Captain Benjamin Merrill

b abt 1730 Hopewell, Mercer, NJ
executed 19 Jun 1771 Hillsborough, Orange, NC

memorial plaque

This is the famous Benjamin Merrill so brutally executed for his participation in the Regulator revolt. Benjamin was a descendant of the immigrant William Merrill of Warwickshire and his wife Grace. The Merrills and many others of their community in New Jersey moved south to Rowan Co NC in the mid-1700's after many property and title disputes in New Jersey. This was a Baptist community; in North Carolina, they founded the Jersey Settlement and established their church.
Benjamin's story has been told by many historians and genealogists. Rather than rewrite their findings, as I have no further insight to add, I here present some of the more interesting sources I've found.

Photos added here Sept 2000 were taken by Jim McCann, who has kindly shared them with us.

Chronology of Benjamin's life:

c 1730 - born in Hopewell, NJ
Married there, to Jemima Smith, when he'd still have been in his teens
11 Dec 1750 - second son, John, born at Hopewell, NJ
between 1751 and 1755 - Left NJ for the Jersey settlement of then Rowan Co, now Davidson Co, NC. Probably went through, and may have stayed a while, in Frederick county VA, which was a stop for many who migrated southward. C. Phelps Merrell says he went abt 1750.
The Jersey settlement in the Yadkin Valley was on portions of land purchased out of the 100,000 grant from King Geo II to Henry McCulloch, Esq of Turnham Green, Co of Middlesex, England.
"The main north-south road was called the `Grand Road,' winding southward through Phila, across MD and down the valley of VA. The old road followed the present-day US1, as far as today's city of Raleigh, NC at which point it split into a coast road and a SW road through GA, AL, and around the southern end of the mountains. Just north of what is now Richmond, VA, the wagon trail would have left the main road and turned SW into the Piedmont section of rich meadow and cozy nooks in the rolling hills. The `Grand Road' would have been a routed mire dirt road with fords crossing the smaller streams and barge ferries to cross the rivers. ... The Rev. John Gano of the Phila Baptist Assoc of NJ tells us that in 1756 he traveled to the Jersey Settlement. It was a long, expensive and tedious journey ... arrived there in abt 5 wks after traveling abt 800 mi." CPM says Benj was a deacon of the Jersey Baptist Church in Rowan Co, NC, organized in 1754.
24 Jan 1756 - record of Benjamin's being in Hopewell. Rowan Co NC Court Book 2:107:
"Ordered that a summons issue to Michael Myers, Dan'l Little, Benj Merril & Michael Arrand to shew reason for not going out against the Owens who it was thought committed several misdemeanors." Apparently he didn't care to be part of that posse! Daniel Little may have been related through marriage: Benj's nephew (Dan'l, son of Wm) married an Eliz Lytle, dau of Tho Lytle; I do not know the rest of that family.
1759 - on Rowan Co tax lists
Benj Merrell & negro Phyllis. Wm Merrell is also taxed (on himself only).
9 Sep 1760 - purchased 1042 ac of land from Geo Smith. Rowan Co Deed Bk4, pp 363-5.
"The property was located on the north side of the Yadkin River, St. Luke's parish. The plantation was abt 2 mi N of Jersey Baptist Church and abt 5 mi S of the present day city of Lexington, Davidson Co NC.
source: Rowan Co deeds; cited at 2:319 and 4:363-366.
Entered 22 Jan 1761. Deed of sale 9 Sep 1760 from George Smith, Esq, to Benj Merrell for 240 ac. Same, 512 ac. Same, 10 Sep 1760, 419 ac. Could this be Benj's wife Jemima's uncle Geo? Note that Geo Smith was a justice of the Co court 24 Jan 1756.
Merrill bio: "When I visited the old Merrell plantation in Aug 1983, now owned by Mr. Bill Sheets... An old barn stands on top of a knoll said to be the location of Capt Merrell's home. Off to one side, Abbotts Creek meanders by and the farm land rolls off in all directions.
"It is said that Benj was an intelligent, ambitious and hardworking young man as a farmer and gunsmith. He built a waterwheel to provide power for the machinery. In the evening he would set barrel blanks for boring and leave the machine running all night, and in the morning it would be ready for finishing.
"Benj Merrell prospered and we know by the records that he became a leader in the area and Capt of the Rowan Co militia."
25 Apr 1761 Rowan Co Circuit Court case of Jno Howard vs Geo Smith found Jas Smith, Benj Merrill, Andrew Smith and Willis Ellis serving on the jury under foreman Geo Magoune.
Benj served on juries 24-25 Jul 1761; was absent for jury 21 Oct 1761 and to be fined "if he doesn't show reason for absence" - along with 5 others; served again on a jury 24 Jul 1762; was on a venire list to serve in the March Superior Court 1762. I have not finished going through the court abstracts.
1767 - Regulator activity, culminating in Benjamin's execution 19 Jun 1771.
Source: WE Merrill; similar material in many other sources.

Men of Orange Co NC met at Maddock's Mill, near Hillsborough, 4 Apr 1767 and formed a body called Regulators, an assoc. for regulating public grievances and abuse of power. The reason for this gathering was the continued abuses of Gov. Tryon's officials, who required $15 for a marriage license when the legal rate was $1, and so on, at a time when cash was very scarce. Protests to the Gov. had been ineffective. The officials in the western areas had too little supervision. From 1767 on, friction grew between the Regulators and the Governor's officials. Tryon imprisoned some of the leaders; the Regulators deliberately annoyed the officials. Resentment against the officials is said to have prevailed in the Piedmont. Finally, the Gov. decided the Regulators should have no more meetings, and fully capitulate to official power; he sent 300 men and 6 cannons from New Bern to challenge the Regulators. Militia companies joined this group along the way, so that he is said to have had 1100 men camped with him on the banks of Alamance Creek in then Orange Co, now Alamance, on 14 May 1771. Five or six miles west of his camp, some 2000 Regulators are said to have been gathered - but not to have expected to fight. Not more than half had guns, and no one acted as commander. They sent a message to Tryon on the 15th, again asking for justice in their grievances. In answer, the next day, he sent a paper saying they should lay down arms, go home, and obey the King; and he drew his men up in battle lines half a mile from the Regulator camp. Both advanced. Tryon shot Robert Thompson, who had been sent to treat with the Governor. A two-hour battle ensued, with many Regulators fleeing. Afterwards, the Governor returned to Hillsborough, sentenced 6 of the leaders to be hung, and the sentences were carried out 19 Jun 1771. Many people claim that this was the seed of Revolutionary ardor in the state.

Benjamin Merrill was a Captain in the militia, and was on his way to join the Regulators at Alamance, with a company of 300 men. He met Gen. H. Waddell on the way and forced him to flee to Salisbury. A day's march away from Alamance, he disbanded his men upon receiving news of the Governor's victory, and so was not in the fateful scene. But Col. Fanning took him prisoner and brought Benjamin to Tryon. He was put in chains with the other prisoners and dragged to Hillsborough.

Quoting NC Colonial Records, vol 8, pp642-3; 65, 656: "The Supreme Court of Oyer & Terminer, for the Tryal of the Regulators in the Back Country, began at Hillsborough 30 May, and continued to the 20th inst (Jun 1771); during which, 12 were tryed and condemned for High Treason. The Gov. was pleased to suspend the execution of 6, till His Majesty's pleasure be known; the other 6 were executed on Wed 19 Jun at Hillsborough. Among the last, the most distinguished was Benjamin Merrill, who had been a Capt of Militia in Rowan Co. When the Chief Justice passed sentence he concluded in the following manner: `I must now close my afflicting duty, by pronouncing upon you the awful sentence of the law; which is, that you, Benjamin Merrill, be carried to the place from whence you came, that you be drawn from thence to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while still alive, that your bowels be taken out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your body divided into four quarters, and this be at His Majesty's disposal; and the Lord have Mercy upon your Soul."

"In this crucial situation he gave his friends satisfactory evidence that he was prepared to die, for he not only professed faith in Christ, his hope of Heaven, and his willingness to go, but sang a Psalm very devoutly, and died like a Christian soldier. On being permitted to speak just before the execution, he said that fifteen years previously he had been converted, but had back-slidden, yet now felt that he was freely forgiven and that he would not change places with anyone on the grounds, in concluding he referred to his wife and 8 children. It is said that one of Tryon's soldiers was heard to declare that if all men went to the gallows with a character such as Capt Merrill's, `hanging would be an honorable death.' Capt Merrill was a man held in general esteem for his honesty, integrity and piety. Just a few minutes before Benjamin was executed, he is quoted as saying, `In a few minutes I shall leave a widow and ten children. I entreat that no reflection be cast on them on my account, and, if possible, I shall deem it a bounty, should you gentlemen petition the Governor and Council that some part of my estate may be spared to the widow and fatherless." Gov. Tryon said, "Benjamin Merrill, a Capt of the militia, left it in charge of the officers to solicit me to grant his plantation and estate to his wife and eight children. Wm Tryon."


"Mr. A.J. Owen, a member of the Jersey Church, said, `that the grant was actually made as requested to the widow and children, and that the document given by Gov Tryon was handed down, with other old papers belonging to the Merrill family, and finally lodged in the hands of Wilson Merrill, brother-in-law of Mr. Owen. In 1855, Mr. Owen got possession of this rare document and held it until 1872, when he went West, at which time it slipped from him. ... Mr. Owen committed to memory its contents. `On the back of the folded instrument was inscribed: `To Jemima Merrill and her Children.' The contents were: `I, Wm. Tryon, Gov and Captain-General for the province of NC: To Jemima Merrill and her children: You are commanded to hold and possess the land and tenements, goods and chattels of the late Benjamin Merrill, hung for high treason, till His Majesty's pleasure shall be known: and all his tax collectors and receivers shall take due notice thereof. Done at Hillsboro, --- June, 1771. Wm. Tryon.' The correspondence between Gov Martin and the Earl of Hillsborough clearly shows that the estate was given back to the family. `Dec 4, 1771 - The Earl of Hillsborough to Gov Martin: In the last letter I received from Mr. Tryon relative to the affairs of NC and which is dated from NY, he expresses a wish that the plantation and estate of Benjamin Merrill, a Capt of the Militia and who was one of the six rebels executed on the 19th of June may be granted to a wife and eight children he left behind him, and I have a command from the King to signify to you His Majesty's pleasure, that you do accordingly take proper measures that whatever property belonging to that unhappy person became forfeited to the Crown by his conviction should be regranted to his Widow and Children.' `Dec 12, 1771 - Gov Martin to Earl of Marlborough: Benjamin Merrill one of the six criminals executed soon after the action with the insurgents has left an innocent and miserable family consisting of his widow and seven young children who must starve unless his Majesty will be graciously pleased to continue to them the possession of the lands of the delinquent. I am therefore my Lord engaged by the feelings of humanity to implore his Majesty's favor to this wretched and fatherless family.' `Oct 25, 1772 - Gov Martin to Earl of Hillsborough: I am to acquaint your Lordship, that I have displayed His Majesty's most gracious Acts of beneficence to the family of Benjamin Merrill, - and I had the satisfaction to see them received with most dutiful and lively gratitude.'

WE Merrill (1935) history, Capt. Benj Merrill and the Merrill Family of NC, lists children: Sam'l, John, Andrew, Wm, Chas, Elijah, Jona, Anna, Penelope. References to his children vary from 7 to 10, with 8 most common.
Merrill Bulletin #1-3 says 3 of his sons served in the Revolution.
Father-in-law's will names grandchildren, Benj's children.