Gilbert Town

The British Incite the Overmountain Men

Location


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Coordinates: 35.4040, -81.9419.

Type: Sight
Tour: Overmountain
County: Rutherford

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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.

Context

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.

Dates

Thursday, September 7, 1780-Wednesday, March 28, 1781.

Timeline

Mug with a fortifications map saying, "Wilmington 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.

Photo of a large grassy area with a stand of trees in the middle, more on the border, and a black metal sign on the left
(AmRevNC photograph)

Gilbert was a Whig (supporter of the Revolution) and served in the new state’s House of Commons. By 1780 his house also served as the county courthouse. Both Patriot and Loyalist militia armies had already camped here on occasion during the war.

He is apparently at Hillsborough attending to his legislative duties on Thursday, September 7, 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.’”

Photo of a ridge in the distance behind grassy fields, mostly forested but with a farm building and clearing on the right side
(AmRevNC photograph)

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![1]

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.

Photo of a cleared path through trees behind a small marker, from across a two-lane road
Roadbed (center) toward the house (on left) and ridge, from the south (AmRevNC photograph)

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.[2] Most of the Patriot officers 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…”[3] 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.

Turn around.

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. Those supposedly still have Dunlap’s bloodstains. (Please resist the temptation to bother current residents for a look!)

Historical Tidbits

  • In early July of 1776, Cherokees—or Tories disguised as Cherokees—attacked the settlement here and killed perhaps dozens of men, women, and children.[4] 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.

 

White capy saying, "My other hat is a" and showing a tricorn hat

 

More Information


[1] Jones 2011.

[2] Draper 1881.

[3] These quotations, repeated in multiple sources, were edited slightly for easier reading.

[4] Beadle 2006.

[a] Date: Sherman 2007.

[b] Ibid.

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