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Hepburn, James

by Robert J. Cain, 1988

ca. 1752–May 1798

James Hepburn, Loyalist merchant, attorney, politician, and planter, was born in Scotland. The year and circumstances of his migration to America are unknown, but prior to 1772 he was a clerk for the firm of Alston, Young, and Co., merchants trading extensively in Virginia and North Carolina. In 1771 he entered into partnership with Joseph Montfort, treasurer of the northern district of North Carolina, and Robert Nelson, merchant, as Hepburn, Nelson, and Co., for trading on the Cape Fear River. In 1771 or 1772 Hepburn went to London and purchased goods for the company, but the venture was unsuccessful and in 1774 the firm was dissolved. Hepburn had by then achieved sufficient local prominence to be appointed, in April 1774, justice of the peace for Cumberland County. Also in that year he was licensed as an attorney and qualified in the courts of Cumberland, New Hanover, and Halifax counties.

Hepburn's Loyalist sympathies were in evidence as early as July 1775, when Governor Josiah Martin considered him reliable enough to furnish wagons to transport the records of Lord Granville's land office to safety. In the same month the Wilmington Committee of Safety denounced him in the strongest terms as a traitor to American liberties. The following month he petitioned the committee to be restored to favor, and was ordered to sign the association not to engage in trade with England. Within a few weeks he took his seat as a delegate from Campbellton to the Third Provincial Congress convening at Hillsborough on 20 August. He signed the test and was appointed to several committees, including one charged with securing the support of Scottish immigrants.

His adherence to the patriot cause was of short duration. In February 1776, he took part in the Moore's Creek Bridge campaign as secretary to Donald MacDonald. Before the battle he was sent under a flag of truce to demand Richard Caswell's surrender, and reported back to MacDonald that the patriot position could be attacked. After the battle he was imprisoned successively at Halifax, Charlotte, Salisbury, and again at Halifax.

In September 1778 Hepburn appeared in New York City, where he was licensed to practice law, and remained there until at least November 1779. By June 1780, shortly after the capture of Charleston by the British, he had established himself in that city as a public notary and attorney. When Governor Thomas Burke of North Carolina was imprisoned on James Island near Charleston in November and December 1781, Hepburn was among several prominent Loyalists from North Carolina who attempted unsuccessfully to obtain for him a parole within American lines.

When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, Hepburn was among the large number of Loyalists who went to St. Augustine. He was befriended by the governor of East Florida, Patrick Tonyn, and received appointments as proctor of the court of vice-admiralty, attorney general, and member of the council of the province.

In July 1784, Hepburn migrated to the Bahama Islands, the British colony eventually to receive many southern Loyalists. A sizable number had gone there already, and had begun an insistent demand for land, provisions, and offices that alarmed the governor, John Maxwell. Within a few days of his arrival Hepburn had assumed the presidency of the dissidents, who styled themselves the Board of American Loyalists. The governor had no military force at his disposal, and during the following months the Loyalists, led by Hepburn and Robert Johnston of South Carolina, refused to recognize Maxwell as governor and attempted to gain their demands through rioting, the disruption of law courts, and petitions to the king and various officials in England. Maxwell retaliated by refusing Hepburn and Johnston licenses to practice law, dissolving the troublesome assembly, and issuing a precept prohibiting the election of Hepburn to that body. When the new assembly met in February 1785, Hepburn was returned as member for Cat Island, and the governor promptly prorogued the assembly. Maxwell was recalled to England, and the new governor, John Powell, soon was embroiled in the same difficulties. Powell complained to authorities in England that Hepburn, "the most vociferous," and Johnston, "the most able and dangerous," were inflaming the Loyalists.

The new assembly, however, proved more tractable to the government. Hepburn and several other dissident members failed to prevent the return of members supporting the governor, and in September 1785 the assembly expelled Hepburn and four of his supporters. After this incident he ceased active opposition to the government, withdrew to his substantial estate on Cat Island, consisting of some 1,300 acres and 65 slaves, and proceeded to become a prominent cultivator of cotton. In 1796 he again was elected to the assembly, but this time his service was uncontroversial. At his death he left a widow, Mary, and three children, James, John, and Eliza.


Audit Office Papers and Treasury Papers (Public Record Office, London, England).

Bahamas, Journal of the General Assembly, 1779–1786 (1912).

Burke Letter Books and Cumberland County Court Minutes (North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh).

Nassau, Bahamas, The Bahama Gazette (1789–98).

Hugh F. Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (1971).

The Royal South-Carolina Gazette, 20 June 1781.

William Saunders and Walter Clark, eds., Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 26 vols. (1886–1905).

Kenneth Scott, comp., Rivington's New York Newspaper: Excerpts from a Loyalist Press, 1773–1783 (1973).

Will Books (Bahama Archives).

Additional Resources:

"CSR Documents by Hepburn, James, ca. 1752-1798." Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed April 17, 2014).

"Minutes of the Wilmington Committee of Safety, July 07, 1775." The colonial records of North Carolina vol. 10, Raleigh [N.C.]: Josephus Daniels, Printer to the State. 1890. 72-74. (accessed April 17, 2014).

"Minutes of the Wilmington Committee of Safety, August 08, 1775." The colonial records of North Carolina vol. 10, Raleigh [N.C.]: Josephus Daniels, Printer to the State. 1890. 141.  (accessed April 17, 2014).

Craton, Michael, and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People: Volume Two: From the Ending of Slavery to the Twenty-First Century. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press. 2011. 190-191, 248, 438. (accessed April 17, 2014).

Origin - location: 


Sir. you still have not change my gtt,gtt,gtt,gtt,grand father date of birth which was about 1720 in Scotland why would you put a false date on your report would you be kind enough to change it thank great grand mother was Margret Elizabeth Hepburn and she was the daughter of John Hepburn Jr son of John Hepburn Esq and he was the son of James Hepburn Esq and Mary Sophia McKenzie and so on, so would you please change the info thank you.


This comes from a published source, not directly from the author. The author contributed this article to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.  I have passed on your comment to NCpedia staff. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage LIbrary

I am a professional historian researching the history of property which is being made into a public park in South Carolina to be named "Black River Cypress Preserve." James Hepburn acquired the land in 1730. The proprietor who died in 1807 was also James Hepburn. I am wondering if there could have been two generations, but I have been unable to find a death record until 1807. The Hepburn land was on the Black River on the border of Georgetown and Williamsburg Counties. Hepburn married Elizabeth Brockinton, an heiress. Her uncle John Brockinton was a loyalist. Is there hard evidence that the Hepburn in your article was born in Scotland, or is there a chance he was from the Black River family? There was a notice in the S. C. Gazette that the widow of James Hepburn, late of Nassau, came to Charleston and married Moses Glover, a successful planter.
I would appreciate any information you could add and would be glad to receive an email.
Thank you, Suzanne C. L. Hurley

Very nice to make contact once again, I must say that you have my GGGG-Grand Father date of birth not correct he was born 1710 not 1752 which is not correct his daughter Elizabeth was born in 1759 so how could he been born on 1752 so wrong just a correction on my part, now I would like to ask you if you have any additional data on hand that you would like to share with me, May God keep all of you with good health and long life and full of blessings your friend always. Rev George E Gonzalez Sr.

Dear Mr. Cain,

I am so happy that you have done this research on James Hepburn, Esquire, who is my great grandfather times four. I am awfully happy that someone has taken interest in his recognition and efforts to our country history. He did die in the Bahamas but he left a beautiful legacy and lots of children to remember him by. We are all very proud of him and we will always keep saying, Keep Tryst.

Thank you very much and keep up the good work. Oh by the way let me tell you my connection to this man:

My name is the Rev. George E Gonzalez Sr, the son of Domingo Gonzalez Reyes. He is the son of Marion Reyes Hepburn. She is the daughter of Margaret Elizabeth Hepburn. Margaret is the daughter of John Hepburn, Jr. John is the son of John Hepburn, Sr. John Sr is the son of James Hepburn Esq and Mary Sophia McKenzie. That is the outline of the family lineage that I come from so you can get an idea of my connection of my family. Thank you so much again, your humble servant,


This is a white man, that had slaves. What beautiful legacy has he left. This is where my last name comes from. My family is fro. Cat island. My dad is Austin Tommy Hepburn, grand dad Halsted hepburn.

I have researched the life of James Hepburn,Scottish Loyalist to the Bahamas in 1783.It is an honor to have such a gentlemen live and die on Cat Island, Bahamas.His name is recorded in Bahamian History.Be assured that your Ancestor chose a peaceful and beautiful island to live.

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