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Robert Messer: North Carolina Regulator

The big moments in history are often the only moments we talk about.  The Sons of Liberty, George Washingon, and The Battle of Yorktown seem to get the most press when talking about the Revolutionary War.  What about all of the moments that happened before the war even started?  What about the story of the North Carolina Regulators?  Here is the story of my 7thgreat grandfather and North Carolina Regulator, Captain Robert Messer.

Who was Robert Messer?

Captain Robert Messer was born in New Bern, Craven, North Carolina in 1734. History tells us that New Bern was named after the town, Bern, in Switzerland. While I have yet to prove that the Messers came from Switzerland, it is safe to say that they did come from the Germany/Switzerland area. Not much is known about Robert’s family. I have yet to find any information on his parents or if he had any siblings. We do know that Robert married Mary Ann Basket. There are rumors that say Mary was at least part Indian and that her Indian name was “Little Flower”. Now I’m not sure how true this is. Maybe Mary was part Indian or maybe somewhere down the line somebody thought “Little Flower” and Basket went good together.

Robert and Mary Messer had 6 children; Christian Sargent, Joseph E, Tipton, Jarred, Mary Ann, and Solomon. Christian is my 6th great grandfather, and along with Robert plays an important roll in some pre-Revolutionary folklore.

The Regulator Movement

In the early 1770s, the colonists were beginning to become dissatisfied with the British Crown. In North Carolina, this led to the formation of the Regulators. While the Regulators are usually ignored in Revolutionary War history, it is safe to say that the battles involving the Regulators are basically the beginning of the Revolution.

Highway marker in Alamance County, North Carolina

If you are an Outlander fan, who may recognize the story of the Regulators, after all Murtagh was one.  You also know that the series covers the Battle of Alamance and even mentions the notorious Herman Husband.  Husband was one of the most well known Regulator leaders and is often credited for the documents produced by the movement.  Governor Tryon had his sights set on Herman Huband even before the Battle of Alamance occurred.  For the record, I kept waiting for them to mention Robert Messer in one of the Outlander episodes.  Sadly, he didn’t make the cut.

In May of 1771, the Battle of Alamance took place in Orange County, North Carolina. Captain Robert Messer fought along other Regulators against Governor William Tryon and his militia. While the Regulators lacked the supplies and organization that Tryon’s militia had, they were able to hold their own during the early part of the battle. Unfortunately, the battle turned and ended in the favor of Governor Tryon. In the end, Tryon took 13 Regulators prisoner…one of those being Robert Messer.

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In the days after the battle, Tryon killed one of the prisoners to make an “example” of what would happen to someone taking a stand against the Crown. The other 12 were told to take an oath in order to show their allegiance to the Crown. Only six of the Regulators took the oath while the others were on their way to stand trail for treason.

It didn’t take Tryon long to decided that the six remaining Regulators were guilty of treason against the Crown. Judge Richard Henderson handed down the judgment of violating the Riot Act to Robert Messer and the five others. Messer and the other captured Regulators were to be hung for their crime. Like many of Tryon’s acts, this was to be a public hanging with hopes of putting a stop to the Regulator uprising.

Let’s Make a Deal

The most gut-wrenching part of the story would happen next. In hopes of a last minute pardon, Robert Messer’s wife, Mary, and son, Christian (who was around 11 years old at the time), made their was to Orange County. In the minutes before the hanging was to occur, Christian Messer, threw himself at the mercy of Governor Tryon. It is said that Christian begged Tryon to take him instead and allow his father to go home and continue to provide for his family. Legend says that Christian told Tryon he was worried about what would become of his mother Mary if Robert was to be killed.

Article from The Daily Times-News (Burlington, North Carolina) July 23, 1934

Tryon’s assistant, Colonel Fanning, stepped in and convinced Tryon to momentarily pardon Messer. Fanning came up with the deal that if Messer could find Herman Husband and bring him back to Tryon, then Messer could have his freedom.  (Sidenote:  while Herman Husband was at the Battle of Alamance, he did not actually participate in the fighting.  He was a Quaker.).  Messer took the deal and set off to find Husband.  To keep Messer honest, Tryon held Robert’s wife and son as hostage until he returned.

Messer was able to track Husband down just across the border in Virginia.  The only problem was that Messer was one man and had no way of actually bringing Husband back to North Carolina.  Realizing that he had run out of options, Messer made his was back to Tryon empty handed.  Tryon then proceeded to arrest Messer and release his wife and son.  Tryon took no pity on the Messers, and along with the 5 other “traitors” Robert was killed.

Headstone that marks the place of the Regulators hanging in Hillsborough, North Carolina

If you ever find your way to Hillsborough, North Carolina, there is a marker in a field where the hanging took place. This is the one place where I can go and actually feel a connection to my ancestors. It’s strange to stand there and think what was going through Robert’s, Mary’s, and young Christian’s mind. I’m very proud of my ancestors for standing up for what they believed in, regardless of if all the stories are in fact true. Stories like this make spending countless hours in a library well worth it.

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Check out some of my other revolutionary ancestors.

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