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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Historical Execution of Gov. George Burrington of North Carolina

Wilmington - 1769 : by Claude J. Sauthier
Note: this relates to the "Family," a group of mostly South Carolinian families, allied by marriage, who settled the Lower Cape Fear in 1726 in Brunswick Town.  This South Carolina-biased settlement was not exactly "legal" in North Carolina; Maurice Moore and his brother-in-law Edward Moseley built the settlement with blank patents, many of which were inflated to as much as three times the acreage indicated on their self-inscribed warrants (you'd think the government would have to do that...).  In 1732, Governor George Burrington was sent back to North Carolina to deal with the Family.  He voided Moore's patents on the east side of the Cape Fear River and filled them with his own "creatures" as the Family called them to begin the town of New Town, Newton, New Liverpool, New Carthage or... the name it has held for the past 274 years: Wilmington.  The Family's Brunswick Town soon failed because of the competition.  The Family then ran Gov. Burrington out of the colony after possibly killing a few of his supporters.

Burrington left America and the Family took over the new town of Wilmington.  Still, they had not yet finished with poor George Burrington...

1737 Edward Moseley Map - showing the Lower Cape Fear and Brunswick Town, but no Newton or Wilmington, then five years old on the east side of the Cape Fear River. Here, also, note specifically the road leading from Brunswick Town south to the Charleston area, also in existence prior to the establishment of Brunswick Town as John Barnwell's map demonstrates in 1722-25.  The extension from Brunswick Town north had not yet been established until after Brunswick Town was established in 1726.
1722-25 John Barnwell map (Cape Fear portion) showing the road from Charleston, SC running to Lake Waccamaw.  It was later slightly diverted to go to Brunswick Town only a few miles southeast on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, still within the limits that then existed for South Carolina.  The colonial boundary would not be officially moved until after Wilmington began in 1732.

The case of poor Mr. Burrington:

Historians of North Carolina’s Progressive Era, educated in the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, told a “Great Man” version of history.  They regaled the tales of the Battles, Kemps, Ashes, Moores, Dukes, and Jarvises, the wealthy elites of North Carolina society.  Their staccato history jumps from major event to major event, wherein they might most honorably distinguish the actors, often skipping decades of history in the process.  One may argue that they also avoided the truth.  Confederate redeemers like Capt. Samuel A’Court Ashe, Secretary of State William Saunders, or former Confederate Attorney General, George Davis of Wilmington diverted even more attention from the true social aspects, the “People’s History” as the late Howard Zinn would put it.  Their goal was not to tell unbiased history; they had an agenda, to vindicate their former plantation lifestyle and Southern ideology, to justify use of the "property" they had lost in the war over slavery while also telling of their highly honorable deeds and those of their predecessors in defense of their state.

The result created an manufactured historical fortress, surrounded by a great wall of seclusion.  Link attributed the state’s isolationist behavior at the turn of the century to a “contradictory and even uneasy relationship between North Carolinians and the rest of the nation.”   From years of an early self-reliant existence and then, resentment of losing the late war, North Carolina became the masters of its own destiny, outside forces notwithstanding.  Progressive-era historians viewed the outside Atlantic community as having contributed almost nothing to North Carolina’s majestic, resourceful, and independent past. 

Still, before the Civil War, North Carolina "historians" welcomed and even strained for information from outside sources.  Politician Hugh Williamson, writing his history, knew Cullen Pollock personally, having moved from Pennsylvania to Edenton, where he lived.  Cullen, being the son of Thomas Pollock, whose letter book from the earliest days of the rebellions and Tuscarora War provided valuable records for his research, gave him a near first-hand account of that time period.

Hugh Williamson
Williamson, trained as a mathematician and physician, told of his difficulties in obtaining British records, and tried every avenue available to him before he obtained materials relevant to Carolina from the works of John Archdale, the Quaker proprietor.  Williamson had unquestioned talent, but may have had to rely on oral accounts to fill in the bigger gaps.  Sadly, he restrained himself to the period of “disasters, misrule, and oppression” that marked the colonial period.

He published History of North Carolina in two volumes in 1812.  The most interesting fact of his work: he barely mentions Edward Moseley, one-time acting governor of North Carolina, treasurer, surveyor-general, lawyer, and “restless incendiary” reviled by Thomas Pollock.  Williamson refers to him simply as a “rioter” during the Blackbeard affair and as a land agent of Lord Granville’s.

There was so much more!  Moseley belonged to the leadership of the Family which also included Maurice Moore, John Baptiste Ashe, and John Porter.  Williamson never gives him credit for his part in the Brunswick settlement or the “blank patent” controversy.  Assuredly, he probably wouldn't have wanted it.  In fact, Williamson seemed unaware that the Brunswick settlement largely depended on issuance of blank patents to Moseley’s Family and Moseley’s direction of those patents from Edenton.  He seemed to be unacquainted with the recent development of the Lower Cape Fear and the political quandaries it engendered, as important an event as it happened to be.  The state’s capital moved to Wilmington soon thereafter... the most lucrative settlement to date.  The politician Williamson should have been intrigued, even fascinated, but he did not appear to be.  Furthermore, Moseley’s name unquestionably appeared in many of the documents available to Williamson. He saw them.  He had to.  This omission seems mysterious at best.

Skipping over the entire controversy of the Brunswick settlement, he nevertheless gave a detailed description of Gov. Burrington’s catastrophic failures.  He relates his arbitrary abuses, removal from office, leaving for Charles Town, and his subsequent return to England following his first term.  And he relates the return in 1731, after the crown purchase of the colony from the proprietors, and his continued harassment of the people... as the story usually goes...

Moreover, Williamson's History appears to be the literary origin of the story of Burrington’s untimely demise shortly after returning home from his second term in “April 1734.”   Although Williamson neglects to mention it, in this term, Burrington withdrew his support of Brunswick Town and founded “New Town”  or “Newton” across the river on Maurice Moore’s personal property after voiding Moore’s inflated and illegal grants.  Undoubtedly, the voided grants and “Warrants [having] been granted to others (and those chiefly the Governors creatures)” angered the Family, as the North Carolina Colonial Records collection records.   Nathaniel Rice and John Baptiste Ashe spoke for Maurice Moore on this occasion, the thunderous genesis of the town that later became Wilmington.

Birdcage Walk, St James, London (today)

Williamson tells the story of Burrington's death: Having money in his pocket from selling his Haw Fields property in North Carolina, Williamson said, “and rioting in his usual manner, he fell a sacrifice to his own folly.”   He then added that Burrington “was found murdered, in the morning, in the Bird Cage Walk, in the corner of St. James Park.”   Williamson felt certain enough to put a specific date on this occurrence: April 1734.

That happens to be the date when Nathaniel Rice claimed that the "Departure of His Excelly George Burrington Esqr" necessitated his taking "upon him the administration of the Government." But, Burrington was still there!  

North Carolina former treasurer John Wheeler repeated almost verbatim the same story in 1851.   “Rioting in his usual manner,” he said, “all night, [Burrington] was found murdered, in the morning, in the Bird Cage Walk, in the corner of St. James Park, in London.”   It repeated again in the work of John Romeyn Brodhead in his Documents related to the colonization of New York.   Before his service to the Confederacy as their Attorney-General, Wilmington lawyer George Davis, from the Family’s Davises, repeats the same quote from Williamson’s History.   The detail circulated around the professional community thoroughly.

Still, it was blatantly false.  "Bird Cage Walk" is a specific reference that had never been mentioned by any primary source.  This bad history prompted Secretary of State William L. Saunders in 1886 to suggest that “grave errors in regard to Governor Burrington,” had occurred.   He may have gleaned the meaning of the reference as he explained:

  • … historians have assumed that he left America as well and returned to England. They go on to state, also, but upon what evidence is not known, that he ended his life in a drunken brawl in the Bird-cage walk in St. James's Park in London, and the impression is created that his disgraceful death occurred soon after his return to London. The statement is certainly untrue in several material points. For example, instead of leaving America, he was in North Carolina and on duty as Governor on 1st June, 1734, and from that date until 12th November following… Precisely when he returned to England does not appear, but from an entry in the Journal of the Board of Trade, it appears he was there on the 10th June, 1735. Other entries and letters show that he was in frequent communication with the Board from that time until December, 1736, after which date no reference is made to him by the Board.  

Saunders stated that papers proving this as a certain falsification existed in Raleigh, including Burrington’s will of 1750, probated in 1759.  They are there.  The will is also online.

Saunders had been concerned mostly with the date, but he may have understood another reference which was even more disturbing.  He had been murdered in St. James Park much later than Williamson suggests, but that park is absolutely huge, comprising nearly 90 acres.  A canal ran through it that was 2800 feet long and 100 feet wide.  It ran all the way from White Hall to the Queen's Palace, an area often frequented by men of state.   Indeed, the specific "April 1734" was such an elaborate error, but still... What did it mean for him to be in the "Bird Cage Walk?"  This was a specific and remote street in the southern extreme of the park.  Also, at least part of the story was true... the part about dying in that park.  Someone had heard or read that.  They may also have "fudged" the facts a bit.

Examination of that specific location of London, associated with the military barracks at St. James Park, reveals that the "Bird Cage Walk" had an infamous reputation for gay trysts in the eighteenth century.  The entire park was well known for muggers, pick-pockets, and prostitution.  A mugger eventually found Burrington, but "Bird Cage Walk" was a specific reference to gay men.  Historian Jerry White in A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century tells that “… the chief place of meeting [for gay men] is the Bird-cage walk, in St. James Park, whither they resort about twilight.”   He described their elaborate signals used overtly to identify one another.

Illustrating that Bird Cage Walk may have possessed the reputation for sodomy at the specific time that Hugh Williamson researched his History, anonymous author of The Midnight Spy revealed in 1766:

  • One evening as [Urbanus] was walking in the Bird-cage Walk, he observed, seated on a bench, a country-looking gentleman, a courtezan, and a man, who by his appearance, seemed to be one of those indolent infamous wretches, who live upon the wages of prostitution.

Saunders perhaps referred to this connotation when he called it a “disgraceful death.”  But, "Bird Cage Walk" is not mentioned anywhere else in reference to Burrington's death before Williamson's History.

LONDON: Grosvenor Sq: Curzon Chapel, Mayfair, c1880

Although, it's really none of anyone's business, George Burrington appeared to like women just fine.  The Fleet Notebook for February-April of 1730 recorded Burrington's marriage in the newly-built May Fair Chapel on Curzon Street to Sarah Croswell, 24-year-old daughter of Ralph and Joyce Croswell of Rotherhithe, Surrey on April 15, 1730.   He may have spent some time accomplishing his honeymoon, for on June 20, 1730, the Universal Spectator reported that he will “embark at Bristol in about a Fortnight’s time.”   He did not leave then... not even close.  Six months later, the Grub Street Journal of London then reported that he had married a “Young Lady of a considerable Fortune; and this day set out for his government.”  So, eight months after the marriage, he's finally on his way to North Carolina.  Almost two whole months later, longer than usual, he had arrived in Edenton to qualify as governor.  There, he requested a chaise of Edmund Porter’s wife Elizabeth to carry “his big belled wife (as he termed her) out of Virginia” after leaving her there to come into North Carolina.   His daughter Mary would soon grace their home.  Burrington spent almost the entirety of 1730 vacillating on getting to his post.  He could be bisexual, but, then again, it's no one's business. 


More likely, someone who knew Hugh Williamson or could have informed on Captain George Burrington’s alleged “disgraceful” demise might well have understood the Bird Cage Walk’s humiliating reputation and "added" it to the details of his death to tarnish the governor’s name.  Either that or they related traditional Family jokes to Williamson for his history, shocking propaganda about the creator of New Town, or Wilmington, the town that outmaneuvered the Family’s across the river.  Still, after all that time spent with Ashe and his Family, Williamson apparently never knew that Burrington created Wilmington. 

Gen. John B. Ashe, son of Family member John Baptiste Ashe, served with Williamson in the Revolution, together at Briar’s Creek, South Carolina and may have chatted about Burrington then or back at home in their leisure.  Then, they also served together on all four sessions of the first and second U.S. Congresses as House representatives for North Carolina, beginning in 1789.  As said, Williamson's book was not published until 1812.

“April 1734” simply could not have been true.  It appears that Nathaniel Rice "grabbed" the reins of government on the 15th of that month before Burrington had abdicated his post and before the new governor had arrived.  Was this the first coup d'etat in the Lower Cape Fear?  Before the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, perpetrated by another generation of the Family?  Still, the details of those last few months demonstrate that Burrington had serious concerns in North Carolina after opposing such powerful men as the Family, a large group of individuals in key positions that could control political affairs.  In effect, they were a syndicate, headed by certain financial interests from London.  After the Revolution, they assumed leadership in that syndicate and later effected the Riot of 1898. 

They may also have used threats in 1734 to achieve their ends...

Burrington did, indeed, send a letter from North Carolina to the duke of Newcastle on June 1, 1734, complaining of “the many sicknesses that seized [him]” and asking for leave to return to England.   Burrington requested this leave, probably afraid, as he told his patron, Newcastle, in confidence before, because Nathaniel Rice aided “a villainous contrivance to murder [him].”   He wrote the Board that “some others were very like to dye but my escapeing death was unexpected by all who saw me [sic].”   This may or may not have been because of an actual illness.  Writing to the Board , he had to be careful because of Martin Bladen.  Another reference contains a letter from Burrington to the duke of Newcastle, dated 17 September 1734, also unanswered, and also from “N. Carolina.”  In that letter, Burrington states that “I have been necessitated, for the preservation of my own life, and peace of this Countrey to suspend Mr Rice.”   Again, he writes both Newcastle and the Board in October and again from North Carolina to again complain that not just Mr. Owen, but also “Mr Lovick and Mr Little [are] dead” and again to request permission to leave his post.   Yes, they were dead... it's in other NCCR and will records as well.  Burrington's "danger" references were there... both Newcastle and the Board must have seen them.  Again, no response came.  If nothing, Burrington remained faithful to his duty, even in the face of royal neglect, and even at the significant risk of his own life.  The frequency of his writing indicates his urgency.  Still, he did not leave North Carolina until after November 1734, after Gov. Gabriel Johnston, his replacement had finally arrived.

Furthermore, Wheeler, like Williamson, provided similar portrayals of Moseley, Ashe, Porter and Moore as trustworthy substantial citizens defending themselves against an arbitrary and vindictive governor.  Still, the Brunswick settlement, perhaps the most important event in North Carolina of that period save the Revolution, barely obtained notice in their work.  Williamson and Wheeler both apparently relied on such hearsay, even, propaganda for their material.  In truth, it was no less than a vulgar attempt to tarnish Burrington’s reputation, after the fact... most likely perpetrated by his enemies, the Family or their sons who lived near and fought with Hugh Williamson in the Revolution.  It was the Family who sent representatives to Congress, again, with Hugh Williamson.

Saunders may have also fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, formed the state's Ku Klux Klan chapter and testified before Congress becoming the first EVER to declare his 5th amendment rights in a formal hearing.  Still... he wasn't a part of the Family cabal.  He was from Salisbury, North Carolina... not the Lower Cape Fear.  He shared little except conservatism with the Wilmington faction.

In 1736, safe at last in London, Burrington made a petition for his unpaid salary.  Safe from the Family, Burrington writes more candidly in his petition:

  • [Smith, Rice, and Montgomery] with some others their confederates, did contrive and attempt to assassinate your petitioner, then actual Govr there by shooting him with pistoles, from which danger he was rescued by the sudden and unexpected interposition of some courageous men who came to his assistance. Your petitioner believes it was by directions from some persons in England, that Smith, Rice & Montgomery were prompted to murder him, because authentick accounts of that detestable attempt, being transmitted to the Board of Trade, yet their Lordships had no regard to them. (CR 4:164-165) 
"Burrington strongly suspected that chief among these 'persons in England' was Martin Bladen, a prominent member of the Board itself whom Burrington had angered around 1730 in a dispute over colonial patronage," says his biographer Fredrick Ribble.

In Champion, no. 341, he attacked the Board of Trade, specifically Martin Bladen (known as "Trade" by many because he controlled the other seven members of the "Board") and his "brother-in-law" Nathaniel Rice and the Family in the Lower Cape Fear when he said that "[William] S[mith], R[ice], and M[oore or Moseley] publicly attempted to assassinate me, when ill and unable to make the Defence they knew me capable of," but the attempt was unsuccessful because of Burrington's "friends" in Edenton.

Investigations have revealed that Martin Bladen's first wife was Mary Gibbs, daughter of Col. John Gibbs (of the infamous Gibbs Rebellion in NC) and her sister Anne married Nathaniel Rice in 1726 right after he returned as a very wealthy man from his work as "Chief Factor" for the Royal African Company (of which Bladen served on the Board of Directors) at Cape Corso Castle, trading in gold and slaves.  He left for the Carolinas immediately afterward... most likely to act in Bladen's stead concerning their investments, investments that were tied in with those of the Family in the Brunswick settlement.

Slave trader Nathaniel Rice and Royal African Company board member Martin Bladen were brothers-in-law and fellow business associates.  That's one hell of a coincidence!

Bertie and Edgecombe precinct inhabitants (northern counties closer to Edenton in the Albemarle), in an address to Gabriel Johnston, liked Burrington and presented him as a figure of almost mythic fortitude and benevolence:

  • ... no man living could have taken more pains & fatigue then he did to acquaint himself with this Province in General which his many Journeys & travels into the back woods on foot will Justifie Sometimes accompanied by one man Only & often pinched with hunger (nay) in danger of Perishing having but one biscutie for three days to subsist on and sometimes Coming amongst the Inhabitts without a Ragg of Cloaths to his back perhaps 200 miles from the place he set out Often carrying with him Considerable Sums of money & disposeing of it amongst many poor people to Encourage & Enable 'em the better to settle the back Lands. (CR 4:19)

Quite the contrast.  Burrington spent his last years writing in The Champion on the arbitrary ministry and abuses of Robert Walpole... bitter quarrels with the Walpoles and the Board of Trade... and, of course, the powerful Martin Bladen.

Hugh Williamson's History had altered the "April 1734" date from that of Hon. George Burrington's true death on February 22, 1759, when he was mugged, robbed, and dumped in the 2800-ft long canal in St. James Park, his cane still tightly clutched in his bruised hand.  His pockets had been turned out... he was obviously mugged and rifled for his money.

The forgery culprit who added the well-understood "Bird Cage Walk" reference could not have been in the first generation of the Family because they had passed away by 1759 when Burrington's corpse was found murdered in "a canal in St. James Park."  The "informant" had to be the next generation, the colonels, generals, and captains who fought in the Revolution... with Hugh Williamson and they would have known that 1734 was far too early for that reference.  They would have been adults by 1759 and probably read the newspapers that reported Burrington's actual death.

The French-influenced layout of St James’s Park, in an engraving by Kip, c1710.
The new park was laid out in the style of French baroque gardens, with a grand canal à la française some 2,800 feet long by 100 feet wide, bordered by avenues and rows of single species trees (mainly elms), with more broad avenues radiating in a goosefoot pattern from the Palace of Whitehall, and two further grand avenues running along the north and south edges of the park, forming The Mall (site of the royal wedding procession) and Birdcage Walk respectively.  The tilt yard, cockpit and bowling alley were meeting places for the Lords Proprietor of Carolina and sat to the east on this map directly opposite to the Queen's Palace at the west end of the canal and on White Hall, the meeting place for the Board of Trade and Plantations.
View of Whitehall from St. James's Park, circa 1677.
From engraving by S. Rawle in J. T. Smith's Antiquities of Westminster

Burrington's was a violent death, but not a "disgraceful" one.  It was reported the next day by many newspapers.  The Public Advertiser and Universal Chronicle articles are shown below.  His body was not identified for two days.  Still, he did not die while cruising for gay sex on the "Bird Cage Walk," a death that people of the eighteenth century would have reviled and found "infamous."  Speaking ill of the dead only added insult to injury. Somebody probably intended that.

Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, February 23, 1759; Issue 7585.

Universal Chronicle or Weekly Gazette (London, England), February 24, 1759 - March 3, 1759; Issue 48.

Burrington was buried at St. John the Evangelist, Westminster on February 24th and given a statesman's service with all the honors... as was his due.

George Burrington was no angel.  The records prove that; yet, they also show that he was faithful to the Duke of Newcastle and to his king and, presumably, to his job... in 1731, to stop the abuses of the Family with the king's land in the Lower Cape Fear.  Still, in the course of his duty, he suffered serious threats to his life.  The men who supported him or supported the royal prerogative died around him.  Newcastle, his patron ignored him in his last months of need, probably content that his faithful scapegoat had successfully carried out his instructions against Bladen's Family.  The Family, his opponents, probably only lost two grants of land on the east side of the Cape Fear River, both belonging to Maurice Moore... not a lot, really.  Brunswick Town took a long time to wither and die, finally burned by British troops in 1779.  The Family had stolen so much more land... and they got to keep it!  Wounded pride threatened the governor’s life.  Nor was that the only injury... in 1740, New Town was named for Spencer Compton, Lord Wilmington, the patron of Gov. Gabriel Johnston, who also got credit for founding the town in almost every history written about the Lower Cape Fear, indeed, about North Carolina in general.  Burrington's contributions were thoroughly erased.  Family vengeance, their wrath, Bladen's wrath... was total.   Perhaps the worst crime, OUR crime, was that early North Carolina “history” concealed the truth and, after the Civil War, it became exponentially worse!  It's still not great... The late Howard Zinn wrote:

  • The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.  And in such world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.  

History involves a passion for truth.  Any agenda will spoil the inquiry.  These early North Carolina politically-inspired histories have to be considered suspect and unreliable, including Wheeler’s, Davis’, and any others relying on Hugh Williamson’s first maiming of North Carolina history.  In the very least, they are political fabrications masquerading as histories.  They are truly George Burrington’s political executioners.  


Dethroning the Kings of Cape Fear: Consequences of Edward Moseley's Surveys

Purchase an e-copy for $5 or get a print version among more titles by B. C. Brooks

Aristocratic Pyrates of the Albemarle

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Brunswick Town and Wilmington

 Purchase an e-copy for $5 or get a print version among more titles by B. C. Brooks







 Quest for Blackbeard

"Quest for Blackbeard" has finally been approved for Global Distribution which means that it is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, and other online booksellers very soon.

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CPGrace said...

Excellent, informative for me as I just started researching the Lower Cape Fear for a genealogical article about Peter Poitevint, Huguenot from South Carolina who moved to Lower Cape Fear and received a 1000 acre land grant in 1728 adjoining Roger Moore. I enjoyed your correction of bad history about George Burrington and think I'm much better informed about "The Family".

Baylus C. Brooks said...


I know Mr. Poitevint quite well! Glad you liked the article. I'm currently working on Blackbeard, but have five years of research into the Lower Cape Fear. Feel free to email me at if you have any further questions. I hope to have the book on Blackbeard ( out by January 2016, followed by the book on Edward Moseley and his Family of the Lower Cape Fear after that.

Stephen Taylor said...

"Any agenda will spoil the inquiry."[?] I see a heavily biased attempt to resurrect the reputation of an arrogant thug.

Baylus C. Brooks said...

This is an attempt to correct a misimpression. Burrington, as I said, was no angel. But, he did not deserve what the Family did to him.

Baylus C. Brooks said...

If history is biased, as in the case with much of the old Confederacy, correcting it should be welcome.

michael longmire said...

Excellent article. Agreed that Gov Burrington was no angel. In the 1720's he had quite the reputation for insolent behavior and threatening and attacking other officials himself. One of those officials, Adam Cockeburn Collector of Customs, seems to have left Carolina shortly after an incident with Burrington in 1724 and later took up the Collector post in Middlesex County, Virginia. In April 1726 he signed the Landing Certificate for my direct ancestor, William Longmire.