"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."
General James Iver McKay:
Bladen County Patriot, Congressman, Emancipator
Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers
classical studies as well as law, and was admitted to the bar in 1812.
Sprunt’s Chronicles tells us that “it was said of this distinguished
son of the Cape Fear that he was very quiet and reserved in his deportment and held in contempt all manner of base dealing and trickery---a man of such integrity that his presence always inspired confidence and truthfulness in those whose expressions he desired, because they believed in his fidelity.” The Wilmington Daily
Journal stated that “As a representative, no member of
Congress commanded more attention or respect. He might truly
be said to have served his constituents “till he voluntarily retired,
” as a national representative, always looking to the best interests
of the whole country, and discarding all factions
and sectional jealousies.”
General McKay represented District 5 in the United States Congress
from 1831 to 1849. He served as the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from 1843 to 1849, and was given the nickname of
"Watch Dog of the Treasury." He was a Philanthropist, Statesman,
Lawyer, Planter and one of the most beloved men who ever came
from Bladen County. He was highly respected by the people of
It was while General McKay was in Congress that he helped secure appropriations for the construction of the Federal Arsenal at Fayetteville and for building Fort Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
As a powerful member of the House Ways & Means Committee, Congressman McKay had prepared legislation authorizing the smallest
US gold coin, the gold dollar, but acceding to the pressing need to mint gold into larger coin form, McKay was persuaded to amend his bill to include another new gold coin, the Double Eagle or $20 piece. The authorizing statute was approved by Congress on March 3, 1849.
Thursday, September 14, 1853 at a quarter before eight o'clock in the evening. He was returning home from a visit to Tarboro. At Wilmington
his remains were met by the militia and there was a great public demonstration as his body was carried through the city and all bells
were tolled. A group of the first citizens of Wilmington accompanied his body to the family burying ground on the home plantation in Bladen County. The remains and sad cortege were carried up the Cape Fear
river by steamboat to Elizabethtown, bedecked “in the habiliments of
woe, and its wailing monotone resounded continuously through the
forests that lined the banks of the river.”
Today his burial place is identified by a North Carolina Historical Marker on Highway 87 in Bladen County.
The Wilmington Daily Journal of September 16, 1853 said of
“It becomes our painful duty this morning to announce the unexpected death of one of our most worthy citizens, Gen. James I. McKay, of Bladen County. General McKay arrived here on last Monday night from his residence in Bladen enroute for Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, as a witness in the case of the State against Armstrong. We learn that on his return from Edgecombe yesterday afternoon he was taken suddenly ill on board the [railroad] cars, and on arriving in Goldsboro it was found necessary for him to stop, where he expired, at Mrs. Borden’s hotel…of bilous or cramp cholic, in the sixty-fifth year of his age.”
Item 7 of General McKay's will reads as follows:
widowhood my above named Bellefont Plantation to William J. Cowan and my executors hereinafter named and their heirs in
trust for the County of Bladen on the express condition that the
said plantation shall be used as an experimental farm and that
the poor of the county and the indigent orphans who are directed
by law to be bound out shall be kept, maintained, and employed
on said plantation under such rules and regulations as the
county court of said county may prescribe."
hired out by my executors for two or three years in order to raise funds for their transportation to the Colony of Liberia, and as soon
as that object can be affected, my executors are hereby strictly enjoined to take the necessary means for the transportation of
said slaves to Liberia under the direction and patronage of the [American] Colonization Society."
to board the ship, they cried and were very unhappy because they had
to leave their old home and go to a strange land. Some years later, however, one of the Negro women came back from Africa. It seemed
that she had done very well over there. She reported that the McKay Negroes had prospered in their new home, and that her grandfather
had become an outstanding man in the Colony of Liberia. Her purpose
for returning to Elizabethtown was to persuade other Negroes to
go back with her.
The manumission of General McKay's slaves and planned repatriation illustrates a policy that had gained momentum after the Revolution and
was only stopped by the Nat Turner massacres in Virginia in 1831. His efforts inspired a love of liberty and homeland in his former slaves, who then returned to encourage others to emigrate to Liberia. McKay's desire to free and repatriate his slaves was common at that time, and many
ships carrying North Carolina's freedmen to Liberia---ironically,
retracing the route taken by Massachusetts slavers heading for Africa
laden with rum to trade for slaves in the previous century. Following McKay's example, free black Louis Sheridan of Bladen County who ammased a small fortune as a store owner in the early years of the
19th century, left North Carolina in 1837 bound for his homeland of
Africa and a new start.
Chronicles of the Cape Fear, James Sprunt, 1916
Bladen County Historic Society Papers
A New Geography of NC, Bill Sharpe, 1961
The Free Negro in North Carolina, J.H. Franklin, 1943
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute