After the death of Governor Arthur Dobbs on March 29, 1765, William Tryon became royal governor of North Carolina. Some of Governor Tryon’s first tasks were relocating the capital to New Bern and petitioning for the construction of the governor’s house and colonial government assembly. On November 8, 1766, the North Carolina colonial assembly agreed to construct a home for the royal governor in New Bern.
Governor Tryon selected John Hawks as its main architect. On January 9, 1767, Hawks started construction. The lavish wishes of Governor Tryon required another 10,000 pounds in addition to the originally requested and allotted 5,000 pounds. Three years later, the royal governor, his family, and invited guests celebrated the dedication of Tryon Palace on December 5, 1770.
Although Tryon Palace was a magnificent structure, colonists soon lamented its construction, for they had to pay for it. In particular, there were increased taxes on imported wine and liquor and poll taxes. Historian William S. Powell notes a 1768 petition by Orange County colonists in response to the lavish building: “We are determined not to pay the Tax for the next three years, for the Edifice or Governor’s House. We want no such House, nor will we pay for it.”
Not only in Orange County but also in other Piedmont areas, colonists voiced disapproval. Several historians note the parallel between the construction of Tryon Palace and the resulting Regulator movement. After the Regulator rebellion, William Tryon relocated to New York in 1771.
Josiah Martin, the new royal governor, moved into Tryon Palace in August 1771. Martin inherited a dicey political situation, and his stubbornness further contributed to widening the rift between the North Carolina colony and British crown. In May 1776, just five years after he moved to New Bern, Governor Martin escaped from the palace as Patriot forces soon took control of the royal house.
With the royal governor absent from the Tryon Palace, the colonists took advantage of the lavish structure. The first governor of North Carolina, Richard Caswell, took his oath at the palace in 1777, and the colonial government met within the house’s chambers throughout the American Revolution. However, as the war developed and as supplies lessened, most of the eight tons of the palace’s lead was stripped and melted into musket balls by the North Carolina militia.
After the Revolution and with the move of the state capital to Raleigh, the once elaborate Tryon Palace fell into disrepair. A 1798 fire destroyed most of the palace. It was not until the mid-twentieth century when civic-minded North Carolinians restored the former capitol.
The person most responsible for the restoration and reconstruction of the palace was none other than Maud Moore Latham. As chair of the Tryon Palace Commission that was organized in 1945, Latham donated over $1 million dollars to construct the palace replica. Latham, who once played within the palace as a child, envisioned the complete redoing of the Tryon Palace. However, Latham passed away before she saw her dream finished. On April 10, 1959, Tryon Palace opened as the state’s first historic site.
“Tryon Palace.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Tryon Palace.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?sp=search&k=Markers&sv=C-2, (May 24, 2012).
William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989).
Lew Powell, On This Day in North Carolina (John Blair, Winston-Salem, 1996).