The Hartford Mill Complex During the Revolution

Eno Journal
VOLUME 7 SPECIAL ISSUE
Papers from the seminar on Water Wheels and Windmills
JULY 1978

By Mary Claire Engstrom

The story of Hart’s Mill that I shall tell you this afternoon is but the single Revolutionary chapter in the lengthy history of this old water grist mill on the upper Eno River. No identifiable remnant of the mill or of the huge mill complex once surrounding it survives today, but it stood on the west bank of the Eno, approximately 11/2 miles west/northwest of the village of Childsburgh, the county seat of Orange County, about where U.S. 70 now crosses the River.

This afternoon’s account of the Mill is a new one, that is, it has not appeared in print, nor has it been put together before in any consecutive fashion, so far as I know. For a number of years the Duke University Library has owned a slender little folder of 34 MS. pages, the Loyalist Reverend James Eraser’s detailed claims for £5,285.17.2 in damages allegedly due him for the destruction and burning of his Hart’s Mill property by American armed forces and confiscation officials in February, 1781.1 The Library of Congress has long owned, in the Thomas J. Clay Papers, Jesse Benton’s valuable letters to Col. Thomas Hart concerning Benton’s struggles in the later 1780s to protect the abandoned mill complex and to get it back in running order once again.2 Here, we are putting together the several available accounts, British and American, of the so-called “Battle of Hart’s Mill” and its aftermath.

The original old grist mill had been built on the Eno by August 4, 1755,3 not far below the mouth of McGowan’s Creek, by a clever, energetic Quaker miller, Joseph Maddock, and his apprentice John Frazier.4

For nearly 13 years Maddock’s Mill was the nearest grist mill to the county seat. In October, 1766, however, Maddock’s name and his mill became publicly linked with the Regulators,5 and from that time forward he feared that the mill and his entire North Carolina property would be confiscated by Governor William Tryon.6 The alarmed Maddock and other Eno Quakers swiftly entered for new lands in eastern Georgia;7 and in November, 1767, according to the old Registration of Deeds Book in Raleigh, Maddock conveyed his 20-acre mill seat to Governor Tryon’s friend, Capt. Thomas Hart,8 and in July, 1768, he conveyed a 434-acre tract, a sizable portion of his plantation, to Governor Tryon himself.9 Whether or not these two conveyances- were actual sales or thinly disguised confiscations, one cannot say. In any event, by deeds and State land grant, Maddock’s lands came into Thomas Hart’s hands and Hartford Plantation came into existence.10

Captain Hart (1730-1808) was a Virginian from Hanover County, an adventurer,” one of “the men with silver buckles on their shoes” who invariably married heiresses and gradually pushed the less sophisticated pioneer Quakers out of their little stores and inns and acquired their mills and farmsteads – a pattern of polite, ruthless aggression in the Eno River Valley entirely fascinating and chilling to trace today from our vantage point in time.12

The genial, gregarious Hart was a daring land speculator and a born gambler who delighted in taking long chances. Usually he was enormously successful, a Midas with the golden touch. In colonial Orange County he married Susannah Gray, Col. John Gray’s daughter, and soon inherited Grayfields (Moorefields),13 set up a mercantile business in Childsburgh with Edmund Fanning ,14 swiftly ingratiated himself with the most considerable men of Hillsborough, New Bern, and eastern North Carolina, acquired lucrative appointments, lands, and power,15 and built up his new Hartford Plantation as both a political and industrial base.

Maddock’s old grist mill under its new owner became the nucleus for a sizeable village of “Mills Manufactories, &c,” as Hart called them16 Ña saw mill, an oil mill, a fulling mill, a distillery with two large stills, a weaving house, a tan-yard and tannery with a large storehouse, a blacksmith’s shop, and a cobbler’s shop from which wagons regularly took loads of shoes into Hillsborough, plus a veritable army of skilled workmen, both black and white: carpenters, painters, brickmasons, tanners, cobblers, smiths, weavers, and so on, all with Robert Nelson, a McGowan’s Creek neighbor, as overseer and manager.17 Besides these various industries, there were also the stables, the dwelling-house (a rambling yellow frame affair which survived into our time, so Mr. Edwin M. Lynch18 tells me), a kitchen, a wash-house, a smoke-house, an ice-house, the garden, Maddock’s very considerable old orchard (for which the “Orchard Plantation” was named), the mill-dam and pond, and the plantation itself.

It is no surprise at all to find in the 1779 Tax List19 that Col. Thomas Hart in that year was the wealthiest man in Orange County – with an assessed worth of £70,431.2.

But there was also one other significant establishment at Hartford – the buildings for the new Academy which the General Assembly had chartered in 177820 a prestigious Board of Trustees, mostly Scotsmen, had been named:

“William Hooper, Alexander Martin, John Kinchen, Thomas Burke, Thomas Hart, Nathaniel Rochester, James Hogg, William Johnston, Esquires – and the Reverend Mr. Frazier [sic].” Hart had evidently offered to erect the new Academy at Hartford because of his handy concentration of shops and skilled craftsmen. We know very little of these Academy buildings save that there were several of them, that they were always described as “Grand Buildings” or “Elegant Buildings” in the Hart-Benton correspondence, and that winter winds blew down the wing of one of them after their timely sale to Col. William Shepperd.21 No one now seems to know that such an Academy had existed in the area in the 1770s, and indeed it seems certain that it was an early casualty of the revolution and never opened its doors.22

By 1779 the canny Hart had sensed an ominous shift in political attitudes and decided that it was time to take his wife and daughters out of the area. On January 28,1780, he wrote in high, good spirits to his friend Thomas Blount of Tarborough;

“I have to inform you that I have lately Sold Hartford Mills Manufactories & c, and am now a Gentn. of pleasure, at first Liberty…! have taken a Bill of Exchange for £3360 in Sterg. for Hartford payable at 60 days Sight after the 26th November 1783 it is from a young Clergy man of the name H Frazir [sic] lately from Scotland who has just been informd (by letter) of his Fathers Death and of his bequeathing him an Estate of £10,000 Sterg. I believe it is Good…”23

The “young Clergy man” to whom Thomas Hart had so daringly sold Hartford on the strength of his great expectations24 was the Reverend James Fraser, apparently a headmaster imported from Scotland, sight unseen, by the eight North Carolina trustees at a salary of £225 per year.25 Although Fraser has left very few traceable records behind him26 (his name is simply marked “Expunged, Oct. 5, 1784″ from the list of early ministers in Orange Presbytery),27 the Hart-Benton letters and Fraser’s own collection of papers in the Duke folder reveal an extravagant, high-living adventurer quite as willing to take long chances as Hart himself- infact, a fit adversary for Hart.

On Dec. 23, 1780, a month after Hart’s departure, Jesse Benton reported to him in agitation,
“Mr. Frazer never let me see him after you went away tho’ I went to Hartford sundrie times for that purpose… about the 10th he went over to Virginia with part of his Household Furniture; the 16th I had an Attachment Levyed on all his Estate we cou’d come at…I believe from what I can learn the Man owes a great deal more than his Estate is worth.”28

This was the highly unsatisfactory state of affairs at Hartford Plantation when the British forces under Earl Cornwallis arrived in the area in the unusually mild February of 1781. The Reverend Fraser states under oath in his deposition given five years later in Nova Scotia that Cornwallis first came to Hartford to establish headquarters at Fraser’s house.29 (something we had not known before), that his Lordship later repaired to Hillsborough to raise the Royal Standard, but (and these are Fraser’s words),

“that there was an outpost of said Army kept at the Deponnents Plantation in order (as he supposes) to protect his the Deponnents Grist Mill which was grinding meal for the use of the said troops, that … on the morning of the twenty fourth of said month about Break of day the Deponnents mill was attacked by a number of the Enemy . . . who drove the British Party from the said Mill across the River Enoe . . . that this deponnent having remained behind a few moments to stop the said mill (which was then going) but immediately after attempting to join said British Party by wading said Kiver he the Deponnent got between the Enemy’s Fire and that of the British to the great danger of the Deponnent’s Life, that Col. Tarleton with his troop of Horse having defeated said Party of the Enemy (as the deponnent understood) he the Deponnent returned sometime after to his Plantation where he found his mill very much Broken & dammaged, his dwelling house plundered of everything valuable…and greatly dammaged by attempts (as he supposed) to set it on fire in different places…”30

General Joseph Graham’s succinct account, written in 1820, nearly 40 years later, states simply that he and Captain Simmons at break of day in the midst of “hard showers” approached the Mill from the west and surprised the British by firing at them from behind two small outbuildings (a stable and a smith shop, Graham thought). “Those of the enemy who did not fall, fled.” Those who managed to run a hundred yards or so beyond the Eno (i.e., eastward) were either killed or captured. (Mr. Edwin M. Lynch tells me that the British were buried where they fell and lie there today.) “The cavalry had barely brought back the prisoners (nineteen in all) to the riflemen, when in the direction of Hillsboro a noise was heard like distant thunder.” Graham’s raiding party with their prisoners instantly departed in two detachments.31

According to the Graham version which emphasizes the speed and split-second timing of the whole maneuver, it would have been foolhardy for the American “rebels” to have taken precious time to break furniture and set fires when they could already hear the “slow gallop” of Tarleton’s horses. One may conclude that either neighborhood partisans or looters attacked Hartford before the Reverend and Mrs. Fraser returned to it.

Fraser’s fascinating 11-page inventory of his possessions broken, burned, and confiscated at Hartford32 is a gold mine of information about the contents of an Eno Valley Mill complex – but the list must be used with caution.

Besides Negroes and livestock, the Reverend Fraser testified that he had lost all the “utensils” of the three mills, 356 “sides of Leather in the Vatts & Tanhouse” plus “220 skins left in the Tanhouse,” cotton and flax wheels from the weaving house, stills and copper boilers from the distillery, as well as all the equipment from the smaller plantation houses and a large quantity of provisions – whiskey, gin, flour, Indian corn, wheat.33 In short, Hartford’s “Mills manufactories, &c” had been stripped bare of every usable thing.

The Reverend Fraser’s extraordinary library of 246 catalogued books was he says, chiefly destroyed by fire. One half of it was an extra fine theological collection; the rest was a gentleman’s well chosen pleasure library – all of it remarkable tor the master ot a backwoods Academy.34

The list of household furniture is staggering, chiefly mahogany and black walnut – all split to pieces,” “abused much,” “burnt and damaged” chairs, dropleaf tables, bedsteads, dressing-tables, desks, sideboards, 8 looking glasses “with guilt or mahogany frames,”etc.,etc. Not a stick of it seems to have escaped wreckage.3″

Besides all these things “four Carpets” and “1 Elegant painted floor Cloth”36 were lost to confiscation officials. This last is especially notable since experts have usually accounted early painted floor cloths to have been scarce indeed between Richmond and Charleston.37

Mrs. Fraser lists a small fortune in woven yard goods –127 yards unbleached linen, 130 yards Osnaburg, 15 yards cotton homespun, 92 yards white flowered satin, etc. There was also a new bolting cloth from the grist mill.38

The Frasers’ personal wardrobes seem incredibly extravagant. The Reverend Fraser lost “1 new Suit Black superfine Broadcloth, 1 Beaver Hatt Black new, 16 Stocks, 4 white silk Stocks, 3 Black Silk D0, 8 Neck Cloths different kinds, 14 shirts Linnen, 10 cotton D0, 6 Coarse muslin D0, 3 Black silk Handkerchiefs, 2 White D0 D0″ – also a “Suit Blue superfine Broadcloth, 4 Suits Brown Linnen, 4 Suits HomeSpun, 6 pair Linen Trousers, 8 pair Cotton D0, plus paste Stock buckles, knee buckles, and three pair silver shoe buckles.”39

Mrs. Fraser was equally well turned out in 16 gowns of Lutestring (corded) silk, red and white striped silk, chintz, and homespun, with quantities of shifts and pet­ticoats, satin shoes in various colors, and a whole bewilderment of lawn, gauze, muslin, and linen aprons, handkerchiefs, tippets, headdresses, double ruffles, stomachers, and the like. She had also a respectable array of mitts and jewelry besides her “paste shoe buckles – very Elegant.”40 For a while, at least, the Reverend and Mrs. James Fraser may have been the best garbed parson and his wife in the American colonies.

The Reverend Fraser further deposed that he had later been accused of “High Treason,” thrown into jail to suffer three months of extreme hardships, and finally tried, but that he was acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. He then made his way to New York and thence to Nova Scotia.41

In the interval, Hartford apparently stood vacant and empty. On August 21, 1781, six months after the “Battle,” Jesse Benton sent a highly perturbed letter to Thomas Hart at his new “Paradise Plantation” in Hagerstown, Maryland:

“…your Mills & houses are more decayed and have been robed of Locks, Hinges, etc…I’ve since employed Mr. Parlmer [Martin Palmer] to nail up the Doors & Windows, but they were broke open soon after…please to Write what you want done about your Houses & Mills &C…I am determined to sell my little Plantation here & move (I dont no where).”2

Colonel Hart’s reply to Benton’s worried query was obviously the persuasive suggestion that Benton himself should buy Hartford and remove there, for at the February Court of 1782 Jesse Benton requested and received on February 27 a license to keep ordinary at Hartford.43 On March 30, 1782 he dated a personal letter from Hartford to Governor Thomas Burke.44 Since Jesse’s famous son. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was born on March 14, 1782, it would appear from the evidence of the two preceding dates that the child was born at the old Hartford plantation house to the west of Hart’s Mill.

Just how Benton’s £3000 purchase was arranged legally can only be surmised, for the question of the title of Hartford by then must have been a murky one.45 How it was arranged financially was easier: Jesse had no hard money at all in 1782 ; like the Reverend Fraser, he had simply bought Hartford with promises and paper.

By December 4 Jesse could write to Colonel Hart with some pride,

“I can inform You that the Hartford Estate (which You call mine, tho’ not yet paid for) is in excellent repair…but if you will believe me I have not had Water to keep the Grist Mill, Fuling-Mill & Oyl Mill at Work before this Weeke…! have expended a great deal of Money on repairs…but God Almighty witholds the Water from me…”47


Thomas Hart Benton

In the bitterly hard spring of 1783 when famine became a stark possibility in the Hillsborough area, Benton wrote that there had been a general crop failure and that he was finding many more mill repairs necessary;

“…I must have a Sett of Bolting Cloths, and a new Roof on the Mill House this Spring, and I am apprehensive the Oyl Mill must be rebuilt, before next fall. Were all these things accomplished & myself clear of Debt I should be well pleased with Hartford.”
4′

On April 3, 1786, Benton sent Hart a comprehensive report of 19 closely written pages containing the news that he had removed his family and the old weaving-house to a newly cleared farm of 20 acres on a high, beautiful spot, “the Pleasantest & most beautiful situa­tion in Orange,” some 600 yards southwest of the Mill and that he had rented out the old Hartford houses and stable to a tavern keeper “at £25 this, being the first year; the fulling Mill at £50 for one Year, and hope to rent out the Tan yard & Store house before next fall.”49

Benton died in 1790, however, still heavily encumbered by obligations, and the complicated settlement of the estate and the eventual break-up of Hartford Planta­tion devolved upon his widow Nancy and Colonel Hart.50 Jesse Benton was buried on the Plantation not far from his new homestead and according to the 1891 Tate Map not far north of the Southern Railway and not far west of the Eno River. The actual grave site, however, has been lost for several decades.51 A good portion of Hartford Plantation is now the Hillsborough Division of Duke Forest; and the huge, extremely deep Duke Quarry which has supplied the distinctive tawny stone of the Duke University buildings lies to the east across the River only a short dis­tance from Jesse Benton’s own old stone quarry.

But a last glimpse of the Reverend James Fraser in Nova Scotia: after the considerable trouble, expense, and frustration involved in sending two persons to North Carolina (one did not return)62 to collect three signed affidavits that Fraser’s Hartford lands had been truly confiscated and were lost to him,53 the Reverend Fraser, late in 1789, was at last ready to go to Britain and present his assembled papers in person to the Loyalist Claims Commission asking for the large sum of £5,285.17.2 in damages for Hartford.54 His written petition concluded with these words:

“Should the Books be finally shut & the Business totally ended He has that confidence to place in the Mildness and Justice of that Government ([for]…which …he has suffered the loss of all things) that they will consider the Justness of his Claim… that they will view him as an object entitled to Royal Munificence, and will give him an appointment in any part of his Majesty’s dominions equal to the Intrest of his Property lost.
Signed
James Fraser”
55

There is no record that the Reverend Fraser s belated petition was ever placed on file or that he was ever viewed “as an object entitled to Royal Munificence.”