James Mason Rawlings: Loyalist or Traitor?

(This is Part 3 of a 3-part story. For the rest of the story, read the blogposts for Aug. 28 and 30.)

    With the discovery of their plot against the Revolution’s local leaders, the conspirators, including James Rawlings, fled. He must have kept in contact with his family, because about a month later a man named Abram Jones heard that “a certain James Rawlings was one of the heads amongst the Tories and that he was expected to pass by the settlement of Mattamuskeet, or to call there about the next day.”

  Lake Mattamuskeet is in Hyde County, on the coast of North Carolina. At that time, it was open to the sea, although now it is a self-contained lake. Jones kept watch for Rawlings. When he spied a small sail off in the sound, he took four men with him and set off after the boat. He found Rawlings and his family in the boat, heading out to sea where they hoped to meet up with an English vessel. One of the children, George, was only three or four years of age. Jones captured Rawlings and carried him before a magistrate, who took the deposition quoted earlier.

    In a follow-up letter from James Rawlings to the “Worshipful Justices of New Bern,” he gave more details about his co-conspirator Lewellen’s schemes. He also said, “Knowing the great influence Capt. Lewelling has over that neighborhood (I) have great reason to fear he will make attempts to invalidate my testimony.” Rawlings stated that he’d refused to kill anyone and “that I, being a poor man, have reason to fear his (Lewelling’s) power and influence over others to my hurt, as all the friends or power I have is to declare the Truth and Humbly Crave pardon for having had any hand in said plot or Scheme, testifying whatever shall come to my Memory I will make known about the matter.”

    Evidently he had reason to fear Lewelling’s influence. He was jailed…for a while. The next mention of him is a wanted notice from Craven County, North Carolina. It appeared October 24, 1777, in the Virginia Gazette, an early newspaper in Colonial Virginia, along with wanted notices for two other men.

The notice reads as follows:

 James Mason Rawlings for high treason, he is a noted villain, and one of the principals in the late conspiracy against the state, has lived for 2 years past in Martin County, and is a very famous in the art of Legerdemaen, about 40 years of age, of a very black complexion and had a cut on one of his cheeks, given under seal 9 Sep. 1777.

    A reward of ten pounds was offered for Rawlings, 5 pounds for each of the other two.

    The notice indicates that James Rawlings had escaped his confinement and that he was considered important enough to appear in a Virginia newspaper. At the time of the notice James had lived in Martin County for about two years, 1776 and 1777. He had a dark complexion and a scar (or maybe a wound?) on one of his cheeks. The word legerdemain means sleight-of-hand trickery of any sort. This implies that he was very clever and hard to catch.

Rawlins descendants learning about their history, August 2011

    One researcher discovered that between September 11, 1777 and November, 1777, Rawlings had signed up to sail from New Bern with Captain William Pile but did not report. Pile testified on November 22 that a Colonel White from Georgia had promised Rawlings a better situation and the last Pile had heard, Rawlings was “on the way to South Carolina in the company of Colonel White’s wagons.”

    Whatever happened, James Mason Rawlings dropped from sight. One branch of family tradition holds that he was recaptured and executed. Other family members believed he escaped to England, where he lived out his life.

    After James Mason Rawlings disappeared, Priscilla and their children remained on the North Carolina frontier. His brothers and his own family dropped the “g” from Rawlings, perhaps to avoid being associated with his disgrace. In 1782, Priscilla Rawlins and her daughter Nancy are shown on the membership role for Sandy Run Baptist Church in Rutherford County, North Carolina.   

    Records of the early Mormon Church show that their grandson James, an early Mormon convert, had a baptism-for-the-dead ceremony done for James Mason and Priscilla. Since this James was aware that his grandfather was dead, he must have had some knowledge of his death and therefore, the tradition of James Mason Rawlings deserting his family and never being heard from again doesn’t seem to ring true.

    The family must have loved and had fond memories of their grandfather, since many of his descendants carried his name. One of his children, Charles, became our direct ancestor. His descendants followed the frontier westward, preaching, farming, blacksmithing, teaching, and helping to build America.

    More about some of them later!

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