Martin Palmer, a prominent Orange County house carpenter and joiner, is one of the few 18th century builders whose name is linked with specific projects in and around the Piedmont town of Hillsborough. From the 1770s onward Palmer lived in a Quaker farming community north of Hillsborough. According to research by Barbara Hume, he came from Bertie County in the eastern part of North Carolina, and was in Orange County by 1771, when he enlisted as a volunteer in James Thackston’s company of the Orange County Militia
and served at the Battle of Alamance
. Orange County tax lists show Palmer as being worth £2,134 by 1779, and county court records from 1777 to 1788 testify to his frequent civic service on juries, as road overseer, and in various other capacities.
Part of a strong artisan community, Palmer married Priscilla Bevins or Bivins (1752-1820), a daughter of brickmason Thomas Bevins (Bivins), and the couple had two sons and six daughters. Son William was a house carpenter and joiner who produced furniture of various types. Daughter Temperance (Tempie) married Hillsborough house carpenter John A. Faucett; and daughter Mary wed Connecticut-born silversmith Roswell Huntington, and their children included Martin Palmer Huntington, also a silversmith.
Martin Palmer’s apprentices to the house carpenter’s and joiner’s trade included John Horton (alias "Mouse”) aged 13, orphan of Susanna Mouse, in 1784, and Alexander Roxborough Kinchen, aged 18, in 1794. His son William Palmer took as apprentices Pleasant Roberts to the joiner’s trade in 1799, Hyrom (Hiram) Lindsay to the carpenter’s trade in 1813, and Willie Kinchen Dodson to the carpenter’s trade in 1814. Martin and William Palmer may have worked together for a time. Like many artisans of his day, Martin Palmer combined his craft with farming. He owned from ten to fifteen slaves in the period 1800-1830, and in 1820 the census noted that his household included seven persons engaged in agriculture, probably his enslaved workers. Some of his slaves may have been craftsmen in his shop, but none of them has been identified.
Among Palmer’s projects in Hillsborough were repairs and conversions of colonial buildings for new uses after the American Revolution. In 1784, when the North Carolina legislature met in Hillsborough, the House of Commons resolved that “Martin Palmer be allowed the sum of sixteen pounds, nine shillings & two pence for his labour and articles provided in preparing the [old Orange County] Court House for the reception of this House & that the Treasurers or either of them, pay him the same.”
Also in 1784 the trustees of the Hillsborough Academy employed Palmer and other men to convert the old St. Matthew’s Church on North Churton Street into a boys’ academy building. A legislative act of 1784 noted that the church was “already far gone to decay” and authorized a lottery to raise “not more than £500” to pay for the work, hire tutors, etc. The former Anglican church, probably designed by architect John Hawks, was built in 1768-1769 and suffered from destructive usage as a meeting place and hospital during the war. In 1783 the Methodist itinerant Francis Asbury noted that “it was once an elegant building, and still makes a good appearance at a distance, but within it is in ruins.” To transform the church into a schoolhouse, the workmen removed the remaining ecclesiastical features including the steeple and windows, and repaired it and made it weather-tight. Cabinetmaker George Hoskins made new windows and a man named Minckley removed the steeple and supplied shingles “for covering the church after taking down the steeple.” Martin Palmer evidently replaced the flooring and either patched or replaced the leaking roof, among other tasks, and was paid £120 for carpentry work in 1784-1785.
In 1790 Palmer and others renovated the Blue House, a store building erected in the 1760s by a Scots Loyalist mercantile firm, Young and Miller. It had been confiscated by the state in 1785 and served as the state treasury building through 1789. Thomas Bivens had done some brickwork on the building in 1789, and beginning in 1790 state treasurer John Haywood recorded payments to Palmer and other workmen and suppliers for its thorough renovation. In March 1790, Haywood noted £2. to “Martin Palmer, House Carpenter, for repairing Houses after the fire.” In August Palmer received £96 for more extensive work, which included making steps, shutters, and windows, putting in a new sill 24 feet long and posts 7 feet tall, repairing stairs and mending weatherboards, installing and casing windows, framing and completing a carriage house, and installing flooring and chair board (chair rail). He valued his work at £69. 6 s. 9 d. and added 25 percent for “diet and Lodging,” plus a few purchases of materials.
Palmer’s best documented private project was the Stagville Store, built in 1787 for planter Richard Bennehan, who came to the area from Virginia in 1768 and established himself as a planter and a storekeeper. Bennehan’s Stagville Plantation was located near the main wagon road in the part of Orange County that later became Durham County. As related by Jean Anderson in Piedmont Plantation, Bennehan noted in his account book on November 15, 1787, “Richard Bennehan opened Store at Stagville.” His payments to workers and suppliers for building the store complex included sums to Martin Palmer for building a storehouse for £109; a lumberhouse for £58 and for building a shed to the lumberhouse, £19. The prices for the work totaled £420, to which Bennehan added £210—”50 pct on £420 being Customary Allowance for Accommodations, Hawling &c.” Purchases of a few “sundries” brought the total to £685. Acknowledging the unstable North Carolina currency of the era (see Gilbert Leigh), Bennehan noted that £685 was worth only £342 in Virginia money.
As Jean Anderson notes, a letter from Palmer to Bennehan on August 14, 1790, suggests other likely projects. Writing in response to Bennehan’s request for his services, Palmer expressed his regret that it was “Not in My power to Com to work for you” any sooner than five or six weeks away, “by that time I shall get Mr. Cains work inclosed then I can Leave it and com to yours.” He explained that he had been sick for two weeks and his boy for five weeks, and “No hands could I hier at any price.” It is likely that Palmer proceeded to build Bennehan’s Stagville house. Palmer’s reference to “Mr. Cains work” probably meant the plantation house (later known as Hardscrabble
) built for William Cain
a few miles northeast of Hillsborough. Although Palmer likely continued his trade for several more years, none of his later work has been documented.
The Milton Spectator
of November 7, 1832, took note of Palmer’s death: “Near Hillsborough on Wednesday 31st ult. Mr. Martin Palmer, aged about ninety years. He has supported throughout a long life the character of an industrious and honest man.” He left his property, including land and slaves, to his numerous children and grandchildren, and his estate took several years to settle. Although no grave marker survives for him, Palmer was probably buried in the Old Quaker Burying Ground
near the grave of his wife, Priccilla (Priscilla) Palmer, who died in 1820.