North Carolina Leads the Way to Independence Day

Fay Mitchell

The road to the American Revolutionary War is paved with milestones in North Carolina. From a backcountry skirmish, to the Edenton Tea Party and Halifax Resolves, the passions and the actions of these early settlers were a model and inspiration in the march toward independence.

The year was 1771 and some backcountry colonial farmers in North Carolina were fighting mad. They were upset by excessive taxes, dishonest sheriffs, and illegal fees. Scarcity of money and the construction of Governor William Tryon’s palace with imposed fees fed the unrest.

When peaceful negotiations failed, the reformers, called Regulators, turned to violence, lawlessness and terrorism. They refused to pay fees, disrupted court proceedings and ultimately took up arms. Royal Governor Tryon called out the militia and marched from New Bern with 1,000 armed and trained militiamen to quell the unrest. The Regulators were defeated at the Battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771. Having inadequate arms, ammunition or training, many of the Regulators fled and the rebellion was crushed. Although defeated, the actions of the backcountry farmers became a model for other colonists and a prelude to the Revolutionary War.

A key figure in the Battle of Alamance was Richard Caswell, Speaker of the House in the Colonial Assembly. He led Gov. Tryon’s right wing in the battle that effectively ended the War of Regulation. But the times and tide were changing. Less than five years later, in February 1776, Caswell led Patriot forces in the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge to a victory that marked the end of British rule in North Carolina. Caswell was appointed acting governor in December 1776, elected in April 1777, and became the first state governor to live in Tryon Palace.

While backcountry farmers took up armed resistance on the western frontier, the genteel ladies of Edenton protested through tea. Notwithstanding the reliance of the colonists on British tea and other imports, on October 25, 1774, fifty-one women in Edenton resolved to stop buying tea and British imports. The women drew up the resolves, signed and mailed the document to England, and the action became known as the Edenton Tea Party, likely a nod to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. 

The document indicates not a meeting, but an agreement, and was among the first public political acts by women in America. Although not recorded in America, an account appeared in the “Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser” in January 1775, along with a satirical cartoon. A North Carolina naval officer purchased a rendering of the cartoon while abroad in 1827 and local citizens subsequently tried to piece together what happened.

Tensions were high all over the colony as leaders met in the town of Halifax for the state’s Fourth Provincial Congress. That body unanimously adopted a document called the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776, that was the first official action by a colony recommending independence from Britain. This was months before the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

Separation from Britain was a protracted struggle. Groups of citizen-soldiers called Whigs battled Tories, who were loyal to King George III, in irregular warfare along the state’s western frontier. One such incident was a skirmish at the home of Whig colonel Philip Alston, on the morning of July 20, 1781. Alston and his men were camped at the house when attacked by a larger group of Tories. Under notorious leader David Fanning, the Tories rolled a cart of burning straw toward the house attempting to light it afire. The house was not burned, but was left riddled with bullet holes that remain visible in the House in the Horseshoe today.

In November 1776, Gov. Richard Caswell moved into Tryon Palace as the first state governor after Royal Gov. Josiah Martin fled as Patriot forces approached New Bern. Martin’s predecessor, Royal Gov. William Tryon, assumed office in March 1765 and requested a grand building for the seat of government. He was granted £5,000 by the colonial assembly for that purpose and in 1768 and additional £10,000 was granted. The extravagance of “Tryon’s Palace” or “Tryon’s Folly” enraged many settlers on the western frontier and contributed to the Regulator Movement and the War of Regulation.

Tryon Palace reflected the change of North Carolina from a colony to a state, as the fledging nation came into being. North Carolina governors resided in Tryon Palace until Raleigh became the state capital. The palace was destroyed by fire in 1798, but original drawings were found and the palace was restored and reopened in 1959. Along with Alamance Battleground, Richard Caswell Memorial, Historic Edenton, and Historic Halifax, all state historic sites, it remains as a testament to the desire of a people to be an independent nation.