Primary Source: Edmund Fanning Reports to Governor Tryon

From 1768 to 1771, the flames of local discontent against colonial officials were fanned by loyalist and colonial official Edmund Fanning. In addition to being a loyalist, Fanning was a lawyer and land speculator and held a number of government posts, including town commissioner in Hillsborough, member of the Colonial Assembly from Orange County, public register in Orange County, and a judgeship. Locals accused him of imposing excessive fees that colonists would have paid to the county for activities like recording deeds for real estate transfers. Fanning was seriously disliked by local residents and may have made himself even more unpopular through his friendship with Governor Tryon and through his tactics at buying up significant parcels of land in Hillsborough.

As the tension between the colonial government and the Regulators began to increase, Fanning reported back to Governor Tryon on their activities in April 1768 and their efforts to direct their anger at him. Below is a transcription of the letter written by Fanning to Tryon on April 23, 1768. The letter shows how the Regulators were seen by colonial officials and it includes annotations with additional historical information.

I want words to express the concern I feelThat is, he lacks the proper words to express his concern. (You may have heard want used to mean poverty, the way we would now talk about people "in need."), while I communicate to your Excellency the wretched and deplorable situation of this County; this my present uneasiness is greatly aggravated from a sense of the concern it must give you, & being informed that the late orderly and well regulated County of Orange, is now (O my favourite County and people how art thou fallen) the very nest and bosom of rioting and rebellion -- The People are now in every part and Corner of the County, meeting, conspiring, and confederating by solemn oath and open violence to refuse the payment of Taxes and to prevent the execution of Law, threatening death and immediate destruction to myself and others, requiring settlements of the Public, Parish and County Taxes, to be made before their leaders -- Clerks, Sheriffs, Registers, Attornies and all Officers of every degree and station to be arraigned at the Bar of their Shallow UnderstandingA lawyer joke. To be arraigned is to brought before a court to answer a criminal charge. The term bar, of course, represents lawyer, the law, or the court, in the sense of a Bar Association. That use of “bar” is a metonym, a use of a word to mean something else with which it’s closely associated. The bar is a literal bar or barrier that separates the front of a courtroom, where the judge, attorneys, and witnesses sit, from the back, where the public may sit. To literally “pass the bar” you have to be a lawyer, and so today we use “pass the bar” to mean becoming a laywer. And, of course, “their shallow understanding” means that Fanning doesn’t think the Regulators are all that bright. Like most jokes, this one wasn’t really worth all that explanation. But now you know. and to be punished and regulated at their Will, and in a word, for them to become the sovereign arbiters of right and wrong. This Contagion and spirit of rebellion (for surely Sir it is rank rebellion) took its rise in the lower part of Anson spread itself into Orange and encouraged by some of the principal men of Cumberland (as I am informed & verily believe) became considerable -- On my return from Salisbury Supr Court hearing of the Conspiracy I convened four of the Head men before me and expatiated to them on the folly and madness of their conduct and three out of four readily acknowledged the impropriety of their conduct, confessed a clear conviction of their error and made me a promise to put an end to it as far as in their Power. I dismissed them and expected to hear no more of it -- But alas I find it was not to be effected...

[I] this day got all the information in my power of the state situation and number of the regulators (as they are pleased to call themselves, tho' by Lawyers they must be termed rebels and Traitors) and learn that on this day they have a grand Association and that on the 3rd day of May they are to environ the Town with fifteen hundred men & then to execute their vengeance on me and if not satisfied in every particular to their desire (which is impossible) why then to lay the Town in ashes &c. but I cannot believe them anything like so numerous, neither do I apprehend such inevitable death as the universal Panick and the popular cry seems to suggest and threaten -- Colo Gray, Major Lloyd, Captain Hart, Adjutant Nash & Captain Thackston seem to think that not above one hundred men can be raised in this County who will with spirit and courage oppose them, for say they those who are not for them will not fight against them. Unluckily for the cause of Government the County Court is next week to be held in this Town and considering the prevalency of that PartyFanning means “party” in the sense of a political party, but in the eighteenth century the word had a negative connotation. A party was a faction or group of people who had set themselves up in opposition to established authority or to the mainstream, with private goals that might differ from the public good. (Of course, politicians today talk about partisanship in the same way — everyone thinks they’re for the public good, and the other guys are being “partisan.”) and the impossibility of enforcing any order among the tumultuous throng and rabble which ever attend Courts, I thought it most advisable to be silent until to-morrow week when in the evening I propose to send off a Detachment of the Trusty and loyal few that I can command for to apprehend three or four of the principals under the cover of the night, and to have them brought instantly to town where on the Tuesday following I verily expect an attack from the whole united force of the regulators or rebels at which time I intend, as do also the aforementioned Officers, to bravely repulse them or nobly die -- If I can rally force to withstand one attack I then shall plume myself as being the commanding Officer in this County & then shall expect to be joined immediately by numbers who now think it desperately dangerous and almost inevitable death to oppose them, so powerful are they thought, and so alarming are the apprehensions of the Populace at this time -- and was it not that they will be awed by their guilt and we supported and encouraged by our loyalty and attachment to the Constitution and Government our defeat would be indubitably certain and sure -- They say they can command powerful and numerous aids from Anson, Rowan and Mecklenburg and if so it becomes the important concern of Government and undoubtedly my duty early to apply to your Excellency for Orders to raise the Militia and if any will obey (which I think they will some few) to give them Battle immediately, and if any advantage can be once gained the show will be over I am convinced...

My duty to Her Excellency Mrs Tryon and do me the favour to believe that I am most cordially and sincerely with the highest sense of Gratitude and respect most absolutely at your Excellency's full command

Edmund Fanning


Credit text

Edmund Fanning to William Tryon, April 23, 1768 in The Colonial Records of North Carolina, ed. William Saunders, Vol 7, 1765-1768. (Raleigh, NC: Josephus Daniels, Printer to the State, 1890), 713-716


18th century illustration of Edmund Fanning. This illustration shows Fanning after he left North Carolina and relocated to Nova Scotia. From the collections of the New York Public Library.

18th century illustration of Edmund Fanning. This illustration shows Fanning after he left North Carolina and relocated to Nova Scotia. From the collections of the New York Public Library.