A map of the Cherokee frontier in June 1760
Friday, April 12, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Let’s return to the epic saga of the brave courier, Abraham the Unstoppable. Following the colonial army’s stinging, chaotic battle with the Cherokee in late June, 1760, Abraham carried devastating news back to the provincial government in Charleston. Over the next several weeks, he shuttled repeatedly between the capital and the frontier as South Carolina struggled to continue its war against the Cherokee and to find a means of rescuing the distant garrison trapped at Fort Loudoun.

At the beginning of June, 1760, a force of nearly 1,700 soldiers, including British regulars, South Carolina provincials, and mounted rangers under the command of Colonel Archibald Montgomery, destroyed the principal towns in the Cherokee Lower Settlements (in what is now the northwestern corner of South Carolina). The Anglo-American army then camped outside Fort Prince George, near the now-vacant town of Keowee, and waited for the arrival of Cherokee headmen with whom the colonial forces could negotiate a peace treaty. When the reluctant Indian diplomats failed to appear within Montgomery’s specified timeframe, the colonel prepared to renew his destructive westward campaign.

It was around this time that Abraham, the formerly-enslaved “Negro” express rider, returned to the frontier scene. The exact timing of this, his fourth mission on behalf of the provincial government, is unknown, but surviving records suggest he departed Charleston sometime during the third week of June carrying messages and news from Lieutenant Governor William Bull to Colonel Montgomery. We know Abraham remained on the western frontier until the early days of July, but we don’t know how he spent the last days of June. As I mentioned last week, however, I believe it’s possible that Colonel Montgomery might have hired Abraham to act as a guide through the mountain paths leading westward to the Cherokee Middle Towns. The colonel and his troops were strangers to the Indian territory 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.

For the convenience of narrating the upcoming scenes, let’s imagine that Colonel Montgomery did hire Abraham to act as a guide in late June, 1760. As a formerly-enslaved man of African descent, Abraham had lived for some years among the Cherokee and made numerous trips between what is now Eastern Tennessee and coastal Charleston. He knew the trails, the mountains, and the language of the Indians, of course, but he probably also had a basic knowledge of the discipline and logistics of Britain’s colonial army. Having lived and worked among the garrisons at several backcountry forts, and having witnessed Colonel Montgomery’s slow, westward march over the past several months, Abraham must have realized that the movement of the bulky army through the untamed mountain trails was a dangerous venture. The lumbering column of men, which included dozens of supply wagons and scores of enslaved laborers, was headed into a landscape it did not understand, and could not master.

Montgomery 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 . . . to proceed against the middle Settlements . . . in hopes of reducing them to reason, by the like treatment he had given to the Lower Towns.” Setting out from Fort Prince George on Tuesday, June 24th, they marched for three days to the northwest, into what is now the westernmost tip of North Carolina, without encountering any sign of Cherokee resistance. On the evening of June 26th, the army camped about eighteen miles southeast of Etchoé (also spelled Echoe or Echoee), the southernmost of the Cherokee Middle Towns. The following day, said their commander, the army was “expecting to have a brush” with the enemy.[1]

Early on the morning of Friday, June 27th, Colonel Montgomery’s army decamped and began marching along a path that followed the Little Tennessee River leading to Etchoé. About five miles southeast of the town (near the modern town of Otto, in Macon County, North Carolina), the river made a sharp, horseshoe turn, and the adjacent path narrowed to a crooked pass. To the east was a swampy thicket bordering the river; to the west was a steep mountain face. Montgomery’s army, accustomed to marching briskly in ranks and files, was suddenly slowed to a shuffling pace. As the advance guard entered the pass between 9 and 10 a.m., a force of more than six hundred Cherokee snipers, gathered from the Middle and Overhill Towns, opened fire and brought the long, serpentine column of soldiers to a standstill. Over the next four to five hours, native warriors perched in the hills and swamps surrounding the pass used muskets, rifles, and bows-and-arrows to inflict significant casualties on the much larger Anglo-American army. The soldiers struggled to maintain order and discipline under heavy fire. Those who managed to push forward through the pass met Indians rushing out of the thickets with tomahawks raised for hand-to-hand combat. Eventually the white soldiers managed to push forward into the now-abandoned Cherokee town, which they immediately sacked and burned. After the attacking Indians had withdrawn into the surrounding hills at dusk, Montgomery’s army made camp and took stock of its losses. More than twenty men had died, and some had been dismembered in front of their comrades; at least sixty-six men were seriously wounded.[2]

Having sustained significant casualties and running low on supplies, Colonel Montgomery decided that it was impossible to continue his campaign any farther to the west. The narrow roads and mountainous terrain were not conducive to the movement of a large body of soldiers. Many horses needed to carry food and supplies had been killed and wounded. There were no secure outposts at which he could deposit the sick and wounded, and the army could not continue onward without securing those too weak to march. His only choice was to turn back. Colonel Montgomery and his adjutant, Colonel James Grant, rationalized this predicament by concluding that they had satisfactorily completed their mission objectives. Their principal instruction from General Jeffrey Amherst, commander of all British forces in North America, was to punish the Cherokee for their recent violence against Anglo-American settlers. Having destroyed the Cherokee Lower Towns and one of the Middle Towns, Montgomery and Grant judged their assignment had been fulfilled, their mission accomplished, and began preparations to march back to Charleston and then re-embark for New York.

The traders and guides who lived along the frontier, like Abraham, as well as the members of South Carolina’s provincial troops, were dumbfounded by Montgomery’s decision to turn back. As residents of the troubled colony, they wanted the army to continue its mission westward. If it couldn’t convince the Cherokee people to sue for peace, then the army could at least send relief to the beleaguered garrison trapped at Fort Loudoun, nearly a hundred miles further to the west. Montgomery sincerely regretted the deplorable and perilous condition of that distant fort, but he steadfastly asserted that it was beyond the scope of his current abilities and his orders to endanger his army by attempting to rescue the garrison at Fort Loudoun. The “pacification” of the Cherokee and the relief of the desperate garrison were issues for the concern of the commander of some future army.

The day after the battle at Echtoé Pass, Montgomery instructed his men to dump barrels of viable provisions like corn and flour into the Little Tennessee River and to use the packhorses to carry wounded soldiers back to Charleston. Rangers offered additional horses for men too weak to walk, and makeshift carriages were cobbled together to transport those too weak to ride in the saddle. Around midnight on Sunday, June 29th, Montgomery’s troops decamped from Etchoé and quietly marched back towards Fort Prince George, hoping not to arouse the attention of any Cherokee warriors lurking in the surrounding hills. After a slow march of more than two days, they reached Fort Prince George on July 1st.[3]

During a brief respite at the fort, discipline among the weakened Anglo-American forces continued to unravel. Provincial soldiers deserted in large numbers, disgusted with what they considered the haughty and ineffective leadership of the Crown forces. Cherokee warriors had followed the troops back to the vicinity of the burned-out Lower Towns, and were lurking on the outskirts of their camp. The soldiers garrisoning the fort, once again fearful for their lives, threatened to abandon their posts and march back to Charleston with the retreating army.[4] To maintain order at this important outpost, Colonel Montgomery grudgingly posted a detachment of Royal troops within the fort as a temporary fix for a long-term problem.

While resting at Fort Prince George, Colonel James Grant had one more difficult obligation to complete. On July 3rd, he composed a detailed summary of the affair at Etchoé for Lt. Gov. Bull, describing both the strong Cherokee resistance and the reasons behind the army’s imminent return to Charleston. Abraham collected the colonel’s official dispatches, as well as a number of letters from other soldiers, on the morning of Thursday, July 4th, and prepared his horse for another long journey back to the capital. At the same time, the slow-moving army decamped from Fort Prince George and began marching to the southeast, towards the coastline. Abraham galloped past the long column of men and wagons, as he was bound to the cover the nearly three-hundred-mile distance to Charleston within a week’s time, but the wounded men and tired horses would take nearly a month to reach the same destination.[5]

During the last two weeks of June, 1760, the people of Charleston received no intelligence from either Fort Loudoun or Fort Prince George. Official dispatches were expected “every day this week,” said the South Carolina Gazette on June 28th, but there were no “advices” or news from the frontier to report. “Hence it is inferred, by some,” said the newspaper, “that a treaty is on foot with those Indians; and, by others, that Col. Montgomery is carrying his operations thro’ their country; but the former opinion seems to prevail.” Late on the following evening, June 29th, however, express rider Aaron Price arrived in Charleston after a week-long journey from Fort Prince George. He brought the news that hopes for peace were dead, and that Colonel Montgomery had planned to set out from Fort Prince George on June 24th towards the destruction of the Middle Towns. This dark news set the town on edge, of course, but the people of the Lowcountry remained ignorant of the army’s clash at Etchoé and its subsequent retreat for several more days.[6]

When Abraham galloped into urban Charleston on the afternoon of Thursday, July 10th, the skies over the capital town were darkening in advance of a summer thunderstorm. It was perhaps an ominous sign of the dark news that he brought from the western frontier. Traversing the town’s bustling streets during the height of a sultry summer’s day, Abraham carried Colonel Grant’s letter to Lt. Gov. Bull at the Council Chamber on East Bay Street. Bull must have been relieved to see the black courier, whose bag of correspondence carried much-awaited, breaking news from the distant war front. If there was any conversation between Bull and the courier, it was not recorded, but it seems likely that Abraham knew that the lieutenant governor was about to be disappointed by the contents of Grant’s letter.[7]

The colonel prefaced his description of the army’s humiliating defeat at Etchoé Pass by blaming the guides that had led them into a disastrous situation. The backwoodsmen and former Indian traders who had been hired to guide the army “had misinformed us about the roads, very likely from ignorance,” as they were “very bad judges of the sort of road necessary for the march of a body of troops.” Having seen the terrain with his own eyes now, Colonel Grant remarked that it was “next to impossible for troops to go to the Middle Settlements without forming posts at different places . . . the whole country [is] the strongest and most difficult I ever was in.” The army had endured a “troublesome” march and suffered numerous casualties. “In this situation,” said Grant, “Col. Montgomery thought it adviseable [sic] to return to fort Prince George, and from thence to proceed to the place of embarkation. There is not an Indian within sixty miles of the fort, the frontier is therefore much advanced. The Cherokee have suffered much, but they will not treat [or negotiate], and ‘tis impossible to force them to come into terms; that must be a work of time. . . . ‘Tis really unlucky that a peace could not be brought about. We have succeeded in every thing we have attempted, the Indians have been beat everywhere, they never have had the smallest advantage, and yet the province [of South Carolina] is still in a scrape, for it appears to me that those savages cannot be convinced that a white man is honest.”[8]

As chief executive of South Carolina, Bull was disheartened to hear of the army’s failure, and furious to learn of the colonel’s decision to abandon the campaign. He had expected not only a definitive conclusion to the Cherokee matter, but also the rescue of the forlorn garrison trapped at Fort Loudoun, about whom there was still no news. The next day, July 11th, Lt. Gov. Bull composed a short message to the Commons House of Assembly introducing the letter from Colonel Grant and handed both to his messenger to deliver to the State House at the opposite end of Broad Street. The letter received yesterday from the war front, said Bull, “lays open the naked and defenceless [sic] state of this province.” He asked the Commons House to read Grant’s text and to offer him their advice.

The House read aloud and debated Colonel’s Grant’s letter, and in the afternoon composed a reply to the lieutenant governor. Like Bull, they were “deeply affected with the contents of Colonel Grant’s letter, which imports that Colonel Montgomery will soon embark.” As the elected representatives of the people of South Carolina, the members of the Commons House “apprehend the province to be in a more dangerous situation, at this juncture, than it was at the time when the said troops arrived here.” Despite having committed nearly £50,000 sterling to pay for supplies and soldiers over the past nine months, South Carolina’s efforts to subdue the Cherokee “have proved ineffectual.” They feared that the dangerous situation would degrade further if the British regulars departed, so they asked Lt. Gov. Bull “to use the most pressing instances with Colonel Montgomery not to depart with the king’s troops, as it may be attended with the most pernicious consequences.”[9]

The opinion of the Commons House of Assembly strengthened Bull’s resolve to prevent the Crown troops from departing. Besides his frustration with the army’s recent defeat, he was also waiting for a reply to a letter he had written six weeks earlier, on May 29th, to General Amherst in New York, asking to keep the British regular forces in South Carolina until the definitive conclusion of the current Indian war. The army’s hasty retreat was therefore premature and counter-productive, Bull concluded, and he spent the following days strategizing with the members of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina. Around the 13th or 14th of July, Lt. Gov. Bull composed a letter to Colonel Montgomery imploring the commander to reconsider his decision to abandon the campaign. Bull asked the colonel to either remain in South Carolina some time longer or at least to delay his intended departure until Bull had received a reply from General Amherst containing new instructions.

Abraham received Lt. Gov. Bull’s latest dispatch around July 15th and departed Charleston on his sixth official mission as an express rider. Rather than trekking all the way to the forts on the western frontier, however, he was now charged with finding Colonel Montgomery somewhere on the path back to the the coast. Around July 18th, Abraham arrived at the army’s temporary camp, probably at the Congarees, the site of the modern town of Cayce. There Montgomery composed a reply to Bull’s plea and handed it to the “Negro” courier. After a brief rest, Abraham departed the colonel’s camp “at the Congarees” around July 20th and galloped back towards Charleston.[10]  

On the morning of Wednesday, July 23rd, said the South Carolina Gazette, “the negro Abram [Abraham] returned with Col. Montgomery’s answer to the dispatch sent [to] him by his honour [sic] the lieutenant-governor.” It’s unclear, however, whether Abraham went straight to Lt. Gov. Bull’s office in Charleston, or found him at the town of Dorchester, where he and members of His Majesty’s Council were meeting with a small group of Creek Indians who had appeared for an unofficial visit.[11] In his reply to the lieutenant governor, Colonel Montgomery said he had very specific orders to depart as soon as he had completed his mission, which he believed he had done. Since his horses and men were very fatigued, however, and the provincial government desired him to wait for new instructions from General Amherst, Montgomery agreed to tarry at the Congarees for some further days. He hoped to have his troops at the point of embarkation (in what is now North Charleston) by the 8th or 10th of August, by which time Bull should have received an answer from General Amherst.

In the days following the conclusion of Abraham’s seventh express mission, he and Lt. Gov. Bull and the rest of South Carolina cooled their heels and waited for an express message to arrive by sea from the New York headquarters of the British colonial forces. On the evening of Tuesday, July 29th, two ships arrived in Charleston harbor nearly simultaneously, both carrying important messages for Lt. Gov. Bull. The first brought a letter from General Jeffrey Amherst, in response to Bull’s letter of May 29th requesting further assistance. Amherst curtly replied “that the troops now here [in South Carolina] were solely to pursue the ends they were sent hither for, the punishment of the Cherokees; and as soon as that is compleated [sic] (which his excellency [General Amherst] repeats he wishes it was, as he has occasion for them at the northward) they must that instant go away.” He conceded, however, that a small detachment of soldiers might be left to reinforce one of the frontier forts. The second ship brought news from Lieutenant Governor Francis Farquier of Virginia, affirming that he had already set in motion “a regiment of 100 men, under Col. [William] Byrd,” with “orders to march for the relief of Fort Loudoun, and to act afterwards with us [the people of South Carolina], as occasion may require, against the Cherokee.”[12]

The following morning, July 30th, Lt. Gov. Bull lost no time in dispatching a courier to carry General Amherst’s revised instructions to Colonel Montgomery. The express rider, whose identity is not known, caught up with the army on August 1st at Lyon’s Creek (near the modern town of St. Matthews, in Calhoun County), as the long column of soldiers continued marching towards the coastline. In accordance with his new instructions, Montgomery detached four companies from the regiment of Royal Highlanders, who were ordered to return to the western frontier and reinforce the mutinous garrison at Fort Prince George.[13]  

Having settled the question of the king’s troops and having apprised the Commons House of Assembly of the latest developments, Lt. Gov. Bull then turned his attention to the starving garrison at Fort Loudoun. On the first of August, Bull composed a letter to Capt. Paul Demeré, the commander of that distant fort, informing him of the relief measures now in motion. With any luck, the small “regiment” of Virginia troops under the command of Colonel Byrd might reach Fort Loudoun with supplies in a month, if the garrison could just hold out a bit longer.

Under “gloomy,” foreboding skies on the morning of August 2nd, “Abram, the negro express,” galloped out of Charleston “with dispatches from his honour [sic] the lieut. Governor to acquaint the commander of Fort Loudoun with the motion of the army from Virginia for their relief.”[14] Two and a half months had passed since Abraham was last at Fort Loudoun, in mid-May. At that time, the two-hundred people inside its palisaded walls, including about twenty women and twenty children, were in a miserable situation. Disease and hunger had reached desperate levels by late spring, and now, in early August, their misery had increased to a breaking point.

In our next episode of Abraham the Unstoppable, we’ll follow our hero as he journeys back across the Four and Twenty Mountains to Fort Loudoun, carrying a message of hope to that starving and frightened garrison. Will he succeed in lifting their spirits, or will he arrive too late and find instead a scene of tragedy?

 

 

[1] Terry Lipscomb, ed., The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, October 6, 1757January 24, 1761 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1996), 676 (note that the editor has mistakenly placed Lt. Gov. Bull’s letter, dated 1 July, under the general heading of 30 June); South Carolina Gazette, 5–12 July 1760.

[2] Daniel J. Tortora, Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756–1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 126–27. A good eye-witness description of the battle and its aftermath appears in [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), 81–86.

[3] South Carolina Gazette, 5–12 July 1760.

[4] Tortora, Carolina in Crisis, 128.

[5] It seems logical to conclude that Abraham departed Fort Prince George with the army on 4 July, as is implied in the news published in South Carolina Gazette, 5–12 July 1760, but the South Carolina Gazette, 12–19 July 1760, includes quotes from the text of a private letter, ostensibly carried by Abraham, dated 5 July that says the army departed on 3 July. I believe these dates reflect the newspaper’s misinterpretation of the breaking news arriving from the frontier.

[6] South Carolina Gazette, issues of 21–28 June and 28 June–5 July 1760.

[7] Abraham’s arrival “on Thursday afternoon” was noted in South Carolina Gazette, 5–12 July 1760. According to the weekly weather summary in that paper, the temperature in Charleston at 2 p.m. on July 10th was 86 degrees with “little wind with scattering clouds.” By 9 p.m., the temperature had dropped to 76 degrees with “rain with lig[htning]. & th[under]. from ½ past 5 to 7.” The weather on July 11th included “rain in the night” then afternoon “heavy showers since morning with light[ning]. and thunder,” and “the same” during the evening.

[8] The full text of Grant’s letter of 3 July 1760 appears in [Gadsden], Some Observations, 86–88. The colonel praised the conduct of guides named Beamer, Boyle, Collier, and Jones, but said “the others are not worth a shilling.”

[9] Lipscomb, ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 1757–1761, 689–91.

[10] Tortora, Carolina in Crisis, 129, states that Abram (Abraham) carried a letter from Lt. Gov. Bull begging Montgomery to stay and finish the job. No record survives of the precise timing of Abraham’s departure from Charleston and arrival at Colonel Montgomery’s camp. The dates of 15 and 18 July are based from estimates informed by the duration of his previous trips and by the confirmed date of Abraham’s returned to Charleston on 23 July 1760.

[11] South Carolina Gazette, 19–26 July 1760.

[12] South Carolina Gazette, 26 July–2 August 1760.

[13] In his message to the Commons House on 31 July 1760, Bull said he had sent an express “last evening” to acquaint Montgomery with Amherst’s revised instructions, which Bull received late on 29 July. See Lipscomb, ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 1757–1761, 744–45. According to South Carolina Gazette, 2–9 August 1760, that same unknown express returned to Charleston on 5 August with Montgomery’s reply to Bull.

[14] South Carolina Gazette, 26 July–2 August 1760. According to the “Register of the Weather at Charles-Town” in South Carolina Gazette, 2–9 August 1760, at 5 a.m. on August 2nd the temperature was 70 degrees, “small breeze, and gloomy.” By 2 p.m., it was 86 degrees and “dripping.” At 9 p.m. there were “showers.”

 

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