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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Willcox (or Wilcox), John

by George W. Troxler, 1996; Revised by SLNC Government and Heritage Library, January 2023

21 June 1728–1793

A black and white photograph of a portrait of John Willcox by an unknown artist. Image from the North Carolina Museum of History.John Willcox (or Wilcox), Chatham County iron manufacturer, was born in Concord, Chester County, Pa., the first son of Thomas and Elizabeth Cole Willcox. About 1759 he moved to Cross Creek where he operated a store and gristmill. Later he lived in Deep River, Orange County. An active supporter of the Regulator movement, he was one of those excluded from Governor William Tryon's pardon on 31 May 1771. Later that year Chatham County was created out of Orange, and Willcox was elected to represent the new county in the Provincial Assembly.

By 1771 Willcox had built an ironworks on Deep River where he discovered deposits of both iron ore and coal. Iron was in short supply during the Revolution, and Willcox operated one of the two ironworks in the province. His bloomery and forge supplied the area with good bar iron from which rough wrought iron utensils could be forged. In April 1776 the Fourth Provincial Congress sent a committee either to hire Willcox's ironworks or "purchase and repair" the Speedwell Works in Guilford County. Following the committee's recommendation, the Revolutionary government advanced Willcox the needed funds to complete a furnace under construction on Tick Creek about ten miles from his bloomery and forge. They also allowed him to hire enslaved laborers that had been confiscated as Loyalist property. Willcox and his brother-in-law and partner, William England, were to supply molten metal to founders employed by the state.

After various delays in getting the furnace into operation Willcox sold the ironworks to the state in February 1777 for £5,000. The state-appointed manager was no more successful than Willcox had been in keeping the furnace going. In April 1778 after months of haggling, the legislature restored Willcox's property and paid him £1,000 for damages he had sustained from public interference with his ironworks. When Willcox resumed management of the furnace, he turned out at least a few pots and possibly as much as five tons of pig iron. In June 1780 a freshet destroyed the furnace. When his accounts were settled in 1783, Willcox received £386.18s.6d. specie in payment "for sundries furnished for the use of the public."

In 1771 he married Rebecca Butler, of Philadelphia, by whom he had eight children. Willcox kept the Roman Catholic faith of his parents, and the records of St. Joseph's Church in Philadelphia indicate that at least three of their children were taken to Philadelphia for baptism. Willcox died in Richmond County.


Chatham Furnace Papers (Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina, vols. 11–12, 14–15, 17, 22 (1895–1907).

Morris Family Papers (North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

William L. Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, vol. 10 (1890).

John Willcox Papers (Manuscript Department, Duke University Library, Durham).

Joseph Willcox, "Historical Sketches of Some of the Pioneer Catholics of Philadelphia and Vicinity," Records of the American Catholic Historical Society (December 1904), and Ivy Mills, 1729–1866: Willcox and Allied Families (1911).

Additional Resources:

"Wilcox Iron Works." N.C. Highway Historical Marker H-24, N.C. Office of Archives & History. (accessed December 2, 2013).

Wilcox, John. "Petition from John Wilcox concerning his ironworks." 1781. Colonial and State Records of North Carolina vol. 15. 214-215. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Willcox, Joseph. "John Willcox, of Pennsylvania and North Carolina." The American Catholic Historical Researches 19, no. 1 (January 1902). 17-25. (accessed December 2, 2013).

Willcox, Joseph. Ivy Mills, 1729-1866: Willcox and Allied Families. Baltimore [Md.]: Lucas Brothers Inc. 1911. 60-66. (accessed December 2, 2013).

Image Credits:

"Oil Portrait, Accession #: H.1993.282.1." 1775-1790. North Carolina Museum of History.

Origin - location: