This Month in New Bern, January 2017

On January 16, 1777 in the Council Chambers of Tryon Palace, Richard Caswell was sworn in as the first Governor of the state of North Carolina. He served from 1776-1780 and later served as its fifth Governor from 1785-1787.

Richard Caswell was born in Maryland, but moved to North Carolina at the age of 16 arriving in New Bern in 1745 with a letter of recommendation from the governor of his home state. Richard was made apprentice to a surveyor, James Mackilwean, and lived with this family for 2 years at their plantation near Kinston. At the age of 18 his training was completed and he became a deputy surveyor general. In 1752, Richard married Mary Mackilwean, the daughter of James. She died in 1757 due to complications of childbirth and in 1758 Caswell married Sarah Heritage. Her father, William, was a lawyer, planter and political leader and Caswell began studying law under his tutelage while at the same time clerking for the Court of Orange County.

In 1759 Caswell was admitted to the North Carolina Bar and set up his law practice in Hillsborough. He also was commissioned deputy attorney general and served in that capacity for four years. For over twenty years, Richard Caswell was elected to and served as a member of the colonial assembly (1754-1776). Caswell initially was loyal to the King of England and had aligned himself with Royal Governors, William Tryon and Josiah Martin, but his view later changed and he decided that King George’s rule was unjust. He became an active member of the colonial militia and in Sept 1775 was commissioned as Colonel to lead the New Bern District minutemen. He led the Patriot troops at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge on February 2, 1776 and was commissioned a Brigadier General over the New Bern District Brigade.

In 1774 the American colonies called for a Continental Congress. Each province sent delegates to Philadelphia in Sept of 1774 and Richard Caswell was chosen as one of the 3 delegates from North Carolina.

In 1776 Caswell was asked to serve as presiding officer and chair of the committee that drafted the State Constitution. After the adjournment of Congress, Caswell was elected to serve first as interim Governor, and then, after a few months, was elected to serve as the first Governor of the new State of North Carolina under this new Constitution. In 1785 Caswell was again elected to serve as Governor for three one year terms.

In 1787 Caswell was chosen to serve as one of North Carolina’s delegates to the United States Constitutional Convention, but he was unable to attend due to failing health. On November 8, 1789, Richard Caswell suffered a fatal stroke while speaking to the State Senate in Fayetteville and died two days later at the age of 60. Caswell was buried in the cemetery of the Red House plantation, Kinston, next to his first wife. There are no headstones for their graves. It is now the current site of the Richard Caswell Memorial Park. Caswell County and Fort Caswell are also named for him.
Richard Caswell should long be remembered as a statesman, soldier, Governor and patriot.

New Bern Historical Society “Thought to be Richard Caswell.” Photograph no. 71.10.87. Audiovisual Materials Unit, Photograph Collection, State Archives of North Carolina

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