British Ignobility


British colonial administrators were almost always members of the nobility — the peers and landed gentry.  But there were two groups of nobles: high nobles and everyone else.  In North America, the colonial administrators were mostly minor nobility.  Very few “high born” nobles wanted to spend any time in backwater America.

Early American history did not treat nobility too kindly because the experiences of the average colonist in dealing with royalty were not very good.  Soon after the Americans achieved independence, people began naming their animals after British royalty: Duke, King, Lady, Prince, Princess, and Baron featured consistently in the top ten names for pet animals.[1]

British society is very structured.  Before the 20th century, descendants in the male line of peers and landowners were entitled to inherit property and titles.  Today, the nobility is a British custom bestowed by the Sovereign on those who warrant awards and national recognition.  Some titles are still inherited, but most are not.

As to the right of inheritance (as previously noted), only the eldest son could inherit his father’s wealth and title.  All other sons were entitled to nothing — but they were still sons, and if they maintained good relations with their fathers, he may “assist them” with getting started in a career that would someday sustain them.  This is why eldest sons (and their sons) could claim British titles, and all other sons would have to fend for themselves.  Purchasing a commission for a second or later son might one day lead to honorific titles, such as baronets or/and military titles.

Gov. William Tryon

Governor William Tryon (first of North Carolina and then of New York) was such a man.  Styled Major General-Governor William Tryon, he served as the Eighth Governor of North Carolina (1764 – 1771) and 39th Governor of New York (1771 – 1777). 

Tryon (1729 – 1788) was born at Norbury Park, Surrey.  His maternal grandfather was Sir Robert Shirley, 1st Earl Ferrers, whose lands and title passed to his second (but eldest surviving) son Washington.  William’s father was Charles Tryon, and his mother, Lady Mary Shirley.  In all likelihood, Charles purchased an army commission for his son (as they were costly in 1754), a lieutenancy in the 1st Regiment Foot Guards.  Before the end of the year, William advanced to captain — again, one likely purchased for him by his father.

William’s participation in the Seven Years’ War took him to Cherbourg and St. Malo.  Tryon was wounded by artillery at the battle of Saint Cast in 1758.  In 1764, Tryon’s family connections enabled William to obtain the position of Acting Governor of North Carolina because the province’s 7th Governor, 75-year-old Arthur Dobbs, was ill and sought retirement.  William, his wife Margaret Wake-Tryon, and two children arrived in early October only to find that Gov. Dobbs had yet to step down.[2]  This meant that Tryon could not draw his salary as governor until Dobbs did remove himself.  It was one of those awkward moments.

North Carolina

While awaiting Dobbs’ departure, Lieutenant-Governor Tryon lived in a temporary home in Brunswick Town (along the Cape Fear River).[3]  When Dobbs passed away on 28 March 1765, Tryon assumed his post as Acting Governor of North Carolina.  In July, King George III appointed Tryon as Governor.

Governor Tryon was religious and thought it was his duty to his sovereign to expand the Church of England in the Province of North Carolina.  At the time he assumed his role as governor, there were only five Anglican clergy in North Carolina.  He energetically pushed for church construction projects in Wilmington (40 miles from Brunswick Town), Edenton (213 miles), and New Bern (130 miles).  The British Parliament did colonial governors no favors by passing the Stamp Act of 1765.  Settlers in North Carolinian were not pleased and wasted no time communicating their displeasure.  When Tryon received notification of the Stamp Act, the colonial assembly was not in session.  Tryon decided not to seat the legislators as a strategy Tryon Palace - Wikipediato keep the assemblymen from making public announcements in opposition.  Personally, Tryon believed the Stamp Act was a bad idea, but he did his duty until Parliament repealed the Act.

Tryon Palace, North Carolina’s First Permanent Capital, New Bern

William Tryon was energetic in how he went about his duties, and he had several notable achievements — such as the creation of the postal service in 1769.  He is noted for two additional accomplishments: the Tryon Mansion (shown right) (which I have visited on two occasions) and for suppressing the North Carolina Regulator Movement.  They were related problems.[4]  The uprising lasted from 1768 – 1771 until the colonial militia defeated the regulators at the Battle of Alamance.[5]

Following the battle, Governor Tryon ordered the execution of seven convicted Regulators.  Most men were accused of violating the Riot Act, a capital offense.  The executed men were James Few, Benjamin Merrill, Enoch Pugh, Robert Matear, Robert Messer, Bryant Austin, and one other.  King George III pardoned six other regulators, but not before Governor Tryon raised taxes again to pay for the militia campaign against the protestors.

Modern academics and politicians claim that the colonists hated Governor Tryon — and this could be true, particularly if the colonists found themselves on the wrong side of the law during the difficulties leading up to the American Revolution.  On the other hand, it is more likely that colonists gave as much thought to Governor Tryon as they give to their current governor — which is not much.

William Tryon’s tenure as Governor of North Carolina ended on 30 June 1771.  His palace was reconstructed in the 1950s with reliance on the original architectural drawings of Mr. John Hawkes.  It is a remarkable historical monument.

New York

On 8 July 1771, William Tryon assumed the mantle of power as Governor of New York.  The Governor would not enjoy any improvement in his popularity among New Yorkers — but then, the colonies were inching ever closer to war.

Among General Tryon’s first challenges in New York was resolving the issue of quartering for those serving in uniform and various construction projects that would enable New York to defend itself against — well, who might that have been?

Tryon’s problems began in 1772 when colonists reacted unfavorably to the Tea Act.  In December, the Sons of Liberty somehow persuaded tax collectors to resign — which meant that the shipboard tea could not be off-loaded and moved ashore.  Tryon ordered it stored at Fort George if the tea could not be offloaded.  It was probably the only sensible decision he could make, but a ruffian leader named Alexander McDougall increased tensions by threatening the Governor’s life.  When the Boston Tea Party news arrived in late December, Tryon gave up trying to bring the tea ashore.

In early April 1774, Governor Tryon embarked for London, leaving Cadwallader Colden to govern in his absence.  Tryon returned to New York in June 1775 — after the outbreak of hostilities.  Meanwhile, the Continental Congress dispatched Isaac Sears to place Tryon under arrest.[6]  George Washington ordered his military commander in New York to leave Tryon unmolested to minimize his military commitments.

Nevertheless, fully aware that his safety was in jeopardy, Governor Tryon sought refuge on the British sloop Halifax — later establishing his headquarters aboard the merchant vessel Duchess of Gordon.  In 1776, Tryon dissolved the New York assembly and, working closely with British loyalists, attempted to sway the outcome of new elections.  The new assembly, once seat, promptly voted for independence.  The two immediate effects of this are that (a) Gov. Tryon developed a case of indigestion, and (b) Gov. Tryon dissolved the New York State Assembly.

From the deck of Duchess of Gordon, Tryon oversaw a counterfeiting workshop that he designed to disrupt the economy of the rebel colony and bankrupt the Continental Army.  Tryon’s efforts were so successful that the American Congress made counterfeiting a capital crime.

Counterfeiting wasn’t Tryon’s only scheme.  He routinely met with other British sympathizers, including David Mathews, the Loyalist mayor of New York City.[7]  Together, the men conspired to recruit several men guarding George Washington — one of whom was a man named Thomas Hickey, recruited by Tryon to help distribute counterfeit money and as a conspirator in the scheme to kidnap General Washington.  Had Tryon’s plan succeeded, it would have changed the course of the American Revolution.

“Tryon has been very mischievous, and we find our hands full in counteracting and suppressing the conspiracies formed by him and his adherents.”  — John Jay.

Before the kidnapping scheme could take place, Continental officials arrested Hickey and, finding him in possession of a large sum of counterfeit money, imprisoned him pending trial.  It was a capital offense.  Hickey, who was no genius in his own right, bragged to a cellmate, Isaac Ketcham, about the plot against Washington and his role in it.  Ketcham, seeking his freedom, revealed Hickey’s confessed involvement.  Continental authorities released Ketcham and hanged Hickey.  Hickey’s lesson might have been —never trust a cellmate.

Back to the Army

General William Howe arrived in New York in late June 1776, bringing the British Army with him.  Howe’s first act was to place New York under martial law and designate Major General James Robertson as military commander.  While retaining his title as Governor of New York, General Howe assumed complete jurisdiction for British governance in New York and as Commander-in-Chief, British North America.  In early 1777, General Howe appointed Tryon to serve as General Officer Commanding provincial (Loyalist) forces.  His first mission was to invade Connecticut, march on the city of Danbury, and destroy the Danbury arsenal as a means of denying weapons to the Americans.

In Danbury, Tryon established his headquarters at the house of a loyalist named Joseph Dibble.  His subordinate commanders were Brigadier General William Erskine and Brigadier General James Agnew.  Tryon engaged and defeated Patriot forces under the command of Major General David Wooster and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold at Ridgefield.  Following Tryon’s military success, Howe appointed him as a Major General in the British Army and Colonel of the 70th Regiment of Foot.  He later assumed command of all  British forces on Long Island, New York.

From his experience with the North Carolina Regulator Movement, Tryon had long advocated engaging civilian targets to discourage rebellion. Such was not the behavior of civilized men — and besides, no one with half a brain believes that attacking civilians would have been a good strategy given the number of civilians armed with rifles in the American colonies. General Henry Clinton, who replaced Howe, rejected Tryon’s proposals outright.

Drawing on his previous experiences in North Carolina, William Tryon had no hesitation in shooting civilians if they “got in the way.” In 1779, Tryon commanded a series of raids on the Connecticut coast, targeting New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk. General Clinton was not happy with Tryon’s disobedience, but in Tryon’s mind, his purpose was to draw American forces out of the Hudson Valley, forcing them to defend Connecticut civilians.  Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, General Washington’s close friend, urged Washington for help.  Washington, keeping his eye on the ball, refused.

History should remember William Tryon as a politically tactful and able administrator, but he was also brutal and harsh toward colonists.  Clinton denied Tryon any further command of regular forces and ordered him to return to England in September 1780.  Two years later, Tryon advanced to Lieutenant General.  He passed away at his home in London in 1788.


  1. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  2. McBurney, C. M.  Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island.  South Carolina History, 2014.
  3. Nash, J. R.  Spies: A narrative encyclopedia of dirty deeds and double-dealing.  Evans & Company, 1997.
  4. Nathan, A. G. The Gentleman Spy: The True Story of the British Officer Who Might Have Presented the American Revolution.  Sedgewick & Jackson, 1970.
  5. Nelson, P.  William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  6. Randall, W. S.  Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor.  New York: William Morrow, 1990


[1] Such is seldom done in the United Kingdom.

[2] Wake County, North Carolina is named in Margaret’s honor.  Her father William Wake, gave her a dowry of more than £30,000 — which made her a very attractive bride.

[3] Brunswick Town was a prominent settlement and the first successful European settlement on the Cape Fear River owing to its status as a major British seaport.  Brunswick ceased to exist in 1776 when the British army burned it to the ground.  The foundations of Brunswick Town now reside beneath the now-abandoned Civil War Fort Anderson. 

[4] The Regulator Movement, also known as an insurrection, a war, and an uprising, was a demonstration of citizens against corrupt politicians.  The uprising did not change the power structure, some scholars regard the event as a precursor to the American Resolution, but others disagree because the regulators did not attempt to change the form or principle of the North Carolina government.

[5] Governor Tryon and North Carolina’s history figure prominently in the fictional (at least I hope it is) television series Outlander.  Highly entertaining and I think accurate with respect to William Tryon, life in Coastal Carolina, and with respect to the Regulator War.  

[6] Despite his religious upbringing, Sears had been a member of the NY Sons of Liberty since around 1765.  There was not another organization member more inclined toward violence than Sears, who threatened the life of more than one British official, and headed every violent demonstration in New York City.

[7] General Washington (and members of Congress) were well-aware of the activities of David, James, and Fletcher Mathews.  Washington ordered an arrest warrant for James and Fletcher, whom he charged with recruiting for the British Crown.  

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in COLONIAL PERIOD, HISTORY, REVOLUTION. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to British Ignobility

  1. Andy says:

    I was pleasantly surprised that this bio held my interest from beginning to end. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from a tale about colonial governor. You came through yet again.

    Hand salute, Mustang.



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