James Mason Rawlins: Traitor or Not? Part 2

    (This is Part 2 of a 3-Part story. For the beginning of the story, read the blogpost for Aug. 28, 2011)

    Our first Rawlins ancestor in the New World, James Mason Rawlings, was a Loyalist who in 1777 found himself accused of high treason and conspiracy against the state of North Carolina. From the clues available in a few old documents, his arrest and imprisonment seems to have happened this way:

    According to a deposition he gave on August 10, 1777 after his arrest, Rawlings had attended a muster (or meeting) in March of 1777 at the courthouse in Plymouth, Martin County, North Carolina. Returning home in the company of two men, John Lewelling and John Carter, he was told “that the Country was Like to become subject to popery.” Lewelling hoped to forestall this outcome. Hoping for “a Blessing on the Indeavour,” he enlisted Rawlings to help gather a group of like-minded people about him. He asked Rawlings to draw up a written instrument, or constitution, to which people might agree under oath. (This request, taken with the fact that most other conspirators signed their testimonies with an X, tells us that Rawlings probably had more education than others involved in the plot.)

    According to his deposition, Rawlings at first refused to write out this Constitution, but Lewelling’s offer of payment persuaded him to do it.

    A number of people later testified concerning Rawlings’ part in the new society. One man, Peleg Belote, told of his conversation with a man named Absalom Legate. They had heard that the leaders of the rebellion designed to impose a new religion on the people which would compel them to worship images. Legate had persuaded Belote to go to hear a sermon by Rawlings. Legate introduced him to Rawlings and after swearing Belote to secrecy, Rawlings told him about a confederacy forming to support the religion they had been used to. Among other things, they pledged to oppose drafts and protect Loyalist draftees from being forced to serve in the patriot militia. They also discussed ways to help the British.

    Rawlings’ deposition continued:

“Now after Many had come into this Society, as it was Term’d, they became known to each other by word and sign; . . .John Lewelling told (me) that if they could destroy Whitmel Hill, Colonel Williams, Thomas Hunter, Nathan Mayo, Colonel Salter and one Taylor, that then the Country would soon be settled In Behalf of the King. . .” 

    Whitmel Hill and the others were local leaders of the revolution. One researcher, Lola La Rae Sorenson, found that Whitmel Hill helped to uncover and stop the plot. He had married a woman named Winnefred Blount. Ms. Sorenson speculated,

“The fact that Whitmel Hill and James Rawlins were both living in Martin County, North Carolina and were both married to ladies named Blount and were both about the same age generation-wise really intrigued me. They would certainly have had to know each other, especially with Hill involved in bringing Rawlins to trial and stopping the plot to kill him and other patriot leaders.”

    James’ wife was Priscilla Blount. Could the two have been brothers-in-law? Ms. Sorenson wondered.

    Lewelling’s schemes built one upon the other. According to James Rawlings’ deposition, quoted here with the creative spelling and grammar of the time, Lewelling told him

“it would be a good scheeme to Git some Body to Diseffect the negroes and thought David Taylor would do it and Give out an oration of their Rising would draw the soldiers out of Halifax, whilst he and Company could seize the Governor and Magazene.”

   The Governor of Virginia, Richard Caswell, was expected at Halifax, a tiny town still known as “the birthplace of freedom” for being the location for the adoption of the Halifax Resolves. This was the first official action by a colony calling for independence.  Lewelling hoped not only to kill the governor and others, but to seize powder and arms stored at Halifax. When the governor didn’t come at the appointed time, it was

“Dropt for that time, but that scheeme became not public to Many, the Deponent believes, for when he objected against it John Lewelling said if he Divulg’d anything, Death was the portion to him or any one else.” 

     Another scheme was to go to General Howe, the general in charge of England’s troops in America, and offer him the support of the Society. Rawlings agreed to go with John Lewelling, as he hoped to see his father and friends. This mention of Rawlings’ father was a surprise. Did James plan to travel to England, or had his father also emigrated to America by this time? Whatever the truth, Rawlings and company went only as far as the town of Scotland Neck in Halifax County before turning back.

     In a few days the plot to kill the Revolutionary leaders was discovered. John Lewelling persuaded Rawlings to flee and not be taken by any means. Flee he did, but his freedom didn’t last long. I’ll tell the rest of the story next time.

James Mason Rawlings, Traitor or Not?


    Some of us have skeletons in our family closets. Some people are proud of famous ancestors. Our family has both skeletons and ancestors with claims to fame, but mainly our Rawlins predecessors were simply people living out their lives in the best way they knew how. They were swayed by political concerns, just as we are, and made decisions based on limited information, just as we do.

    Our first Rawlins ancestor in America, James Mason Rawlings, is a good example. Born about 1737, he emigrated from England prior to the Revolution. Records from the early 1770s show him in Pitt County, North Carolina, married to Priscilla Blount and with a number of children. His brothers, Roderick and Charles, had also come to America. Both of them supported the cause of independence from England. But James kept his loyalty to the mother country.

    He was a staunch supporter of the Church of England, which after the Revolutionary War was called the Episcopal Church. Some records refer to him as “Reverend,” and we know he preached at meetings.

    More than any other colony, North Carolina had a heavy concentration of Tories— political conservatives who remained loyal to England. The Crown had given land grants in North Carolina to many Scottish merchants. They and other merchants depended upon England for their trade. They feared losing their livelihood if the revolution should be successful. . .a not unreasonable fear since later, the property of many loyalists was confiscated. . . and thus they supported the king.

    Other Loyalists, like James Mason Rawlings, were clerics who supported the Church of England. Not only did the church require them to swear loyalty to their God, but also to their king. James and many others worried that if Catholic France entered the war on the American side, the new nation would soon be under the rule of the Pope.

     In 1777, Rawlings was accused of plotting to kill revolutionary leaders. A wanted notice in a North Carolina newspaper described him as “a noted villain.” Was he really? I’ll try to answer that question in the next posts.

Night Sky

   “The skies were really busy last night.”

   A friend’s chance remark last week sent us outside to look for ourselves. We really didn’t expect to see much, even though the night was clear, because we live on a hilltop overlooking the lights of town. Streetlights line the roadway in front of our house. So much light pollution washes across the evening sky that only the brightest stars shine through.

    Growing up years ago in a Cascade Mountain rain forest, hemmed in by tall trees and cloud cover, we didn’t often see the stars either. But on an occasional clear night, we’d go outside, tip our heads back and gaze in awe at the Milky Way’s glowing path of stardust winding through a billion distant suns. Only the dim gas lamp shining through the living room window competed with the brilliance above. We seldom saw a plane pass over in daytime and never at night. Man had not yet been to the moon or fired a rocket into space. One night our parents called us out to see falling stars. They called it a meteor shower. We stood for an hour, ooh-ing and aah-ing as bits of debris in a comet’s trail ignited in the earth’s atmosphere and streaked across the starry sky.

    Now we looked for a place where the glare of street and city lights would be dimmed. We found it in a corner of our back yard where house and garage walled us in on two sides, tall fences on the other two. Suddenly, the sky looked black, filled with more stars than we’d seen in years. Some stars blinked off and on as they traveled across the sky. They were aircraft lights, some on planes too far away to be heard or seen in daylight. Other far-away lights were satellites, their movement barely perceptible. The sky was busy.

     Then, to the north, we saw a steady, bright light, moving smoothly along an east-west trajectory. It was the International Space Station. In a few minutes it had passed out of sight, but it would complete its orbit around the earth and we’d see it again in another 90 minutes.

    It felt strange to know there were people up there, 250 miles above the earth, in that largest man-made object ever to be sent into space. Fifteen nations came together to design, build, and staff the space station, and crews will have lived and worked there continuously for eleven years, come November. We tried to imagine what the inhabitants were doing as the earth revolved beneath them. Might one of them have been looking down at the point of light that represented our community? Might he or she have been wondering who was looking up, wondering about them?

    The night sky has always caused humankind to think deep thoughts. But now, if one can find a place dark enough to see it, there’s even more to think about.

An American Story Begins

   Along with most families in America, ours can tell stories of journeys, bits and pieces of history that help us understand how we got where we are today. We share  our own New-World beginnings with many people who trace their ancestries back to the courageous settlers who came to America on the Mayflower.

    When Priscilla Mullins boarded the Mayflower in 1620, she was 17 years old. It was already September, and for two months the passengers endured stale air and discomfort in makeshift quarters between decks as the ship tossed in stormy seas. In one storm, a main beam cracked and the ship began to leak, but the beam was repaired with an iron spike brought from the Netherlands. They pounded caulking into the cracks. When the ship was blown off course, it landed on the rocky shores of Massachusetts, far from their intended destination in Virginia. Priscilla’s parents and brother died during that first terrible winter in the New World, leaving her the only survivor of her family in America.

    Captain Miles Standish, the newly widowed military advisor of the colony, wished to marry her. He sent his friend John Alden to plead his cause. John, not one of the fifty members of the Pilgrim band, was a ship-carpenter by trade. He’d been hired as a cooper, or barrel maker, for the Mayflower, which usually docked at Southhampton, England. Either because of a desire for adventure, or because he already had his eye on Priscilla, he came along on the voyage and became one of the founders of the colony and the seventh signer of the Mayflower Compact. According to a famous poem by descendant Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, when he tendered Captain Standish’s proposal of marriage to Priscilla, she replied, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

    So he spoke for himself, Priscilla said yes, and they became the parents of ten children who survived to adulthood. Of all the pilgrim families, they have the most descendants.

    Our branch of the Rawlins family traces its ancestry to John and Priscilla Alden through their second child. Elizabeth, born in Plymouth in 1625, was the first white girl born in New England.

    Elizabeth was described by someone who knew her as “dignified, a woman of great character and fine presence, very tall and handsome.” In 1644, she married William Pabodie in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and became the mother of thirteen living children. William, who held the office of town clerk after fire had destroyed the town’s records, carefully recorded his own marriage and the births and marriages of his children.

    Later, around 1684, William bought property that would become part of Little Compton, Rhode Island. He and Elizabeth and several of their children and grandchildren moved there. Both he and Elizabeth died in little Compton, Elizabeth at the ripe age of 94. At the time of her death she had 82 grandchildren and 556 great-grandchildren.

I can’t help but wonder how she remembered all those names!

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Reunion Raspberry Brownies

    We’ve waited a long time for summer to arrive this year, but perhaps it’s the late arrival that makes these August days so extraordinarily delightful. We’re surfeited with colors and smells; our windows and doors stand open to let summer blow through. Bees buzz in the flower beds, hummingbirds hover in the twinberry bushes. The 4 x 8’ box garden is overflowing with good things to eat: lettuce, basil, peas, Swiss chard, parsley. The green beans and carrots are nearly ready. Our berry patch has finished producing but local stands offer big, juicy berries of many kinds and grocery stores tempt us with peaches, nectarines, cherries and other delectables from Eastern Washington.

Our “garden.”

    What a bounty of flavor, color, and taste! Today we ate blueberries and sliced bananas with our morning cereal, salad from our garden and cherries at lunch, steamed Swiss chard and corn on the cob with local salmon for dinner. For desert we sampled some of the bar cookies I made for the family reunion coming up next weekend. Rhubarb bars using our own rhubarb are a tart-sweet treat. But the bars that really made a hit with Hank are my own invention, as far as I know.

    For anyone who loves the combination of chocolate and raspberries, here are the directions for Reunion Raspberry Brownies:

Raspberry Brownies


family size box of fudgey brownie mix
fresh raspberries, 2-3 cups
sugar, ¼ to ½ cup or to taste
2 Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9 x 13″ pan or spray with cooking oil. Mix brownies according to package directions and spread in pan.

Mash berries and sugar together and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook a few minutes. Stir in enough of the cornstarch-water mixture to thicken to consistency of jam. Cook just until juice looks transparent, then remove from heat.

Using about a cup of the raspberry sauce, dribble it from a large spoon in vertical lines two inches apart across the batter in the pan. Then, use a spatula or knife to cut through batter and sauce going the opposite direction, in lines about two inches apart. (You can do this both vertically and horizontally to make a better mixing of sauce and batter.)

Bake as directed on package. Let cool before cutting.

Raspberry jam would work too, but we really like the flavor of the fresh berries, and the sauce is less sweet than jam would be.

Travel, Then and Now

Our modern “covered wagon from the backseat
Barbara and granddaughter Stephanie

    We just completed a sixteen-hundred-mile road trip to and from a family wedding in Canada. Along with cousins Bill and Barbara, we rented a brand-new van for the trip. It came with electric doors and windows, comfortable seating for all seven of us, opera-house-quality music, individually-controlled air conditioning, and room for all our luggage, thanks to Cousin Barbara’s expertise at stacking and packing.

    We zipped along through Canada’s Rocky Mountains on smooth, 90 kilometer-per-hour highways lined with high wire fences to keep the wildlife off the road. The government provided frequent rest stops along the way. At night we lodged in motels with all the comforts of home. We were never far from the next restaurant. Bill had his powerful cell phone. I carried my laptop and made use of motel internet in the evenings. I kept in touch with family and could even send them photos taken that day if I wished.

    Our ancestors found no broad superhighways, motels, or restaurants when they followed the expanding frontiers of the new world to the west coast where many of our family members now reside. Canadian cousin Vicki, the bride’s mother, shares my interest in family history.  We’ve found stories of our Mayflower ancestors and other pre-Revolution forebears who came to make new lives in the American colonies. Their descendants made their way westward by foot, horseback, ox and wagon. They rafted down the rivers. By the 1800s, my great-grandparents and their family had reached Illinois. When the railroads opened up the midwest, some of them loaded their furniture and cattle on railroad cars and migrated to North Dakota. (At the same time, my mother’s parents were immigrating from Germany, to make their way to North Dakota via Minnesota.)

    When the Great Depression combined with dust storms to make farming impossible for them, my parents fled to Washington by train. Dad’s parents and his siblings, including Cousin Vicki’s mother Mary, joined other midwest refugees heading for the West Coast by car. We can only imagine the rigors of that trip, with everyone jammed into an old Model T, my pregnant aunt Amy riding with her husband atop the load of belongings in a trailer.

    Now we see our Canadian cousins nearly every year. But when our first ancestors came to America, they did not expect to see their loved ones ever again. When parents bade farewell to their children setting off on the Oregon Trail, most of them knew it was a permanent goodbye. Even in 1936, when Mom and Dad came to Washington, they gave up frequent contact with their families. In their long lifetimes, my parents returned to North Dakota to visit only four or five times.

    Though I wept when my own daughter married and moved to Arizona, it’s possible to email or phone her every day. She can hop a plane to come home if she gets homesick. She even vacations in Europe.

    We can be thankful for the courage of our ancestors. While seeking better lives for their families, they helped to build a nation. The story of their travails is an heritage for their descendants.