The Regulators of North Carolina: Outraged Opressors


The history of colonial North Carolina is bombarded with
frequent strife and turmoil. The people of North Carolina,
because of a lack in supervision from the British monarchy,
learned to possess an independent spirit. The colony
remained isolated from the rest of the country because of
several geographical conditions such as poor harbors, the
abscence of navigable rivers, numerous swamps, and bad road
conditions. Due to these conditions, communities throughout
North Carolina became widely seperated. The colony was
initially set up by the Lords Proprietors, an English
founding company that helped finance early American
exploration. When North Carolina was freed from British
proprietorship, the Granville family, descendants from the
original Lords Proprietors, con-tinued to hold their land
rights. This area, which became known as the "Granville
District," was the scene of many disputes over land grants,
taxes, British support, and a great deal of lesser issues.
Settlers in the back country (Piedmont) felt particularly
oppressed by the laws drawn up by an assembly largely
composed of eastern landowners. "Local" officials in many
counties, particularly in the western segment of the back
country were not local men at all, but friends of the royal
governor, William Tryon. These so-called "friends" often
collected higher fees than authorized by the law while
obtaining tax money or divided a single service into many
services and charged fees for each. Lawyers who followed
the judges around the colony also fell into the same habit. 

The citizens of Anson, Orange, and Granville counties were
the first to make themselves heard. In 1764, this band of
citizens, referred to as the "mob," created a number of
local disturbances until Governor Arthur Dobbs passed a
proclomation forbidding the collection of illegal fees, the
practice that the people complained of the most. Their
protests were calmed only temporarily. However, the efects
of the new law wore off soon enough and sheriffs and other
county officers returned to their old dishonest practices.
Citizens complained largely in part because money was so
scarce; local trading was almost limited to barter. Often,
property was seized and resold, and citizens felt that
their property was being sold to a friend of an official
for much less than its true value (1).
People among the Granville District were anxious to revolt
and needed only a leader to provide the spark that led to
the fire of the War of Regulation. A man named Hermon
Husband became actively involved and was referred to as a
leader several times, despite the fact that he was often
nothing more than an agitator. Husband reprinted patriotic
flyers with messages dealing with taxation withour
representation hoping that citizens would call for reform.
However, at no time during the Regulation was there an
actual leader (2).
Orange County was an early center of Regulator activity.
Colonel Edmund Fanning, holder of numerous offices in the
county including the prominent Clerk of the Recorder's
Court at Hillsborough, became a prime target along with
Royal Governor William Tryon, who took office in 1765.
Tryon was hated because he aimed to use taxes to build
Tryon Palace in New Bern, a very costly residence for
himself, as well as the seat for the colony's government.
The Regulators, "who named themselves after a group of
country reformists in South Carolina (3)" shortly after
Tryon's announcement to build the palace, had no sympathy
with the governor's desire for a fancy residence. The War
of Regulation was not limited to Orange County. Outbreaks
of violence during the collection of taxes in Anson County
and several riots throughout the Granville District were
sure signs of what was to come.
A group of men, apparently enthusiastic over the success of
the Sons of Liberty in resisting the Stamp Act, called
citizens together to determine whether they were being
treated justly or not. Edmund Fanning denounced this
meeting. Little was accomplished at the meeting, but this
is where the Regulators proclaimed themselves as a radical
political group (4).
Minor oppositions continued to occur until the spring of
1768 when the sheriff of Orange County announced he would
be collecting taxes at certain areas of the colony only,
and if colonists did not pay at these particular locations
a charge would be incurred. This occured at about the same
time Tryon gave word about the construction of Tryon
Palace. This was very inconvenient for the sttlers for two
reasons. The widely scattered population made it difficult
to arrive at these tax stations. Lack of money was also a
concern. Opposition to these moves influenced people to
join the Regulator association. The Regulators declared
their purpose in a proclamation soon after claiming they
would: "assemble ourselves for conference for regulating
public grievances and abuses of power, in the following
particulars...that may occur: (1) We will pay no more taxes
until we are satisfied that they are agreeable to law, and
applied to the purposes therein mentioned, unless we cannot
help it, or are forced. (2) We will pay no officer any more
fees than the law allows, unless we are obliged to do it,
and then show our dislike and bear open testimony against
it. (3) We will attend all of our meetings as often as we
conveniently can... (4) We will contribute to collections
for defraying the necessary expenses attending the work,
according to our abilities. (5) In case of differences in
judgement, we will submit to the judgement of the majority
of our body. (5)" The Regulators also did not allow
drinking of alcohol at their meetings because they knew
that different opinions could result in an internal clash.
At an unfortunate moment with feeling between the two
opposing sides at a peak, officials in Hillsborough seized
a Regulator's horse, saddle, and bridle and sold them for
taxes. Outraged, a band of Regulators rode into
Hillsborough, rescued the horse, and before leaving town,
fired several shots into Edmund Fanning's house. Fanning,
who was in court in Halifax, immediately ordered the arrest
of three Regulators who played a big role in the
Hillsborough horse incident, William Butler, Peter Craven,
and Ninian Bell Hamilton. Citizens of Orange County were
very sympathetic with the Regulators. Hermon Husband was
chosen as one of two delegates to meet with officials to
discuss the incident. Before the meeting could be held,
Fanning gathered a handful of armed men and assisted the
sheriff in arresting William Butler and Hermon Husband. The
two men were charged with inciting the people to rebellion
and were confined in the Hillsborough jail. Enraged by the
officers, the following morning seven hundred men, some of
whom were not Regulators, went to Hillsborough to rescue
the prisoners. County officials, becoming alarmed, released
the prisoners in time to speed them away to meet the
approaching mob of men. The governor's secretary informed
the protestors that Governor Tryon would receive their
petition to investigate conditions in Orange County and
would see that they received fair treatment at the hands of
county officials. Due to this incident, support for the
Regulation movement spread (6). The Regulators pursued
their purpose with tremendous force. They often broke into
courts of justice, drove judges from the bench and set up
mock trials. They dragged unoffending attorneys through the
streets almost until death and publicly assaulted peaceful
citizens who refused to express public sympathy for the
Regulation. In September, 1770, Judge Richard Henderson was
presiding over the superior court in Hillsborough when a
mob of one hundred fifty Regulators, led by Husband, armed
with sticks and switches, broke into the courthouse,
attempted to strike the judge, and forced him to leave the
bench. They next attacked and severely whippped John
Williams, a practicing attorney. William Hooper, who later
would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an
assistant attorney general was dragged through the streets
to be humiliated and violently abused. Edmund Fanning was
pulled from the courthouse by his heels and dragged from
the courthouse before being brutally whipped. The mob then
broke into Fanning's house, burned his papers, destroyed
his furniture, and demolished and burned the building. Many
others were whipped as the Regulators rioted through the
streets of Hillsborough. Windows of private homes were
broken and the inhabitants of the town were terrorized.
Court was adjourned when Judge Henderson was unable to keep
order (7). The assembly of Governor Tryon set about at once
to draw up a series of reform measures. Acts were passed
dealing with the appointment of sheriffs and their duties,
fixing attorneys' fees, regulating officers' fees,
providing for more speedy collection of small debts, and
the creation of the counties of Wake, Guilford, Chatham,
and Surry in the areas of the region where the Regulators
were the most numerous. These laws were designed to meet
the demands of the Regulators, but while the assembly was
vigorously passing these laws word arrived that the
Regulators had assembled in Cumberland County and were
preparing to march to New Bern, the current capital of
North Carolina and residence of Royal Governor William
Tryon. A complete change came over the assembly and
thoughts turned toward punishing measures (8). The assembly
adopted the "Johnston Act" introduced by Samuel Johnston,
who would later be a member of the Continental Congress and
a senator from North Carolina in the First Congress of the
United States. This act was to be enforced for one year
only. It stated that the attorney general could prosecute
charges of riot in any superior court in the province. All
who avoided the summons for court for sixty days were
declared and liable to be killed for treason. In addition
to these drastic steps, the governor was allowed to call
the militia out to enforce the law. The Regulators, as
anticipated by the governingauthorities in North Carolina,
reacted with defiance. To promote and strengthen their
organization they sent messengers to nearly every county to
encourage supporters and organize those who would join
them. The people of Rowan County were extremely cooperative
due to their hatred of the Johnston Act (9). Governor
Tryon, in March 1771, ordered a term of superior court to
be held in Hillsborough, but judges filed a protest with
the council. Under the riotous conditions existing in that
part of the province, they felt that they could not hold
court with any hope of prosecution. They also feared for
their personal safety because of what previously occurred
in Hillsborough in the case of Judge Richard Henderson.
After this appeal had been made, the council decided that
it was time to take a stand against the lawlessness of the
citizens (10). Protest from the Regulators came strongly,
but Tryon paid no attention. On March 19, 1771 he called
for volunteers for the militia and when enlistments began
slowly he offered a payment of forty shillings. The offer
helped tremendously, and on April 23 the troops got under
way. Guns, ammunition, and other equipment for these troops
had been sent at Tryon's request from Fort Johnston on the
Cape Fear River. General Hugh Waddell had already been
ordered to march to Salisbury to halt the advances of the
Rowan Regulators, to retrieve the western militia, and
march to Hillsborough from the west. At the Johnston County
Courthouse troops from Craven, Cateret, Orange, Beau- fort,
New Hanover, Onslow, Dobbs, and Johnston were joined by the
Wake militia. They made their way to Smith's Ferry beside
the Neuse River where Tryon reviewed the troops on May 3,
1771. There were 1,068 men; 151 were officers. Pleased with
his recruitment, he broke camp and advanced toward
Hillsborough. General Waddell and his 284 officers and men
were approaching Salisbury from the Cape Fear River.
Governor Tryon and the militia reached Hillsborough on May
9. General Waddell left Salisbury that same day, but while
crossing the Yadkin River he was met and stopped by a large
group of Regulators. Waddell retreated back to Salisbury.
Intending to help General Waddell, Tryon left Hillsborough
on May 11 leading the militia through the heart of
"Regulator country." On the fourteenth day they reached the
banks of Alamance Creek where they rested for a day. On May
16, 1771, Tryon ordered his army into battle formation. The
companies from Cateret, Orange, Beaufort, New Hanover, and
Dobbs counties, plus the artillery, were in the lead,
followed by companies from Onslow and Johnston. With these
troops Tryon set out to destroy a large body of Regulators
reported assembled five miles ahead. The Regulators,
estimated at about 2,000, were waiting for Tryon's
confrontation. They lacked adequate leadership, a clear
purpose, efficient organization, and even sufficient arms
and ammunition for battle. The Regulators must have felt
that simply by making a display of force they could
frighten the governor into granting their demands. Among
their number were many noisy and restless individuals and
many who seemed not to realize the seriousness of the
situation lying ahead. Earlier that week, some of the
Regulators captured Colonel John Ashe and Captain John
Walker of Tryon's militia while they were scouting, severly
beat them, and made them prisoners. So careless were the
Regulators and so unaware of the situation most of them
were wrestling and playing around when an older soldier who
happened to be among them warned them to expect an attack
at any minute. Shortly after, the firing began. Before the
shooting began, the Regulators were given a choice to
retreat and dissolve their group or be fired upon. In the
one hour they had to decide few were considering their
lives. The Regulators gave no response and thus the Battle
of Alamance began. Tryon's well-equipped troops soon put
the Regulators to flight. The Regulators had no officer
higher than captain and each individual company fought
independently. Tryon's artillery fire was very effective in
the beginning, but many Regulators later found refuge
behind trees and rocks. The Regulators were deserted by
many of their own comrades and took early leave of the
battlefield. The Battle of Alamance lasted two hours.
Tryon's forces lost nine to death and sixty-one wounded,
while the Regulators lost the same number killed and had a
large, but undetermined number of people wounded. Tryon
took about fifteen prisoners and executed one on the spot
with the idea of striking terror into the hearts of the
Regulators. This action, I believe, was uncalled for
because of the decisive military defeat. Despite his evil
display of character during the battle, Tryon had his own
surgeons treat the wounded Regulators (the entire battle
has been summarized from source #11). The Regulators
attempt to secure reform in local government by force
apparently failed completely. The Regulators were compelled
to retreat from society and live life in the wilderness.
Many migrated, some going to Tennessee and down into the
Mississippi River Valley. Others followed Daniel Boone's
trail into Kentucky. In fact, by 1772, just one year later,
about 1,500 of the former Regulators left North Carolina
(12). The importance of the Battle of Alamance and its
proper place in American history have been topics of
discussion not only in North Carolina, but across the
country. I gathered this fact from the area from which my
sources came. I noticed that the efforts of the Regulators
is very similar to that of the colonists efforts to gain
independence, only on a much smaller scale. The War of
Regulation should be regarded as one of the primary thrusts
of North Carolina's role in the Revolutionary War. Because
of the research I have done I am encouraged to find out
more about the history of North Carolina. The Battle of
Alamance should be covered in every American history course
simply because it illustrates the desire for independence
many colonists had during this time period. 
1. Nelson, Paul David. William Tryon and the Course of an
Empire: A Life in

Imperial Service. The University of North Carolina Press,
Chapel Hill. 

2. Dill, Alonzo Thomas. Governor Tryon and His Palace.
University of North

Press, Chapel Hill. 1955.
3. Dill, Alonzo Thomas. Governor Tryon and His Palace.
University of North

Press, Chapel Hill. 1955.
4. Spindel, Donna J. "Law and Disorder: The North Carolina
Stamp Act

North Carolina Historical Review. vol 57: 1980. pp. 1-16.
5. Henderson, Archibald. "Origin of the Regulation in North

Historical Review. 21: 1916. pp.320-32.
6. Lefler, Hugh T. "Orange County and the War of
Regulation." in Orange

1752-1952. ed. Hugh T. Lefler and Paul Wager. Chapel Hill:
pp. 22-40.
7. Fitch, William Edwards. Some Neglected History of North
Carolina. Neale 

Publishing Company: New York, New York, 1905.
8. London, L.F. "The Representation Controversy in Colonial
North Carolina."

Carolina Historical Review. vol 11: 1934. pp. 255-76.
9. Newsome, Alber Ray and Hugh T. Lefler. The History of a
Southern State.

University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1973.
10. Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in
America, 1734-1776.

Publishing, New York NY, 1968.
11. Edward, Brother C. "The Regulators: North Carolina
Taxpayers Take Arms 

Against the Governing Elite." American History
Illustrated. April 1983: 

pp. 42-48.
12. Stumpf, Vernon O. Josiah Martin: The Last Royal
Governor of North

Carolina Academic Press for the Kellenberger Foundation:
Durham, NC, 


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