Signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

Abraham Alexander, the Chairman of the Mecklenburg Convention of the 19th and 20th of May, 1775, was born in 1718, and was an active and influential magistrate of the county before and after the Revolution, being generally the honored chairman of the Inferior Court. He was a member of the popular branch of the Assembly in 1774-’75, with Thomas Polk as an associate; also one of the fifteen trustees of Queen’s Museum, which institution, in 1777, was transformed into “Liberty Hall Academy.”

After the involuntary retreat of Josiah Martin, the royal Governor, in June, 1775, from the State, its government was vested in—1. A Provincial Council for the whole province. 2. A District Committee of Safety for each county, of not less than twenty-one persons, to be elected annually by the people of each county. The members of the Provincial Council for the Salisbury district were Samuel Spencer and Waightstill Avery. The members of the District Committee of Safety were John Brevard, Griffith Rutherford, Hezekiah Alexander, James Auld, Benjamin Patton, John Crawford, William Hill, John Hamilton, Robert Ewart, Charles Galloway, William Dent, Maxwell Chambers. The county committee, elected annually by the people in each county, executed such orders as they received from the Provincial Council, and made such rules and regulations as the internal condition of each county demanded. They met once in three months at the Court-house of their respective counties, to consult on public measures, to correspond with other committees, to disseminate important information, and thus performed the duties and requirements of courts. The county committees exercised these important functions until justices of the peace were appointed by the Legislature and duly commissioned by the Governor.

It was this committee which met in Charlotte on the 31st of May, 1775, and passed a series of rules and regulations for the internal government of the county—a necessary sequel, as previously stated, of the more important meeting of the 20th of May preceding. This statement is strongly corroborated by a communication published last summer in the “Charlotte Observer,” by D.A. Caldwell, Esq., one of Mecklenburg’s most aged, intelligent and worthy citizens. The portion of the communication most pertinent to our subject reads thus:

“I was born and raised in the house of my maternal grandfather, Major John Davidson, who was one of the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration. I have often heard him speak of the 20th of May, 1775, as the day on which it was signed, and the 31st of the same month as the time of an adjourned meeting. The ’20th of May’ was a household word in the family. Moreover, I was present (and am now the only surviving witness of the transaction) when he gave a certificate of the above dates to Dr. Joseph McKnitt Alexander, whose father, John McKnitt Alexander, was also a signer, and the principal secretary of the meeting. This certificate was called forth by the celebrated attempt of Thomas Jefferson to throw discredit on the whole affair. A certificate to the same effect was given on that occasion by Samuel Wilson, a brother-in-law of Major Davidson, and a man of undoubted integrity. Mr. Wilson, although not a signer, was present at the signing on the 20th of May. I often heard my grandfather allude to the date in later years, when he lived with his daughter, Mrs. William Lee Davidson, whose husband was the son of General Davidson, who fell at Cowan’s Ford.”

Under the administration of Abraham Alexander as Chairman of the Committee of Safety, the laws passed by that body of vigilant observers of the common good were strictly enforced; and each citizen, when he left the county, was required to carry with him a certificate of his political standing, officially signed by the chairman.

Abraham Alexander was a most worthy, exemplary and influential member of society; was, for many years, a Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church, and lies buried in the graveyard of Sugar Creek Church. On his gravestone is this brief record:

 “Abraham Alexander,
Died on the 22nd of April, 1786,
Aged 68 years.”

“‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.'”

Adam Alexander was chiefly known by his military services. He was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of a battalion of minute men, with Thomas Polk as Colonel, and Charles M’Lean as Major, by the Provincial Council held at Johnston Court-house, on the 18th of December, 1775; and Colonel of Mecklenburg county, with John Phifer as Lieutenant Colonel, and John Davidson and George A. Alexander as Majors, by the Provincial Congress, held at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776.

He was a brave and energetic officer; and his name will be found in nearly every expedition which marched from Mecklenburg county to oppose the enemies of his country. He was for many years, before and after the war, an acting Justice of the Peace, and tradition speaks of him as bearing an excellent character. He died in 1798, aged seventy years, and is buried in the old graveyard of Rock Spring, seven miles east of Charlotte. Many of his descendants lie buried in the graveyard at Philadelphia Church, two miles from Rock Spring, at which latter place the congregation worshipped before the Revolution, mingling with their pious devotion many touching and prayerful appeals for the final deliverance of their country from the storms of the approaching conflict of arms in a righteous cause.

Hezekiah Alexander was more of a statesman than a soldier. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1728. He was appointed a member of the Committee of Safety for the Salisbury district by the Provincial Congress which met at Hillsboro on the 21st of August, 1775, with General Griffith Rutherford, John Brevard, Benjamin Patton and others—a position of much responsibility and power. He was appointed by the Provincial Congress, in April, 1776, with William Sharpe, of Rowan county, on the Council of Safety. He was elected a member of the Provincial Congress from Mecklenburg county, which met at Halifax on November 12th, 1776, and framed the first Constitution of the State, with Waightstill Avery, Robert Irwin, John Phifer, and Zaccheus Wilson, as colleagues. At the Provincial Congress, which met at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776, he was appointed Paymaster of the Fourth Regiment of North Carolina Continentals—Thomas Polk, Colonel, James Thackston, Lieut. Colonel, and William Davidson, Major. He was the treasurer of “Liberty Hall Academy” (formerly “Queen’s Museum”) during its existence. He died on the 16th of July, 1801, and lies buried in the graveyard of Sugar Creek Church, of which he had long been an active and worthy member. The inscription on his tombstone reads thus:

“In memory of Hezekiah Alexander,
Who departed this life July 16th, 1801,
Aged 73 years.”

John McKnitt Alexander, of Scotch-Irish ancestors, was born in Pennsylvania, near the Maryland line, in 1733. He served as an apprentice to the trade of tailor, and when his apprenticeship expired, at the age of twenty-one, he emigrated to North Carolina, joining his kinsmen and countrymen in seeking an abode in the beautiful champaign between the Yadkin and Catawba rivers—the land of the deer and the buffalo; of “wild pea-vines” and cane-brakes, and of peaceful prosperity. In 1759 he married Jane Bain, of the same race, from Pennsylvania, and settled in Hopewell congregation. Prospered in his business, he soon became wealthy and an extensive landholder, and rising in the estimation of his fellow-citizens, was promoted to the magistracy and the Eldership of the Presbyterian Church. He was a member of the Provincial Assembly in 1772, and one of the Delegates to the Convention which met at Hillsboro, on the 21st of August, 1775.

He was also a member of the Provincial Congress, which met at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776, with John Phifer and Robert Irwin as colleagues. In 1777, he was elected the first Senator from Mecklenburg county, under the new Constitution. He was an active participator in the Convention of the 19th and 20th of May, 1775, and preserved for a long time, the records, as being its principal secretary, and the proper custodian of its papers. He gave copies of its important and ever-memorable proceedings to Gen. William R. Davie, Dr. Hugh Williamson, then professing to write a history of North Carolina, and others. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed in 1800, when the house of Mr. Alexander was burned, but Gen. Davie’s copy has been preserved. He was one of the Trustees of the “College of Queen’s Museum,” the name of which was afterward changed to “Liberty Hall.” He was for many years, a ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church, and by his walk and conversation, its firm supporter.

By the east wall of the graveyard at Hopewell Church, is a row of marble slabs, all bearing the name of Alexander. On one of them, is this short inscription:

“John McKnitt Alexander,
Who departed this life July 10th, 1817,
Aged 84.”

It is a singular fact, that the signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration were all, with perhaps one or two exceptions, members of the Presbyterian Church. One of them, Rev. Hezekiah J. Balch, was a Presbyterian preacher, and nine others Elders of that Church, which may be truly styled, at and before the Revolution, the “nursing mother of freemen.”

Waightstìll Avery was an eminent lawyer, born in the town of Groton, Connecticut, in 1747, and graduated at Princeton College in 1766. There were eight brothers of this family, and all true patriots; some of them were massacred at Fort Griswold, and some perished at Wyoming Valley. Some of the descendants still reside at Groton, Conn., and others at Oswego, and Seneca Lake, N.Y. He studied law on the eastern shore of Maryland, with Littleton Dennis. In 1769, he emigrated to North Carolina, obtained license to practice in 1770, and settled in Charlotte. By his assiduity and ability, he soon acquired numerous friends. He was an ardent advocate of liberty, but not of licentiousness.

In 1778, he married near Newbern, Mrs Leah Frank, daughter of William Probart, a wealthy merchant of Snow Hill, Md., who died on a visit to London. He was a member of the Provincial Congress which met at Hillsboro on the 21st of August, 1775. In 1776, he was a delegate to the Provincial Congress which met at Halifax to form a State Constitution, with Hezekiah Alexander, Robert Irwin, John Phifer and Zaccheus Wilson as colleagues. He was appointed to sign proclamation bills by this body. On the 20th of July, 1777, with William Sharpe, Joseph Winston and Robert Lanier, as associates, he made the treaty of the Long Island of the Holston with the Cherokee Indians. This treaty, made without an oath, is one that has never been violated. In 1777, he was elected the first Attorney General of North Carolina.

In 1780, while Lord Cornwallis was encamped in Charlotte, some of the British soldiery, on account of his well-known advocacy of independence, set fire to his law office, and destroyed it, with all his books and papers. In 1781, he moved to Burke county, which he represented in the Commons in 1783-’84-’85 and ’93; and in the Senate in 1796. He was held in high esteem by all who knew him, and died at an advanced age, in 1821. At the time of his death he was the “Patriarch of the North Carolina Bar;” an exemplary Christian, a pure patriot, and of sterling integrity. He left a son, the late Colonel Isaac T. Avery, who represented Burke county in the Commons in 1809 and 1810, and three daughters, one of whom married William W. Lenoir; another, Thomas Lenoir, and the remaining one, Mr. Poor, of Henderson county.

Rev. Hezekiah J. Balch was born at Deer Creek, Harford county, Md., in 1748. He was said to be the brother of Col. James Balch, of Maryland, and the uncle of the late distinguished Rev. Stephen B. Balch, D. D., of Georgetown, D. C. He graduated at Princeton in 1766, when not quite eighteen years old, in the class with Waightstill Avery, Luther Martin, of Maryland, Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut, and others. He came to North Carolina in 1769, as a missionary, being appointed for this work by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. Although ordained before the war, he served four years as Captain of a company in Maryland, under General Somerville. Soon after this service, he removed to North Carolina, and settled on “Irish Buffalo Creek,” in Cabarrus county. He was the first Pastor of Rocky River and Poplar Tent Churches, where he continued to faithfully labor in the cause of his Divine Master, until the time of his death. Abundant in every good word and work, he took an active part in moulding the popular mind for the great struggle of the approaching Revolution. He combined in his character, great enthusiasm with unflinching firmness. He looked to the achievement of principles upon which a government of well-regulated law and liberty could be safely established, and which should be removed from its strong foundations no more forever. Hence, he was a prominent actor in the Convention at Charlotte on the 19th and 20th of May, 1775, which declared independence of the British crown. But in the inscrutable ways of Providence, he did not live long enough to see the warmest wish of his heart gratified—the independence of his country, for which he was ready, if necessary, to yield up his life in its achievement. He died in the spring of 1776, in the midst of his usefulness, and his mortal remains repose in the old graveyard of Poplar Tent Church.

On the occasion of a railroad meeting at Poplar Tent Church in 1847, attention was called to the fact that no monument of any kind marked the grave of this eminent divine and patriot; whereupon, a voluntary subscription was immediately made, and the necessary funds promptly raised to build a suitable monument to his memory. Fortunately, Abijah Alexander, then ninety years of age, was still living, a worthy citizen, and long a member of Poplar Tent Church, who was present at the burial of his beloved pastor, and who could point out the precise spot of sepulture, near the centre of the old graveyard. The following is a copy of the inscription over his grave:

“Beneath this marble are the mortal remains of the Rev. Hezikiah J. Balch, first pastor of Poplar Tent congregation, and one of the original members of Orange Presbytery. He was licensed a preacher of the everlasting gospel, of the Presbytery of Donegal in 1766, and rested from his labors A.D. 1776; having been pastor of the united congregations of Poplar Tent and Rocky River, about seven years. He was distinguished as one of the Committee of Three who prepared the Declaration of Independence, and his eloquence, the more effectual from his acknowledged wisdom, purity of motive and dignity of character, contributed much to the unanimous adoption of that instrument on the 20th of May, 1775.”

Dr. Ephraim Brevard, the reputed author of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, proclaimed on the 20th of May, 1775, was born in Maryland in 1744. He came with his parents to North Carolina when about four years old. He was the son of John Brevard, one of the earliest settlers of Iredell, then Rowan, county, and of Huguenot descent. At the conclusion of the Indian war in 1761, he and his cousin, Adlai Osborne, were sent to a grammar school in Prince Edward county, Va. About a year later, he returned to North Carolina and attended a school of considerable notoriety in Iredell county, conducted successively by Joseph Alexander, (a nephew of John McKnitt Alexander) David Caldwell, then quite young, and Joel Benedict, from the New England States. Adlai Osborne, Ephraim Brevard and Thomas Reese (a brother of David Reese, one of the signers), graduated at Princeton College in 1768, and greatly contributed by talents and influence to the spread and maintenance of patriotic principles. Soon after graduation, Ephraim Brevard commenced the study of medicine under the celebrated Dr. Alexander Ramsey, of South Carolina, a distinguished patriot and historian of the Revolutionary war.

In 1776, Dr. Brevard joined the expedition of General Rutherford in his professional capacity, during the Cherokee campaign. Soon after this service he settled in Charlotte, where he married a daughter of Col. Thomas Polk, and rapidly rose to eminence in his profession. He had one child, Martha, who married Mr. Dickerson, the father of the late James P. Dickerson, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the South Carolina regiment in the Mexican war, and who died from a wound received in a battle near the City of Mexico. After the death of his beloved and youthful wife, Dr. Brevard again entered the Southern army, as “surgeon’s mate,” or assistant surgeon, under General Lincoln, in 1780, and was made a prisoner at the surrender of Charleston.

While engaged as one of the teachers in the Queen’s Museum he raised a company, from the young men of that institution, to assist in putting down the Tories assembled on Cape Fear River. Of this company he was made captain. They marched immediately in the direction of Cross Creek (Fayetteville), but, on learning of the dispersion of the Tories, they returned home. Inheriting from his family a devotion to liberty and independence, he early became distinguished for his patriotic ardor and decision of character. He was a fine scholar, fluent writer, and drew up the resolutions of independence which the Convention of the 20th of May, 1775, adopted, with very slight alteration, acting as one of the secretaries. During his confinement in Charleston, as a prisoner of war, he suffered so much from impure air and unwholesome diet that his health gave way, and he returned home only to die. He reached the house of his friend and fellow patriot, John McKnitt Alexander, in Mecklenburg county, where he soon after breathed his last. He lies buried in Charlotte, in the lot now owned by A.B. Davidson, Esq., near the grave of his beloved wife, who, a short time before, preceded him to the tomb. Upon this lot was located the Queen’s Museum College, receiving, in 1777, the more patriotic name of “Liberty Hall Academy.” Within its walls were educated a Spartan band of young men, who afterward performed a noble part in achieving the independence of their country.

Richard Barry was born in Pennsylvania, of Scotch-Irish descent, and joining the great southern emigration of that period, he settled in Mecklenburg county, in the bounds of the Hopewell congregation, many years previous to the Revolution. In this vicinity he married Ann Price, and raised a numerous family. A.M. Barry, Esq., who now (1876) resides at the old homestead, is the only surviving grandson. Mrs. A.A. Harry, Mrs. G.L. Sample and Mrs. Jane Alexander, are the only surviving grand-daughters. He acted for many years as one of the magistrates of the county, and was a worthy and useful member of society. He was a true patriot and soldier, and was present at the affair of Cowan’s Ford, when General Davidson was killed, on the 1st of February, 1781. After this short conflict he, David Wilson and a few others, secured the body of General Davidson, conveyed it to the house of Samuel Wilson, Sen., where, after being properly dressed, it was moved by these devoted patriots to the graveyard of Hopewell Church, and there buried by torch-light.

John Davidson was born in Pennsylvania in 1736. He performed much civil and military service to secure the independence of his country. He was appointed by the Provincial Congress, which met at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776, a field officer (Major) with Adam Alexander as Colonel, John Phifer as Lieutenant Colonel, and George A. Alexander as second Major. He was with General Sumpter in August, 1780, at the battle of the Hanging Rock, and was a General in the State militia service. He was enterprising, and successful in business. With Alexander Brevard, and Joseph Graham, his sons-in-law, he established Vesuvius Furnace and Tirza Forge iron works in Lincoln county. He married Violet, daughter of Samuel Wilson, Sr., and raised a large family. His daughter, Isabella, married Joseph Graham; Rebecca married Alexander Brevard; Violet married William Bain Alexander, son of John McKnitt Alexander; Elizabeth married William Lee Davidson, son of General Davidson, who fell at Cowan’s Ford; Mary married Dr. William McLean; Sallie married Alexander Caldwell, son of Rev. David Caldwell, of Guilford county; Margaret married Major James Harris. He had only two sons, John (or “Jackey”) and Robert; John married Sallie Brevard, daughter of Adam Brevard; Robert married Margaret Osborne, daughter of Adlai Osborne, grandfather of the late Judge James W. Osborne, of Charlotte.

Major Davidson’s residence was about one mile east of Toole’s Ford, on the Catawba river. A large Elm, of his own planting, is now growing in front of the old family mansion, with over-arching limbs, beneath whose beneficent shade the old patriot could quietly sit in summer, (sub tegmine patulæ ulmi) whilst surrounded with some of his children, grand-children, and other blessings to cheer his earthly pilgrimage to the tomb.

Robert Irwin was a distinguished officer, and performed important military service during the Revolutionary War. In 1776, he and William Alexander each, commanded a regiment under General Rutherford, in the expedition from Mecklenburg, Rowan, Lincoln, and other counties, to subdue the Cherokee Indians, who were committing murders and numerous depredations upon the frontier settlements.

After the fall of Charleston many of the unsubdued Whigs sought shelter in North Carolina. Early in July, 1780, General Sumter had taken refuge in Mecklenburg county, and having enlisted a considerable number of brave and dashing recruits in that chivalric region, returned to South Carolina prepared for new and daring exploits. Soon thereafter, accompanied by Colonels Neal, Irwin, Hill and Lacy, he made a vigorous assault against the post of Rocky Mount, but failed in reducing it for the want of artillery. After this assault General Sumter crossed the Catawba, and marched with his forces in the direction of Hanging Rock. In the engagement which took place there, and, in the main successful, the right was composed of General Davie’s troops, and some volunteers under Major Bryan; the centre consisted of Colonel Irwin’s Mecklenburg Militia, which made the first attack; and the left included Colonel Hill’s South Carolina Regulars.[G] In 1781 Colonel Irwin commanded a regiment under General Rutherford, in the Wilmington campaign. He was a delegate to the Provincial Congress, which met at Halifax, on the 4th of April, 1776, with John McKnitt Alexander and John Phifer as colleagues. He was again a delegate to the Provincial Congress which met at Halifax, on the 12th of November, 1776, which body formed our first Constitution. His last civil services were as Senator from Mecklenburg county, in 1797,-’98-’99 and 1800. For many years he was a worthy and influential Elder of the Presbyterian Church at Steele Creek. He died on the 23rd of December, 1800, aged sixty-two years.

William Kennon was an early and devoted friend of liberty. He was an eminent lawyer, resided in Salisbury, and had a large practice in the surrounding counties. He was one of the prominent advocates for absolute independence at the Convention in Charlotte, on the 19th and 20th of May, 1775. He, with Mr. Willis, a brother-in-law, Adlai Osborne, and Samuel Spencer (afterward Judge Spencer), took an active part in arresting two obnoxious lawyers, John Dunn and Benjamin Booth Boote, preceding the Revolution, in giving utterance to language inimical to the cause of American independence.

They were conveyed to Charlotte for trial, and being found guilty of conduct inimical to the American cause, they were transported to Camden, S.C., and finally to Charleston, beyond the reach of their injurious influence. Colonel Kennon was a member of the first Congress which met at Newbern on the 25th of August, 1774, in opposition to royalty, and “fresh from the people,” with Moses Winslow and Samuel Young as colleagues. He was also a delegate to the same place in April, 1775, with Griffith Rutherford and William Sharpe as colleagues; and to the Provincial Congress at Hillsboro, in August, 1775, associated with William Sharpe, Samuel Young and James Smith. In 1776, he was appointed commissary of the first regiment of State troops. He was ever active and faithful in the discharge of his duties. Soon after the Revolutionary war he moved to Georgia, where he died at a good old age.

Benjamin Patton was one of the earliest settlers in the eastern part of Mecklenburg county (now Cabarrus). He was a man of iron firmness and of indomitable courage. Descended from the blood of the Covenanters, he inherited their tenacity of purpose, sagacity of action and purity of character. He was an early and devoted friend of liberty.

He was a delegate to the Provincial Congress which met at Newbern on the 25th of August, 1774. This was the first meeting of representatives direct from the people. The royal Governor, Josiah Martin, issued his proclamation against its assembling, as being without legal authority. It constitutes an illustrious epoch in our colonial history, transpiring nearly two years before Congress would dare to pass a national declaration. Although it was not a battle, or conflict of arms, yet it was the first and leading act in a great drama, in which battles and blood were the direct and inevitable consequences. Had Governor Martin the power at that time, he would have seized every member of this “rebellious” body and tried them for treason. In this dilemma, he summoned his ever obsequious Council for consultation, who, becoming alarmed at the “signs of the times,” declared “nothing could be done.”

Tradition informs us that Mr. Patton, not being able to procure a horse, or any conveyance, walked all the way from Charlotte to Newbern, about three hundred miles rather than not be present to vote with those determined on liberty or death. Although then advanced in years, he showed all the enthusiasm of youth. At the Provincial Congress which met at Hillsboro on the 21st of August, 1775, he was appointed Major of the second Continental regiment, with Robert Howe as Colonel, and Alexander Martin as Lieutenant Colonel. Of his military record, in such high position, little is known, but we find him acting as a member of the Committee of Safety for Mecklenburg county, with very full powers, associated with John Paul Barringer and Martin Phifer. They were a “terror unto evil doers.” He was a man of considerable learning, of ardent temperament, and of Christian integrity. He died near Concord, in Cabarras county, at a good old age, and is buried on the banks of Irish Buffalo Creek. No monument marks his grave:

“They carved not a line, they raised not a stone.
But left him alone in his glory.”

John Phifer was born in Cabarrus county (when a part of Bladen) in 1745. He was the son of Martin Phifer, a native of Switzerland, and of Margaret Blackwelder. He raised a numerous family, who inherited the patriotic spirit of their ancestors. The original spelling of the name was Pfeifer. He resided on “Dutch Buffalo” Creek, at the Red Hill, known to this day as “Phifer’s Hill.” He was the father of General Paul Phifer, grandfather of General John N. Phifer of Mississippi, and great grandfather of General Charles H. Phifer, a distinguished officer in the battle of “Shiloh,” in the late war between the States. At the Provincial Council, held at Johnston Court House in December, 1775, he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the first battalion of “Minute Men,” in the Salisbury District; General Griffith Rutherford, Colonel, and John Paisley, Major. He was a member of the Provincial Congress which met at Hillsboro on the 21st of August, 1775, associated with Thomas Polk, Waightstill Avery, James Houston, Samuel Martin and John McKnitt Alexander; and also of the Congress which met at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776, with Robert Irwin and John McKnitt Alexander.

By this latter body, he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment commanded by Colonel Adam Alexander. He was also a member of the Provincial Congress which met at Halifax in November, 1776, which formed our first Constitution, associated with Hezekiah Alexander, Waightstill Avery, Robert Irwin and Zaccheus Wilson, as colleagues. He married Catharine Barringer, which latter name was originally spelled Behringer.

It was on the plantation of John Phifer, three mile west of Concord, that the gallant band of “Black Boys,” headed by Captain ‘Black Bill Alexander’ of Sugar Creek, aided by the Whites and others from the neighboring congregation of Rocky River, effected their memorable achievement in 1771, of destroying the king’s powder, which was on its way from Charleston to Hillsboro to be used by a tyrannical Governor. The reader should bear in mind this blackening of faces, to prevent detection, was in the spring of 1771, when the patriotic sentiment of this country had not ripened into that state of almost entire unanimity which characterized it, and the State generally, four years later. John Phifer filled an early grave, and lies buried at the “Red Hill,” on the Salisbury road, where a decaying headstone, scarcely legible, marks the last resting-place of this true patriot.

Thomas Polk is a name of historic distinction in North Carolina, as well as in our nation. He was the early, constant, and enduring friend of liberty, and the unfaltering opponent of arbitrary power and oppression. He was a member of the Colonial Assembly in 1771 and 1775, associated with Abraham Alexander from Mecklenburg. In 1775, he was appointed Colonel of the second battalion of “Minute Men,” with Adam Alexander as Colonel, and Charles McLean as Major.

As Colonel of the Mecklenburg militia, he issued orders to the Captains of the several beats, or districts, to send two delegates each to the Convention in Charlotte on the 19th of May, 1775. This act alone, proceeding from patriotic motives, entitles him to our gratitude. In accordance with orders, and the anticipated discussion of political measures affecting the welfare of the country, a vast concourse of delegates, and of the citizens generally, from all parts of the country, as well as from the adjoining counties of Anson, Rowan and Tryon (afterward Lincoln) assembled on the appointed day—such a gathering as had never before met in Charlotte, preceding, or during the Revolution. It was not a small assemblage, like that of the 31st of the same month, composed entirely of the Committee of Safety, met for the purpose of passing such rules and regulations as the internal government of the county demanded.

At the Provincial Congress which met at Halifax on the 4th of April, 1776, he was appointed Colonel of the fourth regiment of Continental troops, with James Thackson as Lieutenant-Colonel, and William Davidson as Major. The last named officer was afterward appointed a Brigadier General, and was killed while disputing the passage of Cornwallis at Cowan’s Ford, on the 1st of February, 1781. After the death of General Davidson, he was appointed Brigadier General in his stead. When General Greene took command of the Southern army in Charlotte on the 3rd of December, 1780, the commissary department was left vacant by the resignation of Colonel Polk. At the earnest solicitation of General Greene, Colonel Davie was induced to accept the position, an ungracious and troublesome office at any time, but then attended with peculiar difficulties, as the country had been lately devastated and stripped of its usual resources by a large invading army.

Colonel Thomas Polk married Susan Spratt, and left several children. He died in 1793, full of years and full of honors, and his mortal remains repose in the graveyard of the Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.

William Polk, son of Colonel Thomas Polk, was born in 1759, and was present at the Mecklenburg Convention of the 19th and 20th of May, 1775. He commenced his military career with his father in the expedition against the Scovillite Tories, in upper South Carolina, in the autumn of 1775. He was with General Nash when he fell at Germantown; with General Davidson, at Cowan’s Ford; with General Greene, at Guilford Court House; and with the same officer at Eutaw Springs. In the last named battle he was severely wounded, the effects of which he carried with him to his grave. When the war closed, he held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He settled in Charlotte, his place of nativity, and represented Mecklenburg county in the Commons in 1787-’90, and ’91. Soon thereafter he removed to Raleigh, where he spent the remainder of his life. He was the last surviving field officer of the North Carolina line. He died on the 14th of January, 1835, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. He was the father of Bishop Leonidas Polk, a brave and meritorious officer, killed in the late civil war, while holding the position of Major General; of the late Thomas G. Polk, of Tennessee, and of Mrs. Rayner, wife of the Hon. Kenneth Rayner, of Washington City.

Ezekiel Polk, one of the older brothers of Colonel Thomas Polk, was the first clerk of the county court of Lincoln, after its separation from Mecklenburg in 1768; a Magistrate of Mecklenburg county at a later period; and was a man of considerable wealth and influence, owning much of the valuable lands around “Morrow’s Turnout,” now the flourishing village of “Pineville.” He was the grandfather of James K. Polk, President of the United States in 1845, some of whose noblest traits of character were illustrated in refusing to serve a second term and in being never absent from his post of duty. Well would it be for the best interests of our Republic if other occupants of the “White House” would imitate his noble example.

Zaccheus Wilson, was one of three brothers who moved from Pennsylvania and settled in Mecklenburg county about 1760. At the time of the Mecklenburg Convention on the 19th and 20th of May, 1775, he signed that instrument, pledging himself and his extensive family connections to its support and maintenance. He was said to be a man of liberal education, and very popular in the county in which he resided. He was a member of the Convention which met at Halifax on the 12th of November, 1776, to form a State Constitution, associated with Waightstill Avery, John Phifer, Robert Irwin and Hezekiah Alexander.

The Wilsons were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and were arrayed by early education, civil and religious, against tyranny in any form. The eldest brother, Robert Wilson, who lived for many years in Steele Creek congregation, was the father of eleven sons, seven of whom were at one time (all who were old enough) in the Revolutionary army. Shortly after the Revolution, Zaccheus Wilson moved to Sumner county, Tennessee, and there died at an advanced age.

Ezra Alexander was a son of Abraham Alexander, the President of the Mecklenburg Convention of the 20th of May, 1775. He and William Alexander each commanded a company in Colonel William Davidson’s battalion, under General Rutherford, against the Tories assembled at Ramsour’s Mill, near the present town of Lincolnton. He was also engaged in other military expeditions during the war, whenever the defence of the country demanded his services.

Charles Alexander and John Foard, two of the signers, served as privates in Captain Charles Polk’s company of “Light Horse” in 1776, in the Wilmington campaign, and in other service during the war. John Foard was, for many years, one of the magistrates of Mecklenburg county, and both have descendants living among us.

David Reese was a son of William Reese, a worthy citizen of Western Rowan (now Iredell county), who died in April, 1808, aged ninety-nine years, and brother of the Rev. Thomas Reese, whose ministerial labors were chiefly performed in Pendleton District, S.C., where he ended his days, and is buried in the Stone Church graveyard.

James Harris was from Eastern Mecklenburg (now Cabarrus county), a neighborhood universally holding Whig principles. He was the Major in Colonel Robert Irwin’s regiment at the battle of the Hanging Rock, and elsewhere performed important services during the war. Next to the Alexanders the name Harris was most prevalent in Mecklenburg county preceding the Revolution, and both still have numerous worthy descendants among us to perpetuate the fair name and fame of their distinguished ancestors.

Matthew McLure, one of the signers, was an early and devoted friend of liberty. Some of his worthy descendants are still living among us. Other descendants of the same patriotic family reside in Chester county, S.C. One of his daughters married George Houston, who, with a Spartan band of twelve or thirteen brave spirits, under Captain James Thompson, beat back a British foraging party of over four hundred soldiers, at McIntyre’s Branch, on the Beattie’s Ford road, seven miles north-west of Charlotte. His son, Hugh Houston, served throughout the Revolutionary war. The rifle used on that occasion by George Houston is still in possession of the family. His son, M.M. Houston, Esq., of Hopewell congregation, is one of the few grandsons now living of the original signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration.

William Graham, an Irishman by birth, was one of the early advocates of liberty in Mecklenburg county. He was intelligent and highly respected by all who knew him. He lived on the plantation now owned by Mrs. Potts, about four miles south-east of Beattie’s Ford, on the public road leading to Charlotte, where he died at a good old age.

It is hoped others will prosecute this branch of historical research, here imperfectly sketched, supply omissions, and favor the public with the result of their investigations. In this Centennial year it is pleasant and profitable to revert to the deeds of noble daring and lofty patriotism of our forefathers, and strive to emulate their illustrious examples.

4 thoughts on “Signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence”

    1. Robert Frederick

      In 1766 my 5th great Grandfather was a member of the Mecklenburg milita. My 4th great grandfather with the Polk family traveled to Rutherford Tennessee yet their is very little written about them. I would love to have some verifiable info on the Frederick and Kennedy clans of Mecklenburg N. Carolina

  1. John Foard is often misrepresented as the name on the document. Real name is Joseph Forney.
    This was confirmed by his sons: Peter Forney, Abraham Forney, William Graham,Abraham Alexander. In their letters, correspondence, pamphlet. In C.L Hunter “sketches of Western North Carolina published 1877.

  2. I believe Ezra Alexander was a brother of Abraham Alexander, not his son. His son named Ezra was born in 1772 according to Find-A-Grave, so could not have been one of the signers. Abraham was born in 1717 or 1718 and Ezra was born about 1720. I believe Ezra’s wife was Mary Polk, though there is some question about whether she was married to this Ezra or to the son of Andrew Alexander, Ezra’s brother.

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