Jane Phillips: Meet Richard Caswell, N.C.'s first governor

Jane Phillips: Meet Richard Caswell, N.C.'s first governor

“The Best of Patriots and the Best of Men”

Sixteen-year-old Richard Caswell disembarked from the ship that had brought him from Maryland to the North Carolina colony at New Bern. His family had once been affluent and prominent in their Maryland community of Joppa. However, the family fortunes went from bad to worse during Joppa's decline as a seaport.

In 1745, it was decided they should follow family friends to North Carolina. Richard and a brother came to prepare a way for a new beginning for the family they left behind.

Caswell had with him a letter of introduction and recommendation from the royal governor of Maryland to the royal governor of North Carolina. It was to aid in his making the right connections, and indeed it did. Destiny was to take him to heights of greatness. 

Not long after arriving, Richard was made an apprentice to the surveyor general of the colony, James MacKilwean, who was also a member of N.C. General Assembly. He lived with MacKilwean and his family at his Tower Hill Plantation near what would later become Kingston. Two years later, he finished his apprenticeship and became deputy surveyor general of the colony.

MacKilwean’s daughter Mary won his heart and they were married in 1752. Unfortunately, five years later, Mary died from complications of childbirth. Of their three children only one son, William, lived to adulthood. Caswell found himself a widower and immersed himself in his profession of surveying and government.

A neighbor, Dr. Francis Stringer, a member of the General Assembly, ran an inn and tavern and also operated a ferry crossing on the Neuse River. Richard spent much time at Stringer’s Tavern meeting people and engaging in the talk of the day. His time there provided an influence that helped developed the people skills and knowledge that put him on the road to his successful leadership later in the General Assembly, where he was to leave his mark.

MacKilwean introduced politics to Richard and he discovered he had a natural aptitude for it. He was now being appointed to jobs that gave him wonderful opportunities to meet people. He was getting good public exposure and becoming known to the people in the colony.

It was about this time Richard received a land grant. He was now able to build the home for his family on the property he called The Hill -- which is today the Bentley Bed and Breakfast site in Kinston. His parents and other family members now came to live in the North Carolina colony.

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Caswell was one of the first commissioners of the town of Kingston. As a surveyor, he laid out the plans for the town’s streets. Caswell had a great love for horse racing and it has been said he especially made King and Queen Streets extra wide so they would be a grand place for the sport.

Caswell’s second mentor was William Herritage -- a lawyer, planter and political leader. Herritage had tremendous influence on Caswell’s career and life. Caswell began reading law under the tutelage of Herritage and in 1759, was admitted to the bar. Perhaps Herritage’s interest in Caswell may have started when Caswell began courting his daughter, Sarah. Richard and Sarah were married in 1758; they had 11 children but only eight lived to become adults.

As the years passed, Caswell had amassed a fortune through land speculations. To add to his wealth, he had inherited from his father-in-law William Herritage a tavern in Craven County and two stores in New Bern. In Lenoir County alone, he had the Red House Plantation, the Woodington Plantation, the Newington Home of his parents and a home in Kingston that is said to have been in the 100 block of East Bright Street.

Caswell served in the Colonial N.C. General Assembly from 1754-76. He was an excellent legislator and there he became a proven leader. He played a key role in the development and enactment of legislation relating to trade and industry, the court system, public defense and humanitarian concerns. Most remarkable was his proposal for erecting and establishing a free-school for every county.

During the same time, Caswell served in the Dobbs County Militia. This was good training for what the future had in store for the man that was to become a military hero for his service during the American Revolutionary War.

During mid-1765, North Carolina was developing anti-British sentiment with protest activities and public demonstrations taken place. By the early 1773 Caswell was making his anti-British feelings known. 

Caswell was a leader in all five of North Carolina's provincial congresses (transition from royal to state government) and also served in the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. John Adams who served in the Continental Congress with Caswell once said, “We always looked to Richard Caswell for North Carolina. He was a model man and a true patriot.”

Caswell conceived a daring plan to put all governmental powers at the disposal of the provincial congress. Royal Governor Martin proclaimed that Caswell had become "the most active tool of sedition". Caswell was now one of the most vital leaders of the Revolutionary forces in the colony.

In the spring of 1775, Royal Governor Martin became afraid on learning of plans to take him and his council prisoners. So during the night, he left the palace. On the Neuse River he boarded the British warship Cruzier and sailed away.

Caswell soon took possession of the palace. Shortly after, for fear of the British returning with armed forces, he moved government records to Kingston. For a short while, Kingston was the de facto capital of North Carolina. Secret meetings were said to have been conducted there for planning war operations. A few British sympathizers who plotted against the patriot cause were brought to Kingston for trial and at least six were hanged.

During the summer of 1775, the Provincial Congress appointed Caswell to serve as treasurer for one of two treasury districts. He was bonded to receive all taxes and to emit bills of credit by authority of the provincial congress.

Between receiving this important assignment during these turbulent times, along with some health issues, Caswell felt he needed to give up his delegate appointment to the Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed by the delegates of that Congress in 1776. Thus, Caswell missed being a part of that historic time in American history and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

While serving in the state militia, he established the Partisan Rangers who engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British. Caswell was appointed commander of the minutemen for the New Bern District. Six months later in February 1776, he led this brigade to victory at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge against a force of Scottish Loyalists marching to Wilmington to unite with a royal fleet and army expected on the coast.

The victory ended British authority in North Carolina and provided an important boost to Patriot morale. Within two months of the American victory, on April 12, 1776, North Carolina became the first colony to vote in favor of independence from Britain.

Now newly-elected, Governor Caswell’s time was mostly spent raising and equipping troops. He put up a lot of his own fortune for the patriot cause. A shot tower (a tower designed to produce small musket shot balls by freefall of molten lead, which is then caught in a water basin) was built on South Herritage Street in Kingston to make ammunition for the war effort. A supply of it was sent to Virginia and used in the Yorktown Battle against Gen. Cornwallis. With the defeat of Cornwallis came the end of the American Revolutionary War and much jubilation throughout the land.

The town of Kingston had been named in honor of the king of England. With the dissatisfaction with the British king, the town commissioners removed the "g" from the name and the town became known as Kinston.

Throughout the 1780s and despite his failing health, Caswell was engaged in government work from state comptroller to governor. The period from 1784-89 was a time of grief for Caswell. His two oldest sons, his oldest daughter, his mother, two brothers, and a sister all died. Throbbing headaches and giddiness came more often and stayed longer for him. These symptoms, of which he had complained at times since 1769, may have been caused by high blood pressure.

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It was when presiding over the senate in 1789 that Caswell suffered a paralyzing stroke and was dead within five days. A Philadelphia obituary stated, “He was the best of patriots and the best of men." He is believed to be buried at the Red House Plantation in a family cemetery adjoining what is today the Gov. Richard Caswell State Historic Site in Kinston.

At his death, his estate was in debt mainly due to the losses suffered during the war and not receiving payment from the state for his monetary contributions. Sadly, there was never a tombstone put at his grave. Many generations later, people have wondered where he was really buried.

On the Lenoir County Courthouse lawn stands a tall monument that gives testimony to the greatness of this man who once walked the streets of Kinston. History records George Washington as the Father of Our Country and Richard Caswell as the Father of Our State signifying the importance of these men and their role in the birth of a nation.

Sources:

  • North Carolina History Project - Richard Caswell
  • “The First of Patriots and the Best of Men” Richard Caswell in Public Life by Clayton Alexander
  • North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell- Founding Father and Revolutionary Hero by Joe A. Mobley
  • Dr. Keats Sparrow
  • Richard Caswell by Kellie Slappey
     
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