Bickerstaff’s Old Fields

Nine Tories Swing

Location


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Coordinates: 35.4380, -81.8268.

Type: Sight
Tour: Overmountain
County: Rutherford

Access LogoPartial

Part of the field in which the Patriots camped is visible from your vehicle, but key areas require use of an unpaved trail.

Tour Note: If you are following the Overmountain Tour from the Battle of Cane Creek (Bedford Hill), you will pass the campsite of the Overmountain Men on Wednesday, October 3, 1780. As you are driving, the second prominent peak on your left is Marlin’s Knob (near Cunningham Drive on the left and Camp Creek Road on the right). The men were spread out along the highway side of the creek. They also took this same route back to Quaker Meadows straight through from this stop.

Context

Patriot defense forces are returning from their decisive victory over British Maj. Patrick Ferguson’s corps at the Battle of King’s Mountain (S.C.), including the Overmountain Men who marched across the Appalachians after he threatened them.

Situation

British/Tory

Along with the Patriot militia are hundreds of Loyalist (“Tory”) militia and some British regulars, prisoners of war captured at the battle. There were initially 600 of those, though the number was somewhat lower by this time due to escapes and paroles of the wounded.

Patriot

After camping overnight at a plantation six miles west, the tired and hungry Patriot militiamen move to the farmlands of Aaron Bickerstaff (some say “Biggerstaff”), because food supplies have been found there. Bickerstaff, a Loyalist captain, fought at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill and was mortally wounded at King’s Mountain.

Dates

Friday, October 13–Sunday, October 15, 1780.

Timeline


 

Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"

Imagine the Scene

Many details of this story are repeated in various sources from a single earlier historian trusted by modern ones. All specifics and quotations are taken directly from that source (Lyman Draper in 1881) unless otherwise noted.

Walk to the information kiosk. Note that the park map there shows what Rutherford County plans to do at the site. Most of the indicated trails did not exist as of July 2020.

Face the field.

The Overmountain Men arrive up the farm road where Whitesides Road is today on a Friday the 13th, and indeed this spot will become unlucky for some of the prisoners. All around you these frontiersmen without the “luxuries” of the regular armies set up a militia camp and forage for much-needed food. Draper relates this quote to the day before at John Walker’s plantation, but the scene would have been repeated here: “Nearly-dry ears of corn and green pumpkins were to be had from the Loyalist’s fields. One American patriot later shared that those fried green pumpkins tasted as good as anything he had ever eaten. Because there were not enough cooking utensils, the prisoners were given theirs raw.”[1]

The colonels likely take over the Bickerstaff home, which was probably where the later-era house is today. The men camp in farm fields or the woods without tents. A prisoner, British Lt. Anthony Allaire, records in his journal, “In the evening their liberality extended so far as to send five old shirts to nine of us, as a change of linen—other things in like proportion.”[a]

For years only the chimneys of the first house remained here, so the site became known as “Red Chimneys.”

Photo of a grassy meadow surrounded by trees
Part of camp area and possible trial site, from near the homesite (AmRevNC photograph)

We don’t like to see the dark sides of our heroes, but the Patriots (“Whigs”) were human. Their commander Col. William Campbell issues an order you probably hear being read to the men on Saturday. In it, Campbell deplores deserters from the force and adds, “‘It is with anxiety that I hear the complaints of the inhabitants on account of the plundering parties who issue out of the camp, and indiscriminately rob both Whig and Tory, leaving our friends, I believe, in a worse situation than the enemy would have done.’” He orders officers to suppress those actions and disallows the release of soldiers from service until the prisoners are dropped off at Bethabara (now in Winston-Salem).

The army passed through Gilbert Town on the way to the prior night’s campsite. There Col. Isaac Shelby learned from a freed Patriot officer that nine Whigs had been hung at Ninety Six, S.C. Officers called for some of the Tories to be tried for their perceived crimes. In a copy of the state laws at the county courthouse there, Shelby saw they just needed two magistrates to convene a trial, of which there are plenty among the officers.

Here Shelby selects five county magistrates among the force, including controversial militia leader Col. Benjamin Cleveland. Twelve Patriot officers make up the jury—hardly an impartial one. Around 10 a.m. the trial starts. They are somewhere in the open here within a ring of men, if not a corral.

Among the defendants and charges are:

  • Ambrose Mills, for inciting British-allied Cherokees to attack European-American settlements. This was despite the fact Mills had fought alongside many of these Patriots in the 1776 Cherokee Campaign, and lost his first family to natives in the French & Indian War. (Draper calls Mills “a man of fair reputation” and the charge “very likely without foundation.”)
  • Walter Gilkey, for wounding a boy for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his Patriot father. The boy, now old enough to be serving in the Patriot army, testifies against him. Gilkey says “that he shot the boy in the arm in self-defense because he held a pistol.”
  • John McFall, for whipping the 10-year-old son of a Patriot militiman with a peach limb because the youngster refused to get feed for his unit’s horses. McFall fought against the Cherokees with Patriots earlier in the war but became a Tory leader.[2]

McFall is defended by an officer from his county and almost freed, until Cleveland looks up from some papers and says, “‘That man, McFall, went to the house of Martin Davenport, one of my best soldiers, when he was away from home, fighting for his country, insulted his wife, and whipped his child; and no such man ought to be allowed to live.’”

Gilkey’s elderly father is among the prisoners. He offers his horse, tack, and $100 in ransom for his son’s life, to no avail.

In a matter of hours, 36 to 39 men are “tried.” Of those, 30-32, possibly more, are found guilty of capital crimes and sentenced to immediate death, including the three men above.

Painting of John Sevier, a dark-haired man in a blue, gold-trimmed coat with a white cravat
Col. John Sevier

Ironically, two who had most clearly betrayed the Overmountain Men are set free. The day after crossing the mountains that today mark the Tennessee border (part of North Carolina then), James Crawford and Samuel Chambers had disappeared. As feared by the Patriots at the time, they found Ferguson and warned him of the approaching force. His neighbor Col. John Sevier nonetheless intercedes for Crawford, unwilling to see him die, and young Chambers is excused because the officers believe Crawford led him astray.

This was Crawford’s second trial, conviction, and escape from a noose in a week! Ferguson had tried him on King’s Mountain because the Overmountain Men had not shown up yet, so he thought Crawford had lied. Crawford was sentenced to hang the night of October 7th—only to be “rescued” by the battle occurring that day.

The fact many people were conflicted about which side to join during the Revolution is illustrated by the story of Simon (last name unknown). He had fought with the Patriots at the Battle of Ramsour’s Mill, only to be convinced by Tory neighbors to join the British afterward. He begs a Patriot neighbor among the Lincoln County troops to help him, in exchange for rejoining the Patriots. He is freed, and in fact fights with them the rest of the war.

Take the trail to the right of the kiosk map. This either was or closely parallels the roadbed at the time, leading to a ford over the nearby creek. The first trail stub to the right goes to the remains of a bridge built in the early 1800s. After the trail crosses another trail leading to the left (not shown on the kiosk map), it curves to the left and starts to rise. Look into the woods on the right for an oak with a split trunk.

Photo of an area of open woods with underbrush
Possible hanging tree site, marked “Site A” on the kiosk map (AmRevNC photograph)

At the time of the trial, a large oak tree is somewhere near the road. It has a strong protruding limb suitable to serve as the gallows. (“Possible Execution Site A” on the kiosk map is next to the modern oak mentioned above, and is closer to the original road than “Site B.”)

It is nighttime by now. The condemned are led to the tree by pine torches, within a circle of troops surrounding it. Three are placed on horses and led under the limb, over which ropes have been thrown. Nooses are placed around their necks, and on an order, the horses’ rumps are slapped to send them running. The condemned swing.

This happens to three more men, and then three more, so nine bodies now hang. Allaire claims “all, with their last breath and blood, held the Rebels and their cause as infamous and base, and as they were turning off, extolled their King and the British Government.”[b]

One captain from Georgia takes a particular delight in the gruesome scene. He points at the bodies and declares, “‘Would to God every tree in the wilderness bore such fruit as that!’”

The young brother of one of the next men destined to be such fruit throws himself on Isaac Baldwin and bursts into wails. Suddenly Baldwin dives into and through the crowd of Patriots: His brother has cut the cords binding him. Either stunned or overcome by the brother’s emotion, no one stops him. (But Baldwin is caught a few weeks later and brained by a rifle butt to his head.)

Apparently another man is tied off in Baldwin’s place, and the new threesome is prepared to hang. For some reason, though, Shelby or some of the magistrates stop the proceedings. Maybe the emotion raised by the Baldwin incident changed the mood of the assembly. The three men are untied, and the troops drift away.

Ambrose Mills’ “wife was at the trial and sat all night in the rain as his body dangled from the tree.” Her husband and the rest have been left where they hang. A young child is in her arms.[3]

Two daughters of Tory Capt. James Chitwood arrive at the camp in the night to visit him, and are told he was tried but pardoned. They are escorted to a fire to warm themselves as someone presumably goes off to find him. But the news comes back that he is among the dead. They react as you would predict.

A condemned but spared Loyalist comes to Shelby around 2 a.m. He says that because his life was saved, he wants to pass along information brought to him by a Tory woman, probably when they were at Gilbert Town.[4] She said the British cavalry of the feared and detested Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton is coming for them. Whether true or not, the Patriot colonels take no chances. The officers roust the men, and the army marches off when ready, about 5 a.m. (Tarleton is actually retreating from Charlotte with the rest of the British army.)

Aftermath

Later that morning, Aaron’s wife Mary Bickerstaff and an enslaved, elderly farmhand cut down the bodies and bury eight of them in a shallow pit grave somewhere in the distance.

The exception is Chitwood. Two of his sons are among the prisoners, and the Patriot leaders agree to free them if they sign a parole agreeing not to fight for the King again. You watch as the siblings walk off toward home a half-mile away with their father’s body on a board.
 

Small boy in a blue shirt that says, "Do Whig Out!"

 

More Information


[1] Bradley.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jones 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[a] Quoted in Sherman 2007.

[b] Ibid.

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