So, you think nothing particularly exciting ever happened in Bladen County? Travel back in time 235 years to a location that presently lies between Tar Heel and Dublin. The date is Monday, April 2, 1781. The sun is setting on the British Empire in their American colonies. Word has spread throughout Bladen County that the British have been dealt debilitating blows by combined patriot forces (that included some Bladen men) under General Nathanael Greene in the piedmont of Guilford County.
Since the costly mid-March battle, the king’s men have been moving rapidly towards Wilmington where Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis plans to meet Major Craig before departing to enlarge his ranks in Virginia. This done, he will be rid of the likes of so many pesky Carolina militia, provincials and Continentals whose relentless determination has nearly destroyed him. Where, he must have wondered, are the Loyalists I expected to join our ranks en masse in the Tory stronghold of Cross Creek? Pitiful few, a small bit of assistance from Cross Creek merchant/commissary, Peter Mallet, for whose meager stored provisions not previously confiscated destroyed by rebels he had agreed to pay. Not the least of his troubling thoughts centered on his mortally wounded indispensible Scottish officer, Colonel Webster, now hours from death as the group halted on cleared, level grounds of a vast acreage known as “Cain’s Neck.” A march of 17 miles from Gray’s Mill (Gray’s Creek) was recorded in a well-maintained journal.
Towards evening, 80 year-old William Cain and wife Olive Regan “received” the visitors who wasted no time burning their fencing for warmth and plundering at will before settling in for the night on the rambling property. What a sight they were! Red coats, tri-corn hats, bayoneted muskets, anticipating the final stretch of troubled trek through eastern North Carolina in the service of His Royal Majesty, George III of Great Britain. Foot soldiers, mounted officers, some dragoons in tall beaver hats, others were clad in colorful kilts. It is likely the hosts knew those to be Highland Scots. Not an altogether unfamiliar sight in the late 18th Century Cape Fear Valley. Highland garb and Gaelic tongue distinguished newer emigrants from those who had arrived some forty years prior during the Gabriel Johnston governorship. By now, the latter group had largely assimilated the uniquely American identity and taken up arms as patriots or “Whigs” as the rebels were called. Here in the Cape Fear Valley, the clash of old world loyalty and a new desire for independence could be seen and felt as passionately as anywhere on the continent.
Not to go unnoticed among the King’s diverse ranks, a regiment of stout, beleaguered mercenary warriors, considered by many to be the world’s most elite fighters. Were they to have been in close proximity, William and Olive would have heard Deutsch spoken by the Germanic Hessians, some donning trademark high helmets that made them appear all the more imposing if not misplaced. At the rear, a number of “hangers-on,” Americans of African ancestry
clung desperately to the British promise of freedom, itself a powerful incentive to escape a lifetime of forced servitude. Their’s was an especially difficult choice as many, hearing of promised liberty cast their devotion to the patriot cause in the false hope of freedom that would not become legal in their time. The scene must have been one of visible weariness, with many wounded, disabled, ragged, thin, followed by supply wagons. Amidst this miserable imagery his Lordship, Marquess Lt. General Charles Cornwallis appears, bearing distinction among his subordinates. We do not know what if any verbal exchange occurred between “hosts” and “guests,” nor do we know exactly where Lord Cornwallis laid his troubled head April 2. Local lore has long claimed it to have been some two miles away, across the river at Harmony Hall, home of Patriot officer, James Richardson. Might Cornwallis have surmised that defeat lay ahead? Though not in Carolina itself, history credits the men and women of Carolina for irreparably damaging the once mighty King’s Army and those who supported Britain. The Civil War that ensued between Whig and Tory continued long after Cornwallis’ army vacated Bladen County.
No known resistance took place in Cain’s Neck that spring night, though each member of the Cain family supported the patriot cause as evidenced through extant documents. Olive would swear an oath as to the extent of losses incurred by them at the hands of British and Tories on behalf of William, who died in December 1781. Of the latter group, Peter Mallett, former patriot whom Olive referenced by name, gained infamy along with David Fanning and Samuel Andrews under the Confiscation and Pardon and Oblivion Acts of North Carolina to be singled out and labeled “never to be forgiven.”
William Cain, listed in the ledger of Colonel Thomas Robeson as having given monetary support and beef for the militia, would not live to see 1782. He had received his first grant of land from George II in 1736, making him one of Bladen’s earliest established families. The Cains’ story echoes a common theme throughout the colonies and is the reason William Tyler in The American’s Creed cites: “..established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots who sacrificed their lives and fortunes.” The couple’s youngest son, James would emerge from the war slightly wounded but victorious as one of some 70 Whig militia who launched a successful late summer pre-dawn raid in 1781 to rid Elizabethtown of hundreds of Tory occupants and killing their leader, Loyalist Bladen Militia Colonel, John Slingsby . Another of Cain’s sons, John, with cousin Richard Regan and one other pursued and killed two of four Loyal Bladen Militiamen to avenge the 1776 murder of Bladen Whig Militia Captain, Nathaniel Richardson. Eldest son, Joseph, Esq., provided a variety of key administrative services for the new state, eventually becoming treasurer for the Wilmington district and establishing boundaries for what became Robeson County, named to honor Bladen Whig Militia Colonel Thomas Robeson, acquaintance and neighbor to the Cain family. Samuel,
Esq., also served in multiple capacities as a Justice of the Peace, early Assembly Representative and Whig Militia soldier.
And for her part, William’s younger second wife, Olive, asserted her rights as a citizen (that a 3rd amendment to the Constitution of this nation would later address) and petitioned the courts under the dictation of Justice William Moore to swear the following:
“April 2 1781 – & Destroyd.
To the Worshipful Court of Bladen
The petition of Olive Cain humbly sheweth
Articles taken By the British and Tories from William Cain
330 Pannets of fince burnt £ 0 (?) 0
500 Gallons of Syder Destroyd £150 0 0
Between 13 & 15 bushels of salt £28 0 0
500 bushels of grain £100 0 0
1 Still & Worm £35 0 0
2 Guns £9 10 0
3 Horses and Saddles £60____0 0
£388 10 0
Besides a number of Other Articles too tedious to mention
This day Mrs. Olive Cain came before me & made Oath that the above mentioned Articles was taken and destroyd by the British and Tories.
Sworn to me this 6th Day of Novemr, 1782 Wm. Moore”
Truth, some say is stranger than fiction. I hope you have the privilege and time to ride through Bladen County this spring and take in the beauty of the budding trees and flowers that abound in the sprawling countryside amid scattered homes and farms along highway 87. As you do, be aware that you are traveling what once was the King’s Highway and once, the King’s men trod the paths. It happened on a Monday, April 2, 1781.
Terry Cain Smith is a retired educator and local historian.