“In the 100 years leading up to the revolution, there were at least six separate armed uprisings in Britain’s New World provinces.”
THE AMERICAN writer Ralph Waldo Emerson famously referred to the opening musket volley of the April 19 1775 Battle of Concord as the “shot heard around the world”. In reality, the skirmish between colonial Minutemen and British redcoats at the Old North Bridge to which the noted essayist was referring in his “Concord Hymn” actually came several hours after an early morning clash on Lexington Common seven miles (10 km) to the east. Regardless, the two battles are remembered collectively as the de facto beginning of the eight-year American War of Independence.
Yet it would be wrong to believe that the storied encounter was the first time American colonials took up arms against England. In fact, in the 100 years leading up to the revolution, there were at least six separate armed uprisings in Britain’s New World provinces. Let’s examine them.
The War of the Regulation (1771)
Considered by some to be a prelude to Revolutionary War, the so-called War of the Regulation was a violent insurrection by settlers in the North Carolina backcountry against crooked tax collectors and sheriffs. Throughout the 1760s, officials operating in the interior of the colony bullied farmers into handing over as much as twice the required levy only to then pocket the difference. To make matters worse, the colony’s governor, William Tryon, was aware his administrators were on the take but turned a blind eye to their corruption. After years of abuse, thousands of disgruntled settlers banded together to drive off the tax collectors by force and establish their own local government. The group called themselves the Regulators. Their spokesperson was a 47-year-old Quaker preacher turned legislator named Herman Husband. Despite his pacifist upbringing, Husband accompanied more than 2,000 armed rebels against a battalion of several hundred colonial troops. Governor Tryon himself led the campaign to crush the uprising. On May 19, 1771, the two armies met at Alamance. Husband hoped to avoid bloodshed. As the governor’s troops advanced, the clergyman fled leaving the disorganized formation to the mercy of the advancing soldiers. Nearly 40 North Carolinians died in the ensuing battle. The ill-equipped Regulators were utterly routed in minutes and seven accused ringleaders were captured and subsequently hanged. Husband made his way to Maryland. Tryon was appointed governor of New York.
The Bloody Paxton Boys (1764)
The Paxton Boys uprising was less a rebellion as it was a massacre. Following a series of bloody raids by native Americans throughout the Lower Great Lakes and the Ohio Country, outraged settlers in Pennsylvania’s frontier country demanded the colonial government in Philadelphia punish local tribes for the bloodshed. While the authorities vacillated, a force of several hundred farmers under the command of a firebrand reverend named John Elder exacted their revenge against the first aboriginals they could find. On Dec. 14, 1763 Elder’s men, who called themselves the Paxton Boys, attacked a village of Christianized Susquehannock natives at Conestoga Town and slaughtered the inhabitants. After scalping and mutilating the dead, the homesteaders then razed the village. Survivors of the attack, including women and children, sought refuge in nearby Lancaster. The rebels tracked them there and murdered 14 more. Even as officials expressed outrage over the atrocities and offered huge bounties for the capture of any perpetrator, the Paxton Boys next marched on Philadelphia itself. They were intercepted by a delegation of civic leaders including Benjamin Franklin who convinced them to lay down their weapons and return home. None were ever arrested.
The Rebellions of 1689
In 1688, England’s Catholic monarch, James II, was toppled by the Dutch protestant William of Orange. And it wasn’t long before the ensuing sectarian strife, known as the Glorious Revolution, spread to the colonies. In fact, the troubles prompted at least two violent uprisings in the New World the following year. Upon learning in April of 1689 that the English throne had changed hands, residents of the Massachusetts colony, known at the time as the Dominion of New England, removed the widely unpopular and draconian governor Sir Edmund Andros along with several of his officials. It was more than just Andros’ heavy-handed rule that colonists had grown to despise – local Puritans disapproved of the 52-year-old Londoners’ Anglican pedigree. The rebels held Andros in a fort in Boston Harbor and even seized the captain of one of the King’s warships, HMS Rose. Eventually the new regime in London recalled Andros, much to the delight of crowds in Boston. However, a number of the uprisings’ ringleaders were taken to England in chains. Meanwhile in nearby New York colony, a 49-year-old German-born Calvinist and militia captain named Jacob Leisler commanded an insurrection that chased governor Francis Nicholson from office. The predominantly Dutch rebels were emboldened by the coronation of William of Orange of the Netherlands to the English throne and used the occasion to remove the hated colonial elites. But with yet another war against France in the offing, Leisler appointed himself governor of New York and sent troops up the Hudson River Valley to protect the colony from French and Indian invaders. He even organized an ill-fated invasion of Quebec in 1690. In the spring of 1691, an army of English regulars arrived in New York and demanded Leisler surrender. He was hanged for treason on May 16.
Culpepper’s Rebellion (1677)
Another rebellion, this one led by a coalition of tobacco farmers, rocked North Carolina in 1677. The group, which was led by a rabble-rouser named John Culpepper, sought an end to the new Navigation Acts. The regulations, which prohibited the colonies from trading with any other power except England, also levied onerous tariffs on exports from the Americas bound for the British Isles. Business interests within the colony opposed the law and took action against its enforcers. The rebels moved swiftly and overthrew the governor Thomas Miller. They next established their own government and appointed Culpepper governor. Miller escaped the usurpers and made for England to report the insurrection. Culpepper pursued Miller to London and personally presented his grievances to the directors of the colony, known as the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. Amazingly, some of the controlling interests expressed sympathy for the rebels and set Culpepper free. One of the wealthiest of the rebel ringleaders, George Durant, was named interim governor. He immediately pardoned his compatriots and order was restored.
Rebellion with a Side of Bacon (1676)
Exactly one hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, America saw its first armed rebellion against colonial rule. In 1676, a social climbing young official named Nathaniel Bacon led an army of 1,000 Virginia colonists against the governor William Berkeley. The 29-year-old militia leader and his followers were fed up with Berkeley’s puzzling lack of zeal in pursuing Indian war parties that had been massacring settlers along the colony’s frontier. Many suspected that the governor’s own personal involvement in the fur trade made him reluctant to retaliate against tribes that supplied his business partners with valuable pelts. In one instance, Bacon and his men stormed the legislature and levelled their muskets at the colonial assembly including the governor himself and threatened to fire if the officials didn’t authorize reprisals against the Indians. Berkeley relented and signed. After a issuing declaration against the colony’s leadership, Bacon and his small army waged a bloody guerrilla campaign against local native populations (many of which actually had little to do with the contentious raids). He then marched on Jamestown and burned the capital to the ground. Soon, reinforcements from England streamed into the colony and drove the rebel army into hiding. Bacon himself succumbed to dysentery later that fall. At least 23 of the rebels were arrested and hanged and the uprising collapsed. Despite being a personal friend of King Charles II, Berkeley himself was recalled for his poor handling of the entire affair. His successor won favour among colonists by lowering taxes and cracking down on native tribes.
It wasn’t just European settlers that were up in arms during America’s pre-Revolutionary colonial period. In the 150 years prior to independence, there were dozens of Indian uprisings including the Powhatan Wars of 1610-46, the Pequot War of 1673, King Philip’s War of 1675, the 1711 Tuscarora War and the Yamasee War of 1715 and the Wabanaki War of 1722–25, to name a few. On top of that, there were at least half a dozen full out slave rebellions in the American colonies the earliest of which rocked Gloucester County, Virginia Colony in 1663.