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A frontier North Carolina settlement similar to those from which came the Kings Mountain patriots.
Courtesy Charles Scribner's Sons.

The British Threaten the Carolina Frontier

When Cornwallis began his march from Charleston, Maj. Patrick Ferguson had been detached to lead a smaller Loyalist force into the western section of South Carolina. Ferguson was ordered to use the settlement of Ninety-Six as a base from which to organize Tory militia, subdue rebellious Whigs, and reestablish British civil government in the upcountry. He was also to protect the western flank of Cornwallis' advancing army.

One important stronghold in the Carolinas remained undisturbed by Cornwallis' victories and the Tory raids in the summer of 1780. This was the region of the foothills and ranges of the Appalachian Mountains which stretched through northwestern South Carolina, western North Carolina, and into the present eastern Tennessee. Here, the independent mountain yeomen, largely of Scotch-Irish descent, were establishing a new frontier and protecting their crude homes from the nearer threat of the border Indians. Their free pioneer life had existed without interference from the King's officials, and they were little concerned with the main course of the war on the seaboard. Rumors of Ferguson's activities in the upcountry brought forth a few adventurous mountain men in the summer of 1780. After fighting brief actions with Tories east of the mountains, however, these frontiersmen retired. Victory by such border fighters at the Battle of Musgrove's Mill, on August 18, 1780, caused some of the mountain leaders to fear that Ferguson would soon attempt to avenge this defeat.

Ferguson did not immediately pursue the mountain men. With the news of Cornwallis' success at Camden, he had also received urgent orders to search the upcountry for the patriots under Col. Thomas Sumter. This plan was interrupted by news of Musgrove's Mill and by orders calling Ferguson to a meeting in Camden with Cornwallis. Here, he was informed of the British commander's determination to invade North Carolina at Charlotte in September. Ferguson also learned that his Provincial Corps of American Loyalists was to be detailed from the post of Ninety-Six to join his Tory militia. Finally, he was directed to move with his strengthened force through upper South Carolina and across the North Carolina border, crushing the remaining patriots and rousing the back-country Tories. His advance was intended to protect the rear and western flank of Cornwallis' army which reached Charlotte on September 26.

On September 7 Ferguson pushed across the western North Carolina border. At Gilbert Town (the present Rutherfordton), he issued his famed threat to the back country which aroused the horde of mountain men who eventually brought disaster upon him at Kings Mountain. He expected at Gilbert Town to surprise some of the mountain leaders who had retired there for safety after Musgrove's Mill. In August, however, they had agreed to return to their homes across the mountains and raise a volunteer army to resist Ferguson's advance. Remaining at Gilbert Town during most of September, Ferguson was a constant menace to the bordering region. From his headquarters, early in the month, he tried to frighten the mountain leaders into submission. To carry out this plan, Ferguson paroled Samuel Phillips, a prisoner, and sent him into the mountains with a message to Col. Isaac Shelby, who commanded the patriot militia of Sullivan County, N. C. According to a well-known account, Ferguson, in this message, solemnly warned Shelby and the other mountain people "that 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." He followed this threat with action and pursued a patriot party to the slopes of the Blue Ridge before returning on September 23 to his temporary base at Gilbert Town.


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