What was the Regulator movement that features in Outlander?

The new series of Outlander brings Jamie and Claire Fraser closer to the dispute known as the War of the Regulation, which took place in the British colonies of North and South Carolina in the 18th century. Here, historian Stephen Conway explains who the Regulators were, and what happened at the uprising’s most violent episode, the battle of Alamance

An illustration depicting Governor Tryon and the Regulators, c1877.

What was the Regulator movement?

Sometimes known as the War of the Regulation, the Regulator movement took place in the British colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina in the 1760s and early 1770s. In both colonies, it took the form of a rebellion in the backcountry (the inland area close to the frontier). The small farmers of the backcountry resented the elites of the tidewater (the long-settled areas near the coast).

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In South Carolina, where the movement was less violent, the spur seems to have been the perceived neglect of the backcountry by tidewater elites. Here the key issues were the underrepresentation of the backcountry counties in the colony’s legislature, leaving it dominated by tidewater interests, and the limited number of courts of law in the frontier areas.

In North Carolina, where the rebellion was more serious, the main backcountry grievance seems to have been corruption. Court officials in the frontier counties, usually wealthy lawyers from the tidewater, were perceived as extortionate and focused on increasing their own income, rather than serving the local community. The Regulators in North Carolina assumed that corruption flourished because court officials were protected by the colony’s governor, William Tryon.

Economic hardship drove the Regulator movement in North Carolina. A series of droughts and poor harvests pushed many small farmers into debt, which made the conduct of court officials such an explosive issue.

The Fraser family find themselves caught up in the Regulator movement in series five of 'Outlander'. (Image by Starz)
The Fraser family find themselves caught up with the Regulator movement in series five of ‘Outlander’. (Image by Starz)

Who was Governor Tryon?

The English-born William Tryon served as governor of North Carolina from 1765 to 1771.  He was a career army officer, who had served in the British forces in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). He was injured in action during a raid on the French coast in 1758.

While governor of North Carolina, Tryon supervised the construction of Tryon Palace, at New Bern, an opulent-looking house that acted as his home and headquarters of the provincial government. This grand new edifice added to the resentments of the Regulators.  To them, it embodied the difference between the wealthy tidewater and the struggling backcountry. The Regulators argued that their taxes had paid for its construction.

Tryon later went on the serve as governor of New York, 1771-1780.

How long did the war last?

Sporadic violence broke out in the years following the close of the Seven Years’ War, which formally ended in 1763. The War of the Regulation, however, is usually understood to have lasted from about 1764 until 1771, when the North Carolina Regulators were defeated at the battle of Alamance.

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Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha in 'Vikings'. (Image by Alamy)

What happened at the battle of Alamance?

The battle of Alamance (16 May 1771) was the most violent episode in the War of the Regulation. But to call it a battle perhaps conveys the wrong impression. Governor Tryon led loyal militia about 1,000 strong into the backcountry with the intention of pacifying the region. The leaders of the Regulator forces – estimated at between 2,000 and 6,000 in number, depending on which account one reads – believed that they would achieve their objectives merely by a show of force against Tryon’s militia, which would persuade the governor to make concessions. Tryon, however, undeterred by his numerical disadvantage, refused to be cowed. He ordered the Regulators to disperse and return to their homes. Neither side seemed keen to fire the first shot, but Tryon is said to have initiated hostilities by shooting and killing one of the leading Regulators. Thereafter, more shots were exchanged, but Regulator resistance crumbled rapidly.

Illustration showing Governor Tryon's militia forces firing upon the Regulators during the battle of Alamance, the final battle of the War of the Regulation. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Illustration showing Governor Tryon’s militia firing upon the Regulators during the battle of Alamance, the final conflict of the War of the Regulation. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the battle, most of the Regulators were allowed to go free after taking an oath of allegiance, and Tryon’s loyal militia marched into Regulator country to impose oaths on those not present at the battle. A small number of Regulator leaders experienced a harder fate; some lost property, others their lives.

Was the War of the Regulation connected to the American Revolution?

Some historians, particularly in the United States, see the Regulator movement as a precursor of resistance to British authority in the Revolution. They point to the involvement of some Regulators on the revolutionary side in the War of Independence (1775–1783) and the role of some of the Regulators’ enemies, such as Edmund Fanning, a North Carolina lawyer, on the loyalist side. The fact that Governor Tryon represented royal authority in North Carolina, and served in the British army during the War of Independence, adds colour to the claims of those who see a connection between the War of the Regulation and the struggle against Britain.

Others, however, express scepticism about a connection. The backcountry of both South and North Carolina produced a large number of loyalists in the American Revolution, especially among the Highland Scots of North Carolina.

The character of Murtagh Fraser in 'Outlander'
The character of Murtagh Fraser in ‘Outlander’ is depicted as part of the Regulator Movement. So what was it? (Image by Starz)

More fundamentally, the Regulator movement fits into a pattern, stretching back into the mid-17th century, of backcountry revolts against tidewater authority. Bacon’s rebellion of 1676 in Virginia is an example of the same resentments in the frontier region boiling over into a violent challenge to the tidewater elite. Rather than look forward, and try to interpret the Regulator movement as a harbinger of the Revolution, we can capture its essence much better if we look backwards and see its similarities to backcountry revolts earlier in the colonial period.

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Professor Stephen Conway teaches history at University College London and is the author of A Short History of the American Revolutionary War (I.B. Tauris, 2013). He teaches courses on British history, and Colonial and Revolutionary North America