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James Kenan (1740-1810) was a civic, military, and political leader in Duplin County and the state as a whole during the American Revolution and the Federal period. Born to Thomas and Elizabeth Johnston Kenan on September 23, 1740, James Kenan spent his adolescence being schooled by tutors on his father’s plantation. Thomas Kenan, born in Ireland, settled with his wife at what would become Duplin County, North Carolina (at the time it was part of New Hanover County) in 1736.
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James Kenan, was elected sheriff of Duplin County when he was 22. He served in the position from 1762 to 1766 and held the title again from 1785 to 1786. Kenan displayed strong leadership early when he led a group of volunteers from Duplin to Wilmington in vocal opposition of the British Stamp Act. Kenan was elected to the colonial assembly in 1773 and the provincial congress from 1774 through 1776.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, Kenan was a member of the militia in Duplin. He was appointed to the rank of captain among the patriots and he helped lead a group of volunteers against Scottish loyalists at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. Kenan spent much of the war as a colonel under the command of Major General Richard Caswell in South Carolina. Shortly after the war ended, Kenan was appointed brigadier general for the Wilmington District.
Following the war, Kenan returned to the North Carolina Senate where he served over ten terms between 1777 and 1793. He also acted as a member of the State Constitutional Conventions of 1788 and 1789. Kenan continued in public service for most of his life. He would serve as a councilor of the state under Caswell’s governorship and was a member of the original board of trustees for the University of North Carolina. Kenan was present for the laying of the first corner stone what became known as Old East in Chapel Hill on October 12, 1793. Several buildings on the campus, including the stadium, are named after the Kenan family. He was the first Master of the original Masonic lodge in Duplin County, St. John’s Lodge No. 13.
Kenan married Sarah Love in 1770. The couple had eight children. Their oldest son, Thomas Kenan, would go on to serve in the North Carolina legislature, as well as three terms in Congress. Brigadier General James Kenan died on May 23, 1810. Originally buried at his plantation in Turkey, North Carolina, his remains were later moved to Liberty Hall in Kenansville.
(Raleigh) News and Observer, February 4, 1950
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 345—sketch by Thomas Kenan III
A. T. Outlaw, “General Kenan, Duplin’s Revolutionary Leader” (copy in marker files, Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives and History)