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
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
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
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
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
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
1. Nelson, Paul David. William Tryon and the Course of an Empire: A Life in
Imperial Service. The University of North Carolina Press,
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 Carolina."
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: 1953.
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:
12. Stumpf, Vernon O. Josiah Martin: The Last Royal Governor of North
Carolina Academic Press for the Kellenberger Foundation: