The Gourd Patch Affair

A Tory Conspiracy Fails


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Coordinates: 35.8758, -77.4050.

Type: Stop
Tour: Rebellion
County: Edgecombe

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Park on either corner of Roberson School Road and Mooring Road, or in the entrance to the gated farm lane across from Mooring. Please respect the property owner’s signs and clear the lane if they need access, but the road shoulders are in the public right-of-way.

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A Conspiracy Rises

Photo of a creek reflecting the sky below overhanging bushes
Conetoe Creek (AmRevNC photograph)

Button for audio tourJohn Clifton of Anson County, in the south-central part of modern North Carolina, rode to this region in mid-May of 1777 to visit his brother and friends. Some of them asked him along to meet James Rawlins.[1] Little did he know what he was in for.

Rawlins made Clifton swear he would not reveal anything he was about to hear. Then he told him people loyal to King George III had written their own constitution for North Carolina, to counter one recently created for the new state by the rebels known as Patriots or “Whigs.” Rawlins said Loyalists or “Tories” were plotting to defeat the Whigs and put the Tory constitution in place. If someone Clifton met showed him a stick with three cuts in it, he should ask what it was for. That would lead to this exchange:

“A sign.”

“What sign?”

“The sign of a secret.”

“Have you that secret?”

“I have. ”

Then, the two people would take turns speaking this set of letters: “B-E T-R-U-E.”

The next day the group met another man, tailor Daniel Legate, at a schoolhouse.[2] There Legate showed Clifton a copy of the Tory constitution, and Clifton took an oath that “insisted on fidelity to King George, opposition to the (state’s military) draft, refusal to take the whig government’s oath, the protection of army deserters, and the defense of… Tories.”[3] He was told to keep gunpowder and bullets on hand.

Clifton was given a copy of the constitution to use in recruiting others back in Anson County. However, he later claimed he burned the paper and took no action. On returning to this area in late July, he went with his brother to tell the Patriot court what he knew about what today is called, “The Gourd Patch Affair.”[4]

The Leader’s Land

Button for audio tourFace the fields across from Mooring Road, where the farm lane leads.

You are almost certainly on land once owned by John Llewellyn,[5] probably near his homesite. Around 63 by 1777, he and his wife Mary had moved here from Virginia 16 years earlier. There he had been a shipbuilder, but here he ran a farm.

His 630 acres stretched all the way across those fields to Conetoe (“ka-NEET-a”) Creek, and behind you across Robeson School Road. At the time the creek was Conetoe Swamp, covering a large area beyond the fields and downhill to the right.[6] This land was in Martin County when it was formed, and Llewellyn was named as one of the original justices of the peace. In those days his duties included those of modern county commissioners.[7]

Photo of an unplanted farm field with trees in the distant background, under an overcast sky with the sun hanging low
(AmRevNC photograph)

Llewellyn became concerned after some delegates to the convention creating the new state’s constitution in late 1776 proposed what today we would call “separation of church and state.” They did not get all they wanted, but the constitution did remove the official status that the Church of England, known here as the Anglican Church, had enjoyed under the colonial government.[8] Taxes no longer supported the church, and Catholic priests—along with other Protestant pastors—now were allowed to marry people. The budding alliance between the United States and Catholic France likely added to the worries of Anglicans like Llewellyn.

They began to organize and took the name of “the Brethren.” In early 1777, Llewellyn, Rawlins, and a dozen others began traveling the back roads of the state to spread their fears about the possible rise of “‘popish religion.’” Rebel leaders threatened to arrest them.[a]

Rawlins later told the court the movement picked up speed after a muster of the county’s part-time “militia” soldiers in Plymouth, 40 miles east (to the left) around Friday, March 28th. He, Llewellyn, and a third man were riding home. Llewellyn remarked that “‘the Country was like to become subject to popery,’” meaning the Catholic Church, and there ought to be a way to “‘seek relief.’”

On that ride home, Llewellyn suggested that a document supporting the Anglican Church be written up for people to swear to, and outlined the contents. A few days later he and his son William came to Rawlins’ house, and Llewellyn dictated to him the Tory or Anglican constitution and some oaths. William then hand-wrote copies to distribute—carefully, as you’ll see.[10]

The Plot Thickens

Button for audio tourThey began recruiting. Some people were contacted at wheat harvests, including a recruit named Bird Land. Many were approached with the question, “‘will you stand up for the Protestant religion?’”[11] During one effort, the plotter “‘picked up a Sugar box which seemed to be concealed in a private part of the barn and took out a paper which he read very low, as if he had been afraid of being overheard…’” It was the Loyalist constitution.[12] As a security measure, one historian says, only Llewellyn, Legate, Rawlins, and one other could actually share it.[13] Everyone else determined a recruit’s interest and then arranged meetings with one of those four.

Constant call-outs of the militia, combined with a lack of pay and supplies, may have helped the effort. Also, some people who supported independence thought the new state government as tyrannical as the Crown, or did not accept the state’s authority on all matters.[b]

The most notable recruit was William Brimage. Owner of 10,000 acres between Edenton and New Bern on which he held at least 30 people in slavery (probably far more), Brimage was president of the British Vice Admiralty Court for the colony. He was elected to the rebellious Provincial Congress in 1775, but did not attend. The state appointed him a court justice in Edenton anyway, where he drew “resentment” in April because he refused to take action against Tories.[14] His home was in Bertie County near a bend of the Cashie River, about 35 miles east.[15]

Photo of a blue river bending left, with trees growing from it in the left foreground and a line of them across the river
Cashie River (AmRevNC photograph)

On a two-day ride in January from Bath to New Bern, Brimage told a companion, “‘he did not like our present form of government… and never thought it any more than a mob government.’” He predicted that if the U.S. won the war, within 20 years the southern states would choose to have kings again! His companion reported him to Patriot authorities, though they apparently took no action.[16]

Prior recruit Thomas Harrison was in his son’s wheat field when Brimage appeared and called him over. He asked where Legate was, and Harrison led him to Legate’s house. Brimage had heard about the plot. The three went to the woods by Harrison’s house, where Legate swore them in as “‘members of this Conspiracy.’” Legate then suggested Brimage serve as the “Senior Warden” of Bertie, the title given to county leaders of the plot. Brimage agreed.[17]

The recruiters were not beyond stretching the truth… quite a bit. Legate told someone the plot arose in Virginia, perhaps partly true—there was a similar one around Norfolk.[18] But he said it had spread as far west as Haw River (beyond modern Raleigh/Durham) and south all the way to Georgia! One man was told recruiters had traveled 1,000 miles to spread the word.[19]

It worked. Eventually 100 men joined in Martin and two nearby counties, and witnesses said there were more in four others.[c]

Actions Threatened and Taken

Button for audio tourOne day around the beginning of May, Llewellyn ran into a neighbor, Capt. James Mayo. The Brethren had tried but failed to recruit Mayo’s brother William. Mayo accused him of being “an enemy of the people,” and threatened to name him to the local Committee of Safety as a Tory.[d] Llewellyn asked Peter Tyler and Rawlins to waylay Mayo and kill him. Rawlins claimed he refused to help, but Tyler waited by a road Mayo often took. However, Mayo did not appear.

Llewellyn turned into an rabid Loyalist within weeks. The threat of arrest was likely one cause, but he also had family reasons to support Britain: He was a cousin of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis, a British commander who had already raided North Carolina once. Regardless, Llewellyn’s hatred of the rebellion became well-known. He was quoted as saying the rebels were “‘the rag-tag and bob-tail of humanity’” and that Gov. Richard Caswell was “‘an infidel and didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity.’”[9] This referred to the Christian concept of divinity having three aspects: God, the son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Rawlins said that as the conspiracy gained numbers, Llewellyn listed off a group of names whom, “‘if they could destroy… then the Country would soon be settled.’”[20] Among them were Mayo and his brother, Col. Nathan Mayo, whose land was next to Llewellyn’s.

Llewellyn also had an idea to take advantage of slaveowner fears of an uprising by the people they held captive, a frequent event in early N.C. history. He recruited a “patroller,” someone whose job was to stop African-Americans and make sure they were either free or had permission to be where they were. The plan was for the patroller to spread rumors of a revolt. This in turn would trigger the local militia to search for the freedom-seekers, leaving unguarded the army gunpowder supply in Halifax and Gov. Caswell, who was scheduled to visit there.[e] The Tories could destroy the former and kill the latter.

Look up Mooring Road.

At some point, some sources claim, Llewellyn and one or two other men decided they had enough momentum to notify the British commander in North America, Sir Henry Clinton. They rode off toward New York, probably up a dirt road where Mooring Road is today.[21] But they supposedly only got as far as Scotland Neck, about 20 miles away, before turning back.[f]

Around June 20, a group met at a gourd patch near Tarboro.[g] One of the conspirators had been caught with the plot’s papers. He and another member were in the town jail. The group began planning to free them.[22]

Lt. Col. Henry Irwin of the regular Continental Army later wrote Caswell that 30 men attacked the jail. Irwin had been wounded in South Carolina and was convalescing, one source says.[23] However, he and 25 men, perhaps militia soldiers, were easily able to drive the group off.[24] Sadly, he was killed a year later at the Battle of Germantown (Penn.).

The shift among the Brethren toward violent Loyalism led to their downfall, because some recruits began telling what they knew. The slave patroller was among them.

No Escape

As witnesses began naming conspirators, Caswell ordered Maj. David Barrow to find Brimage on “the Tory Brig” in New Bern. This was a ship bought by Alexander Telfair, whom Caswell had given permission to leave the state with other Tories. Barrow wrote back that Telfair promised not to allow Brimage onboard, and sent Lt. Shedrick Fulcher with a few men to find Brimage.

Tipped off by the justices in Edenton, Brimage fled. He headed for the ocean but was captured by militia. Before Fulcher could get to Ocracoke to take custody, Brimage, a man named Campbell, and one other convinced two boys to row them north to Roanoke Island. Then Brimage offered more money to go farther. According to one of the boys, once landed on a beach, Campbell “‘took out a Handkerchief with two pistols in it’” and revealed himself to be a lieutenant in the British navy! With a mix of force and extra pay, the fugitives made the brothers push off toward Currituck Inlet, but a storm forced them beyond it. There, as the rain came down, the brothers escaped, one running down the beach and the other taking the boat. They must have met up down the shore.

Campbell stole another boat and disappeared. By means unknown, the other two men made it back south, but they were recognized and detained.[h] Militia then transported them to the jail in Edenton, where Brimage was chained to the floor next to the courthouse where he formerly presided.[25] Other plotters were eventually forced to join him there, including Llewellyn.

Rawlins fled down the Pamlico River with his family in a small sailboat on July 5. A man downriver thought he might, kept watch, and captured him.[i]

Trials and Surprising Outcomes

Photo of a two-story brick building, five windows wide, with a white cupola on top
The 1767 courthouse in Edenton (AmRevNC photograph)

Button for audio tourOnly Llewellyn was charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. The governor had a problem finding a judge to replace the former one: Brimage, who would now be on trial! Finally someone was found, and James Iredell, later a U.S. Supreme Court justice, served as the prosecutor.

Llewellyn was convicted in September of high treason, and 17 others of a lesser charge. The fact these lesser penalties were accepted, despite many legislators calling for men to be hanged, helped establish the authority of the courts in this state.[j]

Legate wrote a desperate letter from jail to Caswell in early December, “‘as an humble advocate to plead in Some Measure that So it May abate the Severity of your Just Displeasure & Appease that Stroke of Justice that I have incurred upon Myself by My horrid transgression & folly…’” He begged for bail until the court session, “‘the winter being very cold & I being Destitute of my Necessarys…’” Eventually all but Llewellyn were allowed out on bail because of terrible conditions in the jail.

Oddly, many Whig leaders supported going easy on the plotters. Mary Llewellyn rode to the home of their neighbor Nathan Mayo—yes, the same man her husband threatened—and asked him to speak on John’s behalf. Not only did Mayo agree, he escorted her to Hillsborough 90 miles away to gain her an audience with the governor.[26] Caswell agreed to a pardon. But the legislature called for Llewellyn’s immediate execution, unless the trial judge thought otherwise. The judge did so, pointing out Llewellyn didn’t try to escape when he had a chance one time, and mentioning the effect his death would have on Llewellyn’s family. Caswell issued the pardon.

The land you are on had been seized, but was restored to the Llewellyns, who bought more and people to work it. By 1793, they held captive 26 enslaved people, including Chane, Nance, Toney, and Neptune.[27] John died that year around age 80, and Mary passed away 14 years later. Nathan Mayo was an executor of Llewellyn’s will. His son married a Llewellyn daughter, who in turn married another son after the first died.[k]

Half of Peter Tyler’s property was taken by the state due to his conviction. Later he may have served in the British Army. Post-war he was harassed by Patriot neighbors to the point of filing a lawsuit. It failed, and he moved to Kentucky.

As for Brimage, the court decided there was not enough evidence against him. He refused to take the state’s loyalty oath, however. Finally the next April, Brimage left for New York, where he was greeted by the last two royal governors of North Carolina. He became attorney general of Bermuda, but went to Charleston during the 1781 British invasion of this state, hoping to return to his family. That invasion’s failure kept him there, and he sailed for Britain the next year.[28]

More Information

  • ‘Captain John William Llewellyn’ <> [accessed 23 June 2021]
  • Crow, Jeffrey J., ‘Tory Plots and Anglican Loyalty: The Llewelyn Conspiracy of 1777’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 55.1 (1978), 1–17
  • Hathaway, J. R. B. (James Robert Bent), ed., The North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register ([S.l. : s.n.], 1901) <> [accessed 16 July 2021]
  • Huff, Joe, ‘Self Guided Tour of the Navigable Portion of the Cashie River’, 4
  • ‘John William Llewellyn II (-1794) | WikiTree FREE Family Tree’ <> [accessed 16 July 2021]
  • ‘Lineage of the Llewellyn Family of Martin County, N.C.’, in Families of Martin Co., Edgecombe Co., Nash Co. (Binder, Halifax County Library, Halifax, N.C.), Undated
  • Manning, Francis, and Booker, W.H., Martin County History, Vol. I (Williamston, N.C.: Enterprise Publishing Company, 1977)
  • McConville, Brendan, The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2021)
  • McRee, Griffith John, Life and Correspondence of James Iredell: One of the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. I (New York: Appleton, 1857)
  • ‘Nathan Mayo (1742-1811)’, WikiTree FREE Family Tree <> [accessed 2 August 2021]
  • Perishow, Andrea Musgrove, ‘Our Tylers–Loyalists in Llewellyn Conspiracy in the Revolutionary War?’, After Toil Comes Rest-Genealogy Musgrove, Holder, Buckmaster, McIntire, 2013 <> [accessed 23 June 2021]
  • Russell, Phillips, North Carolina in the Revolutionary War (Charlotte, N.C.: Heritage Printers, Inc., 1965)
  • Smith, Claiborne, ‘Lewelling, John’, NCpedia, 1991 <> [accessed 16 July 2021]
  • Smith, Claiborne, ‘Telfair, Alexander’, NCpedia, 1996 <> [accessed 2 August 2021]
  • The Edgecombe County Heritage Book Committee, Edgecombe County Heritage, North Carolina, 1735-2009 (Waynesville, N.C.: Walsworth Publishing Company, 2009)
  • ‘The Grimes-Llewellyn Families, 1635-1972, Martin Co, NC’ <> [accessed 16 July 2021]
  • ‘The Lewellen Family’ <> [accessed 15 July 2021]
  • ‘The Llewellyn Family’, in Families of Martin Co., Edgecombe Co., Nash Co. (Binder, Halifax County Library, Halifax, N.C.), Undated
  • Troxler, Carole, and David Norris, ‘Llewelyn Conspiracy’, NCpedia, 2006 <> [accessed 23 June 2021]
  • Turner, J. Kelley, and John Bridgers, Jr., History of Edgecombe County (Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, Inc., 1997)
  • ‘What’s in a Name? Conetoe, NC’, North Carolina Map Blog, 2017 <> [accessed 16 July 2021]
  • Williams, Ruth, and Margaret Griffin, Abstracts of Wills, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, 1733-1856, 1956

[1] Troxler 1976 calls Rawlins a preacher, leading later sources to repeat the error, but the most comprehensive source on these events (McConville 2021) says he was only a lay reader for his church.

[2] Daniel’s name is spelled various ways, most often “Leggett,” but McConville says it was Legate.

[3] Crow 1978.

[4] Clifton deposition: Hathaway 1901.

[5] Some sources use “Lewelling,” as it appears in some public records from the time and in later generations. But all eight genealogical sources found by AmRevNC said John’s name was Llewellyn at the time.

[6] A backwards deed search hit a dead end, so AmRevNC could not confirm this was Llewellyn’s land. Of all the modern tracts north of Conetoe Creek (then “Swamp”), where his 1778 land grant said his property was located, this is the only one whose outlines partially match the oddly shaped map on the grant (State Archives of N.C., Microfilm Call #S.108.824, Frame 44). The new state issued its own grants to replace colonial deeds, but this one may simply have restored ownership after his pardon (Claiborne 1991). The hand-drawn grant map is skewed, making an exact match impossible. Allowing for that, 8–10 of 15 points on the 1778 shape roughly align with a 1930 map of Harrell Farm that was here (Edgecombe County Map Book 4, p. 17). That has been subdivided since. This area is also between land owned into the 1800s by Legate/Leggett descendants to the northwest and to at least 1930 by Mayo descendants to the east. The intersection of Roberson School Road and NC 42 is known as Mayo’s Crossroads. A deed granted by Nathan Mayo specifies that Lewellyn land was to his west across Conetoe Swamp. And again, at the time this land was in Martin County. A post-war shift in the county line placed it in Edgecombe (supposedly prompted by Nathan Mayo and his grandfather living in the same district, but both wanting to be in the legislature!).

[7] Manning & Booker 1977.

[8] Crow.

[9] “Captain John William Llewellyn.”

[10] Rawlins deposition: Hathaway.

[11] Troxler.

[12] Hathaway.

[13] Troxler.

[14] Crow.

[15] As with Footnote 6, a deed search hit a dead end. But a deed from the early 1900s calls the land north of the last major bend in the river the “Middle tract of Brimage,” running along the river from “Brimage landing.” Brimerage Road runs through the property today, which is in Bertie County. A local river guide states without citations that was Brimage’s land and mentions the conspiracy (Huff). Finally, this puts Brimage within a few hours’ horse or boat ride of Edenton, where he served in periodic court sessions.

[16] Per a January 1778 deposition quoted in McCree 1857.

[17] Harrison deposition: Hathaway.

[18] Claiborne 1991.

[19] Hathaway.

[20] Ibid.

[21] In 1930, Mooring Road was called the Scotland Neck and Bethel Road. Bethel can be reached by going in the opposite direction down Roberson School Road.

[22] William Wallace deposition in Hathaway.

[23] Turner & Bridgers 1997.

[24] Hathaway.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Claiborne.

[27] Williams & Griffin 1956.

[28] Crow.

[a] McConville.

[b] Ibid.

[c] From McConville, who adds that most wardens’ records did not survive, and the loose structure of the Brethren makes it impossible to know exactly how many people were involved.

[d] McConville.

[e] Ibid.

[f] McConville reports that William Tyler of Martin County was indicted for agreeing to go “‘with two other Persons to General Howe.’”

[g] Location: McConville.

[h] Quote and escape details: McConville.

[i] McConville.

[j] Ibid.

[k] Ibid.

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