The British Incite the Overmountain Men
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Coordinates: 35.4040, -81.9419.
Park on the shoulder along the outside curve of Rock Road at the coordinates, across the street from the modern-looking house. You can see everything from your vehicle or explore the lot there, which has Overmountain Victory Trail (OVT) markers. Please respect the privacy of the residents across the street.
British Maj. Patrick Ferguson and his corps have been campaigning throughout the foothills of the Carolinas to suppress Patriot militia activity, in preparation for an invasion of Charlotte by the army of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis.
Thursday, September 7, 1780-Wednesday, March 28, 1781.
Imagine the Scene
Ferguson Camp and the Overmountain Men
Walk to the flat area just off the road, behind a screen of bushes. Face away from the road.
You are standing in or near the home of William Gilbert. Gilbert was an Irish-born merchant who bought up enough acreage to become the largest landowner in what then was Tryon County. He paid for Irish workers to immigrate here, and eventually a small village grew up around his house. Aside the house are a barn, blacksmith’s shop, and several other outbuildings. A road runs diagonally from near the OVT marker behind you to the right near the modern road, toward the base of the hill a half-mile away on the left, perhaps along the modern tree line.
Gilbert was a Whig (supporter of the Revolution) and served in the new state’s House of Commons. But he was kicked out in 1779, charged with submitting false expense claims for prior sessions. Though he later was cleared, he continued to get in trouble, and was removed from being a justice of the peace.[i] After Rutherford County was formed that year, the Gilbert home was sometimes used for quarterly court sessions until a courthouse was built two years later. Both Patriot and Loyalist militia forces camped here on occasion during the war.[ii]
William apparently has made himself scarce on Thursday, September 7, 1780, when Ferguson’s “Flying Corps” arrives up the road from the right. It is made up mostly of Loyalists, including “American Volunteers” from the north trained like regular British soldiers and local part-timers (“militia“), plus some British regulars. Most of the 1,000 men including cavalry and artillerymen continue past you, and you watch them set up camp on the hill (today called “Ferguson’s Ridge”). There probably are neat rows of low-slung tents, cookpots over fires, high tarps for officers’ day use as offices, and “camp followers” camped around the edge and providing various services. Ferguson, however, makes Gilbert’s house here his headquarters.
Presumably it was in the house that Ferguson wrote an infamous threat sent into the mountain counties, by way of a freed Whig prisoner, three days later[a]: “‘If you do not desist your opposition to the British Arms, I shall march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.’”
Throughout his stay, various units go out and return from raids on Patriot homes and supplies. Eight days later on Friday the 15th, Ferguson walks out of the house, mounts his horse, and rides toward the hill.
From there he led a small detachment up Cane Creek to try to capture a Patriot militia force. The creek roughly parallels today’s US Highway 64 from its mouth beyond the hill.
Casualties are brought back and a building in town is turned into a hospital after their inconclusive victory. From that and other causes, at least five men are buried in the vicinity. The rest of the detachment does not return until the 22nd. The day after that, Lt. Anthony Allaire reports, around 500 civilians filter in, seeking protection or perhaps trying to make nice with the new local power. A few have ulterior motives: They are Patriots recruited by Col. Charles McDowell, the Whig commander at the Battle of Cane Creek, to steer the British away from beef cattle hidden in the area!
On Wednesday, September 27, the entire force packs up and marches back past you the way they came, hoping to subdue another Patriot leader.
The British continue south through the site of modern Rutherfordton. During that foray, two men arrive with alarming news: Angered by Ferguson’s threat, militia and volunteers are gathering in the mountains on both sides of the modern N.C.-Tennessee border (all part of N.C. at the time), aiming for his camp here. The men had deserted the Patriots to speed ahead and warn Ferguson.
Exactly a week later, Wednesday, October 4th, the Overmountain Men and other Patriots appear in the distance, on the road by the hill. This is an “army” in name only, actually a loose grouping of formal Patriot militia regiments and volunteers. They are in backwoods clothing with only the equipment they or their horses can carry. Most are mounted, but some are on foot. They had hoped to find and confront Ferguson here, and have come down the same route he went up to the Battle of Cane Creek. Instead they learned sometime before arriving here that he was gone.
They stop briefly, probably crawling over the camp for useful items left behind. Surely some of their officers come here to the house, to search for clues to Ferguson’s destination. After a short time they march off in his bootsteps to your right.
They catch him on King’s Mountain just across the state border. In a battle considered a turning point in the war, his entire force is killed or captured. Ferguson himself dies, and his body is still there today.
The Overmountain Men return in triumph another week later, on Wednesday, October 11, with hundreds of prisoners from the battle. They started out with 600, but the number is dwindling as men are paroled or escape. The Patriots likely enjoy crowding the rest into the same pens Ferguson had used for Whig prisoners a couple of weeks before.
A Patriot officer free on parole from South Carolina is here, and tells Col. Isaac Shelby “‘that he had seen eleven Patriots hung at Ninety Six (S.C.) a few days before, for being Rebels.’” Combined with other “atrocities” known to the Patriots, a number of them advocate for legal action against some of the Tories. Since Gilbert’s house is also the county courthouse, Shelby sends someone for its copy of the state laws. From these he learns any two magistrates can convene a jury trial, and the crimes those Tories are accused of are punishable by death. Most of the higher-ranked Patriots are magistrates, which sets up a drama at Bickerstaff’s Old Fields.
After a brief rest, the army continues to a Patriot’s plantation five miles northeast where they had camped on the way down.
Murder of Capt. Dunlap
British Capt. James Dunlap was wounded at the Battle of Cane Creek and recovered in town until November. (Despite a myth to the contrary, he somehow escaped detection both times the Overmountain Men came through.) By the next month, promoted to major, he was leading Tory attacks in South Carolina.[b] The following March, he was captured along with other British soldiers. While being marched to Salisbury they stopped overnight, with the officers confined to an upstairs bedroom of the house. Dunlap had a reputation for cruelty that did him in.
On the night of Tuesday, March 27, 1781, or the 28th, “Five of the Rebel Militia entered the room about eleven o’clock at night and came over (to) the bed with a lighted candle…” They shot “two pistols at his head,” awakening the officers sleeping in the room with him. Those men beg “the Rebels not to murder them.”
The bed catches fire from the pistol sparks and is “increasing very fast…” The Patriots order the British officers to put out the fire, “which they did with the assistance of some water that lay in the room; (the Patriots) then demanded Capt. Dunlap’s helmet, boots and spurs, etc.” The Whigs leave the room briefly with their prizes. On returning, one checks on Dunlap and cries, “‘Damn him he’s not yet dead’ and discharged another pistol at him…” The Patriots then leave for good, thinking him dead for sure this time.
Remarkably, Dunlap is still alive. He asks his fellow officers to treat his wounds, “adding he thought he might live if good care was taken of him…” They do so and stay up all night with him, but are marched off the next morning by their captors. The Patriot guards agree to leave one British corporal behind to take care of him.
Around two that afternoon the attackers return. One, Arthur Cob, demands that Dunlap be moved out of the house. Dunlap begs “for God’s sake to let him die easy.” Cob makes the corporal help Dunlap sit up in the bed, raises his rifle, and shoots Dunlap finally dead.
The corporal is taken off to catch up to the prisoners, and relayed this story to the Tory officers the next day.
Across the road is the McKinney-Twitty House. Earlier residents reported that the man who built it in the 1800s scavenged some of the floorboards from the Gilbert house, which was pulled down in 1878.[c] Those supposedly still have Dunlap’s bloodstains. (Please resist the temptation to bother current residents for a look!)
Numerous artifacts from Gilbert Town, including musket balls, tools, and building hardware, are displayed in the hallway of the Rutherford County Office Building at 289 North Main Street in Rutherfordton.
- In early July of 1776, Cherokees—or Tories disguised as Cherokees—attacked the settlement here and killed perhaps dozens of men, women, and children. This was one of the raids that led to a campaign by state militia against dozens of villages that autumn.
- The area around you is privately owned but has been designated a National Historic District. Archeologists have found numerous artifacts and the probable exact location of the Gilbert house, but have not publicized the information to protect the area from souvenir hunters. Please respect the history here.
- Ashe, Samuel A. (Samuel A’Court), History of North Carolina (Greensboro, NC: C.L. Van Noppen, 1908) <http://archive.org/details/historyofnorthca01ashe> [accessed 28 May 2021]
- Barefoot, Daniel, Touring North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1998)
- Beadle, Michael, ‘Rutherford Trace: Local Historians Examine the Legacy of a Shock-and-Awe Revolutionary War Campaign against the Cherokee’, Smoky Mountain News, 2006 <https://www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/13169-rutherford-trace-local-historians-examine-the-legacy-of-a-shock-and-awe-revolutionary-war-campaign-against-the-cherokee> [accessed 5 April 2020]
- Draper, Lyman Copeland, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It (Cincinnati: Peter G. Thomson, Publisher, 1881) <http://archive.org/details/cu31924032752846> [accessed 31 March 2020]
- Ferguson, Nancy, ‘Gilbert Town: Its Place in North Carolina and Revolutionary War History’, 2004 <http://www.overmountainvictory.org/Gtown.htm> [accessed 17 February 2020]
- Griffin, Clarence, History of Old Tryon and Rutherford Counties, North Carolina, 1730-1936 (Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1977)
- Jones, Randell, Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain, North Carolina/Tennessee Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Daniel Boone Footsteps, 2011)
- Jones, Randell, ‘Gilbert Town’, Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail <http://bythewaywebf.webfactional.com/omvt/items/show/9?tour=3&index=28> [accessed 22 February 2020]
- Jones, Randell, ‘The Overmountain Men and the Battle of Kings Mountain’, NCpedia <https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/overmountain-men-and-battle> [accessed 21 February 2020]
- Lewis, J. D., ‘Gilbert Town’, The American Revolution in North Carolina, 2009 <https://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/revolution_gilbert_town_2.html> [accessed 17 February 2020]
- Lynch, Wayne, ‘Major James Dunlap: Was He Murdered Twice?’, Journal of the American Revolution, 2016 <https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/major-james-dunlap-murdered-twice/> [accessed 7 April 2020]
- ‘Marker: O-4’ <http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=O-4> [accessed 17 February 2020]
- Rutherford County Bicentennial Committee, Rutherford County 1979: A People’s Bicentennial History (Rutherfordton, N.C.: Liberty Press, Inc., 1980)
- Sherman, Wm. Thomas, Calendar and Record of the Revolutionary War in the South: 1780-1781, Tenth Edition (Seattle, WA: Gun Jones Publishing, 2007) <https://www.americanrevolution.org/calendar_south_10_ed_update_2017.pdf>
- Sherrill, William, Annals of Lincoln County (Lincolnton, N.C.: Frank Crowell, 1937)
- Townsend, Lori, ‘History’s Hidden Landscapes: Gilbert Town Historic District’, 2019 <https://ncsu.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=a669120eb3704a8dbf954af42a9fa2a9> [accessed 20 February 2020]
 Jones 2011.
 Draper 1881.
 These quotations, repeated in multiple sources, were edited slightly for easier reading.
 Beadle 2006.
[a] Date: Sherman 2007.
[c] Rutherford County Bicentennial Committee 1980.
[i] ‘Minutes of the North Carolina House of Commons, August 08, 1778 – August 19, 1778, Volume 12, Pages 816-880’, Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, 1778 <https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.php/document/csr12-0008> [accessed 1 June 2022].
[ii] Griffin 1977.
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