Episode 8: After the Battle of Cane Creek

I thought I was ready to publish this post but I usually let my words cool for a day or two in case I have to eat them. I don’t like to go back and edit especially to correct an error, as in Episodes #6 and #7. Sometimes, I just add new details. So glad I waited, because Insomnia got me up early, and I was looking for something to read. I had finished a good Michael Connelly murder mystery, and had started an Elizabeth Berg novel but it didn’t fit my 3:00 am mood, so I perused my bookshelves. Of course! Anne Landis Swann’s The Other Side of the River: The Struggle for the McDowell County Frontier!

On page 224, I was reminded of the amusing incident related by Nina Greenlee in Stories Not Told in History Books. The story was about Elizabeth Patton Hemphill, the wife of James Hemphill who bought Capt Jack’s property, today the site of a Boy Scout Camp at the corner of 226 and Vein Mountain Road. And I’ll tell you about that later.

Cane Creek had Personality

Back in 1780, the Tory soldiers were raiding the herds of the locals in order to feed their soldiers. Presumably, the families who supported the Crown donated to the menu freely, but James Hemphill was a Rebel serving under Col Charles McDowell. He was not home when Ferguson’s men stole his sheep; Hemphill had been killed at Cane Creek. However, his wife was not dead and not shy, possibly seeking revenge for her husband’s death on September 12. Elizabeth drove herself over to Ferguson’s camp and gave him what-for. (Maybe she rode or walked, but I am thinking of the movie Driving the feisty Miss Daisy). Ferguson relented, as the story goes, to return half of her sheep and allowed her to select the ones she wanted. All she had to do was pick the leader, called the bellwether. When she left, the entire flock followed her home. For some reason, maybe he was busy, Ferguson didn’t retaliate. (Greenlee’s story does not give a date, but the sheep could have been seized on Sept 20 since Ferguson was still in their area.)

This reminded me of another story from Nina Greenlee, The Duel–between Robert Vance and Samuel Carson in 1827. Stories Not Told in History Books, pg 209. Almost fifty years after the Revolutionary War but the result of an incident in 1780.

It was a political contest, and there were poor choices in words. Imagine! Robert Vance cast aspersions upon the character of Sam’s father, the venerable Col. John Carson of Buck Creek, Pleasant Gardens. Sam’s mother was the widow of Gen. Joseph McDowell of Pleasant Gardens. Sam had a shiny pedigree. After the loss to the Tories at the Battle of Camden in 1780, Colonel Carson, Benjamin and William Davidson and others, were designated to take protection (from Cornwallis) and thus save many valuable herds of cattle from the grasp of the Tories, according to Lyman Draper, King’s Mountain and It’s Heroes, pg 150. Draper writes, “while they accomplished the object they had in view, their motives, in the course of time, were unjustly misjudged and impugned.” There was a vehement difference of opinion among the leaders. “Captains Thomas Lytle and Thomas Hemphill, Robert Patton, and Hunting John McDowell absolutely refused to engage in any such course and stated that they would drive all the stock they could collect into the deep coves at the base of the Black Mountain.” And so years later, Robert Vance was so desperate to retain his Congressional seat, he attacked Samuel Carson by referring to his father’s actions as treasonous. After winning the election, Sam Carson challenged him to a duel. Carson also defeated Vance in the duel, but was never the same, according to Silas McDowell who told the story. It was as though when Sam killed Vance, he killed himself, “driven to the bottle and an early grave.”

Ms Swann’s book also reminded me that Kenneth Robinson had mentioned in his Cane Creek presentation a couple weeks ago the skirmish at the Loyalist Allen property. Lyman Draper quotes Lt. Allaire’s report that the Tories stayed at “one Allen’s to refresh ourselves,” after the Cane Creek incident. North Carolinians were politically divided, and it appears Allen was a supporter of the Crown. From there, Ferguson took his troops north to ford the Catawba at Buck Creek hoping to surprise Col. McDowell on September 16, but the Patriots had already gone. The British journalist, Allaire, wrote, “Pleasant Gardens is a very handsome place. I was surprised to see so beautiful a tract in the mountains. This settlement is composed of the most violent Rebels I ever saw, particularly the young ladies.” Kings Mountains and It’s Heroes, pg 508. They continued to make a visit to Major Davidson’s place but he was gone to the Watauga settlements also. The Tories returned to Gilbert Town on September 23. Battle of King’s Mtn was October 7, 1780, in South Carolina. Soldiers on both sides did a lot of hiking in those two weeks.

Historical Marker on Highway 226 south of intersection with US 64

After the Whig victory at King’s Mountain, emotions skyrocketed. The Patriot leadership had the difficulty of escorting several hundred prisoners somewhere, some way, and tasked with feeding them and controlling tempers.  Allaire wrote in his Diary, an appendix to Drapers’s account, in October, “Wednesday, the eleventh, the (Patriot) army marched twelve miles, and encamped at Colonel John Walker’s.” A footnote on page 325 reports that Walker had purchased, for a doubloon, a fine tract of four hundred acres five miles northeast of Gilbert Town, from the mouth of Cane Creek on the east side to a mile below the present Brittain Church. Walker had been a Judge of the Court for the Colonial government for many years but was one of the first to “pledge resistance to British encroachments.” A month earlier, Ferguson’s troops had swept through Walker’s property. The farmland had already been stripped of provisions because of this war, and the hungry Whigs were of no mind to cook for their enemies. The best fare offered to prisoners was raw pumpkins and corn still on the cob.

On October thirteenth, Colonel Campbell issued an order dividing the Patriots with some of them staying back with all the wounded who could not march. According to Draper, that day the troops and prisoners moved six miles northeast to “Bickerstaff’s Old Fields, since known as the Red Chimneys, where a stack of chimneys long stood after the house had decayed and been demolished” on Robertson’s Creek. Colonel Campbell came down hard on Patriot deserters and those who ravaged the little food and property left to the farmers. His officers called his attention to the abuse that their own troops had endured under the Tories, including the hanging of Patriot prisoners at Camden, at Ninety Six, and at Augusta. Maybe it was time for retribution, as some of these Tories were now Patriot prisoners. Colonel Campbell obtained a copy of North Carolina law, “authorized two magistrates to summon a jury, and forthwith to try, and, if found guilty, to execute persons who had violated its precepts” of murder, arson, house-breaking, riots, and other criminal offences. The prevailing wisdom was to assure the Tories still fighting in other counties that their crimes would be punished. According to Annals of the Army of Tennessee, 1878, thirty-two were condemned. And then the Colonels weighed in. Colonel Shelby, Colonel Cleveland, Colonel Williams, Colonel Brandon, etc, along with Major McDowell and Captain McDowell, and on pages 329-339 of Draper’s book, you can read the opinions and arguments of early democracy at work. By nightfall, decisions were made and a sturdy oak tree selected, hereafter called the Gallows Oak. Draper described the event based on memoirs: “It was a singular and interesting night scene, the dark old woods illuminated with the wild glare of hundreds of pine-knot torches: and quite a number of the Loyalist leaders of the Carolinas about to be launched into eternity.” Nine were hung.

The rest of the story: you’re gonna love this part!!!

The plan was to hang three at a time, and the next group was assembled, tied up, and waiting their turns. A boy approached and asked permission to say goodbye to his brother, Isaac Baldwin, who had been convicted of gory violence against his neighbors in Burke County. “He threw his arms around his brother, and set up a most piteous screaming and lamentation as if he would go into convulsions, or his heart would break of sorrow. While all were witnessing this touching scene, the youth managed to cut the cords confining his brother, who suddenly darted away.”…”Although he had to make his way through more than a thousand of the best marksmen in the world, yet such was the universal admiration or feeling on the occasion, that not one would lift a hand to stop him.” Draper, King’s Mountain and It’s Heroes, pg. 342

Shelby put a stop to further executions.

At two in the morning, one of those spared made his way to Colonel Shelby to tell him that British Colonel Tarleton would be there in the morning. He had failed to reinforce Ferguson at King’s Mountain, because “the County of Mecklenburg…and the adjoining County of Rowan were more hostile to England than any other portion of America.” And, he was sick with a fever. Draper, pg. 364.

Colonel believed the report, and at 5:00 am, the Patriots were hiking again in an effort to cross the Catawba River during a torrential rain before Tarleton could catch them. They made it. Ironically, Tarleton was running the other way, in fear of the mountain militia.

Mrs. Biggerstaff and neighbors were left to bury the dead. Captain Aaron Biggerstaff had served under Ferguson and had died at King’s Mountain with him.

For some reason, that community is now called Sunshine.

And as a postscript, I should tell you that Isaac Baldwin was eventually caught and killed when he returned to the scene of his crime.


Copyright Nov 2017 Georgia Wilson



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