A new historical marker for the “Town of Clinton” was unveiled near the courthouse on October 11, just in time for the annual Court Square Street Fair and Barbecue Cook-Off and other downtown festivities. The marker, the result of a joint effort between the City of Clinton and the Sampson County Historical Society, is meant to celebrate the long heritage of the small community that began here in 1784.
The sign, with its raised gold letters on an emerald green background, is otherwise identical in size and style to those used by the State of North Carolina for its NC Highway Historical Markers program. The signs are generally erected in remembrance of historic places, events, or people who have made a difference.
It reads: TOWN OF CLINTON, Established 1784. In 1784 Richard Clinton deeded five acres for use for the public buildings of the new county of Sampson. The community that flourished in this vicinity came to be known as Sampson Courthouse. The N.C. General Assembly in 1818 authorized a town to be laid out called Clinton Courthouse. By the time of incorporation in 1822, it was known as Clinton.
There aren’t too many communities in this country who can lay claim to the fact that their city was founded by patriots from the Revolutionary War. But most of the early leaders in this area were participants in the Revolution, either as militia soldiers or members of the Continental Army. In fact, it’s estimated that well over 800 men from the Duplin-Sampson area fought in that war, and their descendants still living here today are too numerous to count. So, who exactly was Richard Clinton, and why is our city named for him?
Richard Clinton was a highly distinguished public official from this area who often proved himself to be a very capable leader of militia forces during the Revolutionary War.
The county was named for his adoptive father, John Sampson. A native of Northern Ireland, Sampson migrated to the Cape Fear area by 1737 and later served as sheriff of New Hanover County, colonel in the militia, and the first mayor of Wilmington. Richard is believed to have been born in Wilmington about 1741. John Sampson raised him as his own son, and many researchers today believe that Sampson may have been Richard’s biological father.
Richard Clinton was a well-educated man and was probably schooled in Wilmington or even Europe. He appears to have been trained in law, but no records of this have been found.
Sometime around 1750, John Sampson built a large plantation home in the wilderness of upper Duplin County and called it Sampson Hall. It was located on what is now the east side of today’s Raleigh Road in the vicinity of Walking Stick Trail. In 1762, John Sampson made a gift of 561 acres of land to Richard Clinton “for love and affection,” a term generally reserved for gifting to one’s children. In order to hold title to property, one had to be at least 21 years old. The property that he gifted to Richard encompasses most of today’s downtown Clinton area.
In 1763, Richard married Penelope Kenan, the daughter of Thomas Kenan and Elizabeth Johnston Kenan of Duplin County. According to one source, Richard Clinton was a distinguished gentleman. He was “remarkably handsome, was always cool and self-possessed, a thoughtful man, and one of much dignity and character.” He soon distinguished himself in governmental service, serving as Duplin County’s Register of Deeds.
In 1771, Clinton began an illustrious military career as he joined Governor Tryon’s militia to quell a rebellion of backcountry farmers that had been brewing in the western counties for many years. He marched from eastern North Carolina with the Cape Fear militia to the banks of the Alamance Creek in what is now Alamance County. There he and his fellow militiamen fought what became known as the Battle of Alamance.
Richard declared himself publicly for the American cause and as early as 1775 was a member of the Provincial Congress held at Hillsborough. He was made a Lieutenant Colonel in the NC Militia and served throughout the Revolution. In 1776 he led patriot forces at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge where they killed or captured a large number of Highland Scots and others who had sworn loyalty to the King. When North Carolina first declared itself a state, he was selected to represent Duplin County as one of the first members of the House of Commons in 1777.
After 1776 quiet reigned in North Carolina until early 1781. On January 28, 1781, a fleet of eighteen vessels flying the British flag dropped anchor in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. On board were 450 British Redcoats under the command of Major James Craig. They were there to occupy Wilmington, primarily to establish a supply base for the invasion of North Carolina by Lord Charles Cornwallis. With the British soldiers in the area to protect them, the Tories became bolder and there was much hostile activity in the Wilmington area. James Kenan, Richard’s Clinton’s brother-in-law, was also a colonel in the militia and a fierce soldier in the battle for independence. It has been written that “Colonel Clinton was his right arm”, as they often fought together.
Cornwallis’s men marched into Wilmington on April 7th. The general immediately established his headquarters in one of the finer houses in town; the church building was put to use as a hospital for the sick and wounded. The British army rested just a little over two weeks but soon Cornwallis and his Redcoats were on the move headed to Virginia. Trudging along the rutted, sandy roads, they marched slowly and almost deliberately into Duplin County. The entire countryside was terrorized. Tories and other hangers-on, who followed the British army like a flight of vultures, plundered every farm and plantation along the way. Some homes roared up in a mass of flames and smoke-blackened chimneys marked the path of the marching column. Horses and cattle were driven off, and slaves were forced to come along with the army. Many patriots loaded their families and most valuable possessions into wagons and hastened to a safer area.
But the majority of the patriots, led by Colonels Kenan and Clinton, regained control of the area by “marching quickly into the neighborhoods where the Tories were embodied, surprised them, killed many, and put to instant death all the prisoners they took. This bloody action struck such terror into the Tories of old Duplin that they subsequently gave but little trouble.”
After the war, Richard Clinton was appointed a Brigadier General in the State Militia. In 1784, as a member of the General Assembly, he helped secure passage of the act that created a new county. He proposed the name “Sampson” in honor of John Sampson, his beloved foster father and benefactor. On June 2, 1784, the General Assembly authorized that Duplin County be divided, thus creating Sampson County.
The General Assembly directed that the court in the new county be held in a central location. The home of James Myhand, near Great Coharie Creek, was designated as the first meeting place. The Myhand home was located about 2 ½ miles west of the current courthouse and about ½ mile east of the Great Coharie Creek. Myhand’s Bridge, stretching over the Coharie, was then an important landmark, near today’s Hwy 24.
According to the late Judge Henry E. Faison, the Myhand home was located across the road from the Moss Hill service station, near the brow of the hill. The station is long gone but there is still abundant moss growing in the trees to mark the spot. This puts Sampson’s first court session on June 21, 1784 as taking place in today’s Fox Lake subdivision, across from Coharie Country Club on the south side of the highway.
At that first court meeting it was agreed that the land for the first county courthouse was to be bought from Richard Clinton, who had offered to sell the land for a token amount. The plot lay near Richard Clinton’s home, which stood on present-day Sampson Street. The purchase was for five acres, and included most of the lots now bordering the square of the current courthouse. One acre was kept on which to erect the courthouse, and the other four were sold as lots to pay for the building expenses. The structure was finished in 1785 and the community was known as Sampson Courthouse.
In 1787, Richard Clinton was chosen as one the delegates from Sampson County to the ratification convention held in Hillsborough in 1788 to vote for or against the U.S. Constitution. There was much debate at the convention. The Federalists favored ratification and the Anti-Federalist were opposed to its acceptance. Opposition arose because there was no Bill of Rights in the Constitution and there was fear that the Federal Government would be too powerful and would be unresponsive to the will of the people. The delegates from Wayne, Duplin, and Sampson Counties voted against acceptance of the Constitution. By the summer of 1788, the U.S. Constitution was ratified by two-thirds of the states but not yet in NC. In 1789, North Carolina called for another ratification convention to meet in Fayetteville. Ratification was finally passed at the Fayetteville Convention by a vote of 914 to 77, with most of the delegates from Duplin and Sampson once again voting against it.
Richard Clinton must have died suddenly because he, a court official, left no will. In February 1795, his wife, Penelope, was appointed to be the administrator of his estate. Tradition has it that Richard was buried in a grave behind his home.
In November of 1795, Penelope Clinton came into the court and asked that she be allowed to keep a public ordinary at her house, which was granted. After all, people attending court at the Sampson Courthouse would need room and board accommodations, and she needed the money. She also sold stabling for horses. About 1810, Penelope moved to Robeson County to live with her daughter, Mary Eliza Clinton Rowland, and later died there on September 1, 1814.
In 1794, the legislature authorized “Sampson” as a post office with Richard Clinton as the first postmaster, and by 1818 it was the known as “Clinton Courthouse.” The General Assembly authorized “Clinton Courthouse” to be laid off as a town that year, but it wasn’t incorporated until 1822 and the name changed to “Clinton.” There appears to have been some questions that arose later regarding the town’s legal authority which led to a second incorporation in 1852.
During the 1800s, Clinton was a small village, with an 1860 census population of a mere 209 people. By 1880 it was 620 and in 1900 it was 958. By 1920 that total had doubled to 2,101 and by 1940 there were 3,557 people living in Clinton. 1950 saw the population at 4,414 and by 1960 it had jumped to 7,151. But for the last 50 years the population growth has only been incremental, with 7,556 residents in 1980, 8,600 in 2000, and 8,639 people in Clinton in 2010.
If the past is any indicator for the future, it’s unlikely that Clinton will ever undergo a wild surge in population. For the last 230 years, it’s always been off the beaten path, away from major rivers, highways, or railroad lines; if you came to Clinton it was for a reason that brought you here. It should be remembered, too, that until the arrival of the Lundy Packing Company in 1950, Sampson was one of the few counties in the state that had absolutely no major manufacturing concern. So it’s not surprising that most of our best and brightest leave each year, seeking education, employment, love, or greater opportunities.
After living in a small town, we all need to get out for at least a little while. We have to learn about other cultures and traditions, and establish an appreciation for the world that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Whether you eventually end up moving home or not, one thing is for sure: you’ll always have a home in your heart. One of the most important lessons that small towns teach is the notion of home and of a place where you belong. Life can be a whirlwind of opportunities and constant change, but there is something truly beautiful in knowing you always have someplace to call home.
* The Sampson County Heritage Book, Oscar Bizzell, 1984; Sampson Hall Plantation by Tom Byrd, Huckleberry Historian, October 2009; Footprints of Richard Clinton by Oscar Bizzell, Huckleberry Historian, Sept. 1988; Colonial and State Records of N.C., Vol. IX, Robert J.Cain; The Heritage of Duplin County, 1750-2012