Fighting John Bumpass left a keen legacy

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Recently the Person County Museum of History arranged, with the gracious consent of the property owners, a tour of the home and grounds of Col. Stephen Moore. Moore was a New Yorker by birth, but supposedly discovered the Mt. Tirzah area while serving in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War. It was, indeed, a most felicitous event.

Other Personians who also soldiered in the conflict and one that is readily thought of is Thomas Person, for whom our county is named. He, however, should be considered as from Granville and maybe other counties to the east. Another Personian who comes to mind is John Bumpass who carries the sobriquet “Fighting John Bumpass.”

The History Room of the Person County Library contains two worthy books pertaining to the Bumpass family: A Genealogy of Three Branches of the Bumpass Family by William M. Jones; and The Bumpass Family from Person County by Ann Bumpass and James R. Townsend. Both were used as resources for this endeavor. It was said that Captain John organized a company of militia which fought in the Regulator movement. Because it occurred quite some years before the Revolution; the movement was one of the earliest resistance efforts before the war. Their purpose was proclaimed thusly: “To Assemble Ourselves for Regulating Public Grievances and Abuses of Power.”

Around this time when some of the citizenry were contemplating what actions they could take, a secret meeting was held at Goshen – the home of Thomas Person – in Granville County. Supposedly at this gathering, resolutions were drawn up and the British hearing of the clandestine affair issued a writ against Captain John and Col. Person for treason against the King. Consequently they were arrested by the King’s Light Horse brigade and carried to Hillsborough to stand trial. Evidently the authorities became aware of the papers associated with the meeting; whereas troops were sent to retrieve the documents and to be used as evidence. According to tradition Robert Bumpass, a kinsman of John (one source says a brother, another says John’s nephew) rode an “imported race mare” to the site and recovered the papers. As a result of Robert Bumpass’ timely ride, the accused were released.

It was reported that Captain Bumpass fought as a regulator at the “Battle of Alamance” in May 1771. Governor Tryon came up from New Bern with the King’s troops and routed the Regulators, capturing Bumpass and 11 other patriots. When asked to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, they all refused and therefore were sentenced to be hung. Afterwards six, of whom John was one, were reprieved and released. Family legend suggests the reason for leniency toward Bumpass was his earlier friendship and hunting partnership with the Governor.

After the Revolution began, many of the Whigs (Patriots) were away serving in Washington’s army. Tories seized the opportunity and proceeded to rob the homes of the absent soldiers, carrying off any items of value they might discover. These Tories occupied a fortified position in the “Horse Shoe Ben” of Tar River. It was stated that Captain John returned home with this company, engaged and defeated the Loyalists and restored the stolen property to the rightful owners.

Another incident demonstrating Fighting John’s tenacity in the war was also recorded in the family books. A statement asserted that he was in Gen. Green’s army and was captured at the battle of “Guilford Court House.” He was taken to Lord Cornwallis and when asked by the British commander to give an oath of fealty to the King, Bumpass refused, as he had done several years earlier with Governor Tryon. Cornwallis then queried John if he realized he could be shot because of his refusal. John replied, “I’d rather be shot!” Presumably Cornwallis found this degree of honesty and devotion to a cause agreeable to the point of releasing his captive, declaring that he had more confidence in John Bumpass than he did in many that had succumbed to the oath.

The course of the narratives should be reemphasized: They are family histories written by family members. As we are all aware, often stories of this nature are enhanced to a degree. Allowing as how these particular accounts came to be recorded gives them an element of credibility. The stories were said to have been written down in 1907 as related by a 74-year-old grandfather to a young family chronicler. The grandfather (born 1833) had listened to his father, and maybe grandfather, recount the events to him.

Editor’s note: Kent Williams contributed to this article.

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