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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wilkes and the Wars: The Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

In order to understand the various wars, one must understand the political and economic climate that led to conflict which precipitated the wars.
Prior to the separation of the Carolinas in 1712 into the two separate colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina, the Carolina colony had been governed by seven lord proprietors.  After the separation into two separate entities, the British crown maintained political control of the two while the remaining lord proprietor, Lord Granville, retained economic interests in the northern section, North Carolina.  In 1775 a new general assembly was created with officials elected by the people.
By 1770 most of western North Carolina, in what is now the Piedmont, was considered by many historians to be the backcountry.  This area was sparely settled by white men.  By 1767 Orange County was the most populated area.   Hillsborough, the county seat, was known as the “capital of the backwoods.”[i]   Threat to the Indian culture and way of life remained, for the most part, in the distant future.  The Cherokee Indians continued living in their traditional ways with very little interference from the few white settlers scattered among the mountainous region.  Most likely, the population in western North Carolina had changed very little by 1775. 
Political unrest rose throughout the colonies in America.  Britain’s efforts to control the colonies and to levy unjust taxes had raised the fury of settlers in the North Carolina colony and in other colonies as well.  The Stamp Act of 1765 provided the foundation for an unspoken alliance among the colonists which also included North Carolinians.  This alliance was not resolved until national independence was won at the end of the Revolutionary War.  The Regulators’ Movement in Hillsborough in 1771, which has been called a “rehearsal for Revolution,”[ii] was discussed in my previous blog.  This movement reflected the unrest of the settlers in the backcountry of North Carolina. 
Three men noted in the literature as North Carolina Militia leaders from Wilkes County in the Revolutionary War were Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, Captain Robert Cleveland, and Colonel Richard Allen.
Colonel Benjamin Cleveland migrated to Wilkes County from Virginia in 1769 and settled near Mulberry Fields, the site of present-day Wilkesboro.  He initially served in the Surry County Militia prior to the creation of Wilkes County and was named colonel of the Wilkes militia in 1778 after the creation of the county.  He led his soldiers throughout the back country of North Carolina fighting the Tories and developed quite a reputation for his harsh treatment of the Tories.  In fact, the approximately 300 year-old Tory Oak, which stood behind the old Wilkes County Courthouse in Wilkesboro until it finally succumbed in 1992, was the tree where Colonel Benjamin Cleveland “used its spreading limbs to hang at least five Tories.”[iii]  A tree started from an acorn from the original tree currently thrives on the site.  In addition, Colonel Cleveland’s forces participated in the defeat of the British in the Battle of King’s Mountain.
Benjamin Cleveland’s brother, Robert Cleveland, migrated from Virginia to Wilkes County with him and served under him as a captain in the Wilkes Militia in the Revolutionary War.  Robert lived along the banks of the Yadkin River off Parsonville Road and apparently was a neighbor of the legendary Daniel Boone.  His home was also near Rendezvous Mountain where Colonel Benjamin Cleveland rallied his Overmountain Men as they prepared for the march to King’s Mountain.  Robert’s log house, which was built on a land grant about 1779, is considered to be the oldest house in Wilkes County.  In 1987, the deteriorating home was purchased by Old Wilkes Incorporated, disassembled, and reassembled in downtown Wilkesboro where it may be seen today.
Another Wilkes patriot was Richard Allen who migrated from Maryland to Rowan County, North Carolina, in 1770.  The area where he lived in Rowan became part of Surry soon after he moved to Rowan.  He became Wilkes County’s first sheriff after the creation of Wilkes and continued to be active in public service in the county for many years.  In 1780 he served as a colonel of the North Carolina Militia in the Battle of King’s Mountain.
The British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, hoped to take his military campaign through North Carolina as he marched to Virginia.  In addition to British troops, he planned to recruited local loyalists for this campaign and appointed Major Patrick Ferguson to recruit the loyalists and lead the campaign. 
Ferguson tried to intimidate the western North Carolina and Tennessee settlers (those west of the Blue Ridge Mountains) by telling them that if they did not “desist from their opposition to the British army, and take protection under his standard, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”[iv]  Colonel Ferguson's warning “was the result of his frustration over the refusal of most of the Overmountain men (east Tennessean and southwestern Virginians) to take the loyalty oath and to cease providing safe harbours for militiamen from the Carolinas and Georgia (who had eluded him after the August 16th defeat of American General Gates and the American army at the battle of Camden by retreating “overmountain” to the “western waters”).”[v]
Ferguson’s message was delivered to Militia Colonel Isaac Shelby of Sullivan County, North Carolina (now Tennessee) who conferred with Militia Colonel John Sevier of Washington County, North Carolina (now Tennessee).  The two assembled their forces to surprise Ferguson by attacking him in his camp.  Colonel William Campbell, commander of the militia of Washington County, Virginia, accompanied them.  Colonel Charles McDowell and Colonel Andrew Hampton and their militiamen from Burke and Rutherford Counties in North Carolina assembled with them on September 28, 1780. At this time the five militias, consisting of about 1000 men, began their trek across the mountains.  On September 30 Colonel Benjamin Cleveland and Colonel Joseph Winston and their 350 militiamen from Wilkes and Surry Counties, North Carolina, joined them bringing the total to almost 1400 men.  On October 6 these forces were joined by other militias (NC’s William’s; SC’s Hill’s, Lacey’s, Graham’s, and Chronicle’s; and NC’s Hambright’s).  They learned that Ferguson and his forces were “atop” King’s Mountain.  After an all-night march in the rain, the militias reached the site at three o’clock in the afternoon on October 7.  They circled the mountain and charged the enemy.  Within one hour the battle was won by the Patriots and Ferguson lay dead on the field.
How amazing and significant this battle was.   These militiamen (Whigs, Patriots, Rebels) whose ranks included backwoodsmen without orders, without formal training, without uniforms, without adequate ammunitions, and without adequate provisions fought against Ferguson’s American Tories (Loyalist, Royalists) and won.  We must remember that some of those Loyalists were fellow colonists of the Patriots.  Therefore, neighbors and relatives could have fought each other.  I, a Tennessean, am proud that my fellow Tennesseans, along with at least one North Carolina ancestor, fought alongside each other as Patriots in this historic battle.  Historians recognize that the Battle of King’s Mountain was a significant milestone in bringing about the successful conclusion to the Revolutionary War.
An excellent map of the historic trail that the Surry County Militia and those from East Tennessee and western North Carolina followed as they marched to King’s Mountain may be found at the following website:  http://www.nps.gov/pwr/customcf/apps/maps/showmap.cfm?alphacode=ovvi&parkname=Overmountain%20Victory%20National%20Historic%20Trail 
The map traces the journey of the militias as the Surry County Militias left Elkin in Surry County and the Overmountain Men left present-day Abingdon, Virginia, and East Tennessee to rendezvous at present-day Morganton, North Carolina.  From there, they continued together to King’s Mountain.
This map illustrates how closely the colonial militias came to the area where Alexander West I and his family, including and his sons Alexander West II and John West, lived, reportedly, in the Lewis Fork section of Wilkes County on the Yadkin River just southeast of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  This area is near the site of the present-day W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir.  I have been unable to find any other information regarding any battles or raids in the Wilkes County-Stony Fork area. 
During this war, my fifth great grandfather, Alexander West I, and his family appear to be my only West ancestors living in the area.  My fourth great grandfather, John West, was born about 1760 and would have been approximately 15 years old when the Revolutionary War began—too young to have served.  His older brother, Alexander West II, born in 1751, enlisted in the North Carolina Militia from Wilkes County in 1780.  Thirteen years after the war ended John West married Margaret “Peggy” Witherspoon in Wilkes County in 1796.  They moved to South Carolina where their three children were born prior to John’s early death.
In addition to the West family, my Land ancestors, the forbearers of my second great grandmother, Nancy E. Land, were also living in the vicinity during the war.  These distant grandparents, Thomas Land/Anne Sumter, Jonathan Land/Elizabeth Isbell, and William Thomas Land were undoubtedly witnesses to that period of history.  My ancestors, the Swansons and the Witherspoons, were likewise there.  Since I have spent so much time on my West family, my research of these families is somewhat lacking! 
My fourth great grand uncle, Alexander West II, was the son of Alexander West I and brother to my fourth great grandfather, John West.  The military service of Alexander West II in the Battle of King’s Mountain is well documented.  He first volunteered for service from Wilkes County, North Carolina in 1779, in pursuit of the Cherokee Indians with Captain Hargrave’s militia.  He was drafted in 1780 from Burke County, North Carolina.  His last tour of duty was in 1782 with Colonel Cleveland; I assume that he was with Cleveland in the Battle of King’s Mountain.   He received a Revolutionary War Pension in January of 1834 but died in March of that year.  His widow continued to receive his pension until her death.  I have additional information which I will share with any of his descendants.
After the war, settlement across the Appalachian Mountains beckoned those Revolutionary War soldiers who had been promised western land in lieu of currency.  The defeat of the Cherokees and British opened up the land beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains that was forbidden to them prior to the war.
As I research the various wars and their related atrocities and as I connect them with the lives of my ancestors at those periods in our history, I am humbled by the historic events and the actions of our forefathers as they sought fair and equal treatment, independence, safety, and a better way of life.  Their sacrifices were enormous.  They certainly paved the way for a better life for us.   I realize how blessed and fortunate that most of us are to live in a free, safe, and abundant country. 


[i] Mobley, Joe A., editor. The Way We Lived in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North
  Carolina Press, 2003, pp. 89-90.
[ii] Ibid, p. 94.
[iii] “The Tory Oak,” Explore Wilkes, http://www.explorewilkes.com/RevolutionaryWar.htm
[iv] Hammett, C. “The Battle of King’s Mountain, Tennesseans in the Revolutionary War.”
[v] Ibid.

Additional Source:
Ready, Milton. The Tar Heel State, A History of North Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2005.

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