Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Battle of Alamance: The “Cultured” East Verses the “Barbarian” West

In America’s frontier history you can find a theme of the eastern establishment battling it out with the expanding western population. Much of this had to do with control and access of local government, taxes, and western lands and resources. It also had to do with the regulation of laws and justice. Two groups with the same name sprang up in South Carolina and North Carolina during the late colonial period to better “regulate” the frontier. Both groups would leave a legacy that would color America's Western Experience.

In South Carolina the problem for the Regulators was a lack of government in the backcountry. All matters dealing with land purchases, licenses and fees, and law and justice was administered from Charleston and the coastal areas of South Carolina. Backcountry residents had to travel quite a ways to take care of and respond to common and daily functions of government. They also found that without local government it was hard to pursue justice against frontier bandits and outlaws who had sprang up in its void. So, the South Carolina Regulators took the law in their own hands and began to administer vigilante justice to better regulate the backcountry. They were some of the first recorded vigilantes in America. Vigilante justice would be found on each subsequent frontier where there was a void of law. Within several years, due to the loud protests of the backcountry population for their daily inconveniences and their ongoing vigilante actions the government in Charleston relented and gave the backcountry new local governments in order to pacify the general population and to build relationships with those elite who would govern them. The South Carolina Regulators disappeared just before the coming of the Revolution.

In North Carolina the Regulators had another focus. Here their concerns were over the corruption found in local government where some elites collected exorbitant and illegal fees to amass their own fortunes. One who was notorious was Edmund Fanning the register of deeds for Orange County and a colonel in the local militia. Residents in the backcountry were also upset that the elite took the very best lands and often held onto it without settling. They were hoping to profit through land speculation. They routinely evicted any squatters. In addition, residents found that the system of taxation bore heavily on westerners. There was a provision in the law that said that payment in kind was prohibited. They could not trade their goods or services to pay public debts. Only hard currency or specie was accepted. The westerners had little specie and many could not pay their taxes or debts and were imprisoned as a result.

One of the reasons for collecting such high taxes was the building of Tryon Palace in New Bern on the coast. It was built between 1767 and 1770 for the royal governor of North Carolina: William Tyron. Today it is known as Tyron Palace. It was a very elegant Georgian structure with a sense of opulence and grandeur. It was also to be North Carolina’s first permanent capitol. But the 1000’s of pounds needed to build it had impacted relations between those on the coast and those on the backcountry frontier.

Not able to find relief from a corrupt government and excessive taxes by peaceful means the situation deteriorated into violence. The Regulators defiantly refused to pay what they saw as illegal fees and high, unfair taxes. They terrorized those who tried to administer the law by arresting people who could not pay in specie or pay at all and they disrupted court proceedings. By 1770 a group of mostly Scotch-Irish farmers calling themselves the Regulators descended on Orange County courthouse in Hillsborough, North Carolina and beat up several officers of the court and wrecked Edmund Fanning’s house. The North Carolina government on the coast, hearing of these actions, passed the Riot Act and proclaimed that actions of protest and violence were punishable by death. The Regulators then counter threatened to march on New Bern. This threat, however, led to Governor Tryon advancing into the backcountry with eastern militia made up of almost 1,000 men. He would face a disorganized Regulator force of nearly 2,000.

On May 16th, 1771 on the banks of the Alamance River about eight miles south of today’s Burlington, North Carolina, the Regulators rejected Governor Tryon’s request to disperse peacefully. The rebellion was immediately crushed. Over 300 Regulators were killed and the rest were scattered as they fled for safety. Only 9 militia men were killed and 61 wounded. Tyron took 15 prisoners and hung them to illustrate a point about the power of royal and eastern government and its control. Many Regulators who stayed were offered pardons by the governor in exchange for an oath of allegiance to the royal government. After this, reforms were made to combat the corruption in royal government in the backcountry. Fees and Taxes were also reduced. This helped to bring a period of peace before the Revolution.

Some of the Regulators chose to leave North Carolina. They chose to flee across the mountains and beyond the Proclamation Line of 1763 to eastern Tennessee where they could live their lives not encumbered by royal or eastern government. Some historians have pointed out that this conflict between royal prerogative and local prerogative as a precursor to the American Revolution And in fact, some of these men, formerly known as Regulators would shortly be known as the Overmountain Men, and would be the ones who re-crossed the mountains during the American Revolution and contributed to the Patriot Victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

The struggle between the tidewater and the Piedmont is an old theme in American history. Easterners tended to view Westerners as uncivilized backwoodsmen. Easterners also thought they had the legal and moral responsibility to ensure the West was settled in a orderly fashion. Many believed it was also their right to exploit the West and Westerners. Westerners resented these beliefs. They wanted local government and believed they knew best how to run their own affairs. They also hated absentee landowners who forbid settlement on their lands as they hoped to make money in land speculation. Likewise for others who hoped to exploit their hard work. Westerners really just wanted the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor without being exploited by elites whether they were eastern dandies or royal officials. The Battle of Alamance and its aftermath was the first of many calls in American history to flee to the West to seek liberty, freedom, and fortunes on the wild western frontier.

The work I consulted in helping me to write this blog was:

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History 1585-1776, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Inc, 1992; second edition 1996, pp. 460-462.


  1. These men were also forced to pay taxes to the Church of England. Most of these men were Baptist and Presbyterian, some Quakers etc. This also frustrated them.

    After the battle of Alamance, many of these men moved to the Watauga settlement and other points in the Western part of the state and show up again fighting in the battle of Kings Mountain.

  2. Of the 6,000 regulators in the area, those that stayed were forced to vow allegience to the king. These same men were also the first called on by the British when the Revolutionary War began.

  3. i hava a revolutionary timeline do in 2 weeks but fortunitly got it done today:]

  4. why is the civil war more talked about then the revolutionary war

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Joshua Teague was my ancestor at the battle.