Halifax

The First Declaration of Independence

Location


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Coordinates: 36.3302, -77.5899.

Type: Sight
Tour: Rebellion
County: Halifax

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Since you will be parking at the Historic Halifax Visitor Center, consider stopping in to learn more about the town’s general history, pick up a tour map, and find out about today’s open buildings and guided tours.

Our walking tour starts behind the building. However, the route can be driven, and everything on our tour can be viewed from your vehicle.
 

Girl in a white tee shirt with a picture and list of patriot women

Context

Founded in 1759 on former Tuscarora native land, Halifax took advantage of its location at the intersection of a road from Petersburgh, Va., to Georgia, with a river that boats could reach from the coast. It quickly became a prominent inland town.

Situations

The Halifax Resolves

As war was breaking out in 1775, and Patriots laid siege to British-occupied Boston, the royal governor of North Carolina was chased to a ship off Fort Johnston (in today’s Southport). Rebels across the colony formed their own county governments and elected representatives to a Provincial Congress to replace the former royal assembly.

Cornwallis’ March

Five years later, the British army under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington to recover from a damaging “victory” at the Battle of Guilford Court House. Then it marched to Virginia to join other forces, with cavalry under Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton riding a day or two ahead to clear the way.

Dates

February 1776–Tuesday, May 15, 1781.

Timeline


 

Girl in a white tee shirt with a picture and list of patriot women

Imagine the Scene

Rebellion and Resolves

Cross the street from the parking lot to the Visitor Center, and turn left—or if you are in the center, use the back exit. Walk to the picnic area near the next street, the gravel Market Street.

One of at least a half-dozen taverns in town stands near this spot as the war begins, owned by Christopher Dudley. That makes the location convenient for his public job, warden of the nearby jail, since his duties includes supplying food to the prisoners!

Walk to the front of the nearest brick building to the right of Market Street, the 1838 jail. Face its front.

Where the later jail now stands, in 1776 there was a wooden one approximately the same size, built 12 years earlier. February brings unexpected residents.

Gov. Martin planned to retake the state using British troops aided by Loyalist (“Tory”) volunteers in late February. Patriot (“Whig”) part-time units known as “militia” foiled him by defeating around 1,500 Tories heading to join him, at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. Allen and Donald MacDonald, brothers and Loyalist colonels, are brought up today’s King Street from the south (to your left) and led into the jail here. Donald was the commander of the Tories, though not present at the battle due to illness. Allen is the husband of one of the most famous women in the colonies, Flora MacDonald.

They are not alone in the small jail. The local militia have been capturing fleeing Loyalists throughout the area. As of Friday, April 5, 71 are reported in the jail (including Allen),[a] though it’s possible some are actually housed elsewhere. The MacDonalds and other leaders are given some freedom of movement, as is typical for imprisoned officers at the time. However they are among the 26 considered the most dangerous[b] and are later transferred to Philadelphia for the Continental Congress to manage. Some prisoners may have been released to the care of Patriot friends[1], and eventually the rest were paroled on condition of not fighting for the British again.

Throughout the war Tory prisoners are held here in crowded conditions alongside arrestees awaiting trial. The general in command of militia in the Halifax District in June 1779 “said that he was compelled to give the prisoners all the liberty possible because of the crowded condition of the jail and because he feared an epidemic might break out among them.”[2]

Go right, across Market Street, to the stone marker for the Courthouse site, partway up Market. Walk halfway across the front of the raised rectangle.

Archaeologists have not confirmed that this empty space was the site of the courthouse.[3] Among other evidence, it aligns with a 1769 map by a well-regarded map-maker shown below. That map indicates you would have been standing before the front door of the wooden, T-shaped building pointing towards you—and in Market Street! Apparently at the time the road ran here instead of its modern location, going around the building, which was not unusual in colonial times.

Old map of Halifax
Halifax in 1769. Courthouse in middle at “A”; jail to left at “B” (Detail of map by C.J. Sauthier)

The rebellious Provincial Congress meets in the courthouse here about six weeks later, starting on Thursday, April 4, 1776. A representative the congress elected to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Joseph Hewes of Edenton, had sent a letter asking what position to take on whether the colonies should declare independence from Britain. The delegates here agree in general that the time has come, their confidence boosted by the result at Moore’s Creek. Seven men are elected to a “Select Committee” to write an answer.

A week later they present a draft resolution to the entire body. It complains in part that “pursuant to the Plan concerted by the British Ministry for subjugating America, the King and Parliament of Great Britain have… made divers (sic) Legislative Acts… daily employed in destroying the People and committing the most horrid devastations on the Country…”

After listing other complaints, the committee recommends that the state congress declare:

“Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be impowered (sic) to concur with the other delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency, and forming foreign Alliances, resolving to this Colony the Sole, and Exclusive right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony, and of appointing delegates from time to time (under the direction of a general Representation thereof) to meet the delegates of the other Colonies…”

The draft was adopted that day, Friday, April 12, 1776, which is why that date appears on the modern state flag. This was the first formal declaration of independence from England by any American colony. Before adjourning in May, the Provincial Congress also set up a committee to draft a state constitution.

Photo of raised flat, grassy, area
(AmRevNC photograph)

Hewes read the resolves to the Continental Congress, spurring support for a U.S. Declaration of Independence. He became one of its signers on July 4.

Halifax learned about that 18 days later, and the Provincial Congress set up a celebration. A platform is built right in front of you, before the courthouse door. The chairman of the congress, Cornelius Harnett, climbs up on the platform at noon, holding a rolled-up “broadside” (print) of the declaration.[4] As he starts to unroll it, the crowd filling the road and spreading behind you into the open space across the street, Market Green, begins to cheer. He quiets the people and reads the declaration. When he reaches the names of the three North Carolina signers, the crowd roars. People push past you and lift Harnett on their shoulders to carry him into the streets.[5]

In November, the Fifth Provincial Congress meets here to adopt the first state constitution. Notably, it passes a Bill of Rights first on Tuesday, December 17. Thus it symbolically emphasizes personal rights (of property owners) over the powers of the government outlined in the constitution, which is approved the next day. All free males who own property or pay taxes gain the right to vote—including African-Americans.

Turn around and walk past the 1833 clerk’s office to King Street. Look at Market Green across the street.

In the war Market Green serves as a military center for the entire brand-new “state” of North Carolina. The open area is used for mustering and training of part-time militia soldiers and (probably) new regular troops for the Continental Army. Surrounding it are barracks for the troops, a powder magazine, and a supply depot. Here, too, was the gun factory likely used to fulfill the town’s contract to produce muskets for the Continental soldiers.[6]

Photo of open grassy square with trees behind
(AmRevNC photograph)

A Belated British Response

Six years after the Resolves, in the first week of May 1781, most of the district’s militia regiments march out of town to the north (left) past you. Their officers realize they are no match for an approaching British army. On the afternoon of Monday, May 7, a troop of green-coated British cavalry come by you after an encounter with the remaining militia (described below). Three days later, on Friday the 10th, most of Cornwallis’ army occupies Halifax. More than 2,000 troops and followers including escaping slaves and refugees center on a campsite south of town, but some were probably here as well. The officers force residents to take them into homes all over town. The Patriot militia failed to destroy all of the supplies, so the British capture “rum, whiskey, bacon, tobacco and corn.”[7]

Finally on the 13th, a regiment of Hessian (German) mercenaries Cornwallis was waiting for marches into town. Tarleton’s force leaves the next day, scouting ahead into Virginia. The rest of the army decamps to the left the day after.

Turn left and follow them on King Street. Pause by the closed Andrew Jackson School, across the next street on the left.

By 1774, a home facing the side road around its highest point, where the school building is now, has become a tavern called “The Sign of the Thistle.”[8] It is a center for the refined social life for which Halifax is noted. A traveling merchant writes in 1778, “the society in this vicinity is considered among the most polished and cultivated in the State.” Given the tavern’s proximity to the courthouse, many political discussions are surely held over ale here among delegates.[9]

On the day they arrive, Tarleton and company continue up King from where they passed you before and turn left. They pull up in the road in front of the tavern, and the officers dismount. Tarleton leads them in, where they take rooms. The rest, 160 cavalry troopers and 60 infantry mounted on horses, set up camp nearby. The next day the cavalry begins scouring the countryside. Many are sent to patrol throughout the area watching for militia, or worse, a Continental Army known to be somewhere across the border in Virginia. Others forage for supplies. They also scour the region for more boats to get the army across the river just downhill to the north, helped by Tory refugees and runaway slaves.

According to a 1918 source quoting an earlier publication, it is in the cavalry camp nearby that a young woman who lives a mile away appears Monday night. The story claims she demands to see Tarleton, and he complies. The exact words are no doubt fiction, though the basic facts seem possible. “‘I have come to you, sir, to demand restoration of my property, which your knavish fellows stole from my father’s yard,’” she supposedly says. She tells the tale, including the fact they have taken her favorite pony, which she then spots nearby in the firelight. “‘There, sir, is my horse. I shall mount him and ride peaceably home; and if you have any of the gentlemanly feeling within you of which your men are totally destitute, or if you have any regard for their safety, you will see, sir, that I am not interrupted.’” She then supposedly insults him for letting his men act as they did, mounts her pony, and rides off unmolested.[10]

Concerned prior to the full army’s arrival that he cannot hold Halifax with so few men, Tarleton sends to Cornwallis for more troops and some cannons. Learning through an exchange of couriers that this request would not be honored, he pulls most of his force back to the skirmish- and campsite visited later, south of town.[11]

A wistful local tradition claims that John Paul Jones, a Revolutionary War hero called by some the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” got his start when he was befriended at the tavern by a prominent citizen we will meet. Unfortunately there is no documented evidence from the time, and Jones’ specific whereabouts in the period are unknown.

Continue down King Street as it turns into a drivable trail. Note the markers about the brave people who used this route to escape slavery in the next century, making this part of the series of safe houses called the “Underground Railroad.”

At the bottom of the trail, walk to the top of the riverbank across the clearing. Face the river.

No visible signs remain today, but in Revolutionary times the road to Virginia (with a branch towards Edenton) continues from directly across the river. It climbs to the left and uphill. Various buildings related to shipping, such as warehouses and docks, crowd the riverbank on this side.

After their skirmish to the south, Tarleton’s men arrive here in search of Whig militia. They see an entrenchment and some militia behind it, who open fire. In the river on that side is a line of boats the Patriots have wisely collected to slow the British crossing. Tarleton sees a good location for cannons, either here at the seating area or more likely behind you, and decides to let those do the work when they arrive.[12]

One source says a cannon was eventually sent from the main army but could not dislodge the militia, so the cavalry had to.[13] Tarleton says the militia left on their own after damaging the boats.[14] (Given his usual willingness to take credit, whether due or not, this seems the more likely story.) Regardless, after the Patriots are gone, he sends a detachment across to guard the road while the boats are repaired.

Much of Tuesday, May 15th, 1781, this area and the road behind you is filled with impatient soldiers, slavery escapees, refugees, camp followers, and horses waiting for their turns, as boats shuttle to-and-fro across the river. When done, the British continue north and leave North Carolina after three-and-half fateful months. (See the Race to the Dan and Guilford Battle tours.)

Sacred Waters and a University’s Father

Return to town past the Market Green. Before getting to the first building on the left near the road, go downhill to the left and follow the short trail to a small pool of water. (People with mobility issues may have trouble on the slope.)

This convenient freshwater source received the name Magazine Spring during the war, but it was a key reason the Tuscaroras, Halifax founders, North Carolina officials, manufacturers, and soldiers congregated in this area. All of the famous names on this page likely drank water drawn here. It is considered sacred by the Haliwa-Saponi tribe.

Photo of a small, muddy pool of water below a stone retaining wall with a grate in it, surrounded by bushes
(AmRevNC photograph)

Return uphill and/or continue to the so-called Tap Room on the left side of King Street. It existed at the time, most likely as a tavern with an inn upstairs.

Cross King and stop at the Eagle Hotel on the right.

This building, probably built around 1790 after the war, was part of a complex including the old Sign of the Thistle that was renamed Eagle Tavern. This building is believed to be what people called the “Long Room,” used as an inn and ballroom and later moved here. If it is open, consider a stop inside to learn about games and other aspects of everyday life in Revolutionary days. (Also see the “Historical Tidbits” below about its most famous visitors.)

If you are walking, go back to your vehicle. Turn right from the lot onto—or if you were driving, continue down—Saint David Street. The Owens House on the right dates to the period, though not at the current site.

Take the next left at the large white house, and either park in front or pull into the driveway just past it. If you wish, walk to the marker in front.

This home was built for William Davie around or shortly after the end of the war in 1783. Best known as “The Father of the University of North Carolina,” he was a Patriot militia officer during the Revolution. He had a starring role in the Battle of Charlotte, and was badly wounded at the Battle of Stono Ferry (S.C.). Read a short biography.

Photo of two-story, white frame house, five windows across, with a first-story front porch on left side only
(AmRevNC photograph)

The Grove

Continue down the street and:

  1. At the end of the block, turn left.
  2. Drive back to King Street and turn right.
  3. Drive five blocks.
  4. Just before the road merges with US 301 Bypass, turn right on Ferrell Lane.
    Note: Larger vehicles may need to skip to the next set of directions and go to the next section before reading this one, due to limited turnaround space on Quankey Avenue.
  5. Turn left and immediately right onto Quankey Avenue.
  6. Drive near the end, about where the road starts to go downhill, and park.
    Note: Please respect the privacy of the homeowners at the end of the road.

Somewhere down the tracks on the other side, covered in overgrowth, is a small cemetery. In it lies the three-year-old daughter of Willie Jones and his wife. Further down and no longer accessible in the woods is the site of “The Grove,” the Jones’ home. Built by 1765, during the Revolution it is a large house with a central two-story section and two single-story wings, the first in the state of this “tripartite” type. The main building materials are well traveled. First brought from England in 1740 by Jones’ father for his home in the area, Jones reused them in this house.

It is surrounded by a grove of white oaks, hence the name. Behind it is a garden and what is reputed to be the largest racetrack in the state. In the back wall of the house is an unusual and expensive, semi-circular, “bow” window, out which Mr. Jones can watch his horses being exercised. (The house collapsed from neglect in the early 1900s.)

Cornwallis uses The Grove as his headquarters while his army is here.[15] Their camp extended along the creek farther downhill. The 1918 source again repeats a story from an earlier one, in which Patriot women again get the best of Tarleton.[16] As before, believe the exact dialog with caution.

Mrs. Willie Jones (no first name given) has been forced to host the British officers for dinner one night, joined by her sister Mrs. John Ashe. (Mr. Jones, an N.C. delegate to the Continental Congress, is presumably in Philadelphia.) Tarleton makes a crack about Continental cavalry officer Col. William Washington being illiterate. A distant cousin of George, Col. Washington was a key player in Tarleton’s defeat at the Battle of the Cowpens (S.C.). Tarleton also received a sword wound to his hand from Washington, and was forced to make a rapid retreat. Mrs. Jones supposedly retorts, looking at his scarred hand: “‘Colonel Tarleton, you know very well that Colonel Washington, if he can’t write as well as some men, knows how to make his mark.’”

Tarleton was known for his temper, but held it, snapping only that he would “‘be happy to see Col. Washington.’”

Mrs. Ashe comments, “‘If you had looked behind you at the Battle of Cowpens, Col. Tarleton, you would have enjoyed that pleasure.’”

Historians have said Jones “‘really controlled public affairs in North Carolina’” during the state’s first decade.[17] Besides serving in the Provincial Congress during the war, he led opposition to the U.S. Constitution in 1787, refused a seat in the U.S. Constitutional Convention, and opposed the first version at the state convention in Hillsborough. (It was approved by that convention the next year—after the Bill of Rights he was demanding had been promised.)

Resisting Tarleton

Return to Highway 301 and turn right. Take it downhill and across a bridge. Pull onto the shoulder to the right if you can find a wide-enough space to do so safely. You can stay in your vehicle.

Probably across 301 along the creek[18] is Camp Quankey, the base for the Deputy Quarter Master General (DQMG) for the Southern Department. “This department was created to provide material, equipment, horses, and wagons for the North Carolina Continental Line as each regiment was being mustered, and as each regiment traveled to/from the state.”[19] Nicholas Long, former commander of the Halifax minutemen, becomes the DQMG in May 1776, a month after the state declared independence. He holds the post throughout the war. An unknown number of buildings are here, but at minimum there are at least a warehouse and horse pens. Presumably there are a tannery and leather-working building as well, given that this camp produced cartridge boxes and harnesses.[20] Among the soldiers is a free African-American, Joseph Hawkins, employed as a saddlemaker.[c]

Long has weeks of warning about the approach of Cornwallis. He packs up the camp’s stores onto wagons that carry them off in different directions, as far as New Bern. The British never find them.

This camp’s location likely explains why, on the day of Tarleton’s arrival, at least two companies of the Halifax County Patriot militia muster here—on the wrong side of the creek! Tarleton notes the far heights “afforded a strong position… but (the Patriots) were surprised on the wrong side of the bridge over a deep ravine, and were routed with confusion and loss…”[21]

Photo of road coming downhill
Militia view of Tarleton’s attack route (AmRevNC photograph)

The Whig militia get shots off, wounding three of the British, before running across the wooden bridge or disappearing into the woods. They reunite across the Roanoke as described earlier.

When Tarleton feels unsure about holding the town uphill, he leaves pickets there during the daytime, but pulls most of his troops back to a better defensive position—now this side of the ravine, since potential attacks would come from the north!

Casualties

  • British: 0 killed, 3 wounded.
  • Patriot Militia: Unknown.

Historical Tidbits

  • In 1791, Pres. George Washington spent the night in Halifax, probably in the Eagle Hotel, during his tour of the southern states.
  • Thirty-two years later, Washington’s famous wartime French protégé visited, the Marquis de Lafayette. He was greeted at the Roanoke River crossing by cannon fire and ringing bells around 5 p.m. on Sunday, February 27, 1825. The town’s leading citizens escorted him from the north bank to the Eagle Hotel.[22] He tells them, “It has long been my desire to visit the citizens of Halifax, where the Constitution of the State was framed and the principles of liberty declared.” Having met Willie Jones during the war, on the way out of town he insisted on stopping at The Grove to visit Jones’ housebound widow.

 

Small boy in a blue shirt that says, "Do Whig Out!"

 

More Information

[1] Caruthers 1856.

[2] Allen 1918.

[3] McMahon 2020.

[4] Historic Halifax State Historic Site, “Visitor Center Exhibits.”

[5] The state’s Colonial Records include a reference to cannons being fired “from fort to fort,” but there are no records of any forts here, nor much reason for them yet in 1776. This statement, repeated on the marker near you, is a mystery.

[6] McMahon.

[7] Dunkerly 2012.

[8] Cross 1974b.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Allen.

[11] Tarleton 1787.

[12] Tarleton.

[13] Lewis 2011.

[14] Tarleton.

[15] Historical Halifax Restoration Association.

[16] Allen.

[17] Cross 1974a.

[18] McMahon.

[19] Lewis 2013.

[20] McMahon

[21] Tarleton 1787.

[22] Cross 1974a.

[a] Tories in Jail, 1776, Military Collection, Troop Returns (1747-1859), Militia and Continental Returns, Box: 1770-1778 (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina State Archive, 5 April 1776).

[b] Ganyard 1978.

[c] Heinegg, Paul, ‘List of 900 Free African Americans Who Served in the Revolution from Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware’ <http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/revolution.htm> [accessed 19 June 2021].


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