Hillsborough Confrontation (1768)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During the 1760s, Piedmont farmers protested what they considered political corruption in their local governments.  Specifically, they accused local sheriffs for charging excessive legal fees, and they paid special attention to the actions of Sheriff Edmund Fanning of Hillsborough, who became a symbol of local, political corruption.  From political despair, the Sandy Creek Association was formed in 1766 as a means for farmers to gather and petition and call for their government to restore order, cease its encroachment, and perform its legitimate role.  Sheriff Fanning, in response, labeled the Sandy Creek Association’s actions as “Insurrection”—a label that he knew called the legitimacy of the association into question.  To avoid controversy and being charged with treason, the Associators disbanded, yet the problems that they addressed remained.

To address these problems, the Regulators formed in 1768.  This group was more militant and aggressive than the Associators and members refused to pay taxes until they were set at legitimate rates.  When Sheriff Hawkins (first name unknown) seized a farmer’s horse because he could not pay taxes, approximately eighty Regulators searched for and seized the sheriff.   They took Hawkins to Hillsborough and made him sit backward on the mare while riding through town.  The protest was by and large nonviolent, except for two or three bullets that were fired into Sheriff Fanning’s Hillsborough home.  

Although they seem riotous to modern standards, the Regulators’ actions, argues historian Wayne E. Lee, “lent an aura of legitimacy to their behavior.”   The farmers did not loot the town and exhibited only targeted violence.  They incorporated a skimmington into their protest—a skimmington was used in Early Modern England (1550-1750) to ridicule a hen-pecked man; he had to sit backward on a horse and behind a woman while holding a distaff (a rod from a spinning wheel) and listening to a jeering crowd.  With this form of traditional protest, Regulators hoped to shame corrupt officials and remind all officials to perform the legitimate roles of government.  Simply put, Regulators acted in a legitimate way to garner respect for their position and to prompt a response from their government to address grievances.  

The response, however, was not the expected one.  The Regulators, Fanning called them, were “Rebels, Insurgents. . ., to be shot, hang’d, &c. as mad Dogs.”   The militia was also mustered (less than expected volunteered to suppress the Regulators, however), and Fanning planned the arrest of the Regulation’s leaders.   On May 1, 1768, Herman Husband and William Butler were arrested.

In the end, the Hillsborough Confrontation of 1768 failed to restore the colonial government to its proper function and started a series of events that included the Hillsborough Riot of 1770 and the Battle of Alamance.