Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Robber's Den

UNC Pres. Kemp Plummer Battle relates the following in the History of the University of North Carolina (which this blog will hereafter just call Battle's History because I intend to blog about it quite a bit more):

"About a mile toward the northeast from Piney Prospect, on what was evidently an inlet in the ancient sea, is a copse of woods on a hillside. Near its center is a cluster of massive rocks, closed on three sides and partially covered overhead by the beetling cliff. In this dismal retreat a runaway slave, named Tom Morgan, lay hidden for many months, emerging at night to subsist by robbery. Such terror was caused by his depredations that a force of men, armed with shotguns, scoured the forest, succeeded in finding the hiding place and capturing the robber. This is the "Robber's Den" or "Black Tom's Lair." With boyish curiosity I visited it the day after his capture and gazed with awe and pity on his bed of leaves, his shoemaker's bench, the charred firelogs and the bones of pigs and fowls, relics of his lawless life. He ran away because he had been sold to a speculator and was un-willing to be carried to a distant Southern plantation."

Okay, long quote. So the questions are: Where is the Robber's Den? Does anyone know of any other source that mentions this incident?

When Battle mentions Point Prospect, he means, of course, the overlook to the east from the vicnity of Gimghoul Castle. A mile to the northeast of there "on a hillside" would seem to be somewhere on the hill that is the Greenwood neighborhood in Chapel Hill. Near Paul Green's house? I don't know. There is a lot of private land back there and it would take the permission of a lot of landowners to really explore the area.

According to Wikipedia, Battle was born in 1831 and graduated from UNC in 1849 (at the age of 18?). So I take it that the capture (and presumable execution) of poor Tom Morgan must have occurred in the 1840's some time. I wonder if these events were ever mentioned in the Hillsborough Recorder?


  1. I searched the two different indexes of the Hillsborough Recorder and came up empty handed on trying to locate more on Tom Morgan and the Robber's Den.

    However recently I noted that this incident is also described a second time by Battle on page 31 of the 1907 edition of his History:

    "One of [Hardy Morgan's] slaves, Tom, having been bought by a trader who designed to carry him to the Southwest for sale, ran away and for several years had two hiding places, one a cave on Morgan's Creek and the other in a very thick copse of wood near his old master's residence, under the lee of overhanging rocks. Rough boards leaning against the rocks made a dismal shelter from the rain. Under them was a showmaker;s bench and a pile of leaves for his couch. He lived partly by robbery, partly by food brought by his mother, whose cabin was near, but on the opposite side of the hill. There seemed to be little desire to molest him until he began to break into the stores of the village in search for meat. Thena posse was summoned for his capture. Marching through the forest at regular intervals - a process known as 'beating the woods' - the men aroused him from his lair, and, on his refusal to stop when commanded, he was shot in the legs, captured and then sent south for sale. I have never seen the cave on Morgan's Creek but visited the den in the woods the day after his capture. I remember the shoemaker's bench and the fragments of leather, the scattered bones, relics of his solitary meals, and my young mind was shocked inexpressibly at the resemblance of poor Tom's habitation to the lair of a wild beast."

  2. "in a very thick copse of wood near his old master's residence"

    So where did Hardy Morgan live? It could be the hill that the Greenwood neighborhood sits on or possibly the hill that the Business School's conference center is on.

  3. No, not the hill near Meadowmont where the Biz Sch. conference center is. That was the home of Kit Barbee, not Hardy Morgan. I think Hardy Morgan's lands were closer to University Mall and therefore the hill in question is the one where Paul Green's old house is.