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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Rutherfurd, William Gordon

by Alan D. Watson, 1994

19 June 1764–14 Jan. 1818

William Gordon Rutherfurd, captain in the British navy who participated in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was born at Bowland plantation, Rocky Point, approximately twenty miles north of Wilmington. He was named for Lord Adam Gordon, his godfather and a British army colonel who visited North Carolina shortly after his birth. Called "Little Billie," he was the younger son and third child of Frances Button Johnston and John Rutherfurd. His mother was formerly married to Governor Gabriel Johnston of North Carolina; his father was receiver general of the quitrents for the colony and a member of the Royal Council.

Upon the death of his mother in 1768, William Rutherfurd was sent to Scotland for his education. He returned to North Carolina in 1774, but the outbreak of the Revolution forced his departure a year later. His father then placed him in a free school in England under the protection of Lord Townshend. In 1778 Rutherfurd joined the British navy as a midshipman on the Suffolk. Between 1783 and 1789 he served on merchant ships in the Orient. Later he rejoined the navy, eventually becoming senior frigate captain under Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 1805 Nelson made Rutherfurd captain of the new seventy-four-gun Swiftsure. Rutherfurd participated in the pursuit of the fleet of the French admiral Pierre de Villeneuve to the West Indies and then in the Battle of Trafalgar, in which the Swiftsure wrecked the French Archille while suffering small losses. Rutherfurd remained captain of the Swiftsure until 1807, when he was discharged. In the same year he became captain of the Sea Fencibles and remained in that post until 1810. In 1815 he was made a Companion of the Bath and in 1816, one of the four captains of Greenwich Hospital, where he died two years later.

Rutherfurd married Lilia (Lilas or Lillias), the eldest daughter of Sir George Richardson, Baronet, of London, in 1795. She died in 1831 without children. However, the couple apparently had an adopted son, John Henry Defou, known as Henry Rutherfurd. William Gordon Rutherfurd and his wife were buried at St. Margaret's Church, Westminster, London.


W. K. and A. C. Rutherford, Genealogical History of the Rutherford Family, vol. 1 (1969).

Janet Schaw, Journal of a Lady of Quality (1923 [portrait]).

Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, 17 Jan. 1960.

Additional Resources:

White, Colin. The Trafalgar captains: their lives and memorials. Annaplis, Md: Published and distributed in the United States of America and Canda by the Naval Institute Press. 2005. (accessed September 3, 2014).

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