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.

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