North Carolina Regulators

Ten years before the start of the American Revolution, backcountry settlers in the North Carolina Piedmont launched their own defiant bid for economic independence and political liberty. The Regulator Rebellion of 1766-71 pitted thousands of farmers, many of them religious radicals inspired by the Great Awakening, against political and economic elites who opposed the Regulators' proposed reforms. The conflict culminated on May 16, 1771, when a colonial militia defeated more than 2,000 armed farmers in a pitched battle near Hillsborough. At least 6,000 Regulators and sympathizers were forced to swear their allegiance to the government as the victorious troops undertook a punitive march through Regulator settlements. Seven farmers were hanged.
Using sources that include diaries, church minutes, legal papers, and the richly detailed accounts of the Regulators themselves, Marjoleine Kars delves deeply into the world and ideology of free rural colonists. She examines the rebellion's economic, religious, and political roots and explores its legacy in North Carolina and beyond. The compelling story of the Regulator Rebellion reveals just how sharply elite and popular notions of independence differed on the eve of the Revolution.

More from her book:

On Wednesday morning, June 19, 1771, six prisoners were taken out of jail in Hillsborough, a small village in the North Carolina Piedmont. The men had been condemned to die for their participation in the Regulation, a farmers' reform movement that had just been defeated by Governor William Tryon's army in an encounter at Alamance Creek. Soldiers marched the prisoners to a field on a small hill overlooking the Eno River just east of the twenty-year-old town. The area had been carefully cleared to provide a better view for those compelled to watch. On orders of the governor, the soldiers arranged themselves around the hastily erected gallows. In front of a hushed crowd, which included the wives and children of some of the condemned men, the six farmers were hanged.[1] Among those who watched the executions were many of the major participants in the dramatic events of the previous five years. In front of the crowd stood Governor Tryon, a proud, short-tempered man. Born in 1729, the year that North Carolina became a crown colony, Tryon had become governor of the province in 1765. He had been helped by Lord Hillsborough, an influential in-law who was a member of the Board of Trade and later secretary for the colonies. Tryon had first ignored the farmers' grievances and, later on, had vigorously opposed the Regulators; he had done much to escalate the conflict. Standing by him were many prominent eastern North Carolinians. These men, many of whom had vigorously opposed the Stamp Act and would soon emerge as leaders of the independence movement, had come west with the governor to subdue the Piedmont farmers with military force. A second group of participants consisted of Piedmont public officials and merchants, the Regulators' main antagonists. Chief among them was Col. Edmund Fanning of Hillsborough. At thirty-four years of age, he was the most powerful man in the Piedmont. Educated at Yale and Harvard, Fanning had come to Hillsborough in 1760; that same year he was appointed a town commissioner and elected to represent Orange County in the General Assembly of North Carolina. He quickly established himself as a prominent and increasingly wealthy lawyer who held numerous influential posts in Orange County. He was a close friend of Governor Tryon. The majority of the spectators were farming men and women who had participated in the Regulation or were sympathetic to its aims. Many would have known the hanged men well. These people, all of them relatively recent immigrants to the colony, had begun their organized actions in 1766. In that year, a group of farmers living in Orange County on Sandy Creek off Deep River, about twenty miles southwest of Hillsborough, started the Sandy Creek Association. Its main aims were to combat corruption among local officials and to increase participation of farmers in the political system. The core of the organization consisted of a number of radical Protestants, mostly Quakers, led by Herman Husband, a prosperous farmer from Maryland, who had first come to the Piedmont in the mid-1750s and had settled on Sandy Creek permanently in 1762. Husband quickly became one of the main spokesmen for the farmers' movement, as well as its chief chronicler and ideologue. His powerful ideas about social justice were tremendously influential among Piedmont farmers. Within two years of its organization, the Sandy Creek Association ceased to exist, but the seeds for more widespread resistance had been sown; early in 1768 many of its members joined with other reform-minded farmers under the name of "Regulators" to indicate they intended to "regulate" and reform government abuse. The term "regulator" had first been used in this way in England in 1655 and had since entered into common usage. Regulators organized not only in Orange County, but throughout the Piedmont counties of Anson, Rowan, and Mecklenburg as well.[2] Regulators pursued legal and extralegal means to put a stop to practices by local officials that they considered extortionate. They repeatedly petitioned the governor and the assembly, tried to set up meetings with local officials, and brought suits against officials. When such legal measures had little effect, they resorted to extralegal action: they refused to pay taxes, repossessed property seized for public sale to satisfy debts and taxes, and disrupted court proceedings. In September 1768, Governor Tryon and his militia confronted a large number of Regulators outside of Hillsborough but violence was avoided. Two years later, a large group of Regulators disrupted the superior court in Hillsborough, beat up a number of lawyers, merchants, and officials, and destroyed the home of Edmund Fanning. The authorities retaliated forcefully. Almost as soon as the assembly opened later that fall, Herman Husband, who had been elected a legislator for Orange County in 1769, was accused of libel, expelled from the assembly, and jailed. Next, the assemblymen passed a sweeping Riot Act that, among other things, gave Governor Tryon the authority and funds he needed to raise the militia and march against the Regulators. On May 16, 1771, about 1,000 militiamen confronted upward of 2,000 farmers on a field near Alamance Creek about twenty miles west of Hillsborough. Two hours after the first shot was fired, 17 to 20 farmers lay dead, along with 9 militiamen; more than 150 men on both sides were wounded. One Regulator was hanged on the spot without benefit of trial; the 6 men executed on June 19 had been hastily tried in Hillsborough. At least 6,000 Regulators and sympathizers took the oath of allegiance as the victorious troops undertook a punitive march through backcountry settlements. Some of the best-known Regulator leaders fled the province. By summer, the Regulation had been suppressed. This book seeks to understand why Piedmont farmers fought the War of the Regulation, risking their farms, the well-being of their families, and even their lives.

An essay on the Regulators' Revolt:

North Carolina Regulators The North Carolina Regulators were a group of people who rebelled against corrupt government officials. The people experienced strong feelings of discontent with the way in which the provincial governmentís officials were conducting the affairs. The government officials were running the colony both unfairly and unjustly. Many small groups of people formed. After the spring of 1768 when the small groups allied , they called themselves the Regulators. The Wealthy colonists considered these Regulators to be ďa mob.Ē North Carolina had a lack of supervision from the British monarchy. The colony was isolated from the rest of the country by numerous swamps, bad road conditions and unnavigable rivers. Therefore the government officials of North Carolina became independent, in a very unfair and unjust way to the people of North Carolina, such as excessive taxes, dishonest sheriffs, and illegal fees. The injustice of the government officials urged the Regulators for justice. The once peaceful negotiators became violent, and lawless from the slowness of legal remedies taking place. The Regulators refused to pay fees, and terrorized those who administered the law. They also disrupted court proceedings. The Regulators first tried negotiations; it was the injustice of the government officials that made them resort to violence. The Regulators intentions were not to terrorize the government officials, but only to find justice. The regulators fight for justice was a problem for royal Governor William Tryon, who wanted the Regulators revolt to stop. The governorís council was determined to crush the Regulators. General Hugh Waddell was ordered to approach Hillsborough by way of Salisbury and Governor Tryon and his army proceeded more directly towards Hillsborough. General Waddell had a small force of 284 men. The Regulators saw this and attacked General Waddellís troops. The Regulators almost 2,000 men strong sent General Waddell and his troops in a quick retreat. Tryon heard of this and brought his forces to go to Waddellís rescue. A battle began. Tryonís, the much better trained, equipped, and organized army, crushed the Regulators. The only thing the Regulators wanted was justice. Thatís what they were fighting for. They were abused by the government officials in such away that it caused them to revolt. The Regulators were killed in battle, wounded, captured, and executed. Some were pardoned in exchange for pledging an oath of allegiance to the royal government. The War of Regulations was a foreplay to the American Revolution. The Regulators opposed Royal authority with confidence. It was a lesson of armed resistance, a lesson that would be used in the War for Independence.

New River Notes on the Regulators' Revolt are here.