New Bern

A Royal Palace and a Tragic Death

Location


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Coordinates: 35.1069, -77.0443.

Type: Sight
Tour: Cape Fear
County: Craven

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Park anywhere near the coordinates, at the outer gate to Tryon Palace. There are parking lots down the street along its west side (to the right from the front), and at the related North Carolina History Center on the east near the river.

You do not need a ticket to walk the grounds when open. But a tour of the palace is a wonderful step back into colonial and Revolutionary history. The ticket office is on the northeast corner of the intersection in front of the gate.

Our tour is fully wheelchair accessible, and most of the route can be driven. Check the Tryon Palace website for limitations in its buildings.

Context

New Bern effectively became the capital of the Province of North Carolina when the royal governor moved here from Brunswick Town, south of Wilmington, in 1765.

Situations

This page focuses on three colonial or Revolutionary stories:

  • In response to increasing violence by western protestors called “the Regulators,” Royal Gov. William Tryon marches volunteer soldiers west to confront them in 1771.
  • Tryon’s successor and the legislature come to political blows over conflicts between the assembly and the British Parliament.
  • British troops raid the town near the end of the Revolutionary War.

Dates

Thursday, November 2, 1769–Sunday, August 19, 1781.

Timeline


 

White capy saying, "My other hat is a" and showing a tricorn hat

Imagine the Scene

A Residence and Symbol

Walk to the inner gate of Tryon Palace. The current building only dates to 1959, but was reconstructed on the exact site of, and using the blueprints for, the original building. Most of the brickwork in the western (right-side) separate wing is original, however.

Look at the palace.

Royal Gov. William Tryon wanted the most beautiful building in the colonies here, to represent the power of the English government, and did not hesitate to spend tax money to get it. The original 40-room palace was finished in 1770 for a total of £15,000,[1] worth $3 million in 2020.[2] The Provincial Assembly (legislature), dominated by rich easterners, approved the budget.

Photo of a large, two-story red-brick building, nine windows wide, with a brick gate in front
(AmRevNC photograph)

Here the governor lived and worked. The Council of State, royally appointed landowners who doubled as the upper house of the legislature, met with him in a ground-floor ballroom on the left side. (Only the assembly’s lower house was elected. Where it met isn’t known, since no room at the palace was large enough, but several buildings in town were.[3])

Photo of a fireplace mantle, with paintings of the king and queen on either side and an old conference table
Council meeting room (AmRevNC photograph)

The palace’s cost played a role in the rebellion during that time by western colonists calling themselves the “Regulators.” Among their complaints were county officials who embezzled tax money. Another was the province’s law that taxed farmland by the acre, despite the fact eastern lands were more productive than those in the west, and thus earned more money per acre. So anything that seemed to waste provincial funds became a target of the Regulators’ wrath.

Around the time the palace was completed, tensions reached a boil after years of unresolved complaints. The Regulators prevented a court from meeting in Hillsborough and attacked court officials. In the Spring of 1771, Tryon got permission from the assembly to suppress the rebellion using the existing part-time defense forces called “militia.”

In March, Tryon writes letters inside to county militia commanders, ordering them to recruit volunteers (see “Tryon’s March” for details). He also writes the commander of British forces in North America, Maj. Gen. Sir Thomas Gage in New York City, for guns and supplies. They arrive at the waterfront by ship in mid-April.

He wrote Gage on the 26th, “Tuesday the 23rd, the Guns were Landed, and drawn to the Palace by the Militia Men, with all the Pomp We Could Honor them with.”[4] (Companies from two counties had rendezvoused here.) He writes in his campaign journal that the field pieces were followed by a set of flags and six drums. Camp kettles, leggings, and cockades were among the supplies as well.[5] Leggings, often leather, looked like the part of a boot from the knees to the ankle and protected the lower leg. Cockades were hat decorations, usually made of ribbon or feathers, used to differentiate armies and ranks, especially important when both sides had no uniforms. Perhaps the two, small three-pounder cannons—named for the weight of cannonball they fired—were dragged somewhere within your view, and the supplies stored in the stable on your right.

The two companies march west on Monday, April 24. On Wednesday, eleven wagons of flour arrive from Orange County, and four from Rowan. Both counties, much larger then, were centers of the rebellion. Tryon writes about the wagons to Gage and adds with apparent satisfaction, “all which come upwards of 200 Miles from among the Settlements of the Regulators.”[6] The next day he rides past you on a white horse toward the army’s rendezvous point at Smith’s Ferry, today’s Smithfield. (See “Tryon’s March” for what happens next.)

Two months pass. Tryon returns in triumph late in the evening of Monday, June 24, after leading the army to victory at the Battle of Alamance near modern Burlington. The residents wake up, illuminating the town with candle and lantern light, and build a bonfire to welcome him. They celebrate into the night.[7] The next day, a newspaper reports, the “whole Town met in a Body and waited on his Excellency at the Palace with a congratulatory Address, to which he returned a very polite Answer.”[8]

However, near the end of the campaign, Tryon had received word he was to leave immediately for his new post as governor of the Province of New York. Only a year after achieving his dream of living in a beautiful palace, Tryon and his family left it by ship.

Drawing of a man in a wig, within an oval
Gov. Josiah Martin

The palace remained the seat of government, however, because Tryon’s successor, Royal Gov. Josiah Martin, moved in. His stay was shorter than expected, too. Due to Revolutionary disputes in 1775, a large group including local militia likely crowds past you onto the circular driveway on Tuesday, May 23. In the lead are several prominent citizens including Dr. Alexander Gaston and Abner Nash. Martin steps out the door to speak with them. They complain about the fact that Martin has hidden six cannons formerly stationed somewhere here in front[9] of the palace. He claims they are being repaired; the rebels say he is hiding the cannons from them, which in fact he was. The group, “‘stimulated by liquor,’” finds the cannons and drags them out the gate.

Martin comes out the door again with a friend on Wednesday the 31st. He remarks loudly that he is going to visit the chief justice.[10] In fact, he is abandoning New Bern, fearing for his safety. He had already shipped his pregnant wife and children off to his uncle’s care in the New York countryside. Martin heads for Cross Creek, now Fayetteville, and ends up in Fort Johnston (Southport).

Photo of the palace from the side, on the left, with the circular driveway curving in from the right to the front door
(AmRevNC photograph)

Six months pass before another governor arrives in January 1777. This one, Richard Caswell, is newly sworn-in as the first governor of the State of North Carolina. You see him walk into the neglected building for an inspection. Caswell is not pleased by what he finds. He arranges for its clean-up, and the building again becomes the governor’s home and capitol briefly. Shortly after, however, he decides New Bern is too vulnerable to attack, from both the British by sea and smallpox. He moves himself and the state records to Kingston (now Kinston).

Three years later, in 1780, you see enslaved workers tear out lead from the building, so the metal can be turned into musket balls for Patriot guns. This is the last year the state assembly meets in New Bern. Abner Nash, now governor, recommended it meet in Halifax the next January due to a British army newly installed in South Carolina. The state government would not have a permanent home until Raleigh was built for that purpose after the war.

The ballroom hosted its most famous visitor in 1791, Pres. George Washington, as part of his tour of the southern states. The original palace burned down in 1798 except for the right-side wing, by then a school.

From Resistance to Rebellion

When done at the palace, walk back to the outer gate. Cross Pollock Street, and walk up the left side of George Street, which stretches away from the gate. Stop at the Stanley House a half-block up on the left.

This house was built for the family of John Wright Stanley near the end of the war in the early 1780s, at a later stop on our tour. During the Revolution, Stanley owned a privateer fleet (government-sanctioned pirates), and an import business that provided vital supplies to the Continental armies.

A British corps occupied Wilmington in January 1781. When the main British army in the South under Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis joined it in April, Stanley figured he would become a target. He, his family, and their household goods boarded two ships and fled to Philadelphia. It was a good decision. Their home at the time on Front Street, along with his warehouses, were destroyed by British troops in a raid described below. Making things worse, the ship with the family’s property was caught by British blockaders. The Stanleys came back the next year with the war still on, and moved into another home while this was built at its original location.

Though local tradition holds that Washington stayed in the house during his visit, there is no evidence to support (or deny) this. Washington’s diary does not specify. A war-related story about him visiting a specific tree is untrue.[11]

Continue up George Street.

The house past the Wright home at 313 George existed during the war. John Daves (the correct spelling) may have moved to New Bern with his family from Mecklenburg County at age two, around 1750. One source says that as an adult, he built much of this house personally.[12] He joined the N.C. militia as a soldier in 1775, fighting in early actions in Virginia and then South Carolina. Daves was named quartermaster (supply officer) of the 2nd N.C. Regiment of the regular Continental Army in June 1776, which was ordered north to serve under Gen. Washington. He stayed in the army the rest of the war, fighting in Washington’s northern battles, spending the winter of 1777-8 at Valley Forge, Penn., and getting wounded at the Battle of Stony Point (N.Y.) in 1779. Sent south with the N.C. Continentals to defend Charleston in 1780, he is believed to have been captured there but was released.

Daves was promoted to captain in 1781, and after the war became a major of state troops. He was appointed the federal customs collector in New Bern, but died in 1804 around age 56. Originally buried in town, his remains were moved to the Guilford Court House battlefield in Greensboro, even though he did not fight there.[13]

Go to the next street, Broad Street. To the left, this became the road to Wilmington then, as it does now. Look in that direction.

On Sunday, August 19, 1781, around 50 British soldiers under Maj. James Craig arrive up the road from Wilmington. Militia had skirmished with him at a bridge crossing the Trent River upstream, probably Webber’s Bridge near today’s Pollacksville, with no success.

You hear scattered potshots from Patriots as the British enter town and the militia leave, too outnumbered to resist. One sniper manages to kill a Loyalist captain somewhere in town.

Turn right, and walk three long blocks to the intersection with Middle Street.

The first Craven County Courthouse was in the middle of the intersection here, a typical practice at that time. After the repeal of the hated Stamp Act tax on all paper goods in the 1760s, Parliament passed a new set of taxes on other imports including tea. (It was trying to pay for the French & Indian War of the 1750–60s and other colonial costs, which the provinces were refusing to cover.) North Carolina’s Provincial Assembly passes resolutions against the taxes and related laws on Thursday, November 2, 1769. In response, Gov. Tryon dissolves the assembly.

New Bern in 1769. Church at “A”; courthouse at “B”; palace at “C” (Detail of map by C.J. Sauthier)

Its speaker, John Harvey, leads members of the lower house here to the courthouse. Sixty-four men cram into the small building and agree to hold an extralegal session starting on Monday. On Tuesday they pass an agreement or “association” not to import any British goods until the issues are resolved. Around town afterwards, “the Sons of Liberty used tar and feathers and a ducking stool to enforce the association.”[14]

By March, all of the taxes are repealed except one on tea. When the Boston Sons of Liberty protest that one a few years later with their famous “Tea Party,” Parliament passes laws to punish the town. In 1774, several colonies asked the others to send representatives to a “Continental Congress” in Philadelphia, to try to work things out with King George III. Gov. Martin refused to convene the North Carolina assembly to do that.

Photo looking diagonaly across an intersection with a stop sign in the foreground right and modern church on the far side
(AmRevNC photograph)

Harvey, still speaker, asked local governments to elect delegates to an unofficial meeting. Most of the counties and four cities did—sending mostly the same men that were in the official assembly—and 71 convene in town as the “Provincial Congress” on Friday, August 25, for three days. This may have been in the courthouse, but at least two other buildings in town were large enough.[15] The delegates vote to support a boycott of English goods and send three representatives, including later governor Caswell, to the Continental Congress.

The Second Provincial Congress meets somewhere in New Bern again the next April, ignoring Martin’s decree that it is illegal. Adjourning and reconvening as the official Provincial Assembly, since 48 of the 68 assembly members are in the congress[16], they approve the actions of the Continental Congress. An incensed Martin dissolves what turns out to be the last Provincial Assembly!

The John Wright Stanley House was originally on the block directly across Broad, behind the current courthouse, facing Middle Street.[17] The land was an empty lot when he bought it in 1779.

A Cold Shot and Hot Flames

Walk another block and turn right on Craven Street. Stop at the first parking lot on the right, after 235 Craven.

As Craig’s force nears in 1781, an elderly Revolutionary has just finished eating breakfast in his “townhome” here where the parking lot is now. (Unlike modern townhomes, the word then referred to a plantation owner’s home in town.) Irish-born Dr. Alexander Gaston, whom we met at the Palace, had been a physician in the British Navy, serving at the Siege of Havana in 1762 during the French & Indian War. After contracting dysentery, he moved to New Bern within three years for his health.

Somehow hearing of the British approach, he decides to escape back to his plantation directly across the Trent (the river crossing below town). You see him hurry out the front door and down the road in front of you. Moments later his wife Margaret follows, to make sure he is safe, with good reason: The horses’ hooves and militia potshots can be heard nearby.

Follow them down Craven all the way to the river. You will pass through a culdesac at the end of the street and then a covered walkway. Look at the marina.

Where pleasure craft and floating homes dock today is the historic waterfront of New Bern in Revolutionary times. Piers of various lengths jut out all along it, starting with two on the far side of the modern bridge to your left, and continuing nearly to the palace out of sight to the right. Here on Saturday, July 4th, 1778, New Bern became only the third city in the new United States to celebrate that date, after Philadelphia and Boston. A ship’s captain writes, “In celebration of this day great numbers of guns have been fired at Stanley’s wharf, and Mr. Ellis’ ship, three different firings from each from early morning, midday, and evening, and liquor given to the populace.”[18]

Photo of open water and a marina packed with boats in the rear, under a cloudy sky
(AmRevNC photograph)

By 1781, there are cannons along the back side of the palace facing downriver. In the river you see a couple of small “floating batteries,” cannon on rafts near the mouth to your left where the bridge is today, and at least two small naval vessels.

Walk a little to the left, until you are in line with the sterns of the boats along Dock E.

Photo of a line of boat sterns with open water on the left
(AmRevNC photograph)

Just to the left of the line of Craven Street, if it continued into the river, extends the Old Colony Wharf.[19] (Basically it was in the now-open water behind the boats; on the old map above, it is the third dock from the right.) Gaston runs onto it and climbs into a rowboat that serves as a private ferry. A boy begins pulling for the opposite shore. Within seconds British troopers and Margaret arrive. The boy dives overboard; maybe Gaston tries to take over the oars. Margaret gets between the soldiers and her husband and begs them not to fire. The British captain damns him as a “rebel” and calmly, coolly, takes aim. He shoots Gaston dead in front of his wife.[20]

The British spend the next two days burning plantation homes and, within your view, the cargoes of Patriot owners like Stanly. They destroy 3,000 pounds of salt—a precious commodity in those days—sugar, and perhaps most damaging, barrels of rum! They also burn several ships, and the lines and sails of the rest, before returning to Wilmington.

Casualties

Craig’s Raid, including at Webber’s Bridge:

  • British: 4 killed, 5 wounded.
  • Patriots: 1 killed, unknown wounded.

Historical Tidbits

  • The streets of New Bern were laid out by John Lawson, who traveled by foot from Charleston, S.C., on a 400-mile loop to the area of Washington, N.C., in 1700-1.
  • Four blocks north of the palace, the most infamous duel in state history took place 20 years after the war. The eldest son of John Wright Stanley, also John, began verbal and written attacks on Richard Dobbs Spaight after Spaight changed political parties. Spaight was a war veteran who went on to sign the U.S. Constitution and serve as governor. Stanley called Spaight “malicious, low & unmanly”; Spaight responded that Stanley was “both a liar & Scoundrel…” On Sunday, September 5, 1802, at 5:30 p.m., they met behind the Masonic Hall with an audience of 300. In the fourth round of shots, Spaight fell with a wound in his right side. He died a day later. (To see the site, drive up Middle Street past Broad to Johnson Street. Turn right to the duel’s state historical marker, behind the current Masonic Lodge.)

 

Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"

 

More Information

  • Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
  • Barefoot, Daniel, ‘Tryon Palace’, NCpedia, 2006 <https://www.ncpedia.org/tryon-palace> [accessed 24 October 2020]
  • Bell-Kite, Diana, ‘Stanly-Spaight Duel’, NCpedia, 2010 <https://www.ncpedia.org/history/stanly-spaight-duel> [accessed 12 April 2020]
  • Butler, Lindley, North Carolina and the Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1776 (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1976)
  • Carraway, Gertrude, ‘Daves, John’, NCpedia, 1986 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/daves-john> [accessed 21 December 2020]
  • Cross, Jerry, John Wright Stanly House (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1987) <https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p16062coll6/id/12813> [accessed 28 April 2020]
  • Crow, Jeffrey J., A Chronicle of North Carolina During the American Revolution, 1763-1789, North Carolina Bicentennial Pamphlet Series (Raleigh: North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1975)
  • Cummings, Lindy, Tryon Palace, Interview and E-mail, 10/20/2020
  • Davidson, Chalmers, ‘Hall of Fame: Dr. William Gaston’, (ca. 1960 detached page, publication and date unknown; Courtesy of New Bern Historical Society)
  • De Van Massey, Gregory, ‘The British Expedition to Wilmington, North Carolina, January-November, 1781’ (East Carolina University, 1987)
  • Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012)
  • Ganyard, Robert L., The Emergence of North Carolina’s Revolutionary State Government, North Carolina in the American Revolution (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1978)
  • Interpreters, Tryon Palace, Tour, 10/8/2020
  • Lewis, J.D., ‘New Bern’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2010 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_new_bern_2.html> [accessed 25 January 2020]
  • ‘Marker: C-1’ <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=C-1> [accessed 12 April 2020]
  • ‘Marker: C-2’ <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=C-2> [accessed 12 April 2020]
  • ‘Marker: C-39’ <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=C-39> [accessed 12 April 2020]
  • ‘Marker: C-50’, North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=C-50> [accessed 6 November 2020]
  • Powell, William Stevens, ed., The Correspondence of William Tryon and Other Selected Papers (Raleigh, N.C.: Division of Archives and History, Dept. of Cultural Resources, 1980) <http://archive.org/details/correspondenceof1981tryo> [accessed 16 November 2020]
  • Rankin, Hugh F., ‘The Moore’s Creek Bridge Campaign, 1776’, The North Carolina Historical Review, 30.1 (1953), 23–60
  • Sandbeck, Peter, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (New Bern: Tryon Palace Commission, 1988) [via Cummings 2020]
  • Staff, New Bern Historical Society, New Bern Locations, Interview and E-mails, 10/2020
  • Stumpf, Vernon, ‘Martin, Josiah’, NCpedia, 1991 <https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/martin-josiah> [accessed 28 April 2020]

[1] Barefoot 2006.

[2] Nye, Eric, ‘Currency Converter, Pounds Sterling to Dollars, 1264 to Present’ <https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm>.

[3] Cummings 2020.

[4] Powell 1980.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Essex Gazette (Salem, Mass.), 6/28/71.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Davidson.

[10] Rankin 1953.

[11] The story claims Washington visited a tree where Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene met area businesspeople to request financial aid during the war. Cummings (2020) reports both that, and the original Greene story, originated with a civic booster more than a century later. Greene’s biography, written by his grandson using Greene’s papers, reports no visit to New Bern or anywhere nearby (Greene, George Washington, The Life of Nathanael Greene: Major-General in the Army of the Revolution [G. P. Putnam and Son, 1871]).

[12] Carraway 1986.

[13] Carraway. War record corroborated by: ‘The Muster Roll Project’, Valley Forge Legacy <http://valleyforgemusterroll.org/index.asp> [accessed 21 December 2020], and ‘United States Rosters of Soldiers and Sailors, 1775-1783’, FamilySearch <https://www.familysearch.org/search/image/index?owc=https://www.familysearch.org/service/cds/recapi/collections/2546162/waypoints> [accessed 13 November 2020]. Mecklenburg, capture, and monument from: ‘John Daves Monument, Guilford Courthouse’, Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina, 2010 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/137/> [accessed 20 February 2021].

[14] Butler 1976.

[15] The first New Bern Academy building had been used by the provincial assembly (Cummings 2020). Christ Church was also big enough, as you can see today in the outdoor chapel built directly above its old foundation at the corner of Middle and Pollock streets. The Third Provincial Congress in Hillsborough met in a church.

[16] Ganyard 1978.

[17] Sandbeck 1988.

[18] Barefoot 1998.

[19] Staff.

[20] Plantation and ferry details, “rebel” comment: Davidson (ca. 1960), from a letter by Gaston’s son, repeating the story as told to him by Margaret.

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