In the struggles of the Regulators against the extortions of Governor Tryon and the crown officers, the spirit of the people of Rowan was plainly manifested. In March, 1770, Maurice Moore, one of the Colonial Judges, attended Salisbury to hold the Superior Court. He reported to Governor Tryon at Newbern that “from the opposition of the people to the taxes, no process of the law could be executed among them.”
Upon this information Governor Tryon repaired in person to Salisbury. In his original journal, procured from the archives of the State Paper office in London by the Honorable George Bancroft, late our envoy at that Court, we can see his actions, and admire the spirit of a Captain Knox, who refused to join him with his troops. Violent as were the acts of the Regulators, the subsequent oppressive measures of the crown officers justified their conduct. The Clerk of Rowan county (Thomas Frohock) was allowed to charge “fifteen dollars” for a marriage license. The effect of this official extortion was such as to constrain some of the inhabitants on the head-waters of the Yadkin river to “”take a short cut”,” as it was termed in uniting their conjugal ties for “better or for worse,” as man and wife.
The indignation of the people of Rowan, Guilford, Orange, and other counties, was aroused against such official misconduct. On the 7th of March, 1771, a public meeting was held in Salisbury, when a large and influential committee was appointed, who, armed with the authority of the people, met the clerk, sheriff, and other officers of the crown, and compelled them to disgorge their unlawful extortions. By a writing signed by these officers, they agreed to settle and pay back all moneys received over and above, their lawful fees.
This was indemnity for the past. The security for the future was, that when any doubt should arise as to fees, they should not be paid to the officers themselves, but to such other persons as were appointed by the people.
Matthew Locke and Herman Husbands were among those selected to receive these lawful fees. An instance, says Wheeler, “of more determined resistance, or of purer democracy, is not to be found in the annals of any people.”
Most of the histories of the day have done the Regulators great injustice, and denounced this whole body of men as composed of a factious and turbulent mob, who, without proper cause, disturbed the public tranquility. Nothing could be more untrue or unjust. Their assemblages were orderly, and some evidence of the temper and characters of the principal actors may be gathered from the fact that from these meetings, by a law of their own, they vigorously excluded all intoxicating drinks. But they had been oppressed and exasperated by the impositions of corrupt officers until forbearance, with them, had ceased to be a a virtue. On their side was the spirit of liberty, animating the discordant multitude, but, unfortunately, without trained leaders, or a sufficiency of arms, going forth to make its first essay at battle on American soil. Redress of grievances was sought at first by the Regulators in a quiet way, by resorting to the courts of law. The officers were indicted and found guilty, but the punishment was the mere nominal one of “a penny and costs.” In short, all resorts to the tribunals of justice ended in a perfect mockery, and hastened the “War of the Regulation” in North Carolina.
The public press of that day was used by the Regulators in a peaceable way to set forth their grievances. Their productions, circulated in manuscript, or in print, display no proofs of high scholarship, or of polished writing, but there is a truthful earnestness in some of them, and cogency of reasoning more effective than the skill of the mere rhetorician. Sometimes they appeared in ballad form, and sometimes as simple narrative. The rough poet of the period (the American Revolution can boast of many) was Rednap Howell, who taught the very children to sing, in doggerel verse, the infamy of the proud officials who were trampling on their rights. A short selection from the many similar ones will be here presented for the amusement of the reader.
“Says Frohock to Fanning, to tell the plain truth, When I came to this country, I was but a youth; My father sent for me; I wasn’t worth a cross, And then my first study was stealing a horse, I quickly got credit, and then ran away, And haven’t paid for him to this very day. Says Fanning to Frohock, ’tis folly to lie, I rode an old mare that was blind of one eye; Five shillings in money I had in my purse, My coat was all patched, but not much the worse; But “now” we’ve got rich, and its very well known. That we’ll do very well, “if they’ll let us alone”.”
The truthful sentiment conveyed in the last line will find many fit illustrations in our own times.
The power of the Royal government was called into requisition to put down this “Regulation” movement. The military spirit of Tryon resolved to appeal to the sword. On the 24th of April, 1771, he left Newbern at the head of three hundred men, a small train of artillery, and with a considerable number of his adherents. General Waddell was sent forward to Salisbury to raise troops, munitions of war having been previously ordered from Charleston. While he was in Salisbury waiting for the arrival of this supply of warlike munitions, the “Black Boys” of what is now Cabarrus county, under the lead of “Black Bill Alexander,” seized the convoy of wagons, and completely destroyed the “King’s powder,” well knowing it was intended to obey the behest of a tyrannical Governor. When Waddell advanced his troops from Salisbury to join Tryon, the bold sons of Rowan rose in arms and ordered him back. On the 10th of May, 1771, at Potts’ Creek, he held a council of his officers, and they, believing “prudence to be the better part of valor,” fell back, and recrossed the Yadkin. Waddell soon found that many of his own men sympathised with the cause of the Regulators. He promptly sent a message to Tryon, then encamped on Eno, informing him of his critical situation. Tryon hastened on with his forces, crossed Haw river on the 13th of May, and, on the next evening, pitched his camp on the bank of the Alamance. On the 16th of May, 1771, the unfortunate battle of Alamance was fought in which was shed the “first blood” of the American Revolution. After that disastrous event, in which, for want of skilful leaders, and concert among their men, the Regulators were subdued, the bloody “Wolf of North Carolina,” as Tryon was called by the Cherokee Indians, advanced in all “the pomp and circumstance” of official station, and joined Waddell on the 4th of June, near Salisbury, about eight miles east of the Yadkin river. He then marched by a circuitous route to Hillsboro, where he had court held to try the Regulators, by his pliant tool, Judge Howard. On the 20th he left Hillsboro, and reached Newbern on the 24th; and on the 30th left North Carolina for the colony of New York, over which he had just been appointed Governor. Thus was our State rid of one who had acted the part of an oppressive ruler and a blood-thirsty tyrant.
The efforts of Tryon had been too successful in enlisting under his banners, before the designs of the British government were openly discovered, many of the bravest and best officers of his day. Caswell, Ashe, Waddell, Rutherford, and other distinguished persons who gave in their adhesion to Governor Tryon in 1771, only three years later, at the first Provincial Congress, directly from the people, held at Newbern on the 25th of August, 1774, were found to be true patriots, when it became apparent the entire subjugation of the country was the object of the British crown. To the first assemblage of patriots, adverse to the oppressions of the British government, held at Newbern in August, 1774, the delegates from Rowan were William Kennon, Moses Winslow and Samuel Young.
To the same place, in April, 1775, the delegates were Griffith Rutherford, William Sharpe and William Kennon.
To Hillsboro, on the 21st of August, 1775, the delegates were Matthew Locke, William Sharpe, Moses Winslow, William Kennon, Samuel Young and James Smith. This Provincial Congress appointed as Field Officers and Minute Men, for Salisbury District, Thomas Wade, of Anson, Colonel; Adlai Osborne, of Rowan, Lieutenant Colonel; Joseph Harben, Major.
To Halifax, on the 22d of April, 1776, Rowan sent Rutherford Griffith and Matthew Locke as delegates.
At this assembly Griffith Rutherford was appointed Brigadier General of the Salisbury District; Francis Locke, Colonel of Rowan; Alexander Dobbins, Lieutenant Colonel; James Brandon, 1st Major; James Smith, 2d Major.
To the Congress at Halifax, November 12th, 1776, which formed the first Constitution, the delegates were Griffith Rutherford, Matthew Locke, William Sharpe, James Smith and John Brevard.
In 1775 the Royal government ceased in North Carolina by the retreat of Governor Martin.
The Civil Government, vested in:
- A Provincial Council for the whole State, composed of two members from each Judicial District, and one for the State at large, who was chairman and “de facto” Governor.
- Committees of Safety for the towns; and
- County Committees of Safety, a part of whose duty it was to arrest suspicious persons, and take especial care that the public interest suffered no detriment.
The journal of the Committee of Safety for Rowan county, from the 8th of August, 1774, to the 17th of May, 1776, has been preserved, and throws much light on the patriotic transactions of that exciting period in our Revolutionary history. The journal in full may be seen in Wheeler’s “Historical Sketches.”