Isaac Shelby


Isaac Shelby was definitely not a “fence sitter” during the war with the mother country.  He was, as a son of his father Evan Shelby, a proponent by deed of the Fincastle Resolutions and had resolved to \”live and die\” while never surrendering his \”inestimable privileges\”.(1)  He understood Freedom and slavery.  He understood the Quebec acts as intolerable to his Protestant background, his sense of justice and his rights as a citizen to have a say in how one is governed.

Later in life he would be called “Old King’s Mountain.\” 

He won that nickname at the age of 29 on the wet, steep hillsides of King’s Mountain. There, British Col. Patrick Ferguson waited for his approach. Along with Shelby came over a thousand Patriot warriors from Over the Mountain.  


Ferguson had a poor view of Shelby and the Over the Mountain men.  In his mind they had run from him at Wofford\’s Iron Works (Battle of Cedar Springs) in Spartanburg. The band of rugged Patriots had taunted the King\’s men from a hill and led them on a merry chase that left Ferguson frustrated.

The British leader also considered them a group of thieves who had settled in the lands off limits to British subjects.  

Having just missed Shelby and the others at the battle of Musgrove Mills on August 19th, 1780, he set out in pursuit towards Gilbert Town, near present day Rutherfordton, NC.  

Ferguson was seeking a fight and grew more confident as the Loyalist poured into his camp for safety.

His letter to Cornwallis revealed a positive attitude towards the number of loyalists coming into camp. Ferguson then made ready to gather more supplies and search for cattle to feed his growing army. (2)

But Ferguson was unaware that he was being tricked and was in a chess match with his betters. Shelby, along with his fellow leaders at Musgrove Mill, convinced the inhabitants of the mountain regions around Gilbert Town to take shelter under the King\’s protection. By doing this they would be able to save their cattle that they had hid away in the mountain passes for the Patriot cause.

Ferguson\’s soldiers sallied forth out of camp in search of beef among the Patriot farmers.  Finding a herd they began their work of preparing the meat for the meals.  As they were well into their work, Ferguson was informed that they had been decimating the herds of three of his own loyalist men.  Ferguson had been duped by Colonel Shelby and British influence in the area suffered even more.

About that same time, Colonel Ferguson paroled an Over the Mountain prisoner in his entourage and sent him with a message to Isaac Shelby in particular.  Samuel Philips found Shelby and relayed the message, \”If they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.\”  Philips, ever the soldier, then set about giving particulars on the makeup of Ferguson\’s army to Colonel Shelby.

Shelby and the leaders at Musgrove Mills had foreseen that Ferguson had plans for their mountain homeland even before he had left the South State.  They had agreed to begin recruiting an army to confront Ferguson as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Now was the time. 

Shelby would take the lead and find John Sevier and other leaders and start towards the invading army.  Dispatches and messengers were sent throughout the mountains.

They came in droves.  Hundreds from different counties and valleys converged on the meeting places in Morganton and Gilbert Town.  They came, on horseback and on foot, with a purpose to confront the threats of Colonel Ferguson and the British realm.  These were wild hunters of hearty stock who understood Freedom and self government.  They were armed with rifles and were expert marksmen. They came over the snow covered mountains and down through the valleys.  They forded mountain streams and rivers while keeping their powder dry.  They came on knowing that they might not come back.  They came in droves. With Colonel Shelby….They came for a Reckoning!

Ferguson, at first, did not comprehend his peril. He allowed his personal biases to not see his enemy for what it was…a battle-hardened foe led by Colonel Shelby (and others).  He either couldn\’t or wouldn\’t see that Shelby was neither awed by British might nor one to lose a fight.  Colonel Ferguson lingered, hoping to cut off Georgia Patriot Col. Elijah Clarke coming from Augusta, Ga. He would wind his way back down the mountain passes, stall for a little more time for Clarke to appear.  The Redcoats would then feint southwest towards Ninety Six and ultimately head east to draw on support from Lord Cornwallis. Clarke never showed, but Shelby and company came on with a purpose and closed the distance.

Cornwallis was easily within reach at Charlotte, NC had Ferguson simply been prudent. But Ferguson chose the small mountain spur of King\’s Mountain to make his stand.  He had trained and bragged about his group of Loyalists in his camp and now that confidence would be tested. Ferguson trusted in his position and his loyal troops numbering close to 1000 men at arms.  He would even boast about his chosen defensive position and swore it could not be taken.(3)  

After being on the march for 2 weeks, Colonel Shelby made sure the British threats were answered. On October 7, 1780 the Mountain men surrounded the summit and were urged to do their duty; and if they did, the day would be won.

Drawing on his experience fighting the Shawnee, Shelby would tell his men at King’s Mountain, “Be your own officer…If in the woods, shelter yourselves, and give them Indian play; advance from tree to tree, pressing the enemy and killing and disabling all you can.”(4) 

The battle raged for just over an hour and Ferguson was left dead on the field.  His words to Colonel Shelby had inflamed the Patriot zeal and left the British leader cold and prostrate.  Shelby, by contrast, stood erect, unscathed and was every bit in control of his men and his duty.


After the battle of Kings Mountain and before the march off the precipice, the prisoners were ordered to line up and shoulder rifles that were stacked. An elderly loyalist of King George feigned old age as a reason for not picking his up.  Shelby slapped him with the flat edge of his sword and said, that he(Shelby) had brought one so the tory could take one away.  The tory jumped to, grabbed a rifle and got into line.(5)

In 1781 Shelby would fight under Francis Marion and add more wins to his war record.

He would later become the first and fifth governor of Kentucky and serve in the War of 1812.(6)

Fearless, determined and able, Colonel Shelby was one of the many heroes of King\’s Mountain and the Revolution in the South.  He was followed and feared in the cause of Liberty all throughout his life and the Country owes him great respect and gratitude.

Many towns and counties were named in his honor, including the North Carolina city just north of Kings Mountain.  Freedom Reigns!



(3) Before They Were HEroes at King\’s Mountain, Randell Jones

(4) The Battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens: The American Revolution in the Southern Backcountry, Melissa A. Walker

(5) History of the Upper Country of SC, Logan


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