Regulators Riot, Armies Camp, and Tories Raid
Park anywhere near the Old Courthouse at the coordinates, by the intersection of Churton Street and King Street. Spots are usually available on King or on Cameron Street two blocks east. Then enjoy a nice long walk to see everything, though most of our stops can also be viewed from your vehicle, using the walking directions to drive the route.
Please read the “Context” and “Situations” in the next column before starting your tour. Sections below are tagged with the four events summarized there.
Hillsborough, founded in 1754, may have witnessed a greater range of war-related events than any town in North Carolina. Today’s cities in the region did not exist, so this was the largest European settlement between the coastal cities and Salem (now Winston-Salem). Here the Eno River, a reliable water source strong enough to support grain mills, met a major wagon road from the northern colonies, which had been a Native American trading path. (The Okeeneechee tribe had a village here first.) It was also on the route between the frontier and the early colonial capitals of Edenton and Halifax.
Colonists in the western half of today’s North Carolina had been agitating against tax and property policies they considered unfair. In May of 1768 hundreds of these “Regulators” converged in Hillsborough to force the release of two of their supporters, including the famous Herman Husband. Few details of that event can be confirmed, but it set up another raucous confrontation here two years later.
The British conquered Charleston in May 1780, nearly capturing the entire garrison. New Continental commander Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates arrived in Hillsborough from the North in July. The Virginia militia was camped here, but the other remains of the army were scattered around North Carolina. Gates and the militia moved off to Cox’s Mill near Ramseur, where he gathered the army only to lead it to a terrible defeat in South Carolina. He returned here in dramatic fashion, and the rest of the army straggled in afterward.
After chasing Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s Continental army to Virginia in early 1781, Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis withdrew his British army to Hillsborough. While foraging supplies from area farmers and mills, Cornwallis issued a call to militia to join him here as he readied for an expected confrontation with Greene.
David Fanning’s Raid
The town was serving as the state capital by the Summer of 1781. Loyalist (“Tory”) militia under Col. David Fanning launched a surprise attack in hopes of capturing the governor and other officials. After attracting at least 600 men to his camp at Cox’s Mill, including many Highland Scots who had fought at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, Fanning led them on a day-and-night ride here to arrive at dawn.
Monday, September 24, 1770–Thursday, October 23, 1783.
Imagine the Scene
Walk or drive to the front of the Old Courthouse (built 1844). The 1768 map below shows the town’s first courthouse overlapped the site of this one, though it may have been closer to King Street, with its long side running along King. A market building is between it and the Churton intersection. These events occurred in that courthouse and these grounds.
Regulators (see “Situations” above): The Regulator protests turn violent here on Monday, September 24, 1770, when hundreds arrive due to a court session starting. In those days courts did more than they do today; they were effectively the county governments, and counties were much larger. According to one of the judges who attempts to hold court here on that date, in the streets and around the courthouse is a raucous mob waiting for the doors to open.
Judge Richard Henderson writes, “‘After eleven o’clock the Court was opened, and immediately the house filled as close as one man could stand by another, some with clubs, others with whips and switches, few or none without some weapon. When the house became so crowded that no more could well get in, one of them (whose name I think is Fields) came forward and told me he had something to say before I proceeded to business.’”
Henderson allows it, and Fields says he understands the judge does not intend to try anyone over the abuses the Regulators oppose, but if he would “it might prevent some mischief…” After about a half hour, the Regulators leave the courthouse.
However, they hang out all around you. When one lawyer tries to enter, they attack him with clubs, and he runs to safety in a storehouse. They grab a number of men associated with the government or court and whip them, possibly using stocks behind the building. Sometime around three or four in the afternoon, the Regulators allow Henderson to adjourn court and escort him to his lodgings nearby. He escapes out the back around 10 that night. “The next day the regulators placed the corpse of an executed black in the judge’s chair and held mock sessions of the court, leaving a profane set of court minutes.”
The following spring, when the court refuses to convene due to this event, a colonial army of part-time “militia” marches out under Royal Gov. William Tryon to confront the Regulators. On the way it camps a half-mile south or southeast of town (exact location unknown).
On Saturday, May 11, 1771, the army of nearly 1,000 men with more than a dozen wagons and two small cannons (plus smaller ones in the wagons) marches up Churton Street to the right of the courthouse. They are heading for a camp by Hart’s Mill, northwest of town on the Eno. But Tryon says they halted in the town for six hours to replace stolen horses for the wagons. He doesn’t explain why this took the entire army, or six hours!
The army arrives back in Hillsborough on Thursday, June 13, marching from the north down Churton, turning this way at the nearby intersection, and continuing a mile east to the Few Plantation, which Tryon calls “Back Creek Camp.” This was owned by the father of the one Regulator executed right after the battle, James Few. The land now is occupied by the Ayr Mount historic home and gardens (see “Historical Tidbits”). The horses and cattle are turned out on those grounds. Tryon notes the distance from Bethabara as 85 miles. (This is remarkably accurate: Two online calculators say the distance to Bethania, three miles away past Bethabara, is 79 or 80 miles by way of the interstates.)
Starting on Saturday, the remaining 15 Regulator prisoners are put on trial in the courthouse, in a “court of oyer and terminer,” equivalent to a county criminal court today. The trial resumes on Monday, and ends on Tuesday with 12 men condemned to hang.
Also during this period, per Tryon’s orders, letters, and journal from the campaign, on:
- Friday, June 14: From what he calls “Hillsborough Camp,” the men are ordered to “March with Spirit” through town with “a Sprigg (sic) of Oak on the left side of their Hatts (sic)…” (He does not say why; it seems like this might be out of order and actually applied to their march to the camp.)
- Sunday, 16: Apparently shoes are wearing out, because he orders the commissary (supply officer) to deliver all the leather they have, and the identification of all shoemakers in the army.
- Monday, 17: Tryon asks for a head count of all of the companies and their arms.
The rest of this story will be told at a later stop.
The clock in the tower today existed at the time, but in a church a block away we’ll visit later. (A clock restoration Web site claims this is “the oldest continuous-running tower clock in America,” if you ignore two restorations 200 years apart.) Most sources agree it was made sometime in the 1750s in England, given to Hillsborough by King George III, and installed in the church in 1766. So most if not all of the people described on this page would have checked the time on this clock.
Cornwallis 2/1781: Cornwallis had the Royal Standard (flag representing the King) placed somewhere on the grounds in front of you, and may have used the courthouse as his headquarters during the day.
Walk or drive out King Street away from Churton Street. Partway down the block, spot the “Yellow House” across the street (there is a small sign to the left of it).
The Yellow House, built in 1768, is believed to be one of two places Cornwallis slept while his army camped here. Fearing for his safety in a town that was a center of the rebellion, sources suggest he switched between this and Faddis’ Tavern located to the left (not the current house there).
In one of these houses or the courthouse, on Tuesday, February 20, 1781, Cornwallis issues a call for help. He states his purpose of “driving the rebel army out of this province” to fulfill the king’s “most gracious wish to rescue his faithful and loyal subjects from the cruel tyranny under which they have groaned for several years…” (Of course, cruel tyranny is exactly what the Patriots have accused the king of!) He goes on to “invite all such faithful and loyal subjects to repair, without loss of time, with their arms and ten days provisions, to the Royal Standard now erected at Hillsborough, where they will meet with the most friendly reception.”
Continue east on King. The last house on the right is the town Visitor’s Center. Tour the center if you want to learn about other history and attractions of the area or pick up a map.
Fanning 9/1781: The house across from the Visitor’s Center was William Reed’s Ordinary, or tavern. During the war, only the main two-story part in front existed (with a different porch). Reed was county sheriff and responsible for certifying that scales, such as those at grain mills, were accurate. The tavern in the basement had its own entrance with possible sleeping rooms, in which case it would have been checked by Fanning’s raiders for government members.
Notice Saint Mary’s Road going off diagonally to the right from the ordinary. This goes toward Ayr Mount, and was the route of the Great Trading Road, one of two main routes for merchants and immigrants from Pennsylvania (see “Historical Tidbits” below). King Street continued in a straight line east of town toward Halifax and Edenton.
Cross Cameron Street and go up the driveway of the Orange County Board of Education. A historical marker at the back of the parking lot tells more about the Regulators. Continue up the sidewalk to the small fenced-in plot. It looks like, but is not, a grave.
Regulators 1770: The last day has arrived for some of the Regulators, Wednesday, June 19, 1771. According to Tryon’s orders, a unit called the Pioneers used as rangers during the campaign are sent out at 6 a.m., “to open the woods near the place of Execution” here. The army was ordered to form at 11 to escort the prisoners. The companies, per orders, “March in an Oblong square, the first Line to form the Right and the second Line the left Face.” The artillery are placed in front and back. The prisoners and their guards are in the middle, and the Light Horse is placed on the flanks “to prevent the Mob crowding on the Men.”
When they arrive, six men are reprieved to await the King’s judgment, “in Compliance with the Wishes of the Army; The Officers having recommended them…” Harmon Cox, whose mill near modern Ramseur was a Regulator meeting site and will play a role in the coming Revolution, is one of the lucky six. Among the unlucky six are Benjamin Merrill. He was captured at his home on the 1st by Edmund Fanning, an Orange County official hated by the Regulators, when the army was near the Yadkin River (see “Tryon’s March“).
One at a time, each condemned Regulator is made to stand on a barrel at this spot near the King Street of that time. The noose of a rope has been thrown over the branch of a tree, and is placed around his neck. He is given a chance to say his final words, the barrel is kicked out from under him, and he jerks about until dead. His body is removed, and the scene is repeated. Merrill dies gallantly with his wife and children watching.
A single source written sixty years later claims one of them declares, “‘The blood that we have shed will be as good seeds sown in good ground—which soon shall reap a hundredfold!’” After repeating the complaints of the Regulators, he accuses Fanning of being “unfit to hold any office.” Fanning orders the soldier nearby to kick out the barrel. (That source says the Regulator was James Pugh, but later researchers indicate it was almost certainly his brother Enoch, and consider the story propaganda.)
Gates 1780: Gates, the new commander of the Continental Army’s Southern Department, arrives from the east down King Street to the militia camp that was probably right here on Thursday, July 13, 1780. He fires off letters to the Continental Congress and the governors of Virginia and North Carolina begging for supplies and troops. Eight days later he marches the 1,400 militia south (turning left at Churton) to join the rest of the army at Harmon Cox’s Mill—the same place Tory leader David Fanning is based the following year.
Cornwallis 2/1781: Come February, you are most likely also standing in the first camp of Cornwallis’ roughly 2,200 men plus camp followers, filling most of the area from here to the Yellow House and up the road in the other direction. Orderly rows of tents cover the ground as far as you can see, over a square mile or more. (Read more about Revolutionary War camps.)
After learning the Continental Army has returned to N.C. from Virginia, Cornwallis decides this location is too vulnerable if Greene decides to attack him here. Drums beat the commands to pack up for the move on Saturday, February 24, 1781. The men form into columns, and the ones at this location march down King, wheel left in the intersection just past the courthouse, and march south out of town to the heights across the Eno River. (See “The Ford” below if you would like to visit a likely part of that campsite.)
Walk directly across the grass from the hanging site and spot the small sign at the tree line that says “N.C. Society of the Cincinnati.” Go into the woods and continue to the fenced-in area.
The first Hillsborough home of James Hogg stood here. Hogg joined his brother in Wilmington from Scotland in 1774. He spent a year in Cross Creek (now Fayetteville), and then settled on the 1,100-acre farm his brother bought for him here along the Eno. Hogg became a member of the Transylvania Company that sponsored the excursions of famous frontiersman Daniel Boone into what now is Kentucky. (Judge Henderson was a founder of the company.) The company sent Hogg to the Continental Congress to press for the Transylvania region’s recognition as a new colony, which was unsuccessful. Little is known of Hogg’s wartime activities except that he served on the local Committee of Safety responsible for area militia. He is captured here at the house during David Fanning’s raid, but not held long. Hogg was later on the first Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, and convinced Chapel Hill landowners to donate the original campus.
A month after the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the war, Patriot veterans from across the state meet here on Thursday, October 23, 1783, to form the North Carolina chapter of the Cincinnati Society. This group of former Continental officers was named for a Roman general who, like George Washington, retired from the military and went back to farming rather than using the army to take power.
Return to modern King Street. Follow the armies back past the courthouse to the intersection of King and Churton. Notice the monument on your left. It says Boone led a party of settlers to the Cumberland Gap in Virginia from the courthouse during the early part of the war, starting out Sunday, March 17, 1776.
Fanning 9/1781: Move forward seven months after Cornwallis left, to Wednesday, September 12, 1781. Fanning’s Tory army is converging on this point from the north, south, and west. Starting at 7 a.m. on a foggy morning, his militia roam about town taking government officials prisoner. You begin to hear gunshots fired out of windows from a few houses around town. The Tories eventually capture 200—including members of the General Assembly and Gov. Thomas Burke!
Turn right, and go north up Churton one block. Step to the right down Tryon Street. The first house on the left was another ordinary, built in 1754. Given its proximity to our next stop, it surely housed some members of the state assembly in 1781 and thus was a target of Fanning’s raid.
Return to and cross Churton. Markers about the nearby church and museum building, which is closed indefinitely due to water damage, are on the Churton side. Read them if you wish, then continue west on Tryon until you can see the current Presbyterian Church from the side.
The modern church occupies the site of St. Matthew Episcopal Church, built in 1768 and still the only church in town during the Revolution. In the Episcopal Church’s steeple is the town clock now in the Old Courthouse.
A year before independence, starting Sunday, August 20, 1775, the Third Provincial Congress meets here through September 10 in defiance of the royal governor, Josiah Martin. The 184 delegates have a few choice words for a recent proclamation from Martin condemning the actions of budding rebels, calling it “false, Scandalous, Scurrilous, malicious, and sedicious (sic) Libel, tending to disunite the people of this province.” They ordered it to be hung at the gallows. The congress also approves creation of the first two N.C. regiments for the regular Continental army and support for militia companies. Vitally, it forms an executive council to run the government—because the governor has been chased by coastal rebels onto a ship off the mouth of the Cape Fear River!
Fanning 9/1781: As Fanning’s raiders crawl over Hillsborough, a unit of 25 or so new Continental Army recruits happen to be spending the night in the church on the way to joining the regular army, now in South Carolina under Greene. No doubt the gunshots awaken them. Some try to escape, but are captured. The rest barricade themselves inside.
Tory militia surround the church and negotiations begin. Around 9 a.m., two hours into the raid, the troops surrender. This ends resistance to the raid.
As noted on a marker in front of you, in 1788 the state’s convention to consider the proposed United States Constitution was held here in the Episcopal Church.
Walk into the graveyard and past the front of the Presbyterian Church. Toward the back you will see a double row of bushes leading away from you. Follow the stone walkway between them, back and to the left into the brick enclosure. At the center of the rear wall, find the grave with the small metal sign.
William Hooper, one of three North Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence, was buried here. When the battlefield park was established at Guilford Court House in the 1930s, part or all of his remains were moved to a monument there (records aren’t clear).
Walk to the front wall and you can see the grave of James Hogg. There are “Alves” graves around him. That’s because he had his children’s surnames changed to his wife’s maiden name, to spare them the bullying he had suffered over “Hogg.”
Go back past the front of the church to Tryon Street and turn right (away from Churton). Walk a half-block further west to the Nash-Hooper House, marked by a sign.
The first part of this house was built in 1768 for an aide to Royal Gov. William Tryon. But it was expanded four years later for new owner Francis Nash, and he lived here until going to war. Nash fought alongside Tryon against the Regulators, but was in the Provincial Congress at Halifax that declared the state independent in April 1776. During the war he rose to command of the North Carolina regular troops in the Continental Army. Nash earned fame at the Battle of Brandywine (Penn.) under Gen. George Washington in 1777, only to be mortally wounded months later at the Battle of Germantown (Penn.) by a glancing blow to his hip from a cannon ball.
Hooper bought the house near the end of the war (1782) and lived here until his death. It is the only remaining home of a Declaration of Independence signer in the state.
Walk back to Churton and turn right. Walk down to King Street, and turn right again. Continue out of the commercial block to the second standalone building, the Masonic Hall built in 1823.
Regulators 1770: In 1770 on the day of the Regulator riot, here stood the wooden home of Edmund Fanning (no known relation to David). Mentioned at the hanging site, Edmund was an officer of the court considered corrupt by the Regulators. He sparked the 1768 riot by arresting two men before they could have seen the proclamation they were arrested for violating! Judge Henderson tells what happened in 1770. The Regulators come here after leaving the courthouse and force their way into the Fanning home. He is “‘dragged by the heels out of doors, while others engaged in dealing out blows with such violence that I made no doubt his life would instantly become a sacrifice to their rage and madness. However Mr. Fanning by a manly exertion miraculously broke holt (sic) and fortunately jumped into a door that saved him from immediate dissolution.’” The Regulators eventually let him go back into the house upon agreeing to surrender to them the next day.
Tomorrow arrives, and the Regulators camped near the courthouse learn of Judge Henderson’s escape (as described back at the courthouse). The mob returns to this spot, breaks in the door in front of you, and after a moment drags Fanning out. They strip him above the waist and whip him. They go in and destroy his furniture. Then they take all of his clothes and papers into the middle of the street, running back and forth past you, before setting the pile aflame.
Cross the street and walk a little further out to the misnamed Colonial Inn, which was not built until 1838. Look down and spot the flat flagstones that make up the sidewalk.
Cornwallis 2/1781: At one time the center of town was paved with these stones and others like them 150 yards in each of the four directions from the intersection. Local tradition holds that Cornwallis got so tired of the muddy streets, he ordered his troops to put them in. (There are no contemporary reports to support or refute this.)
Walk back to the intersection, imagining the men working at the paving. Turn right and walk halfway down the block along Churton. Look across the street. Around the back of the Old Courthouse stood the town jail, oddly sticking into Churton. The stocks used to punish people were located nearby.
Unrelated to the “Situations” described on this page, a famous set of 130 prisoners arrive up Churton to the jail on Thursday, November 23, 1780. These are the last of the 600 Tory and British soldiers captured at the Battle of King’s Mountain (S.C.) nearly seven weeks earlier. They have walked from the battlefield southwest of Charlotte through Bethabara (in today’s Winston-Salem) with their hands bound, often starving and abused by locals. The officers are placed in a nearby house; the rest are crammed into the small building here.
At an unknown date after Greene takes over the southern Continental army in December, those not yet paroled are marched to a new prison in Salisbury.
Fanning 9/1781: Inside the jail on the day of the raid are 30 condemned Loyalists awaiting their execution, which probably explains its timing. Fanning’s militiamen break in and release them. They also drag out two small cannons that had been stored inside.
During the raid, some of the Tory soldiers find liquor supplies and get drunk. As the militia officers try to keep order, several houses are looted. David Fanning, who started the day north of town at the governor’s home, finally leads the army and its prisoners past you to the right out of town, intending to take them back to Cox’s Mill. (They don’t make it there, instead getting ambushed at the Battle of Lindley’s Mill south of today’s Graham.)
Follow all of the armies down Churton to Nash & Kollock Street on the right. Turn right. If you are only driving this route, pull into the parking lot on the left and get to where you can see the old bridge over the Eno, to the right of the current main bridge.
Otherwise, walk to the Riverwalk entrance at the end of the street. Turn left and go to where the boardwalk splits. Go left again, following the sign that says “River Park.” Walk to the marker providing the history of the nearby crossing. Then, if necessary depending on the time of year, walk further until you can see the older vehicle bridge. This was built atop the main ford over the river into town.
All of the groups/troops who came to or from town in the stories above forded the river where the modern road goes now:
- Many of the Regulators come to and leave town by this route for both the 1768 and 1770 riots.
- Tryon’s army crossed here coming and going.
- Cornwallis 2/1781: Cornwallis’ army crosses here to his second campsite. The exact location is unknown, but it was probably from the area of today’s Exchange Park to the heights you see across the river. (To view that area later using this bridge, take Churton to Exchange Park Road on the right just before the river.) From here it is easy to see why he might have moved, to place the river and hillside between them and Greene’s potential line of attack.
- Fanning 9/1781: Some of Fanning’s raiders came in by this route, and all of them left this way with their 200 prisoners bound for modern-day Ramseur.
Gates 1780: However, the most shocking arrival takes place on Saturday, August 19, 1780. Gates and a few of his aides ride across the ford after the Battle of Camden (S.C.)… without their army! It had been a disastrous defeat, and Gates left before the battle was over, claiming later that he was forced to escape the British cavalry. Coming by way of Charlotte, he rode 180 miles in three days. Alexander Hamilton wrote upon hearing of this misadventure, “‘Was there ever an instance of a general running away as Gates has done for his whole army?’” He added sarcastically about the length of the journey, “It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life.’”
For a few months the remains of the army nurses its wounds and tries to rebuild. Finally that Fall, a portion of the army goes out this way to Salisbury. Most of the rest marches out Wednesday, November 8, headed for Charlotte, followed by Gates and 130 cavalry soon after.
Consider continuing out the Riverwalk to the left on your way back to your car. On the other side of the bridge you will see the site of an historic African-American community and a reconstruction of the Okeeneechee native village that first stood here. It was visited by Englishman John Lawson in 1701 as he walked from north of Charleston in a 400-mile loop through today’s Charlotte and Salisbury to New Bern.
Thomas Burke Home
To see where Gov. Thomas Burke was captured by Fanning, drive north on Churton Street (away from the ford, or turning right from the courthouse side of King):
- From the intersection with King Street, drive 1.2 miles (crossing over US 70 Bypass) to NC 57.
- Turn right, and drive 5/10 of a mile to Governor Burke Road.
- Turn right, and drive 8/10 of a mile to a farm on the left.
- Turn around and pull into the mailbox pullout.
Gov. Burke’s grave is barely visible through the fence behind the mailbox. His home, Tyaquin, was likely at the crest of the hill to the left. Please respect the property owner’s rights by remaining in your vehicle and not blocking the driveway for long.
Pull forward to the shoulder in front of the next fence gate, to the left of the gravesite.
Fanning 9/1781: David Fanning arrives up the road in front of you with a group of Tory militia soldiers on horseback. They ride up the hill to the house. It is possible Burke and Patriot militia staying with him have been awakened by the distant gunfire; regardless, they take positions inside the house. Burke yells out to Fanning that they would rather die than surrender.
Fanning takes the risk of riding forward to speak with Burke. He promises that Burke and his men will not be killed if they give up. After a while, Burke walks out and hands his sword to Fanning. Fanning rides off toward town, leaving his men to escort Burke and his followers in.
- The grounds of the 1815 Ayr Mount home, up Saint Mary’s Road past the Visitor’s Center, include one of the best remaining publicly accessible sections of the Great Trading Road. It is along the front edge of the property to the left of the house, and can usually be viewed in daytime hours even if the house is not open.
- After the war, President George Washington slept in a house here… but not here! During his epic 1791 tour of the southern states, Washington spent the night at the home of Dudley Gatewood in Danville, Va. Gatewood had served in the Continental Army and played a key role in helping Greene escape across the Dan River in February 1781, causing Cornwallis to fall back to Hillsborough. In the late 1970s, the developer of the Daniel Boone Village retail center south of Hillsborough moved the house there. To see it, take Churton across the Eno River. Within view of Interstate 85, turn left at the stoplight at James J. Freeland Memorial Drive (2/10 of a mile this side of I-85). The house is on the left.
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