They came in droves, as if the flood gates had opened on some Scots Irish dam across the sea. With their recent inclusion into the United Kingdom they sought freedom and land in the British colonies as new British subjects. They disembarked at New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Charleston. They pooled money and families together and set out on the Great Wagon Road in their Conestoga wagons. Different from the planters of the Pee Dee and Coastal regions, they preferred the Piedmont and Mountains of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Men of force and iron were needed in this wild unsettled region that was a buffer between the Indians of the upstate and the gentry of the sandy regions. The wilderness filled up with families of hardy stock, willing to forge a living in the outer territory of the new land.
When the French and Indian War broke out in 1756, the British treated these stout immigrants with the same disdain that their grandparents and parents had been treated in Scotland and Ireland…not as equals, but as second-class citizens. All the while they were expected to die for the mother country in preservation of the empire. And they beat back the French and the Indians and forced their capitulation in the name of the Crown, but they did not win their full measure of citizenship.
By 1776 generations of Ulster Scots lived free and without encumbrances from the empire seat so far away. Petitions to government for redress against grievances were met with either unrighteous force or general apathy, and never timely. The Empire had stretched beyond the limits of the infrastructure of its government. New Bern, Charleston and Williamsburg were a long way from the Holston river valley or the Yadkin, Broad and Catawba rivers in Virginia and the Carolinas. This distance only added to the bad experiences of the governed concerning the government.
And grievance upon grievance mounted year after year until an enlightened leadership made a stand against the tyranny. Across the colonies the conversations turned to common rights and common ideas of government…self-government. And though it was based on a natural law known in the breasts of every free man, they were radical in terms of sitting governments in world history. The Scots Irish had learned to live and flourish on their own in terms of self-government with the moral compass of these natural laws. They, as a people, understood the building blocks of a civil society and recognized when a form of government was not working and had become tyrannical. These, after-all, were the literate, pious and independent children of the great Scottish Enlightenment.
And all the remonstrations still could have been for naught, and these men and women of the empire would have stayed willingly as faithful subjects, had the King and his generals acted rightfully. Instead, the British came with threats to hang the leaders of the Ulster Scots and lay waste to their towns with fire and sword unless they came and took an oath to this King who was so far away. This same King that bribed the Cherokee to wage war on the settlements from Spartanburg to Nolichucky. The King’s men burned houses, arrested clergy, and confiscated livestock without due payment. British Officers enlisted the local thieves as soldiers and gave them authority to legally ply their formerly illegal trade. Chaos was fomented by the very government that wanted their allegiance.
So, they came in droves. Not by the tens or dozens, but by the hundreds…each time they were called in from their fields for service. They chose to live life on their own terms and fight back.
At Fort Thicketty, in the upstate of South Carolina, they rode with Colonel Isaac Shelby and their mere presence forced a capitulation without a shot being fired. At Musgrove Mill in Spartanburg County, South Carolina they combined forces and routed the British with ease. At Kings Mountain, near the North and South Carolina State line, they combined forces again with independent commands, surrounded and obliterated one third of the standing British army in the Carolinas. And at Cowpens they helped the Continental army win the day and decimate still more of Cornwallis’ standing army, thereby starting the chain of events that ended the war and established a new nation.
We can still walk where the intrepid heroes once raised rifle and saber in defense of Liberty. On the trails and roads of old we can stroll under the canopies of the white oak and tulip poplar while our ankles brush by the green ferns along the way. Squirrels and fox, deer and owl, all co-exist on these sacred grounds. The whispers of the wind are all that is left of those awful conflicts, save the man-made markers and graves that dot the anointed landscape. Thankfully we are fortunate to be able to reflect upon these noble deeds of men and women who may have been poor in terms of wealth, but were rich in their determination to live free.
Protected now from the conquest of civilization’s steady roll,
where man made monuments stand with the beauty of nature’s soul.
Envision yourself amid the battle cries and smoke while charging into the fray…
but remember dear friend,
you do so with liberty won on that hallowed day.
Eric K. Barnes
Sources for this article include:
The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt
Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution in the Carolinas and Georgia, Benson J. Lossing
King’s Mountain and It’s Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It, Lyman C. Draper and Anthony Allaire
History of the Upper Country of S.C., John H. Logan
Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain, Randell Jones
Parker’s Guide to the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, John C. Parker Jr.