is said to be a quiet morning. This also might explain why Fanning planned his raid for a Sunday, to reduce the chances of a warning being raised.

The quiet is broken by sounds of a horse galloping up, probably followed by a pounding on the front door. Balfour goes to and opens it to find a neighbor, who warns him to escape. Balfour runs out toward his horse, but it is too late.

Riding up the hill are Fanning and 25 men dressed in “linnen (sic) frocks, died black, with red cuffs, red elbows, and red shoulder cape also, and belted with scarlet, all fringed with white fringe,” Fanning writes later. The neighbor apparently rides off, wisely. Balfour tries to run, but Fanning’s men fire and he cries out, his arm hit.

Photo looking down a grassy hill toward trees all along the bottom
View downhill from homesite, graves on far left (AmRevNC photograph)

Balfour comes back inside the house, and Margaret and Tibby both throw themselves on top of him to protect him. The Tories burst in. Several men beat the woman and child with the sides of their swords, bruising and cutting them, while others grab Balfour and pull him aside. Fanning walks up, a pistol in his right hand. He puts it to Balfour’s head and pulls the trigger while his sister and ten-year-old daughter watch in horror. They run to him, and Margaret holds “his dead head in my bosom till a moment before his death, when the ruffians dragged us from him…”[2] He dies from a half-inch bullet hole in his head.

Step partway downhill toward the cemetery, and look back uphill.

The Tories drive Margaret and Tibby out of the house. The men begin making trips in and out, loading up all the valuables they can as the two wait, unsure of their fates. Finally, though, the Tories ride off to raid other Patriot homes. Margaret wrote Andrew’s widow Elizabeth (“Eliza”) later, “never were creatures in more distress. We were left in a strange country, naked, without money, and what was a thousand times worse, we had lost forever a near and dear relation.”[3]

Photo of a grassy area with taller weeds, a road, and trees in the background
Possible homesite (AmRevNC photograph)

They stayed a few days more, until learning Fanning planned to come back and burn the place. They then sought refuge at a nearby plantation. Margaret eventually leases out their enslaved workers and rents the land, and they live comfortably in Salisbury for the rest of the war—off other people’s forced labor, it should be said.

Walk to the cemetery and view Andrew’s grave in the center.

Photo of a tombstone with a small square block holding a plaque in front of it
(AmRevNC photograph)

Toward the end of 1784, Eliza and family are headed to Salisbury to join Margaret, by way of Wilmington and today’s Fayetteville. They make a brief stop here, no doubt standing where you are now, to visit the husband she’d live apart from far longer than she lived with him.

His epitaph reads:

Revolutionary memory
A native of Edinburg, Scotland
Murdered by a band of
Tories at his home

Casualties

  • Tory: 0.
  • Patriot: 1 killed, 2 wounded.

After the Murder

  • Fanning raids other Patriot homes that night, though he is thwarted by Martha Bell at her family’s mill north of here.
  • Margaret never married. She eventually moved back here when the plantation, never burned, was taken over by Tibby’s daughter (also a Margaret) and her husband. Margaret got a measure of revenge when she learned one of the men with Fanning had been arrested in 1783. She traveled to Hillsborough to testify against him. “‘The crime was proved so plainly, that not one lawyer spoke a word in his favor, though he had three of them employed,'” she wrote Eliza. He was indicted on that testimony, convicted, and hung.[4] Margaret now rests to the right of her brother.

Historical Tidbit

A few years after Eliza’s arrival, she was in financial distress. Influential friends of Andrew brought this to the attention of Pres. George Washington. He officially named her son Andrew as the postmaster of Salisbury, fully aware Eliza would actually do the job. Effectively she was the second “postmistress” in the nation, after Mary Katharine Goddard of Baltimore (who started in 1776). Eliza held the post for at least 25 years, and now is buried to the left of her husband.

More Information

Mug with an African-American soldier and the words, "Fighting for Freedom."

[1] Fanning 1865.

[2] Letter from Margaret, 8/17/1783, quoted in Caruthers 1854.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Letter from Margaret, 6/6/1783, quoted in Caruthers.

Cox’s Mill | More Tours