Second Coming of a Revolutionary War Patriot

Jack’s silhouette graces the mile long Charlotte Liberty Walk in uptown Charlotte.
Captain James Jack
Painting of Captain Jack riding north to Philadelphia to deliver the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The courthouse can be seen behind Jack in the distance.
Courtesy of Chas Fagan.

Except outside of historical circles, Revolutionary War figures are not widely known, and are even more rarely celebrated. There are the ones you would expect, like George Washington, Nathanael Greene or (on the British side) Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. More obscure characters usually remain that way – obscure.  They certainly don’t gain fame centuries later out of nowhere.

So the sudden reemergence of Captain James Jack, a relatively unknown militia leader from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the last ten years is surprising to put it mildly. In fact, Captain Jack has arguable gone from Revolutionary War “zero to hero” faster and more dramatically than anyone in history. But don’t take my word for it.

In May 2009, on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College near downtown Charlotte, a one and a half-life size, bronze equestrian statue of Captain Jack was unveiled. Paid for entirely with private funds, the statue cost in the range of $400,000 – $500,000 – an enormous sum for a little known Revolutionary war figure. Commissioned by The May 20th Society, a local historical group, the statute was created by world-renowned artist Chas Fagan, whose other works included the official statue of Ronald Reagan in the Rotunda as well as the official White House portrait of Barbara Bush. The Jack statue soon became an iconic image of Charlotte, shown on numerous television programs during the Democratic Convention.

But the statue was not a one-off. A public mural unveiled in 2010 in the art section of Charlotte by Will Puckett contains another, more modern take on Captain Jack.  The same year, another contemporary twist on Jack in glass was done by Colombian artist Edwin Gil. Each year a rider portraying Jack leads the County’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  And turn on local television, and – voila – you are likely to see a documentary of Captain Jack.  Jack seems to be everywhere these days.

So who is Captain James Jack and why the sudden celebrity?

Captain Jack’s story begins in May 1775. At that time, Jack was a forty-five year old tavern owner in the tiny village of Charlotte, then a village of less than two dozen homes. That month, an express rider arrived bearing news of the battles of Lexington and Concord that had occurred the month before.

According to witnesses of the time, roughly two dozen local militia leaders were then meeting in the County Courthouse, a stone’s throw from Jack’s tavern. When news arrived, it sent the meeting into turmoil.  As John McKnitt Alexander, an eye-witness, described the scene, “we smelt and felt the Blood & carnage of Lexington, which raised all the passions into fury and revenge.”[1] Exactly what happened next is the subject of a great deal of historical controversy.  Many years later, various eye-witnesses claimed that the County declared itself “free and independent” of Great Britain on May 20, 1775.  Historians for centuries have disputed this claim, relying on resolutions found in newspapers of the period dated May 31, 1775 which indicate that Mecklenburg issued patriotic resolutions, but ones that fell short of true independence.

Whatever the truth, what is not in dispute is that the militia leaders appointed Captain James Jack as a messenger to deliver the resolutions to North Carolina’s delegates at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. “A few days after the Delegates adjourned, Captain James Jack, of the town of Charlotte, was engaged to carry the resolves to the President of Congress, and to our Representatives – one copy for each,” as witnesses later recalled.[2] According to Jack himself, “I set out the following month, say June.”[3]

In the words of historian Cyrus Hunter in Sketches of Western North Carolina (1877), Jack’s ride was “long, lonesome and perilous.”[4] Certainly it was long, stretching over 500 miles each way and taking nearly a month.  But that wasn’t the half of it.  British authorities as high up as the Royal Governor himself had gotten word of Jack’s mission and were on the lookout for him.

A letter from North Carolina Royal Governor Josiah Martin in August 1775 noted that he had been “informed” that “treasonable resolves” had been “sent off by express to the Congress at Philadelphia as soon as they were passed in the Committee.”[5] Had Jack been caught carrying these treasonable resolutions, his life would have been forfeit.  Indeed in that same letter, Governor Martin described the resolutions Jack was carrying as follows: “The Resolves of the Committee of Mecklenburg, which your Lordship will find in the enclosed Newspaper, surpass all the horrid and treasonable publications that the inflammatory spirits of this Continent have yet produced.”[6]

Jack claimed that he had completed his errand, delivering the Mecklenburg resolutions to two of the delegates before returning home.  In his account given many years later (around 1830), Jack wrote: “I proceeded on to Philadelphia, and delivered the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May, 1775, to Richard Caswell and William Hooper, the Delegates to Congress from the State of North Carolina.”[7]  What exactly the resolutions Jack carried are not known (and will probably never be known) with certainty, but the importance and danger of his ride are beyond question, as the Governor’s letters demonstrate.

It’s also not known when Jack returned on his mission, although German-language diaries from Moravian settlers near present day Winston-Salem in July 1775 note: “This afternoon a man from Mecklenburg, who had been sent from there Express to the Congress in Philadelphia, and was now returning …”[8] Beyond this hint, though there is little other documentary evidence of Jack’s ride.

The fullest historical account of the Jack story was written by Hunter in 1877:

“Upon his arrival [Captain Jack] immediately obtained an interview with the North Carolina delegates (Caswell, Hooper and Hewes [sic]), and, after a little conversation on the state of the country, then agitating all minds, Captain Jack drew from his pocket the Mecklenburg resolutions of the 20th of May, 1775, with the remark: ‘Here, gentlemen, is a paper that I have been instructed to deliver to you, with the request that you should lay the same before Congress.’

“After the North Carolina delegates had carefully read the Mecklenburg resolutions, and approved of their patriotic sentiments so forcibly expressed, they informed Captain Jack they would keep the paper, and show it to several of their friends, remarking, at the same time, they did not think Congress was then prepared to act upon so important a measure as ‘absolute independence.’

“On the next day, Captain Jack had another interview with the North Carolina delegates. They informed him that they had consulted with several members of Congress, (including Hancock, Jay and Jefferson,) and that all agreed, while they approved of the patriotic spirit of the Mecklenburg resolutions, it would be premature to lay them officially before the House, as they still entertained some hopes of reconciliation with England …

“Captain Jack finding the darling object of his long and toilsome journey could not be then accomplished, and that Congress was not prepared to vote on so bold a measure as absolute independence just before leaving Philadelphia for home, somewhat excited, addressed the North Carolina delegates, and several other members of Congress, in the following patriotic words:

“‘Gentlemen, you may debate here about ‘reconciliation’ and memorialize your king, but bear it in mind Mecklenburg owes no allegiance to, and is separated from the crown of Great Britain forever.’” [9]

Hunter’s account is vivid and dramatic. But it was written almost a century after the fact and where he got it from is not clear.  In all probability, Hunter embellished the story (after all his work was called “Sketches,” not “History.”) The reality remains that the records of the Continental Congress, the papers of Caswell and Hooper, indeed virtually all official records of the period are silent Captain Jack and his errand.  For many years the entire episode was considered as little more than a local legend, although Jack’s errand although forgotten nationally, was kept alive in the common memory of the community.

Jack’s silhouette graces the mile long Charlotte Liberty Walk in uptown Charlotte.
Jack’s silhouette graces the mile long Charlotte Liberty Walk in uptown Charlotte.

Dormant for many years, the story of “Charlotte’s Paul Revere” has exploded of late. Jack’s image is engraved in paving stones throughout uptown Charlotte as part of the new “Charlotte Liberty Walk,” an interactive historical walk of Revolutionary era sites and monument.

In February 2013, Jack’s image figures prominently as part of the celebration of Mecklenburg County’s 250th Anniversary (click here to see).

Whatever papers Jack may have carried seems to be beside the point.  His courage and determination have struck a modern chord with the people of Mecklenburg and fired up enthusiasm about the Revolutionary period.  Perhaps renewed interest in Jack will unriddle the remaining mysteries about the purpose of his ride as well?



[1] John McKnitt Alexander, original papers in the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

[2] The Declaration of Independence by the Citizens of Mecklenburg County, published by the Governor under the authority and direction of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina (Raleigh. Lawrence & Lemay. 1831). An online version is maintained by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library at www.cmstory.org in document index in “All About the Declaration” section.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hunter, C.L. Sketches of Western North Carolina (Raleigh: Raleigh News Stream, 1877), 67.

[5] The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, digital edition. Volume 10, “Letter from Josiah Martin to William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, June 30, 1775,” 48.

[6] Ibid., 47-48.

[7] See footnote 2.

[8] Publications of the North Carolina Historical Commission, Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume II (1752-1775) (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1925), 876 (emphasis in original).

[9] Hunter, Sketches, 68-69.

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2 Comments

  • I thought I would link this primary source document to this article. In an article appearing in The Junto the scholars there presented the New York Public Library’s digitized Thomas Addison Elliott collection which is enormous and huge amazing historical significance. (I’m going to be lost in it for a while! Already confirmed an ancestor of mine was a brevetted Brigadier General in the Continental Army from the collection.)

    I found this under the Declaration of Independence section and saw Captain Jack mentioned in the description. I hope it adds to the article which I found to be quite informative. http://archives.nypl.org/#id705

  • First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia from September 5th. Did Jack just hang around. Fishy smell to much of this tale.

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