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Episode 17 Transcript

In September, 1780, a ragtag group of backwoodsmen from what is today North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia assembled to begin a journey to defend their homes and belief in liberty. They met their destiny at Kings Mountain and this is their story. The Mitchell County Historical Society presents Footsteps for Freedom: The Road to Kings Mountain. Episode Seventeen: Ferguson’s Challenge and battle preparations begin.

Following the Battle of Musgroves Mill, Isaac Shelby’s Overmountain Men hightailed it north to the safety of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Patrick Ferguson was in hot pursuit of Shelby’s men, frustrated with yet another Patriot victory on the frontier of South Carolina. However, after about 60 miles of this pursuit, Ferguson called off the dogs, letting Shelby’s men escape to Sycamore Shoals and safety. He began recruiting additional Loyalists to join his army, an assignment he had been given on May 22, 1780 and had been undertaking through the summer. He then established his base at Gilbert Town, near present-day Rutherfordton, North Carolina.

On September 10, 1780, Ferguson issued his fateful challenge to the Patriot forces in the region, calling for them to lay down their arms, or he would march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and “lay waste to their country with fire and sword.”

Obviously, Ferguson’s declaration didn’t set well with the Overmountain Men. When word reached them of the challenge, Colonels John Sevier and Isaac Shelby met to decide how to answer Ferguson. The decision was made to raise an army to go after him, and preparations began.

Now, in 1780, Sevier and Shelby couldn’t go to the local store and pick up supplies for the battle. They had to collect money to purchase food, lead for musketballs, gunpowder and other materials the army would need.

They obtained the money for the expedition from the North Carolina tax collector.  Though not authorized to give the tax money to Shelby and Sevier, he was persuaded by the argument that there would be no state government to collect taxes for if the British invasion was successful.

One key figure in getting things ready was Mary McKeehan Patton, who had moved with her husband John to the Sycamore Shoals area in the early 1770s. The couple set up a mill on Powder Branch in today’s Carter County, Tennessee, where Mary practiced the craft of gunpowder making, a skill she picked up during an apprenticeship with her father in Pennsylvania. Her work produced a fine gunpowder, fetching up to a dollar a pound, a lot of money at that time considering it would buy up to two acres of land. Patton produced 500 pounds of gunpowder for the battle, but it is unknown how much the Overmountain Men paid for it. She continued making gunpowder long after the war ended until her death in 1836. Today, she is memorialized with the Mary Patton Highway in Carter County. It was named for her in 2015. You can also see two kettles she used for making gunpowder in the museum at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton.

Not every man capable of service went on the King’s Mountain campaign as it was deemed necessary to leave a sufficiently large force behind to guard the Washington District settlements from potential Indian attacks.  Many of the men who had crossed the mountains previously that summer to fight at Musgrove’s Mill were chosen to serve in this defense force. 

Meanwhile, Ferguson was busy making his own preparations on the present-day North Carolina side of the mountains. Ferguson foraged the countryside for food for his forces, seeking produce and especially beef from those he considered enemies of the king. When Ferguson marched into the Pleasant Gardens area of McDowell County on September 15th, one of his men Lt. Anthony Allaire wrote in his journal “Pleasant Garden is a very handsome place. I was surprised to see so beautiful a tract of land in the mountains. But this settlement is composed of the most violent Rebels I ever saw, particularly the young ladies.” One of the prominent men in the community Colonel John Carson came to Ferguson seeking protection from the Patriots. This was supposedly part of a plan hatched by Colonel Charles McDowell to save the Patriot’s cattle in the region. Carson led Ferguson’s foraging group to a herd of cattle nearby and, when the British had slaughtered approximately 100 to feed their troops, Carson revealed the herd belonged to Loyalist supporters in the area.  This story was spread far and wide to discourage Loyalist support.

Many of the rebels who remained active in the rebellion mixed their herds in with Carson’s herd on his property. Those who didn’t hid their cattle in a cove beneath the eaves of the Black Mountains. This hiding place is traditionally believed to be around Andrew’s Geyser near Old Fort.  But the possibility has also been raised that the herds were instead taken up Buck Creek and hidden in the South Toe River Valley near the location of the modern-day Mount Mitchell golf course.

It took Sevier and Shelby a few weeks to gather the resources necessary for the march. Then the call then went out…gather at Sycamore Shoals on September 25th. And that’s exactly where we will be on tomorrow’s program.

Footsteps for Freedom: The Road to Kings Mountain is a production of the Mitchell County Historical Society, a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of the history, heritage, and culture of Mitchell County, North Carolina. Today’s program was written, narrated, and produced by David Biddix. Special thanks to WTOE radio in Spruce Pine, North Carolina (1470 on the AM dial) and WKYK Radio in Burnsville, North Carolina (940 on the AM dial) for airing our program. You can also download episodes through Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. Learn more at mitchellnchistory.org/ovm.

The Mitchell County Historical Society offices are located in the Historic Mitchell County Courthouse in Bakersville. We’d love for you to become a member of our Society! You can learn more about us on the web at mitchellnchistory.org. There, you can also see show notes about today’s episode, links to online resources about the Battle of Kings Mountain and those involved in it, and much more about Mitchell County’s history and heritage. You can also visit us on Facebook. Join us next time as we continue the journey to Patrick Ferguson and the famous battle atop Kings Mountain.

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