In the early part of 1771, Joel Lane walked a fine line between loyalty to the Royal Governor William Tryon, and his brotherhood with fellow Piedmont farmers who wanted leaders to hear their grievances. Lane sought to further his influence and good standing by proposing a new county be named Wake, in honor of Tryon’s wife, Margaret Wake. Frustrated farmers in the Piedmont joined together and demanded the regulation of “public grievances and abuses of power.”
They called themselves the Regulators.
The spokesman of the Regulator Movement was Herman Husband. Like Joel Lane, he was a large landowner, a Piedmont farmer, and a legislator for his community. On February 13, 1771 Husband lodged with Joel Lane at his home in what would become Raleigh and wrote a letter to his fellow Regulators, who were marching near Cross Creek, now know as Fayetteville.
The Regulator Movement in North Carolina began when Herman Husband, a recent transplant from Maryland, decided to write the absentee landowner Lord Granville about the abuses of local surveyors. It was 1755, and Husband told the Lord Proprietor that honest, hardworking farmers in the Piedmont were having a difficult time obtaining land titles.
During this period of early settlement, many farmers from colonies like New York, New Jersey and Maryland sought land in the North Carolina “frontier.” Typically, they would squat, “improve” the land by establishing cash crops, and apply for a title with the Land Grant Office.
But the Land Grant Office, like all colonial government offices of the day, was located wherever the royal governor lived. Each move meant moving all the documents and they were often lost. Additionally, a trip to Edenton or New Bern could take weeks for a farmer from the Piedmont.
Herman Husband made a trip to the Land Grant Office in Edenton and found that his application and fees paid to the surveyor had never been entered with the colony. He had no rightful title to his land. Somehow, the cronies of surveyor James Carter ended up with all the land.
Husband was also disturbed at how easily a very wealthy farmer could obtain huge tracts of land and set up a plantation using slaves. Husband had been born an Anglican, converted to Presbyterianism, and finally felt most at home as a Quaker. Slavery was un-Christian to Husband, and he felt a plantation owner ought to employ locals who needed the work.
There were farmers by the thousands who agreed with Husband, and the Regulator Movement quickly gained the attention of Governor Tryon by refusing to pay taxes. All over the American colonies, folks were fed up with unfair taxes and abuses of power on the part of the English crown, but the Regulators of Piedmont North Carolina would stage the largest agrarian rebellion before the Revolution.
Orange County taxman, judge, militia colonel, representative, and good friend to Governor Tyron, Edmund Fanning decided to take the bull by the horns and seized a Regulator’s horse, saddle and bridle for tax money.
The more unruly of the Regulators retaliated by riding into Hillsborough and seizing the property back, with a couple of shots fired into Fanning’s home for good measure. For inciting a riot and being a suspected ringleader of the Regulators, Herman Husband was arrested and taken to the jail in Hillsborough. But Husband was a moderate and a pacifist, and had warned fellow Regulators of treading into dangerous territory.
Husband was released after he swore to ameliorate angry Regulators, but he refused to give up his right to assemble. Husband decided it was best to work for reform from the inside. The community agreed, and elected him local representative to the assembly in New Bern in 1769. Any attempt at reform was thwarted, however, and none of the bills introduced by Husband were passed.
In late 1770, Husband was charged with libel for writing an excoriating pamphlet, but there was no evidence to support the charge. He was nevertheless jailed before Christmas and held with no trial scheduled. As the Regulators and even local muster companies in New Bern grew increasingly frustrated with Husband’s imprisonment, he was released and made his way back towards Orange County.
The Regulators had already assembled together from places around the Piedmont, and were making their way to New Bern. It was the letter Herman Husband wrote from Joel Lane’s inn on February 13, 1771 that called off the march.
Later in the summer of 1771, friction between the Regulators and Governor Tryon came to a head. Tryon and 2000 militia men battled 1400 Regulators at the Battle of Alamance.
For his part, Joel Lane came out of the fight completely unscathed. He got his new county, but managed to avoid joining Tryon’s forces to battle Regulators, even though he was in charge of the Wake militia.
As a victorious Tryon retreated from the Piedmont burning farmsteads along the way, he stopped and camped with his troops at Lane’s. Tryon dubbed the area around the new Wake County courthouse Bloomsbury, after the famous London district. But Joel Lane never approved of Tryon’s attempted moniker, and the name fell out of use after Tyron left to become Royal Governor of New York.
Recently, developers revived the name “Bloomsbury” for a new condiminium complex on the site of the first Wake County courthouse, located a block away from where Joel Lane’s house now stands as a museum.
Kim Cumber with the NC Division of Archives and History helped with the images for this story.