A recent trip to New Bern on business left Lani and me with a half-day of vacation to look around one of the oldest towns in the state — and one of the most historic as a result. During our wanderings, I was reminded of a part of North Carolina history that had dimmed over time.
The first capital of the state was right here in this port city, a few miles up the Trent River from the coastline. That made sense as the colony became settled, because in a world of horse travel and bad roads, it was easier to get around on a ship than any other mode of transport.
Along with capital location came the associated Colonial government. One early governor, William Tryon, decided that the king’s representative and elected body needed a fitting place to live and meet, so he built what is now called Tryon Palace. At the time it was finished in 1769, it was considered one of the finest buildings in the 13 Colonies. Built of brick, it included a stable on one wing and the kitchen house on the other.
The main structure burned down in 1799, and the site remained in disrepair until the North Carolina government had it reconstructed according to the original plans and details. A few of the original furnishings were traced down and are part of the tour. The rest are representative of the period. Nonethe-less, it’s a tour worth taking, as it gives the sense of what life for the ruling class must have been like at that time.
In fact, the kitchen house was most interesting, because it is a working space to this day. Women in period costume cook with the technology of the day — an open fire in a giant fireplace — using the produce from a garden out the side door. Those vegetable gardens are part of a much larger garden layout, and some of them are in the formal English style.
During my tour of the kitchen, I met a woman named Susan Griffin. Susan is an employee, a tour supervisor and a transplant to the Old North State. She knows her Tar Heel history, though. While we waited to get permission to take her photo in costume, she gave me a recap of the role North Carolina played leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And she made it plain, as we march toward the 250th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing, that the celebration should start in North Carolina.
Then she spelled out the reasons this is so. Early seeds of discord began to surface in 1765, a full 10 years before the battles of Lexington and Concord, which led to the Revolutionary War. Back-country pioneers in the areas now encompassed by Orange, Rowan, Anson, Granville and Cumberland counties began to resist the crown’s effort to collect heavy taxes imposed by wealthy officials.
There is ample evidence they had a legitimate beef. According to Wikipedia, debt cases in the courts went up 16-fold in the period from 1755 to 1765 in Orange County alone.
The Regulators’ aim was to form a more honest government, and the power structure saw the movement as a serious threat to the wealthy landowners’ control of the government. The tension ruptured in 1771 in what is known as the Battle of Alamance.
A force of 1,000 trained soldiers, led by Tryon, met an undisciplined and untrained group of Regulators on May 19, 1771. In the short-lived battle, about nine men from each side were killed. Most of the Regulators were pardoned afterward, except for seven men who led the uprising.
There was enough tension throughout the colony in 1775 that Josiah Martin fled his post as royal governor, seeking protection from Lord Cornwallis’ army in Wilmington, and eventually moving to New York. The assembly in New Bern was effectively in charge of ruling the state, the first time that had occurred.
There was also trouble in Mecklenburg as early as 1765 for many of the same reasons, but violence was mainly aimed toward surveyors who were in charge of designating land ownership. Many of the settlers there were frontiersmen who simply settled on the land they found.
A few years later, those same settlers in “that trifling place,” as George Washington described Charlotte, signed a document called the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 20, 1775, a date you will still find on the North Carolina state flag.
It is disputed as authentic, since there are no actual copies of it, and it may be confused with the Mecklenburg Resolves, which stopped short of avowing independence from the crown. But it is a definite indication that Boston wasn’t the only place chaffing from Colonial rule. You may recall that Mecklenburg was called “the hornet’s nest of the rebellion” by British General Lord Cornwallis as he passed through on his way from Kings Mountain to Guilford Court House, in present-day Greensboro.
And it was at the Battle of Guilford Court House that Gen. Nathanial Green met Cornwallis and inflicted so much sting during the battle that Cornwallis, who had brought the war south because of his stronghold around Charleston, retired to Wilmington, another stronghold, to rest, restock and plan his next moves. The British forces ended up sailing to the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia — where he was trapped by Washington’s army, effectively ending the war.
So it can be said with confidence that a critical turning point in the Revolutionary War took place right up the road in the city named for the commander of that ragtag army of citizen soldiers, General Nathanial Green.
His role in the success of the war is not fully appreciated, because his commander, Washington, is rightfully recognized as the father of the country — not just because of his leadership during the war, but because of his role in shaping the country once freedom was achieved. No one but Washington could have done what he did, because no one else could have pulled all the parts together. But Green’s record on the battlefield at least comparable to Washington’s.
They say that history is written by the victors, and because the literary and publishing worlds developed during the early 1800s in the larger cities of the North, the story of North Carolina’s role in the unrest and the Revolutionary War that followed has always been downplayed in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
North Carolina added no intellectual lights to the discussion leading to the Declaration of Independence, as did Virginia, but the rough-and-tumble settlers at the edge of civilization had the courage to stand up for their rights at a very early point in the eventual breakaway. And their unrest was heard and noted faraway as the rift between crown and colony took root.
As we begin to look ahead over the coming decade at all of these important dates and events, be aware of our state’s place in it. Yes, Lexington and Concord were important, as was the Boston Massacre. But so was the War of the Regulators right here.
So, as Susan Griffin said during our tour, let those celebrations begin in North Carolina, where they belong, and trickle up to Philadelphia and Boston, when they belong.