Gov. Benjamin Williams

Benjamin Williams
Benjamin Williams

Born near Smithfield in Johnston County on January 1, 1751, Benjamin Williams would become one of North Carolina's leading citizens. In August 1774, he was elected as a delegate from Johnston County to the First Provincial Congress, which gathered in New Bern. This was the first assembly to meet in America in defiance of the British Crown. Williams also participated in the August 20, 1775 Third Provincial Congress, which met in Hillsborough.

In September 1775, he became an officer in the Second North Carolina Continental Regiment where he served under George Washington. Williams resigned his commission on January 1, 1779 to serve in the colony's House of Commons until the British invasion of 1780. He then volunteered as an officer and was decorated for bravery during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

Williams served several terms in the state legislature and was elected to the Third Congress of the United States. A four term governor of North Carolina (1799 to 1802 and in 1807 and 1808), he also played a key role in creating the University of North Carolina, serving on its board of trustees and helping select its site.

Besides his success in the military and politics, Williams was avidly interested in agriculture. In 1798 he bought the House in the Horseshoe and 2,500 acres of land, intending to become a cotton planter. Always known as a progressive farmer, he was very successful. At its peak, "Retreat"--as he called his plantation--consisted of 103 enslaved workers managed by a hired overseer. Williams' plantation produced up to 300 acres of cotton annually and considerable quantities of grain. He also operated a racetrack and horse breeding facility. Though the governor loved his plantation, apparently he was less fond of his neighbors. In letters, he complained about the lack of social activities in the area and even accused neighbors of stealing some of his cotton.

Williams retired to his plantation and died there on July 20, 1814. Much respected, he was widely eulogized. His wife Elizabeth survived him and died three years later in New Bern on November 24, 1817.