Griffith Rutherford

Commander of the 1776 Cherokee Campaign


Signature of Griffith Rutherford
Signature of Griffith Rutherford on “Receipts” (Credit: Courtesy of The Historic Burke Foundation; AmRevNC photograph)

As a child Griffith Rutherford boarded a ship in Ireland with his parents bound for America, he but got off without them. They died en route. Raised by relatives in Pennsylvania, at 19 he moved from New Jersey to Halifax County. It’s unclear what he was doing for money before his early 30s, when he was named surveyor of then-larger Rowan County. A family genealogy says he bought 960 acres on the South Fork of Grant’s Creek, seven miles southwest of Salisbury, in 1753. The next year he married Elizabeth Graham, who had 10 children with him. Along with farming, he had a grain mill, in addition to dealing and investing in land. Rutherford held eight people in slavery as of 1790. He was said to be 5-8 and 180 pounds, with a thin face and red hair. He was sociable and agreeable, but, “‘When he had formed an opinion he was not easily driven from it.’”[1]

Rutherford joined the local militia and fought with the British in the French & Indian War. He also joined the royal government as a sheriff, court official, and member of the Provincial Assembly. This put him on the side of the governor during the Regulator movement. He survived politically by voting for some reforms, returning excess fees he had taken, and refusing to join the military campaign against the Regulators. Rutherford was given command of county militiamen when the Revolution broke out. Later the state assembly named him a brigadier general in command of the multi-county Salisbury District. In that role he led the 1776 campaign that destroyed dozens of Cherokee villages, and fought in Georgia and South Carolina. However, by happenstance, he managed to arrive too late for action at three major engagements: Moore’s Creek Bridge, Ramsour’s Mill, and Charleston. Rutherford probably took a bullet to the leg and a sabre wound in the Continental disaster at the 1780 Battle of Camden (S.C.). Some sources report he spent time as a prisoner, perhaps ending up at St. Augustine (Fla.).[2] He apparently was released, because he led a 1781 campaign to confront a British corps in Wilmington. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene reprimanded him for being too violent against Loyalist properties on the way.[3]

The genealogy says he attended a dinner for Pres. George Washington at the old Guilford Court House in 1791, and Washington gave Rutherford a silver snuff box with Washington’s preferred brand.[4] In peacetime Rutherford shifted his focus to lands west of the Appalachians. Fittingly, Native American resistance scuttled his land grab in modern Alabama. However, he received a lot of land in what became Tennessee in exchange for helping survey it, and moved there at 71. He died at 83 or 84 in that state and is buried in an unmarked grave. Rutherford County and Rutherfordton are named for him.

More Information

[1] Long 1942.

[2] Wounds and St. Augustine: Sherman 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Long.

Mug with an African-American soldier and the words, "Fighting for Freedom."
Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 1781"