It was September of 1780, and British Major Patrick Ferguson had had enough. The Revolutionary War was in its fifth year and the British turned their attention to the southern colonies. British leaders believed that many citizens in this south remained loyal to King George III and would unite to fight alongside an invading British force against the Patriot rebels. Things did not look good for the Patriots.
Cornwallis’ army began moving triumphantly northward across Georgia and South Carolina toward the small community of Charlotte, North Carolina. Major Patrick Ferguson was assigned to protect Cornwallis’ left flank during the advance. Ferguson was a brilliant military soul – as good as they came, though a bit arrogant, maybe very arrogant. As he swept through the backcountry of South Carolina, Ferguson had tremendous success in recruiting American colonists to join his army as Loyalists to the British cause. During his march into the Upcountry area of South Carolina and into North Carolina, however, Ferguson and other loyalists had been harassed the whole summer of 1780 by backwoods militiamen. They would attack, and then retreat, whooping and hollering as they did. Ferguson was flabbergasted at such “barbaric” actions. Patrick Ferguson was going to put an end to this nonsense. Where were these militiamen coming from? They were like ghosts. They would appear and then just as quickly disappear. They were the “backwater men” – soldiers from across the mountains. They were from across the mountains west of that Proclamation Line, where since 1763, no British Colonists were supposed to reside. However, hundreds did, and Ferguson knew it. They resided along the Nolichucky, the Watauga, and the Holston Rivers. They were in rebellion against the Crown. They were tormenting Ferguson. The “the dregs of mankind”, he called them.
The British had drawn a line in 1763, stating that no colonists should move west of the “watershed line”, which today we call the Eastern Continental Divide. The area west of that line was set-aside for the Native Americans. Almost all of Mitchell, Avery, and Yancey Counties lay west of that line.
Hardy, and staunchly independent, these people had moved across the mountains for “elbow room”. They formed their own government in 1772 because they were so far away from the colonial government of North Carolina. They were certainly adventurers. Many of them came through the Toe River Valley on the Old Bright’s Trace to get to this land of unspoiled beauty across the mountains. They never fathomed they would make a trek back across that same path in 1780 to fight for their freedom.
Back to Ferguson. He was putting an end to this rebellion once and for all. Ferguson sent a Whig prisoner named Samuel Phillips into the illegally inhabited mountains to carry forth a warning: if they didn’t lay down their arms and stop rebelling against the king, that he would march the British Army “…over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”