Category Archives: Historic Events

Benjamin Merrill and the Battle You Never Heard Of.

Benjamin Merrill

1731-1771

When I first heard the Battle of Alamance, I thought of France and WWI.  Alamance Creek actually runs through North Carolina. In the book, Captain Merrill and the Merrill Family of North Carolina , I learned about an important  Revolutionary War battle that preceded the battle of Concord and Lexington (April, 1775) by four years. Boston, site of the Boston Massacre in 1771, is thought to be the fuse that lit the fire under colonists to finally break from the British. But the same sort of harassment occurred in North Carolina around the same time, and concluded with an actual battle that later dropped from history books.

Why have we forgotten the Battle of Alamance the site of the first American blood spilled in the War of Independence? In the aftermath of the American Revolution, people numbered that battle among the important events in winning freedom. After the Civil War, Northerners tended to erase the South from history books, and their participation in the Civil War ( with a few exceptions like the Battle of New Orleans) disappeared. Not only did the winners write the history of the Civil War—they went farther back and rewrote the history of the Revolution as well. Today, the story is told differently, and I will meld the two versions as I tell the story.

BENJAMIN MERRIL, FARMER, SOLDIER

Benjamin Merrill was born in New Jersey. We share common 8 times great-grandparents—Richard and Penelope Stout. His mother, Penelope Stout (Jr.),  married into the French Huguenot Merrill family. According to a book called A Merrill Memorial, Penelope’s son Benjamin moved to North Carolina to an area called “Jersey Settlement” because a group of people from New Jersey, including his brother William, moved there. The move would have occurred about 1750, because his second son Andrew’s birth is recorded in North Carolina.

Benjamin was a farmer and a gun maker. He became the deacon of the Jersey Settlement Baptist Church, and a Captain in the militia.

Living in western North Carolina meant he was a frontiersman and fought battles with indigenous people still populating the area. The Jersey Settlement had more in common with neighboring Tennessee than with Eastern North Carolina with its elite plantation owners and businessmen. The local government operated on wild west principles—Sheriffs and Judges representing the English Crown, running rough-shod over the rights of the farmers.

According to a DAR application, Benjamin had a son named John born in 1750 in New Jersey. According to some sources, he married in 1753, which would have been after he moved to North Carolina, but I have not researched further to try to locate documentation. (John later lived in Georgia and in Monroe County, Mississippi.) According to most other sources, Benjamin had a total of 7 sons, including: John, Andrew (b. 1757 in North Carolina and continued to live there), Charles (b. 1761, later lived in S. Carolina), Elijah/Eli (b. circa 1763), William, (b. circa 1763), Jonathan (b. 1765), Samuel/Azariah (b. ?) and two daughters: Penelope (b. 1759), Nancy/Anna (b. 1760) .Some accounts list Samuel as the oldest son. In fact the information about his children is sketchy, and I have not rigorously  researched them. A tax record in 1757 also lists a Negro girl, Phyllis.

Apparently, Benjamin Merrill, tended toward independent thought early on. In 1756, he defied an order for “going out against a man who committed misdemeanors.” However, in 1759, he was among militia sent out on an alarm to aid a man attacked by Indians.

THE REGULATORS

Farmers in North Carolina, frustrated by corruption and excessive taxes and fees, formed an organization called The Regulators. This was in April 1767. They objected to local enforcement of English law rather than to the King’s rule. The same ambivalence shows up in documents about colonists in the north during this period. They wanted to be good British citizens. But they wanted fair treatment. They shied away from the idea of breaking with England.

An example of the abuse they suffered: By law a marriage license cost $1, but local officials charged $15. (Note, accounts I read said dollars, but I assume it was actually English pounds.) At first the Regulators tried by peaceful petition and argument to get more equitable treatment.

‘FIRE AND BE DAMNED“

However, making no headway, the Regulators turned to refusal to pay taxes, disruption of court proceedings, threats against officials, and vandalism. The ranking King’s officer, Governor Tryon, finally called together the militia to march against the Regulators after giving warning to the dissidents. Their reply–”Fire and be damned.”

May 14, 1771, Tryon’s 1000 militiamen were heading toward the Alamance Creek, about five miles away, where a ragtag, ill-armed and poorly-organized group of about 2000 dissidents assembled. A man representing the Regulators approached Tryon to talk, but as he turned away, the Governor shot him in the back.

Apparently some of the militia were sympathetic with the Regulators, because when the Governor ordered them to fire, some hesitated. He commanded the troops, “Fire on them, or fire on me.”

Tryon’s militia easily won the May 16 Battle of Alamance (also called the Battle of the Regulators). The King’s militia lost nine soldiers and had 61 wounded. The losses on the Regulator’s side is unknown.

The victorious Governor issued a proclamation that those who would swear allegiance and pay their taxes would be forgiven, except Captain Merrill and five others. The Governor declared them outlaws who would be hanged, drawn and quartered. Tryon took 15 prisoners, including Benjamin Merrill, who was not actually present on May 16. All but 6 escaped execution.

CAPTAIN MERRILL’S ROLE IN THE BATTLE

About May 12, Captain Merrill was heading toward Alamance with his company of 300-400 men, when he encountered General H. Waddell, who commanded a component of the King’s forces. Merrill took the General’s men prisoner and General Waddell fled to Salisbury.

Merrill and his men proceeded toward Alamance, but when they were within a day’s march, they heard the battle and a scout informed them of the Governor’s victory. Merrill released his troops and returned to his home in Ronan County. The Governor’s men arrested Merrill in short order, and took him to Tryon’s camp on June 6, 1771. The captors put Merrill in chains and dragged him through the countryside to Hillsborough where on June 19, 1771, a judge proclaimed the official sentence.

(Warning: The following contains explicit language that can be quite unsettling.)

The Judge’s sentence concluded:

“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 whence you came, you be drawn from thence to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your Body divided in Four Quarters and this be it his Majesty’s Disposal and the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

When allowed final remarks on the gallows, Merrill asked for mercy for his widow and ten children and that they be allowed to keep some of his property. The Governor later signed an order fulfilling that wish. Then Merrill, professing some doubts about having rebelled against the King, and professing his own faith in God, went to his death singing a Psalm.

THOUGHTS ON ALAMANCE

It is interesting to note that Merrill’s final statement refers to ten children, but the Governor’s order refers to eight children, and a later document refers to nine children.

As for the Regulators, one account I read speculated that had Merrill reached Alamance in time, the result could have been much different. That writer believed that Merrill was a better military leader than any of the men involved at Alamance. He certainly seemed to have no trouble subduing the branch of the King’s militia led by Waddell.

Although the Battle of Alamance did not prove to be the beginning of the Revolution, coming five years before the Revolution started in earnest in Massachusetts, it certainly illustrates the long simmering resentment of English government in the colonies. The Regulators were using the same arguments later used in Philadelphia by the crafters of the Declaration of Independence. And their struggle had tangible results in North Carolina. Of the 47 sections of the state constitution that was adopted in 1776, ¼ of them—thirteen sections— were reforms sought by the Regulators.

While I have written extensively about my New England ancestors in the American Revolution, this July 4th, I want to turn my attention to the North Carolinians who were the first to fight the British in actual battle, and to my relative, Benjamin Merrill, who became a martyr for the cause five years before the Declaration of Independence.

The Changing of the Moon: A Slice of My Life

I tried a few weeks ago to explain to some young women (not children– but young enough not to remember the landing of men on the moon) what an incredibly mind-blowing event that was.

Like all the BIG THINGS that we look back on as life-altering, the landing on the moon was the latest in incremental steps that we had been watching all along. So at the time, we don’t fully realize how it would affect us.

But this was different. One month we were looking at the full moon and saying to our kids–there’s the man on the moon. We were thinking of the moon as a mystical and romantic symbol of lunacy and love. The next month we were looking at the moon and trying to grasp the reality that a human being had left footsteps across the surface. No matter how matter-of- fact and scientific and logical a person you were–a part of you still felt the gauzy charm of a full moon. An atavistic urge to howl–or swoon until 1969.

After July 20, 1969 you would never feel entirely the same when looking at the moon. That was the day three American men reached the moon, and two were privileged to walk on it. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took steps on the moon, while Mike Conrad made sure they’d have a ride home by manning the spacecraft.

That July, we were in San Diego on a summer jaunt to the beach, and our scheduled return was on July 20. We watched astronauts on the motel television set. On the way home, we had the car radio tuned to listen to reports, and when we got home, hurriedly unpacked the car and settled in front of the TV to watch the actual landing which happened at about 8:00 p.m. Arizona Time. (This picture of our boys watching TV is actually from a couple years earlier, but not much had changed in the mid-century modern house in Scottsdale, Arizona.)

Boys watch TV October 1966

We listened to Walter Cronkite breathlessly report each movement of the astronauts, the ship and the command center. We recorded the coverage of the moon landing for hours, including the historic phone call from President Nixon to the astronauts, but the tape ran out just before Neil Armstrong stepped out of the capsule to put take the first small step on the moon. We photographed the boys watching the TV, and the TV show itself. Those photos or Super Eight films are stored away in a box with hundreds of other old photos.

Here’s President Nixon’s conversation, now readily available on the Internet, as are all the other moments we had captured..or not.

 

How this event changed deep feelings inside us is hard to explain. The other thing that is hard to understand from the perspective of the 21st century is how we adored the astronauts. We did not have to have anything to do with the space program to feel a deep sense of pride. Those guys (and later we learned–gals, too) were part of our tribe. And they were the best of us. They were heroes. We knew their names, followed their lives the way people hang on the details of the romance of Harry and Meghan or the new Royal babies that pose on the steps of a palace.

Since we come from Ohio, we were particularly proud. Now Ohio was the home of not only eight Presidents, but also the First Man to Orbit the Earth–John Glenn. AND NOW, ladies and gentlemen–Ohio was also the home of the First Man to Step on the Moon–Neil Armstrong. The reflected glory was almost too much to bear.

Our kids played with miniature astronauts and Mattel’s Major Matt Mason and his miniature space stations and miniature moon rovers and wore t-shirts with astronaut pictures and drang Tang for breakfast and coveted astronaut ice cream. Stores sold astronaut pens that would write in any position, in case we became weightless while writing. The astronauts wore seatbelts, so we religiously buckled ours.

But all these effects of man’s landing on the moon pales beside the visceral change inside of us each time we look at the moon. The moon had changed. And so had we.

 

Search For My Ticket On The Mayflower

In the past when I have talked about the Pilgrims of Plymouth, I focused on William Bassett. You can read here about my Pilgrim ancestor who missed the first Thanksgiving. While most of those early Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, another group left their homes and extended families behind and boarded The Speedwell, sailing at the same time as the Mayflower and destined to land in America at the same time.

But might I be related to Pilgrim leader William Brewster? That would be lovely. He was the Pilgrim father who left an inventory of several hundred books when he died. Not exactly my reading taste, but, still, a lover of books.

The Speedwell/Fortune Passengers

To continue William Bassett’s story, on August 15, 1620, the Speedwell, packed with expectant, excited, and probably fearful passengers set sail from Holland. That ship met the Mayflower at Southampton. After a stop at Plymouth, England, however, it became obvious that the Speedwell would not make it across the ocean. If the captain of the Speedwell had possessed a public address system, he would have announced to his passengers, “Due to mechanical difficulties, we are returning to base.” The Mayflower sailed on to fame and glory. The famous settlers landed in the wrong place–but Virginia, Cape Cod…it is all the same continent, isn’t it?

The Mayflower
The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour. Painting by William Halsall, public domain.

My 9x great-grandfather, William Bassett had boarded the Speedwell and stoically (or not so stoically, as we was a young man) waited until the financiers of the company substituted the ship The Fortune. Another notable passenger on the Fortune–Jonathan Brewster, son of the Pilgrim’s spiritual father in Plymouth, William Brewster. No doubt the Brewster family felt deep frustration that their eldest son got stranded in England for a year. The Fortune landed in Plymouth Colony in 1621. The survivors of the first terrible winter expressed great joy to see this healthy younger people arrive after so many of the Mayflower passengers had died.

Despite the fact that the passengers on the Fortune had been delayed through none of their own doing–they had meant to arrive in 1620, they are second citizens in the ranks of “American royalty.” The Mayflower Society, an organization open only to descendants of those who arrived on the Mayflower, does not recognize those whose misfortune it was to sail on the Speedwell and arrive on The Fortune.

So William Bassett, an ancestor my mother’s family has always been very proud to claim, does not get us a ticket to the Mayflower descendants. (Since estimates say that 35 million Mayflower descendants live today, you cannot really say it is an exclusive group, can you?)

Connections to William Brewster

William Brewster
William Brewster portrayed by an actor at Plymouth Plantation. Wikimedia Commons.

I hope this introduction shows you how excited I was to discover the name BREWSTER woven in with the Morgan family I have been exploring. Researching Samuel Morgan, my 5th great-grandfather, yielded at least three connections to Jonathan Brewster, and therefore Mayflower passenger and book-lover, William Brewster.

The connections came to my family tree came through Capt. Jonathan Morgan, brother of my 5th great-grandfather, Samuel Morgan.

The Puritans of Connecticut

The Morgans, as we have seen, were Connecticut dwellers for many generations. But weren’t the Pilgrims from Massachusetts? Ahhh, not all. And not forever. The leaders of the Pilgrims realized that they needed to spread out and start new towns to accommodate their expected growth. They had explored the coast of Connecticut as early as 1631 when Governor Winslow personally visited and encouraged the establishment of a trading post at Windsor Connecticut (named for the Indian name Quonehtacut River).

William Brewster’s son, Jonathan Brewster, arriving on the Fortune in 1621, became a leader and one of the first settlers of Connecticut when he established a trading house at Brewster’s Neck, Pequot (later Groton). Other early settlers of the area were James Avery and James Morgan, both founders of families in my descent.

The Connections

Ruth Morgan Brewster

I first noticed that the niece of my 5th Great grandfather, Samuel Morgan (1669) married a Brewster.

  • Ruth Morgan was the daughter of Capt. John Morgan (1667). Capt. John Morgan was the brother of Samuel Morgan (1669).
  • Ruth married Jonathan Brewster (1694), great-grandson of Jonathan Brewster, the eldest son of Pilgrim leader William Brewster.

Unfortunately, first cousin six times removed does not get me a ticket on the Mayflower.

Ruth Shapley Morgan

Not only did Capt. John Morgan (1667) have a Brewster son-in-law, he also was married to a descendant of William Brewster. I would not have discovered this except for the many and detailed books that trace the descendants of every single passenger from the Mayflower–some that go on for a dozen generations.

  • Ruth Shapley married Capt. John Morgan (1667).
  • Her mother was Mary Picket Shapley, married to Benjamin Shapley.
  • Mary Pickett’s mother was Ruth Brewster Pickett, married first to Jon Pickett, who “dyed at sea on a voyage to Bermuda.”
  • Ruth Brewster was the daughter of Jonathan Brewster (1593), and
  • Ruth Brewster (Pickett) was Grand daughter to William Brewster, which means Ruth Shapley (Morgan) was 2 x great-grand daughter to Jonathan Brewster.

Ruth Shapley does not get me a ticket on the Mayflower, either, although she is a 3rd great-grand-daughter to William Brewster. Despite the fact that she is a s wife of my 6th great-uncle, our relationship is marital, not blood.

Hannah Brewster Morgan

Then I moved on to another Morgan tied to a Brewster.

Hannah Brewster (1641) married Capt. James Morgan (1643) the brother of my 6th great-grandfather, Capt. John Morgan (1645).

But Who is Hannah _______??

Most of the standard sources, like The Descendants of James Morgan of Groton, and the Brewster Genealogy 1566-1907, as well as all the various Mayflower descendant books, list only Hannah _________ as Capt. James Morgan’s second wife. James and his first wife, Mary Vine, had six children. When Mary died and he remarried, both James and Hannah_____ would have been fifty years old. James and Hannah had no children. They died within days of each other when they were in their mid 60s. The details proving that the Hannah_____referred to in most books is actually Hannah Brewster Starr (Morgan) comes in a painstakingly researched piece published in The Genealogist, 14 (2000): 118-28. We have David L. Greene to thank for digging out the truth.

  • Hannah Brewster Starr (1641) married Capt. James Morgan (1643) after her first husband, Samuel Starr, and James’ first wife, Mary Vine, died.
  • Hannah Brewster Starr Morgan was the daughter of Jonathan Brewster (1593) and
  • Hannah was the Grand daughter to William Brewster.
  • Notice that she was a sister to Ruth Brewster Pickett mentioned in the line of Ruth Shapley.

Obviously, if Ruth Shapley Morgan did not get me a ticket on the Mayflower, Hannah Brewster Starr Morgan also did not get me a ticket.

Peregrine White

I would be remiss not to at least mention my previously discovered tie to a Mayflower ancestor. Peregrine White, first child born to the Pilgrims after they reached America, married a daughter of William Bassett. But there we have it again–a marital relationship rather than a direct descent. No ticket.

Conclusion

I am not going to prove eligibility for the Mayflower Society by tracing a connection to the William Brewster family.

But in the process of searching, I greatly expanded my understanding of the Morgan line and their various branches. I also learned a great deal about the early history of Connecticut, as well as about the history of one of the most important Pilgrim settlers, William Brewster.

Some Sources for Pilgrim Research:

The Brewster Genealogy 1566-1907, Vol. I, and Vol II Pts 1 & 2, Emma C. Brewster Jones, New York: Grafton Press, 1854. Available at http://archives.org.

Mayflower Descendents and Their Marriages for Two Generations After the Landing, Including a Short History of the Church of the Pilgrim Founders of New England, Washington D.C.: Bureau of Military and Civic Achievement. John D. Landis, 1922. Available on line through the Hathi Trust.

History and Genealogy of the Mayflower planters and first Comers to ye old Colonies, Vol II, Leon Clark Hills, Washington D.C.: Hills Publishing Co. 1936-1941. Ancestry.com (membership). Also available free on line if your local library card admits you to the website Open Library. Also available for purchase in print or e-copies.

New London County Connecticut with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Pioneer and Prominent Men, Compiled by Hamilton Hurd, Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co. 1882. Available on line at archive.org

Mayflower Births and Deaths from the files of George Ernest Bowman, ed. by Susan E. Roser. 2 Volumes, Baltimore MD: Genealogical Publishing Co. Available at Ancestry.com (membership) and by search only (not entire text) at Hathi Trust.

A catalogue of the Names of First Puritan Settlement of the Colony of Connecticut, Royal R. Hineman, Hartford: Tiffany & Co.1846 Available on line at Hathi Trust.https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.l0072881345;view=1up;seq=11