Enfield Riot (1759)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Leaving Halifax County on a wintry January day, approximately two dozen men travelled seventy miles to Edenton and kidnapped Francis Corbin.  The land agent was hauled back to Halifax County and sequestered in Enfield with his subordinate Joshua Bodley.  After four days, the two co-agents agreed to demands to be more transparent in their official operations, and the rioters were assuaged—at least temporarily.  What transpired those four days is known as the Enfield Riot (1759). 


For some time, Francis Corbin had been accused of malfeasance.  He and his co-agents, the allegations went, had condoned false surveys, charged excessive fees, and purposefully granted an identical tract to more than one grantee. It was not sloppy bookkeeping; it was corruption and a duplicitous way to gain wealth.  These charges, more or less, never stuck. If Corbin were alive today, he might have been called the Teflon Land Agent.


Eventually a formal reprimand and investigations occurred.  In 1756, Lord Granville, Corbin’s employer, warned him to stop dishonest business operations.  But the land agents continued their usual practices.  Therefore, farmers petitioned the General Assembly.  The body established an investigatory committee that found Corbin’s office guilty of irregularities.  Even so, Corbin walked away without censure. Many believed that the land agent influenced the Assembly. In other words, he bribed selected Assemblymen. Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs subscribed to this opinion.  (Dobbs and Corbin had had many disagreements, so this was par for the course.)


Approximately 24 men—many were substantial property holders—kidnapped Corbin and Bodley and interrogated them in Enfield (the county seat of the newly formed Halifax County).  Although no bodily harm was inflicted, the two were under duress and agreed to do three things.  One, they promised to appear in court to make whole those who had been duped and cheated in their previous land grant schemes.  Two, the land agents pledged to establish a proper protocol for all future land dealings. Three, the two signed a statement that purportedly acquitted the rioters of any wrongdoing in kidnapping them. 


The rioters were unable to “prosecute” another land agent, John Haywood.  Corbin’s subordinate had died shortly before the Enfield Riot.  The rioters were skeptical of this news.  With shovels in hand, they dug until they reached Haywood’s body. Only until then, did they believe Corbin’s word. (Later they were charged with grave desecration.)


The rioters had established an extralegal jurisdiction to enforce the law. They took matters into their own hands. In fact, a judge, William Hurst, was one of the rioters, and his presence added some legitimacy to the event.  Others, however, as historian Wayne Lee points out, considered the whole matter to be the product of a “Sham Jurisdiction.”


Lord Granville relieved Corbin and Bodley from their duties in 1759, and Royal Governor Dobbs found a way to remove Corbin from the Council the following year. Chowan countians, however, elected Corbin to the General Assembly, and there he continued to be a foil for Dobbs. (For more on Francis Corbin click here.) 


The General Assembly soon used the charges against the investigation of the rioters against Governor Dobbs.  Assemblyman Corbin more than likely played a role in this turnabout as the Assembly alleged that Dobbs approved and overlooked the rioters’ “insurrection.”  More than likely, he considered what prompted them to riot instead of the actual event.