“a dangerous insurrection has lately arisen in this County”: Claypool’s Rebellion in Hampshire County, Virginia, 1781

As a delegate in the Continental Congress in 1776, Thomas Jefferson helped lead a rebellion against King George III in part because of taxes. Five years later, John Claypool helped lead a rebellion against Governor Jefferson, also in part over taxes.


Virginia’s early success running royal governor Lord Dunmore out of the commonwealth and raising fifteen infantry regiments, two cavalry regiments and an artillery regiment for the Continental Army was largely undone by 1781. Its troops saw some of the heaviest fighting during the 1777-78 Philadelphia Campaign and its depleted regiments were further diminished by expiring enlistments. The Virginia Line underwent consolidations in 1778 and again in 1779; reducing its number of infantry regiments to three conglomerated “detachments” by the time they marched south to join the Southern Army. A string of defeats in Savannah, Charleston, at the Waxhaws and Camden effectively eliminated Virginia’s regular troops, requiring it to essentially rebuild its military entirely.

The Old Dominion remained relatively unscathed and untouched directly by the war after Lord Dunmore finally left the Chesapeake for New York City in 1776. That is until a British force under the command of Commodore Sir George Collier and Major General Edward Mathew took Virginia by surprise in May 1779, razing economic and military targets along the Chesapeake. The next year General Alexander Leslie took Portsmouth in October 1780, attacking Newport News and Hampton, destroying supplies and drawing attention away from Lord Cornwallis in the Carolinas.

Miniature portrait of Daniel Morgan, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Miniature portrait of Daniel Morgan, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

General Daniel Morgan reversed this bad fortune in January 1781. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Morgan raised and led a company of riflemen in 1775 to join the Siege of Boston and the invasion of Canada, where he was captured in the attack on Quebec. Following his exchange, he was given command of the 11th Virginia Regiment as well as the Provisional Rifle Corps, an ad hoc formation of light troops from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. This corps were critical in the Battle of Saratoga, helping prevent a British from isolating New England from the rest of the colonies by taking New York.

Due to the consolidations, the 11th merged with the 7th Virginia Regiment in 1778 and Morgan resigned in 1779 to return to build a home east of Winchester in modern day Clarke County. His retirement was short lived following Gates’ Defeat at Camden when Morgan rejoined the army promoted to brigadier general in October 1780, taking command of an independent command in the Southern Army in the with orders to harass the British in the Carolina backcountry. In response, the British sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to track down Morgan and the two forces met at the Cowpens in northwest South Carolina on ground of Morgan’s choosing. Brilliantly using his forces to their strengths while aware of their shortcomings, Morgan decimated Tarleton’s detachment, inflicting an 86 percent casualty rate.

Daniel Morgan's Saratoga

Daniel Morgan’s “Saratoga”, built 1780 in Clarke County, c. 1928

Chronic joint pain however forced Morgan into retirement once more in February. Morgan was not alone in being worn down from the war however. After contributing so much to the cause only to lose it all, Virginia felt the effects of six years of fighting combined with a year of one military disaster after another. This was exacerbated when British force under Benedict Arnold landed in Virginia, burning plantations along the James River before attacking and burning the new capital in Richmond before setting up a base of operations in Portsmouth.

Virginia had very little left to defend itself with against this latest incursion other than militia. In response, the Assembly instituted a draft, raised taxes and conscripted supplies to keep the Southern Army in the field, creating similar conditions to those that caused the Revolution in the first place. With Cornwallis in North Carolina and Arnold in the Tidewater, any Loyalists remaining in Virginia now had reason for hope while those indifferent to the war became resentful of forced service and financial drain.

Samuel McDowell, the county lieutenant of the Rockbridge County Militia, described the dissention to Governor Jefferson: “The Act of October last, for raising this States quota of troops for the Continental Army…[and] Some of the field officers were of opinion that Districts ought to be laid off…the People in this Country, (hearing that they of Augusta had Prevented laying off the Districts there) met (to-wit) almost a hundred of them, and Seeing Colo Bowyer getting the lists from the Capts; of the Strength of their Companies, and Supposing it was to lay off the Districts anew, got into the Court House Seased the table, carried it off in a Riotous manner; and said no Districts should be laid off there, for that they would Serve as militia for three months and make up the Eighteen months that way, but would not be Drafted for Eighteen months and be regulars…they tore the Papers and after some time began to go off.”

In Hampshire County, militia Colonel Garrett van Meter reported to Jefferson “…that a dangerous insurrection has lately arisen in this County, occasioned by the execution of the late Acts of Assembly for recruiting this state’s quota of troops to serve in the Continental Army, and the Act for supplying the Army with clothes, provisions and wagons, in consequence of which the collector of the tax under the former Act has been opposed in the execution of his duty and has been obliged to desist from any further proceeding therein, and although every measure that prudence could suggest has been taken to suppress the rioters, yet it has proved ineffectual by reason of their having a superior force.”

“…the place They live in, which is composed of deep valies and inaccessible mountains…”
A view of modern Hardy County, West Virginia near Moorefield

A few days later, van Meter updated his report to add that the draft “will not be complyed with, by Reason of the disaffected people amongst us. (A Collector of one of the Divisions for making up the Cloathes and Beef was Interrupted in the execution of his office.).” A leader emerged among the rioters, “A certain John Claypole” who “said if all the men were of his mind, they would not make up any Cloathes, Beef or Men, and all that would join him should turn out. Upon which he got all the men present, to five or six and Got Liquor and Drank King George the third’s health, and Damnation to Congress,).”

In response, “there was a warrant Issued for several of them, and Guard of Fifty men with the Sheriff. When they came to the place they found sixty or seventy men embodied, with arms – After some time they capitulated. the Sheriff served the precept on the said John Claypole, but he refused to come with him or give up his arms; but agreed to come such a time, which time is Passt – Inclosed you have a Copy of a Letter they sent me, and the answer I sent them – I was Informed there was one hundred and fifty of them to Gether the next Day. I am informed there are several Deserters amongst those people, Some from the English Prisoners. Some Eighteen Months men, and some Eight Months men, which they support and conceal.”

A local Baptist preacher initially wrote off the affair as “occasioned by Liquor”, and van Meter was “very Glad to hear the Mutineers Begin to see their Folly…”, promising to “…shew them all the Lenity the circumstance of the Case will admit of, but those chargable with breaking the Law I cannot clear, as I am but an Individual, unless they who are in the warrant Comes in and Clears themselves – from your friend, whil you are friends to yourselves and the United States.”

After a few weeks however, van Meter’s optimism waned, despite having “…no further accounts of the rioters, but have much reason to fear (whatever they may promise to the contrary) they will still stand in opposition untill a sufficient force is sent against them. I have within these Twenty-four Hours, received authentick information, that a very considerable number have assembled in another part of the County, determined to stand in opposition to every measure of Government, and endeavoring to persuade every one in their neighborhood to join them in their Treasonable and destructive measures – for this purpose (as I am told) they swear fidelity to each other. Their principal object is to be clear of Taxes and Draughts. These things Sir, are truly alarming, but I am happy in one consolation, that we have a majority of Friends to our happy Constitution and will spare no pains nor hazard when called on, to render their country what services in their power.)”

Concern of a festering Loyalist uprising started to spread throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Militiaman John Clinkinbaird recalled that “an express arrived in Berkeley County giving the Information that the Tories had embodied on the South branch of Potomac, under General Claypole Colonels Wooltze and Brake and that Hagers Town was to be sacked and burnt”. There also was an assumption that the “Tories were being organized in order to co-operate with the expected invasion of Virginia.”

An express also went out to Frederick County “for as many men as can be had, not at any Rate, less than three hundred from Frederick County…We look upon it, that our lives & Fortunes are in danger of being taken…” as Claypool “was expected by last night to command one thousand men” and “threaten, if successful, to kill Men, Women & Children.” The “only sure Remmedy to apply” to the rebellion seen was to “prevail upon Genl: Morgan to take a Tower amongst them, which seems to be their chief Resin – they are daily dareing him.”

Answering the call, “(the old Waggoner) General Morgan collected a detachment of volunteers for a tour of three months” comprised of militia under Colonel Abraham Byrd of Shenandoah County, Colonel Benjamin Harrison from Rockingham County and Colonel John Smith of Frederick County who had “and succeded in assembling about 400 men” in “Winchester Virginia and from thence he marched to the Zanes’ Iron works in Frederick County and lay there one day and night & thence he marched to a Creek called Big Capon in said County and thence he marched to General Claypole’s farm”.

Arriving at “Claypoles house on the west side of said North Mountain”, the militia “came right in sight of a large body of Tories we fired on them.” “Colonel [John] Brake the second in command was killed” and “one of them [Brake’s son] was shot in the calf of his leg, the ball lodged against his shin bone.” Animosity ran high as “Doc’t. Michael A Dacon, (Sergeon to Col. Benjamin Harrison Regiment) was requested to extract or cut it out and dress the wound of the tory, he refused, and said, d–n the tories let them find their own Doctors”. With Brake dead, “the rest all flead” while “Claypole with the most of his tory followers, had left for the mountains, or places unknown” as they had supposed “the numbers of troops led against them to be much greater than it really was.”

Having “succeeded in breaking up, & destroying the establishment,” some of Claypool’s “men came in and surrendered themselves, and Gen’l. Claypole himself sent in a letter to Col. Benjamin Harrison asking for peace” going so far as to “willing to take up arms in favor of their own Country” to make amends. A Captain Johnson raised “a company from among the tories” which joined Lafayette’s army at the Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary near Williamsburg under Colonel Harrison. Still not committed to the cause though, “during the battle every one of his men left him, as well as officers, except his Lieutenant.”

After staying at Brake’s farm for five days, the pursuit continued “on top of the mountain between Claypole’s farm and Brake’s farm three men were overtaken by our Regiment who refused to surrender one of whom was killed and the other two made their escape.” Eventually, “The Torys gave themselves up, among whom were Mace, Claypole & Blake” near Berkeley Courthouse and were taken “to Romney Jail (so called) for trial” while the rest “sent in their arms, and promised to desist from further hostilities”. The whole affair “lasted about fifteen or twenty days” and the militiamen “were all permitted to return home and remain until we should again be called into service.”

The ringleaders were officially arraigned in Hampshire County court and were “adjudged to stand a further trial before a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer appointed to meet at the Court House on the 10th day of July last, but the gentlemen nominated as Judges by the Honorable Board failing to attend, the prosecution was postponed”

More than twenty-five petitioners appealed to newly elected Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr. for leniency, blaming “wicked emissaries or pretended emissaries of the British who travel through all parts of the frontiers and by misrepresentations and false news poisoned the minds of the ignorant and credulous settlers.” They further claimed that they “never concerted or conspired the destruction of Government or the hurt of any individual, further then to defend themselves when attacked or compelled to yield obedience” to the draft and taxes, before they were “made sensible of their error by the gentlemen from the adjacent counties who marched a body of men sufficient to have put all the disobedient and deluded crew to the sword, but, from motives of humanity and prudence attempted the more mild method of argument to dispel the delusion and bring them back to their duty”.

Nelson also received letters on Claypool’s behalf from Rockingham County clerk Peter Hog, based on “good policy, as well as humanity” who argued a pardon could entice those “denied to surrender themselves to Justice” to turn themselves in, but also they recognized that “the many relations & connexions that the Claypole Family have in that part of the Country: as there is the Father * sons, with many grand children, who by inter-marriages are connected with the most considerable Families…and to prosecute him with vigour, whilst the ringleaders have evaded Justice by flight, and those in similar circumstances of Guilt are pardoned, would probably sour the minds of his numerous connexions, and perhaps be regarded by them as pointed and partial.” Despite Hog’s “aversion to Tories”, witnessing “distressing Scenes of aged mothers, wives, & children crowding to the Court house to take the last Leave of their unhappy Sons, husbands & fathers, apprehending that Execution would be immediate…strongly affected my feelings” as well. Even Colonel van Meter wrote the governor hopes the Legislature may “incline to pass an act of indemnity for the whole of them.”

Benjamin Harrison replaced Nelson as governor in December 1781 and decided it “imprudent to grant a general pardon to the Insurgents” since “Too great Lenity may & most probably will bring the Government into Contempt and at last occasion its Overthrow.” and that Robert Smith of the “Six Ringleaders” should be sent immediately to the General Court in Richmond trial.

Still facing execution if found guilty of insurrection, Claypool appealed to Morgan to solicit the governor for “clemency and forgiveness”, convincing Morgan that he was “truly penitent” based on “his former character as well as of his conduct since his resignation to the Laws of his Country, which in both cases have been uniform and good.” In his letter to Harrison, Morgan remarked that Claypool’s “crimes are only similar to those men in Augusta county who opposed the laws and prevented the draught” leading him to conclude that though “I can truly say this is the first time I ever spoke in favour of a Tory, or ever wished their lives spared them – but Humanity as well as policy urges me to say something in favour of Clapool, and wish he may obtain forgiveness.”

Morgan saw a practical opportunity to use Claypool “to prevent another revolt, which the people of that place for many years will incline to, as they are ignorant of their duty, fond of changes and withal encouraged & favoured by the situation of the place They live in, which is composed of deep valies and inaccessible mountains, which serves to favour their escape when pursued.” A pardon would “be a means of bringing in numbers of our Lyers, who are afraid to come, for fear of being punished – numbers of deserters from the Army with them.”

ClaypoolGraveThe General Court found Robert Smith guilty and sentenced him to death, but was pardoned by a special act of the Virginia General Assembly in May 1782. On 7 June, Governor Harrison sent a letter to Hampshire County clerk Andrew Wodrow, to say “I send you pardons for four of the persons concerned in the late insurrection in the back country. There is no occasion for more as the noli prosequi secures the rest.” The case dropped against him, Claypool returned to Lost River in present day Hardy County, West Virginia until his death in 1823.

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

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