Saturday, July 03, 2010

Happy Independence Day

I recently found out I am a direct descendant of Captain Benjamin Merrill:

In 1753, Benjamin Merrill moved from New Jersey to Rowan County, North Carolina. He was a Baptist, a gunsmith and farmed hundreds of acres not far from the Yadkin River in the Jersey settlement in what is now Davidson County. Merrill was a Captain in the militia whose primary purpose was to protect the settlers from Indians in the area. Indian warfare did not reach the Yadkin but the Militia became known later as the Regulators. The British appointed tax assessors, tax collectors and attorneys charged exorbitant fees of the settlers and if the settlers could not pay they would take cattle or other property from the farmers. The regulators attempted to correct this situation and stop the corruption. Merrill was in the forefront of the leaders in Rowan County and he was to pay dearly for that position.

In early March 1771, only two months before the Battle of Alamance, Merrill and 400 to 500 Regulators and sympathizers met in the woods between Salisbury and the Yadkin River to talk with some of the local court officers and leaders. The sides reached an agreement to arbitrate grievances. Governor Tryon later rejected this agreement which included compensation for overcharges made by court officers. Few, if any from this area was at the Alamance battlefield. Instead, they were with a large force of Regulators, including Captain Merrill, who came face-to-face in the Jersey area with a troop of other militia led by General Waddell. There was no fighting because General Waddell, who was on his way to join Tryon at Alamance, was badly outnumbered and he had lost much of his supplies to a surprise raid by Cabarrus Black Boys. Waddell returned to Salisbury and the Regulators returned to their homes.

On May 31, 1771, Governor Tryon issued a Proclamation offering pardon to all who would lay down arms, take the oath of allegiance and promise to pay all taxes due now and in the future. The exception to this pardon was Merrill and at least 13 others.

Tryon’s forces marched deeper into the Piedmont area after the Battle of Alamance to terrorize the Regulators and their families. All three of Tryon’s troops reached and camped in the Jersey area in the final days of May 1771. They not only camped but they also foraged and destroyed. Edmund Fanning, the notorious Hillsborough Court Official, who had been humiliated by the Regulators, was commander of a division camping on Merrill’s land. It was undoubtedly his troops who surprised Merrill at his plantation in Jersey, took him prisoner on June 1 and took Merrill to Hillsborough for trial as a traitor. Fourteen were actually tried on June 18. Two were found innocent and 12 guilty. Of the 12, six including Merrill were condemned to hang. The other six were reprieved until His Majesty’s pleasure be known.

In sentencing them, Chief Justice Howard said: “I must now close my afflicting duty by pronouncing upon you the awful sentence of the law, which is that you, Benjamin Merrill, be carried to the place from which you came; that you be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive; that your bowels be taken out while you are yet alive and burnt before your face; that your head be cut off, and your body divided into four quarters, and this is to be at his Majesty’s disposal; and the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” This was the punishment prescribed by British law for traitors; however, it was seldom followed in this country. Mrs. Merrill and eight or ten of their children witnessed the execution; some say they were forced to witness it.

Before he was hanged, Merrill was given the opportunity to speak. He made the customary profession of faith and expressed his hope for salvation. He also said: “In a few minutes I shall leave a widow and ten children. I entreat that no reflection be cast on them on my account and, if possible, I shall deem it a bounty, should you gentlemen petition the Governor and Council that some part of my estate may be spared to the widow and Fatherless.” A Tryon soldier, commenting on Merrill’s words, said death by hanging would be considered an honor if all who suffered it were of Merrill’s character.

Tryon asked the colonial secretary in England to honor Merrill’s request and Governor Josiah Martin, who succeeded Tryon, received notice from the Earl of Hillsborough that it was “his Majesty’s pleasure,” to re-grant the lands and properties to the widow and children. The widow never recovered from the shock of watching here husband’s death and became blind for the rest of her life.

This historical marker was erected on the northwest corner of the square in Lexington, NC:


The historical marker below is at Hillsborough, NC where Merrill was sentenced to hang:


1 comment:

Justin said...

Good lord. Wow.