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!

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.