James Emerson (also spelled “Emmerson” in some documents) was born around 1736. He fought against the British crown during the North Carolina Regulation and the Revolutionary War. Emerson came close to being hanged for treason by the British in the first conflict. He later survived the latter conflict and lived out his remaining days as a Chatham County farmer.
Emerson may have been born in Ireland. No later than 1763, he established a home and a farm in Piedmont North Carolina, in what was then the mega-county of Orange. Emerson’s home and farm would become part of Chatham County when Orange was subdivided into additional counties in 1771. One of Emerson’s near neighbors was Herman Husband (q.v.), generally regarded a key leader of the Regulator movement. Emerson was also involved with the Regulators, but his leadership role (if any) does not appear to have been as great as Husband’s.
Whatever his position in the Regulator movement, Emerson signed the Regulators’ “Advertisement No. 9” around May 1768. Like many other advertisements published by the Regulators, “Advertisement No. 9” articulated the grievances of Piedmont farmers such as Emerson. The advertisement complained that residents of Orange County (which at the time included much of the Western Piedmont) “pa[id] larger Fees for recording Deeds than any of the adjacent Counties and many other Fees more than the Law allows by all that We can make out.” As alleged in the advertisement, legislators had disregarded the complaints of the Regulators, leading to “discontent” which could “threaten a disturbance of the public peace.” The signers of Advertisement No. 9 called on legislators to redress Regulator grievances, which were “too numerous and long to be notified in a Petition.”
Contemporary observers and subsequent historians have tended to confirm the complaints in “Advertisement No. 9.” For example, historian Roger A. Erkirch found through extensive analysis that it cost more for Piedmont settlers to establish title to the lands they farmed than for inhabitants of the coastal counties, and that the cause of this greater expense was the fact that there was greater corruption on the part of Piedmont-area officials than on the part of officials in the coastal counties. Erkirch also confirmed that Piedmont farmers paid more for recording their deeds than was allowed by law. Combined with some officials’ pocketing of fees and failure to make proper recordation, and demands from competing (and wealthier) claimants who invoked the land-title system in their favor, this led to expense, uncertainty title, and great unrest on the part of Piedmont farmers like Emerson.
Emerson was not among the Regulators indicted for riot under the Johnston Act (q.v.) for their alleged participation in the “Hillsborough Riot” (q.v.) and who were supposedly outlawed under that Act after failing to surrender themselves within sixty days. However, Emerson had an interest in the fate of these “outlaws,” many of whom were leaders of the Regulation, and whose surrender was demanded by Governor Tryon prior to the Battle of Alamance in 1771. Like other Regulators, Emerson ignored this demand (and Tryon’s demand to disperse), and took part in the Battle of Alamance and the subsequent Regulator defeat.
In the battle, as Tryon later assessed the outcome, ten of the royal forces were killed, sixty wounded, nine Regulators were killed and “a very great number wounded,” and 20-30 Regulators were captured. Emerson was among those unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner, while most of the other Regulators (including Husband) managed to escape.
Emerson was among fourteen defendants who were brought to trial under the Johnston Act for his part in the Battle of Alamance. The actions of the Regulators at that battle were claimed to be “riotous assembly,” defined by the Johnston Act as treason against the Crown. After a four-day trial in Hillsborough, two of the defendants were acquitted, and twelve – including Emerson – were convicted and sentenced to death. One of the presiding judges at the trial later claimed that Tryon had used “every Influence” to speed up the trials and get as many death sentences as possible.
The convictions had been on June 18, and the hangings of the twelve convicted defendants were to be held on the following day. On the 19th, as the twelve condemned were brought to the gallows, Governor Tryon announced that six of them would be recommended for royal pardons – thus, their lives were spared in a carefully-staged piece of last-minute drama. Emerson was one of the six whose lives were spared. Presumably, Emerson took the oath imposed on captured regulators by Governor Tryon: “never to bear arms against the King, but to take up arms for him if called upon.”
Developments in England around the time of the Battle of Alamance called in question the validity of the Johnston Act, under which Emerson and others had been convicted. The Privy Council in London considered a veto of the statute, deeming the Johnston Act’s outlawry provision to be illegal. The other provisions of the Act, including those provisions under which Emerson and others had been condemned to death, were considered acceptable by the Privy Council, but in the event of a veto these provisions would have been negatived along with the rest, invalidating the Johnston Act as a whole. The Privy Council finally decided to approve the Johnston Act despite any legal reservations, since the statute was about to expire and a veto might embolden the Regulators.
It was not until July 19 that Tryon’s successor, Governor Josiah Martin, told the court that Emerson and the other five prisoners spared by Tryon had been pardoned pursuant to Tryon’s recommendation. Emerson received official notice of his pardon on August 1.
When the American Revolution started, contrary to a formerly-held stereotype, not all former Regulators became Royalists. James Emerson was one of the ex-Regulators who joined the Revolutionary forces. As Emerson’s modern descendant John Emerson describes his ancestor’s service: “Although the degree to which James Emerson participated in the American Revolution is not known, we do know that he was a member of the Chatham County Militia. His name appears on a roster of the militia of Chatham County for the year 1772. He is listed as James Emison in Captain Joab Brooks’ company. Joab Brooks was a neighbor of James Emerson. Two of James Emerson’s sons” – Henry and Samuel – “served in the North Carolina Continental Line. Revolutionary Army Accounts for the State of North Carolina show a payment of twenty five pounds, five shillings paid to James Emerson for a gun.” The entry was made for October 1779.
James Emerson lived until 1786. The inventory of his estate showed that he had owned 400 acres of land, plus some livestock and other personal property.
John H. Emerson, “Individual Summary for James Emerson Sr.” (summary of biographical research by John Emerson, a descendant of James Emerson); Roger A. Erkirch, “The North Carolina Regulators on Liberty and Corruption, 1766-1771” in Perspectives in American History 11 (1977-1978): 199-256; Richard J. Hooker, ed., The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant (Chapel Hill, 1953); Marjolene Kars, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2002); Mary Elinor Lazenby, Herman Husband: A Story of His Life, 1724-1795 (Washington D.C., 1940); Wayne E. Lee, Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War (Gainesville, 2001); Hugh T. Lefler, ed., Orange County and the War of Regulation in Orange County, 1752-1952 (Chapel Hill, 1953); Duane Meyer, The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776 (Chapel Hill, 1961); Paul David Nelson, William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in the British Imperial Service (Chapel Hill, 1990); William S. Powell, ed., The Correspondence of William Tryon and Other Selected Papers. 2 Volumes. (Raleigh, 1980-81), North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); James K. Huhta, and James J. Franklin eds., The Regulators in North Carolina: A Documentary History, 1759-1776 (Raleigh, 1971); Blackwell Pierce Robinson, “Willie Jones of Halifax,” North Carolina Historical Review 28 (January, April) 1941: 1-26, 133-70; Charles D. Rodenbough, Governor Alexander Martin (Jefferson, North Carolina, 2004); Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty Vol. III (Auburn, Alabama, reprint, 1999); Elder John Sparks, The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns (Lexington, 2001); Clyde P. Stinson, History of Sandy Creek, 1858-1958 (1958).