Governor William Tryon

Governor William Tryon
British Governor William Tryon N.C. Museum of History

William Tryon was an important British figure in the buildup to the Revolutionary War.  He served as the Royal Governor of two British colonies, North Carolina and New York, as both of these colonies hurdled towards rebellion in the 1770s.  Tryon’s policies and decisions mostly served to exacerbate tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies that resulted in the independence of the United States.

William Tryon was born in Surrey, England on June 8, 1729.  In 1751, Tryon became a lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards.  He rose to a captain and then ultimately to lieutenant colonel in 1758.  In 1757 he married the wealthy Margaret Wake from London.  He served in the Seven Years’ War and was wounded in the Battle of Saint Cast in France.  After the war, in 1764, likely through connections with his wife’s family, Tryon was appointed as the Lieutenant Governor of the colony of North Carolina.  Not long after he arrived in North Carolina, in 1765, the Royal Governor, Arthur Dobbs, died and a few months later, Tryon became the Royal Governor of North Carolina.

North Carolina’s colonial government at the time was deeply divided between the eastern wealthy planters and the western yeoman farmers.  During Tryon’s time as governor, a movement began in the backcountry of North Carolina known as the Regulator Movement.  The Regulators from the backcountry viewed the colony’s colonial government as corrupt and only favoring the easterners.  They sought to negotiate with Tryon and the colonial government for better regulation of the local government.  Many Regulators became angry when Tryon raised taxes to build himself a governor’s mansion in New Bern.  The mansion was completed in 1770.  The building was derisively referred to by some North Carolinians as Tryon’s Palace.

As angry Regulators rose up in the spring of 1771, Governor Tryon called out the North Carolina colonial militia to suppress the Regulators.  He marched 1,000 men out of New Bern and met 2,000 Regulators at Alamance Creek in May of 1771.  A battle broke out and the militia routed the Regulators.  Tryon had several of the Regulator leaders hanged.  His campaign was effective in ending the Regulator Movement in North Carolina, though it was viewed by many as harsh.

A few months later, Tryon was transferred from North Carolina to become the Royal Governor of New York.  In New York, Tryon faced similar issues in the colonial government that he faced in North Carolina.  He also faced growing anger among the colonists and patriot groups like the Sons of Liberty.  In 1774, Tryon returned to England for more than a year.  When he came back to New York City, the Revolutionary War had already begun.

In October of 1775, Tryon was forced from New York City and took refuge on a British ship.  In August of 1776, the British Army and Navy arrived in New York Harbor and defeated General George Washington’s Army.  Tryon, with David Mathews (the loyalist mayor of New York City), hatched a plot to kidnap or assassinate George Washington.  They were able to get a member of Washington’s Life Guard (Thomas Hickey) in on the plan, but he was discovered and hanged as a result.  The attempt to kidnap Washington failed.

Tryon was a military officer, and after the British captured New York City, he was given command of Loyalists and the local rank of general.  In April of 1777, Tryon led his men and British regulars into Connecticut to destroy a patriot supply depot in Danbury.  Tryon marched his men to Danbury and burned and destroyed numerous American supplies and the homes of many patriots.  While marching back he was attacked by American troops under the command of Benedict Arnold and David Wooster.  The resulting Battle of Ridgefield was a British victory for Tryon and General Wooster was mortally wounded.  However, Tryon’s brutal tactics turned many men from Connecticut to the patriot side.

In October of 1777, he led another raid into Peekskill, New York, and destroyed a patriot depot there as well.  In 1778, Tryon was made the colonel of the 70th Regiment of Foot.  In July of 1779, Tryon led a punitive expedition along the Connecticut coast.  Hoping to make Washington move his army, the undefended towns were taken, plundered, and burned by Tryon’s troops.  Dozens of homes, churches, schools, and barns were burned by Tryon and his soldiers.  Again, this vicious plan did more to anger indifferent Americans and provide the patriots with more evidence of British cruelty, much to the chagrin of Tryon’s commander, General Henry Clinton.

Suffering from bad health, Tryon left America finally in 1780 and sailed back to England.  Tryon stayed active with the military from London until his death on January 27, 1788.  Despite his brutal tactics to maintain Royal authority in North Carolina and New York before and during the Revolutionary War, today numerous towns, counties, buildings and streets bear his name.

Further Reading: