A 1757 map of South Carolina and Georgia by William deBrahm
Friday, March 29, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

As South Carolina shudders between the extremes of peaceful diplomacy and bloody warfare in the summer of 1760, the epic travels of Abraham the express rider continue along the knife edge between safety and danger. His great skills as an intrepid backwoodsman may have secured his freedom, but now they threaten to propel him into the vanguard of the frontier violence.

During the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760, the vast majority of South Carolinians lived along the eastern seaboard, and our provincial government sat in Charleston, the colony’s capital at that time. The theater of the war was on the western frontier of South Carolina, North Carolina, and what is now eastern Tennessee, however, between the westernmost colonial settlements and the traditional territory of the Cherokee people. To bridge the 450-mile gap between these two centers of activity, the government used a network of express riders to carry intelligence and official correspondence between military commanders on the frontier and the politicians in Charleston.

Our protagonist, Abraham, was one of several express riders who regularly traversed a circuit between the capital and the two principal outposts on the frontier—Fort Prince George, in what is now the foothills of Pickens County, South Carolina, and Fort Loudoun, in modern Monroe County, Tennessee. Because of the great distance between the coast and the mountains, the breaking news of events on the frontier took at least a week, and usually longer, to reach the people of the Lowcountry. This delay no doubt tried the patience of political officials in Charleston as well as the commanders in the field, as important decisions were often delayed by the want of information.

This was certainly the case during the dramatic summer of 1760, when the government of South Carolina and others in Charleston strained to hear the echoes of bloody engagements on the distant frontier. When we left Abraham in our last episode, he had just completed a month-long round-trip journey from Charleston to Fort Loudoun and back. On his eastward journey back to the capital in late May, Abraham had passed a long column of British, Scots, and American soldiers marching westward to punish the Cherokee Indians for their violence against colonists on the frontier. Everyone knew those soldiers were headed towards a violent clash with the Cherokee, but the details of that military rendezvous didn’t arrive in Charleston until many days after Abraham’s return to the capital.

Thirty-four-year-old Colonel Archibald Montgomery (1726–1796) had set out from Charleston in late April with a force of 1,200 British regulars and a long baggage train of supplies, provisions, and cattle. During their slow northwestward march towards the frontier, the regulars were joined by several hundred South Carolina soldiers, including uniformed provincial foot soldiers and mounted rangers. Their progress was slow, as the backcountry paths were narrow and there were no facilities or amenities to accommodate the movement of a large body of men. One month after commencing their march, the army reached the small fort at Ninety Six. On May 28th, Colonel Montgomery and his body of nearly 1,700 soldiers set out from Ninety Six and began marching toward the Cherokee Lower Towns.

On the afternoon of June 1st, they halted a few miles short of their target, set down their cumbersome baggage, and waited until nightfall. Beginning that evening and continuing through the following day, the Anglo-American soldiers fixed their bayonets and embarked on a lightning campaign of burning and looting through a series of Cherokee towns in succession (Little Keowee, Estatoe, Toxaway, Quaratchee, and Conasatchee). Most of the inhabitants of the several towns fled into the surrounding hills when they heard the approaching army, but a minority of sick, elderly, and obstinate Indians remained to defend their homes. Following their instructions from General Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of all British troops in North America at that time, the soldiers killed all the men they found and made prisoners of the women and children.[1]

On the morning of June 3rd, Colonel Montgomery and his officers arrived at Fort Prince George, while the exhausted army established a large camp near the fort. Here the colonel conferred with Ensign Alexander Miln, the fort’s resident commander, and discussed the current situation of their Indian adversary. Having decimated the Cherokee’s Lower Towns, Montgomery decided to pause at Fort Prince George and allow time for negotiations before continuing his campaign of terror. He released two Cherokee hostages (held at Fort Prince George since their capture in early May) and sent them into the Middle and Overhill Towns to find warriors and headmen willing to come to Fort Prince George to discuss a peace treaty. If they did not return with diplomats within a prescribed number of days, Montgomery promised to resume his westward march and destroy the Cherokee Middle Towns.

At the same time, Colonel Montgomery ordered his adjutant, Colonel James Grant (1720–1806), to compose a letter to South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, William Bull, in Charleston, summarizing the army’s progress. On the morning of June 4th, an unidentified express rider departed from Fort Prince George with Grant’s letter and arrived in Charleston six days later, on the evening of June 9th. Bull shared the text of Grant’s letter with the local press, and the South Carolina Gazette published it in a special edition the following morning. Within a few hours, everyone in the capital knew the grizzly details of the army’s first wave of attacks against the Lower Towns of the Cherokee nation. They also learned about Montgomery’s plan to release prisoners in order to collect Cherokee headmen to negotiate for peace. During the final weeks of June, the people of Charleston waited with bated breath for news of an end to the frontier violence.[2]

A few days later, another express rider galloped into Charleston bringing news from the distant frontier. Henry Lucas had departed from Fort Loudoun in eastern Tennessee on May 27th with a fellow rider, but they were ambushed by the Cherokee and obliged to turn back. After departing again without his wounded companion on May 29th, Lucas reached Fort Prince George on June 3rd, where he met with Colonels Montgomery and Grant. Carrying the latest news from that front, Lucas set out from the fort a few days later and arrived in Charleston during the early morning of June 14th.[3]

In a letter to the governor, dated May 29th, the commander of Fort Loudoun, Capt. Paul Demeré, stated that the Overhill Cherokee in the neighborhood of his fort were now talking about “going down to give the army a meeting [that is, a fight], which we were in hopes they had laid aside all thoughts of.” Attakullakulla, also known as the Little Carpenter, a long-time friend to the colonial government of South Carolina, came to Fort Loudoun in late May and told Capt. Demeré “he had done every thing in his power to bring his people to reason,” but “perceived all his efforts to be in vain.” The elderly Cherokee ally said “he hoped that the troops would make no delay, but push forward and not be deterred by the mountains which they would not find so difficult as may have been represented, that nothing but correction can bring the Indians to a sense of their interest and duty.” Promising that he and his loyal band would “retire and make room” for the soldiers as they approached the Cherokee towns, the Little Carpenter hoped to ask Colonel Montgomery “that regard might be shown to such [Indians] as have not misbehaved, and hopes that vengeance may not fall on the innocent women and children.”[4]

Meanwhile, Colonel Montgomery at Fort Prince George was waiting patiently for the arrival of Cherokee emissaries with whom to negotiate a peaceful end to the frontier violence. The hostages he released on June 5th were ordered to return within ten days. Finding that the many of the Cherokee headmen in the Middle and Overhill Towns were reluctant to trust the British military, however, Colonel Montgomery extended the deadline by several additional days. The Cherokee had once been counted among South Carolina’s strongest allies in the southeast, and both the military and the government wanted to avoid the destruction of a people they hoped to again call their friends.

In the midst of this period of waiting, sometime around the middle of June, our protagonist, Abraham, met with Lt. Gov. William Bull to discuss another express mission into Cherokee territory. We don’t have any record of Bull’s precise instructions, but the timing of Abraham’s movements in late June and early July suggest that the express rider’s principal task was to rendezvous with Colonel Montgomery and receive from him official summaries of the army’s progress against the Cherokee. Along the path to and from the frontier, he was to interface (as usual) with the commanders of South Carolina’s defensive outposts and obtain information relative to their strength, but Lt. Gov. Bull apparently did not instruct Abraham to journey all the way to Fort Loudoun. That garrison, beyond the Nantahala Mountains in eastern Tennessee, was still in desperate need of relief from starvation and Cherokee harassment. A letter from the fort’s commander in late May put it mildly when he said “we all long eagerly to see a messenger from the army, for our provisions begin to run very short.” The present business in the Lower and Middle Cherokee territory was the government’s primary concern, however, so the “deplorable” condition of the Overhill garrison was ignored for the moment. Having collected dispatches from Colonel Montgomery or Colonel Grant, Abraham was to return to Charleston as expeditiously as possible and deliver this intelligence to Lt. Gov. Bull.[5]

Abraham departed Charleston sometime around the middle of June 1760 and arrived at Fort Prince George approximately six or seven days later. On his arrival, the formerly-enslaved man no doubt sought out Colonel Archibald Montgomery and delivered to him official letters from Lt. Gov. Bull. Abraham likely informed the colonel that he had received instructions to carry the colonel’s next dispatch of official news back to Charleston, and that he was ready to execute his mission at the colonel’s pleasure. The Scotsman probably replied that he would wait another day or two before composing his next official letters, to see whether or not the Cherokee were inclined to treat or negotiate for peace. In the meantime, Abraham was to wait for further instructions.

Surviving government documents from this era contain no information about Abraham’s activities during the final days of June and early July. We have no record of what he did during that timeframe, or even the precise date of his arrival at Fort Prince George, but the martial conditions of that moment rendered it impossible for him to sit idly while waiting for the dispatches he was assigned to carry. Even while resting in camp, the army was always in motion, and Abraham was not the only man of African descent working along side the the military forces at that time. In contrast to the scores of enslaved laborers, cattle drovers, porters, cooks, and servants that had marched up from the Lowcountry with the army, however, Abraham was a highly-skilled free agent engaged in a mission of official, executive business. His intimate knowledge of the local terrain and the Cherokee culture and language would have rendered him a valuable resource to the army, so it’s unlikely that he simply worked alongside the other “Negro” laborers.

Rather, I think it’s plausible that Colonel Montgomery knew of Abraham’s skills from previous conversations with officials in Charleston and at Fort Prince George. Carrying express messages in April and May, Abraham had also twice passed the colonel on the road, as the army marched westward from Charleston, and perhaps the two men had interfaced in the course of their respective duties. In late June at Fort Prince George, we might imagine the colonel proposed that this formerly-enslaved man render some service to His Majesty’s troops by acting as a guide through the mountain paths and into the Cherokee Middle Towns. Montgomery and his troops were strangers to the Carolina frontier and relied on a handful of backwoodsmen, including a number of out-of-work Indian traders, to assist in planning the army’s logistical steps through that territory.[6] The continuation of the army’s destructive campaign was yet not a certainty, as Montgomery waited patiently for the arrival of Cherokee diplomats, but the young colonel was not naive. He gathered knowledgeable people to his table and studied the terrain to plan his next moves.

By the 23rd of June, Colonel Montgomery’s patient hopes for peace had come to an end. The Cherokee had refused to send representatives to Fort Prince George to negotiate for peace, and so the colonel decided to press forward with his military campaign. He ordered his troops to make ready to march the following morning, and then sat down to compose a letter to Lt. Gov. Bull in Charleston. The Cherokee Indian chiefs whom he had “set at liberty” on June 5th, Montgomery wrote, “had endeavoured to persuade their countrymen to make peace with the English; but had not been able to prevail.” From them, the colonel had learned “that the middle Settlements were a little inclined, but afraid to treat [that is, negotiate]; but the over Hills Towns were determined to continue the war.” Therefore, he had ordered the troops composing “his whole force” to make ready to march from their camp near Fort Prince George, “without tents or baggage, and only thirty days provisions.” Their objective was simple, said Montgomery: they were “to proceed against the middle Settlements . . . in hopes of reducing them to reason, by the like treatment he had given to the Lower Towns.”[7]

To carry his latest official letter to Lt. Gov. Bull in Charleston, Colonel Montgomery sent Aaron Price, a veteran express rider with a proven knowledge of the frontier trails. It’s possible that Abraham had not yet arrived at Fort Prince George by that time, but I think it more likely that Montgomery wanted to keep Abraham close at hand as the army pushed westward into unfamiliar territory. The mountainous path ahead contained many natural challenges and obstacles, and it was wise to listen to the counsel of those with local experience. While the young Scotsman might have held great confidence in the ability of his troops to overwhelm the “savage” Cherokee, Abraham likely harbored some trepidation about the mission. Engaging the Indians among rolling foothills was one thing, but marching a rigid column of men through a series of a narrow and twisting mountain passes, filled with enemy warriors, probably seemed to him like a foolish adventure.

On the morning of June 24th, Montgomery and his army of nearly 1,700 men decamped from the neighborhood of Fort Prince George and formed a long column. Emboldened by their success in routing the Cherokee Lower Towns, the soldiers marched confidently, with drums beating, towards Etchoé (also spelled Echoe or Echoee), the southernmost of the Cherokee Middle Towns, located some sixty miles to the northwest (in what is now the westernmost part of North Carolina). As we’ll see in our next episode of Abraham the Unstoppable, however, they were walking into a deadly trap, the first news of which was entrusted to our hero, Abraham, to carry back to Charleston as fast as possible.

 

 

[1] South Carolina Gazette, issues of 31 May–7 June, 7–10 June, and 10–14 June 1760.

[2] Terry Lipscomb, ed. The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, October 6, 1757–January 24, 1761 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1996), 621–22. The full text of Grant’s letter appears in the South Carolina Gazette, 7–10 June 1760.

[3] South Carolina Gazette, 10–14 June 1760; New-York Mercury, 7 July 1760, quoting from a now-lost edition of the South Carolina Weekly Gazette, 18 June 1760.

[4] New-York Mercury, 7 July 1760.

[5] South Carolina Gazette, 10–14 June 1760; New-York Mercury, 7 July 1760.

[6] In James Grant’s second letter to Lt. Gov. Bull, dated 3 July 1760, Grant complained that his guides had misinformed him about the state of the roads leading to the Middle Towns. The colonel praised the conduct of guides named Beamer, Boyle, Collier, and Jones, but said “the others are not worth a shilling.” See [Christopher Gadsden], Some Observations on the Two Campaigns against the Cherokee Indians, in 1760 and 1761. In a Second Letter from Philopatrios (Charleston, S.C.: Peter Timothy, 1762), 86.

[7] Lipscomb, ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 1757–1761, 676. Note that the editor has mistakenly placed Lt. Gov. Bull’s letter, dated 1 July, under the general heading of 30 June.

 

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