(June 8, 1729–January 27, 1788)
English Colonial Governor
Tryon was the aggressive and capable governor of North Carolina and New York during the turbulent years leading up to the American Revolution. He accomplished many useful reforms and restored frontier order, but his preference for military action made him a hated figure.
William Tryon was born in Surrey, England, the son of a well-to-do family of Dutch ancestry. Using his family’s wealth, in 1751 he purchased a lieutenant’s commission in the elite First Regiment of Foot Guards, rising there to lieutenant colonel by 1757. However, that year he married the wealthy Margaret Wake and resigned his commission in favor of pursuing politics. He became closely associated with his brother-in-law, Lord Hillsborough, head of the Board of Trade, and in 1764 Tryon gained an appointment as lieutenant governor of North Carolina. He arrived in the colony that fall and, in March 1765, was appointed governor following the death of Arthur Dobbs.
As governor Tryon evinced a pattern of earnestness, goodwill, and efficiency that belied his military background. However, he was intolerant of defiance to his authority—and quick to use force to defend it. Once in office, he went to great lengths to help establish the Anglican Church, in the belief that it would contribute to political stability. He was also actively involved in settling boundary disputes with the Cherokee Indians in an attempt to secure peace along the frontier and enforce the Proclamation of 1763. He then convinced the legislature to establish a lavish governor’s mansion at New Bern, which soon became recognized as one of the finest buildings in the colonies. Tryon recognized the value of higher education; he also worked successfully at establishing Queen’s College.
Despite good intentions, Tryon was ultimately caught up in political unrest arising from the very same policies he sought so honestly to implement. The British Empire, then strapped for money, imposed the Stamp Act in 1765, which taxed various forms of commodities and goods. Colonials responded with anger toward this levy, but Tryon strictly enforced its imposition, and for a time trade simply ceased along the Atlantic Coast. He personally opposed the tax but felt duty-bound to uphold it. When North Carolina political leaders threatened violence to end its implementation, Tryon countered by hinting at the use of military force. The crisis was defused following the cancellation of the Stamp Act in 1766. That same year Tryon’s authority faced an even bigger challenge when a group of backwoods rebels, known as the Regulators, began harassing sheriffs and other officials because of unreasonably high taxes and constant embezzlement. Tryon appealed for calm and tried to shake out corruption, but the Regulators refused to pay taxes and began closing courthouses. This elicited a prompt military response from the governor, who raised a force of 2,000 militia and marched into the interior to confront the rebels. On May 16, 1771, Tryon’s well-equipped forces engaged a large, ragtag rebel army at Alamance Creek, defeating it. Of 12 ringleaders captured and brutally imprisoned, six were pardoned and six sent to the gallows. He then returned in triumph to New Bern, where a new commission, appointing him governor of New York, awaited. The inhabitants of the state came to value his services so highly that they established Tryon County in his honor.
Tryon arrived at New York in 1771, replacing the outgoing John Murray, Lord Dunmore. As before, he sought to shore up the political status of the Anglican Church and also helped established King’s College (now Columbia University). Furthermore, given his military approach to affairs of state, he saw a need to completely overhaul the militia, something that was accomplished with efficiency and promptness. The colonial assembly was singularly impressed by his performance, and it, too, christened Tryon County in his honor. And like North Carolina, New York was also embroiled in a boundary dispute, only this time with New Hampshire. Both sides claimed the tract of land that constitutes present-day Vermont, and a gang of frontier roughnecks, the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen, were terrorizing New York officials found there. Tryon, who was intent on speculating on this property, promptly ordered Allen and his men to surrender under penalty of death, but little could be done to restore order. At length, more urgent matters came to the fore that demanded Tryon’s absolute attention.
The British government still desired an increased flow of revenue from the colonies, and in 1773 Parliament enacted the Tea Act. The result was another wave of colonial belligerence. By 1774, Tryon had been recalled to Great Britain for consultation, and he strongly advised moderation and restraint in the matter of colonial revenue. However, by the time he returned in April 1775, the American Revolution had commenced in Boston, and he began agitating for strong military action against the rebels. This stridency led to threats of violence against him; fearing for his safety, Tryon withdrew to a British ship in New York Harbor, where he maintained a government-in-exile for nearly a year.
In the summer of 1776, British forces under Gen. William Howe recaptured New York City, and Tryon came ashore. However, because Howe had assumed civilian authority, Tryon spent his time organizing and training Loyalist forces. In April 1777, he was authorized to lead a large raid against Waterbury, Connecticut, which burned 40 buildings and captured large quantities of stores. Thereafter, quick, successful raids became something a personal trademark, and on one occasion he nearly captured Gen. Israel Putnam. Then, Tryon was promoted to major general of local forces and adopted an officially sponsored strategy of depredatory excursions, whereby numerous towns were attacked and put to the torch. In July 1779, the former governor gained even greater notoriety when he launched a successful raid along the Connecticut coast that stormed New Haven, East Haven, Fairfield, Green’s Farm, and Norwalk, inflicting considerable damage. But these activities, competently executed and harmful to the United States, did not materially change the outcome of fighting in the north. Furthermore, Tryon exchanged his previously sterling reputation as an administrator for that of a villain. His very ruthlessness became a rallying point for greater resistance to British rule.
In 1780, illness required the former governor to return to England, where he would live the rest of his life in relative luxury. Tryon died in London on January 27, 1788, a onetime voice of political moderation turned by necessity into an iron fist of military vengeance. Gen. Henry Clinton, Howe’s successor, is known to have privately disagreed with his retaliatory policy for the inevitable resentment it generated.
Dill, Alonzo. Governor William Tryon and His Palace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1955; Ekirch, A. Roger. “Poor Carolina”: Politics and Society in Colonial North Carolina, 1729–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981; Fenwick, Ben L. “The Plot to Kill Washington.” American History Illustrated 21, no. 10 (1987): 8–12; Henner, Solomon. “The Career of William Tryon as Governor of the Providence of New York, 1771–1780.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1968; Lee, Lawrence. “Days of Defiance: Resistance to the Stamp Act in Lower Cape Fear.” North Carolina Historical Review 43 (1966): 186–202; Lustig, Mary Lou. Privilege and Prerogative: New York’s Provincial Elite, 1710–1776. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995; Nelson, Paul D. William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990; Powell, William S., ed. The Correspondence of William Tryon. 2 vols. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources, 1980–1981; Steele, Rollin M. The Lost Battle of Alamace, Also Known as the Battle of Clapp’s Mill. N.p., 1993.