The Spruills--a Family of Colonial Notables

"The Spruills--a Family of Colonial Notables"
by David E. Davis

In the fall of 1962, Mrs. Catherine Yerby of Columbia donned boots and dungarees and with son, Columbia merchant T. K. Yerby, Jr., started exploring the forbidding forest of Tyrrell's Alligator Township. Had anyone asked Miss Katy the purpose of her intrusion into this mosquito and cottonmouth infested wilderness he would hardly have believed her, for the Yerbys were searching for a man dead almost two hundred years.

Partly through good luck and good clues the Yerbys located and uncovered the tomb of a member of Tyrrell's most illustrious lost generation. The grave was that of Colonel Hezekiah Spruill (born 1732, died 1804), planter, member of the Provincial Congress, and Revolutionary leader. Reclaimed by the dense forest a century ago, the weather-beaten tombstone is probably one of the few physical mementoes of a family that was as much a part of Tyrrell for two centuries as the quiet black Scuppernong itself.

Dr. Godfrey Spruill, patriarch of the family, was born in 1650, thirteen years before King Charles issued the celebrated Carolina Charter. A tobacco planter, surgeon and patron of the sport of kings in the Cavalier colony, he had probably heard stories from ship captains who had plied the Carolina River (Albemarle Sound) in search of hides, furs and naval stores, of the inviting forests along this body's south shore. Between 1693 and 1697 he and his wife Joanna bought land in the area and moved to Carolina. They were among the section's first white settlers.

The original Spruill grant included over a thousand acres of the south shore of Albemarle Sound and west side of Scuppernong River between Back Creek and Bunting Bay (now Bull's Bay). In this beautiful, primitive setting, called Heart's Delight by explorers a decade before, the Spruills set down their roots. Behind the high banks of the sound shore lay ridges cut here and there by quiet creeks and forested with virgin timber.

On this location about 1705 was founded Roundabout Plantation, the seat of the Tyrrell Spruills for the next century.

Unlike many of Scuppernong's colonial land barons -- the Pettigrews, Collinses and others who held land on the South Shore but whose interests lay elsewhere -- the Spruills settled in Scuppernong and began the task of clearing and exploiting the rich dark land.

Dr. Godfrey Spruill, probably one of Carolina's first medical men, became well-known throughout the struggling Albemarle Colony, being called on numerous occasions across the sound to Queen Anne's Creek, the site of present Edenton, to care for the sick. At his death the Roundabout fell to his son Samuel Spruill and then to his grandson Joseph Spruill. Around 1710 near Backlanding, the private wharves of the Roundabout, was erected Saint Paul's Chapel, one of the earliest churches in Carolina. Thirty years later Joseph Spruill gave this chapel to St. Andrew's Parish.

The Roundabout and the Spruill lands at Backlanding were the center of colonial activity in Scuppernong. Here in 1746 was erected "His Majesties Warehouse" and twenty years later Benjamin Spruill invited the county court to meet at the "big house." Subsequently he gave the land for the building of the Tyrrell Courthouse at Backlanding following the outbreak of the Revolution. Here also sailing schooners docked momentarily on their voyage from Ocracoke to Edenton.

For the next five generations Spruills played important roles in local as well as state religious and political life. Probably not many families in Carolina can boast such a continuous record of public service. Samuel Spruill served in the Provincial Assembly from 1754 until his death in 1760. His brother Joseph Spruill, an early vestryman of South Chowan Parish, was major of the county militia, magistrate and supervisor of "the King's high roads." He also served as sheriff and a member of the Assembly. It was his brother Colonel Hezekiah Spruill who was among Tyrrell's leaders in the Revolution. Benjamin Spruill, a member of the General Assembly, introduced the bill creating Martin County from Tyrrell in 1774.

Nemeniah Spruill built the first bridge across Scuppernong River near Cool Springs (now Creswell) during early colonial times. This crossing is still called Spruill's Bridge today. It opened transportation into a new territory above Creswell and Lake Phelps to settlers.

Two Spruills, Joseph and Benjamin, were members of the First and Second Provincial Congresses in the turbulent opening days of the Revolution. Joseph Spruill was a signer of the Halifax Resolves and was appointed a major in the battalion being gathered in Tyrrell at Lee's Mill under the leadership of Colonel Edward Buncombe. Hezekiah Spruill and Stephen Lee were appointed by the Second Provincial Congress to "receive, procure and purchase firearms for the use of the troops and to receive, maintain and repair all swords, dirks, pistols and other implements of war which have been taken by the Tories."

Like many of the hard-pressed farmers of the southern Albemarle many Spruills migrated to the Deep South and to the Mid-West. Today seldom a week passes that the Tyrrell Register of Deeds office does not receive inquiries from genealogists and researchers about this now fairly widespread name. Many take the time and expense to come to Columbia to search the county's colonial records for information about this lost generation of early Carolinians. John W. Melson of Columbia, who has for several years done research on the history of the Spruills, has uncovered most of the information known today about the family.

From 1750 until 1860 there was hardly a North Carolina General Assembly without a Spruill representing Tyrrell or neighboring Washington County.

The main branch of the Spruill family, established in Alligator by Colonel Hezekiah, remained on the north shore until the latter part of the 1800's when the place was sold and gradually passed away, much of it reclaimed by the dense forests. Only a few Tyrrell countians now bear this old name.

"The Spruills--a Family of Colonial Notables." Our State magazine. August 1, 1964 by David E. Davis. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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