Previous to the battle of Alamance, on the 16th of May, 1771, the first blood shed in the American Revolution, there were many discreet persons, the advocates of law and order, throughout the province, who sympathized with the justness of the principles which actuated the “Regulators,” and their stern opposition to official corruption and extortion, but did not approve of their hasty conduct and occasional violent proceedings. Accordingly, a short time preceding that unfortunate conflict, which only smothered for a time the embers of freedom, difficulties arose between Governor Tryon and the Regulators, when that royal official, in order to coerce them into his measures of submission, procured from Charleston, S.C., three wagon loads of the munitions of war, consisting of powder, flints, blankets, &c. These articles were brought to Charlotte, but from some suspicions arising in the minds of the Whigs as to their true destination and use, wagons could not be hired in the neighborhood for their transportation. At length, Colonel Moses Alexander, a magistrate under the Colonial Government, succeeded in getting wagons by “impressments”, to convey the munitions to Hillsboro, to obey the behests of a tyrannical governor. The vigilance of the jealous Whigs was ever on the lookout for the suppression of all such infringements upon the growing spirit of freedom, then quietly but surely planting itself in the hearts of the people.
The following individuals, viz.: James, William and John White, brothers, and William White, a cousin, all born and raised on Rocky River, and one mile from Rocky River Church, Robert Caruthers, Robert Davis, Benjamin Cockrane, James and Joshua Hadley, bound themselves by a most solemn oath not to divulge the secret object of their contemplated mission, and, in order more effectually to prevent detection, “blackened their faces” preparatory to their intended work of destruction.
They were joined and led in this and other expeditions by William Alexander, of Sugar Creek congregation, a brave soldier, and afterward known and distinguished from others bearing the same name as “Captain Black Bill Alexander,” and whose sword now hangs in the Library Hall of Davidson College, presented in behalf of his descendants by the late worthy, intelligent and Christian citizen, W. Shakespeare Harris, Esq.
These determined spirits set out in the evening, while the father of the Whites was absent from home with two horses, each carrying a bag of grain. The White boys were on foot, and wishing to move rapidly with their comrades, all mounted, in pursuit of the wagons loaded with the munitions of war, fortunately, for their feet, met their father returning home with his burdens, and immediately demanded the use of his horses. The old gentleman, not knowing who they were (“as black as Satan himself”) pleaded heartily for the horses until he could carry home his bags of meal; but his petitions were in vain. The boys (“his sons”) ordered him to dismount, removed the bags from the horses, and placed them by the side of the road. They then immediately mounted the disburdened horses, joined their comrades, and in a short space of time came up with the wagons encamped on “Phifer’s Hill,” three miles west of the present town of Concord, on the road leading from Charlotte to Salisbury. They immediately unloaded the wagons, stove in the heads of the kegs, threw the powder into a pile, tore the blankets into strips, made a train of powder a considerable distance from the pile, and then Major James White fired a pistol into the train, which produced a tremendous explosion. A stave from the pile struck White on the forehead, and cut him severely. As soon as this bold exploit became known to Colonel Moses Alexander, he put his whole ingenuity to work to find out the perpetrators of so foul a deed against his Majesty. The transaction remained a mystery for some time. Great threats were made, and, in order to induce some one to turn traitor, a pardon was offered to any one who would turn King’s evidence against the rest. Ashmore and Hadley, being half brothers, and composed of the same rotten materials, set out unknown to each other, to avail themselves of the offered pardon, and accidentally met each other on the threshold of Moses Alexander’s house. When they made known their business, Alexander remarked, “that, by virtue of the Governor’s proclamation, they were pardoned, but they were the first that ought to be hanged.” The rest of the “Black Boys” had to flee from their country. They fled to the State of Georgia, where they remained for some time.
The Governor, finding he could not get them into his grasp, held out insinuations that if they would return and confess their fault, they should be pardoned. In a short time, the boys returned from Georgia to their homes. As soon as it became known to Moses Alexander, he raised a guard, consisting of himself, his two brothers, John and Jake, and a few others, and surrounded the house of the old man White, the father of the boys. Caruthers, the son-in-law of White, happened to be at his (White’s) house at the same time. To make the capture doubly sure, Alexander placed a guard at each door. One of the guard, wishing to favor the escape of Caruthers, struck up a quarrel with Moses Alexander at one door, while his brother, Daniel Alexander, whispered to Mrs. White, if there were any of them within, they might pass out and he would not notice it; in the meantime, out goes Caruthers, and in a few jumps was in the river, which opportunely flowed near the besieged mansion. The alarm was immediately given, but pursuit was fruitless.
At another time, the royalists heard of some of the boys being in a harvest field and set out to take them; but always having some one in their company to favor their escape, as they rode up in sight of the reapers, one of them, duly instructed, waved his hand, which the boys understood as a signal to make their departure. On that occasion they pursued Robert Davis so closely that it is said he jumped his horse thirty feet down a bank into the river, and dared them to follow him.
And thus the “Black Boys” fled from covert to covert to save their necks from the blood-thirsty loyalists, who were constantly hunting them like wild beasts. They would lie concealed for weeks at a time, and the neighbors would carry them food until they fairly wearied out their pursuers. The oath by which they bound themselves was an imprecation of the strongest kind, and the greater part of the imprecation was literally fulfilled in the sad ends of Hadley and Ashmore. The latter fled from his country, but he lived a miserable life, and died as wretchedly as he had lived. Hadley still remained in the country, and was known for many years to the people of Rocky River. He was very intemperate, and in his fits of intoxication was very harsh to his family in driving them from his house in the dead hours of the night. His neighbors, in order to chastise him for the abuse of his family, (among whom were some of the “Black Boys”), dressed themselves in female attire, went to his house by night, pulled him from his bed, drew his shirt over his head and gave him a severe whipping. The castigation, it is said, greatly improved the future treatment of his family. He continued, however, through life, the same miserable wretch, and died without any friendly hand to sustain him or eye to pity his deplorable end.
Frequently, when the royalists ranged the country in pursuit of the “Black Boys,” the Whigs would collect in bodies consisting of twenty-five or thirty men, ready to pounce upon the pursuers, if they had captured any of the boys. From the allurements held out to the Boys to give themselves up, they went, at one time, nearly to Hillsboro to beg the pardon of the Governor, (Tryon), but finding out it was his intention, if he could get them into his hands, to have hanged every one of them, they returned, and kept themselves concealed until patriotic sentiment grew so rapidly from that time (1771) to the Mecklenburg Declaration, (20th of May, 1775), that concealment was no longer necessary. When the drama of the Revolution opened, these same “Black Boys” stood up manfully for the cause of American freedom, and nobly assisted in achieving, on many a hard-fought battlefield, the independence of our country.