The McDowells


In September of 1780 British Major Patrick Ferguson raised his army of over 1000 men and headed up into the North Carolina Mountains. Going through present day, Chesney, SC and onto Rutherfordton, NC., his army would live off the land as they worked their way from community to hamlet. On the general route laid out by the old Hwy 64 in NC., they rousted leaders and families to subdue the rebellion.

Ferguson had missed Colonel Isaac Shelby who had already made good his retreat over the mountains. But the left-wing commander of Cornwallis’ army had caught the scent of NC militia Colonel Charles McDowell and his force of about 160 men. McDowell was headed for the Watauga river valley in Tennessee, which is northwest of the present-day Beech Mountain snow resort of North Carolina.

Charles and his band of warriors had gone into South Carolina to stall Cornwallis and lend aid where they could.  McDowell was a prominent man in his community and he and his wife manufactured gunpowder in the Quaker Meadows of Morganton, NC.  McDowell had been appointed as a Colonel in the Burke County, NC militia and his brother, Joseph (a Major), served under him in all their military engagements. 

They had hoped to battle the King’s men in South Carolina and keep them away from their homes.  Colonel McDowell had sent out forces that won at Fort Thicketty and Musgrove Mill and the McDowells had done their duty and given aid and sword wherever they could.  Now they were on the retreat. (1)

As brothers they were a force to be reckoned with.  Where one, Charles, had the confidence of the local leaders; the other, Joseph, was a true fighter who inspired the men from Burke County and beyond. 

When Ferguson marched up old Hwy 64, the McDowells were ready for him at the headwaters of the Cane Creek.

The Patriots, though outnumbered, had laid an ambush up on the high ground and challenged the Lobster backs, led by their British Major.  On September 12, 1780 Patriot shots were fired from concealed positions and the Loyalists recoiled from the initial surprise, but they rallied.  With rifle and bayonet, Ferguson’s men began to make headway toward the Patriot lines up the hill. 


 Joseph McDowell

Joseph McDowell was heard swearing and yelling for his men to stand and die with him if need be, and that he would never yield!(2)  Rifle fire would mix with yells, screams and smoke in that shadow of the South Mountains. The Patriots fought for time and freedom to make good their escape.

The Brits only left the field after they claimed victory, but they came up short in the fray. Bones from the fight were still found four decades later, strewn across the battlefield. These remnants of the dead seemed to belie the viewpoint of victory that Ferguson’s men professed.   In the end, both sides lost men. 

But the McDowells were able to make good their escape. The Brits made their way back to Gilbert town with an unknown number of dead and wounded. Among the wounded was one Captain James Dunlap, a veteran of the Queen’s Rangers and leader of a troop of Loyalist mounted riflemen. Out of action for some time and convalescing from a serious wound to the leg, he would not see action again with Major Ferguson.

Dunlap was sheltered in a Loyalist home and could not move with the army.  He would later be shot by the Patriots seeking revenge for the death of Noah Hampton in South Carolina. His attackers failed to make sure he was dead, though, and he dodged their attempt to end his life. Rumor, lies and a false grave were utilized to stay one step ahead of his pursuers.

Perhaps the most telling result of this “check” by McDowell on Ferguson was what happened in the next few weeks.  Word got out to the countryside of the intrusion of the King’s forces into the mountain regions. In a short time, Ferguson begins to hear that an army of mountaineers are coming like a fog out of the high valleys across the Blue Ridge.  Coming for him!  

A Reckoning was coming!  Freedom Reigns!


(2)King’s Mountain and Its Heroes: A History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It., Lyman C. Draper, Anthony Allaire

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