Schoolmaster Yorke and The Tories

Commentary By Mac Whatley

In researching Tryon’s Ferry and the history of the Regulators, I read through one of the very early sources of Revolutionary history, B.J. Lossing’s 1850 “Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution.” Benson Lossing (1813-1891), an artist and illustrator, was one of the first historians to travel to the sites of the war and record its historic sites. When he came to North Carolina in 1849, local guides took him all over the state.  He and they considered the Regulation one of the first battles of the Revolution, and Lossing devotes considerable space to its story.

However, it is obvious that he relied greatly on local tradition–some of which was barely accurate. For example, he recounts the story of “Captain Messer,” the Regulator commander whose small child begged the Governor to spare his father’s life (Chapter 14, footnote 34). Lossing was actually referred to Benjamin Merrill, whose execution is told in the words of Governor Tryon at p.495 of the Regulator Papers.

I am wondering if the following is another example of garbled local oral history. Lossing writes at length of the Regulator disruption of the September, 1770 term of Superior Court in Hillsborough. A local resident reported that “We heard a Party or Parties of the said People called Regulators patrolling the Streets to the Terror of the Inhabitants,” “armed with Wooden Cudgels or Cow Skin Whips.” The “Regulators exasperated…did…assault the House of Colo. Fanning…break and destroy a considerable part of his Household furniture, Drink and spill the Liquors in His Cellar, and almost totally Demolish his House” (Regulator Papers, pp. 262-263). Lossing then writes:

When this violence was completed, they repaired to the court-house, and appointed a schoolmaster of Randolph county, named Yorke, clerk; chose one of their number for judge; took up the several cases as they appeared upon the docket, and adjudicated them, making Fanning plead law; and then decided several suits. As the whole proceedings were intended as a farce, their decisions were perfectly ridiculous, while some of the “remarks” by Yorke were vulgar and profane. The facsimiles here given of the writing of Fanning and Yorke are copies which I made from the original in the old record book. … Yorke was a man of great personal courage, and when, a few years later, the war of the Revolution was progressing, he became the terror of the Loyalists in that region. An old man on the banks of the Allamance, who knew him well, related to me an instance of his daring.

On one occasion, while Cornwallis was marching victoriously through that section, Yorke, while riding on horseback in the neighborhood of the Deep River, was nearly surrounded by a band of Tories. He spurred his horse toward the river, his enemies in hot pursuit. Reaching the bank, he discovered he was upon a cliff almost fifty feet above the stream, and sloping from the top. The Tories were too close to allow him to escape along the margin of the river. Gathering the reins tightly in his hands, he spurred his strong horse over the precipice. The force of the descent was partially broken by the horse striking the smooth sloping surface of the rock, when half way down. Fortunately the water was deep below, and horse and rider, rising to the surface, escaped unhurt. It was a much greater feat than Putnam’s at Horse Neck.*

The “Old Man of Allamance” appears to have given Lossing a garbled version of the story of Colonel David Fanning’s chase of Andrew Hunter down Faith Rock. I can’t believe there could be two so similar events in the same geographical area during the Revolution.

Supporting this is that Lossing’s source includes no first name for Schoolmaster Yorke. With 61 other reputed Regulators, a “Robinson York” was indicted by the Crown Attorney in New Bern in March 1771 (Regulator Papers, pp. 360-362). But to date, history is silent as to whether Robinson York might have been the Schoolmaster Lossing was told about. Certainly Randolph County has had its plentiful share of Yorks through history; one private letter from 1768, without attribution, discusses the troubles John York and Cemore York were having with their neighbors such as William Barten, John McGee and James Low (Regulator Papers, p. 151).

In regards to the greater history of Randolph County, I feel we must disentangle Schoolmaster Yorke from the story of Fanning and Bay Doe. Perhaps further research will enlighten us about the role Robinson York may have played in the Regulation, with so many of his near neighbors.