The North Carolina Visitor Center




Overmountain Men
Each October, we mark the anniversary of the Battle of Kings Mountain.  In this issue of the NC Visitor Center newsletter, we would like to draw attention to these patriots to whom, in part, America owes her freedom.  President (Theodore) Roosevelt said of the Over Mountain Men, "This brilliant victory marked the turning point of the American Revolution."


Overmountain Men

The Overmountain Man statue at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park

The Overmountain Men were American frontiersmen from west of the Appalachian Mountains who took part in the American Revolutionary War. While they were present at multiple engagements in the war's Southern Campaign, they are best known for their role in the American victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. The term "overmountain" refers to the fact that their settlements were west of, or "over," the Appalachians, the range being the primary geographical boundary dividing the 13 American colonies from the western frontier. The Overmountain Men hailed from parts of Virginia, North Carolina, and what is now Tennessee.[1]

The efforts of the Overmountain Men helped to solidify the existence of the fragile settlements in the Watauga, Nolichucky, and Holston river valleys, the legitimacy of which had been questioned for several years. Many Overmountain Men, including John Sevier and Isaac Shelby, went on to play prominent roles in the establishment of the states of Tennessee and Kentucky. The foothold they gained on the frontier helped open the door to mass westward migration in ensuing decades.[2]

The Overmountain settlements

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Euro-American settlers began pouring into what is now northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, causing considerable agitation among the Cherokee and other tribes who controlled the area. The Treaty of Lochaber, signed in 1770 between the British and the Cherokee, moved the boundary of British territory south to Long Island of the Holston (modern Kingsport, Tennessee). While this brought settlements north of the Holston under British protection, the settlers south of the river were ordered to leave.[2]

Rather than comply with the Crown's order, the illegal settlers— mostly concentrated at the Watauga settlement (at modern Elizabethton), the Nolichucky settlement (near modern Greeneville), and Carter's Valley (near modern Kingsport)— decided to lease their land from the Cherokee, and in 1772 established the Watauga Association, which was the first constitutional government west of the Appalachians. In 1775, the Watauga and Nolichucky settlers purchased their leased lands outright. The Crown and colonial governments considered the purchase illegal, however, and continuously ordered the settlers to leave the Cherokee lands. The Cherokee also again became agitated when these settlements began expanding rapidly, and tribal chiefs amiable to the settlers fell out of favor. The young Cherokee chief Dragging Canoe, who had been opposed to the sale of tribal lands, called for the violent removal of all settlers west of the mountains.[2]

Revolutionary War

Early conflicts

At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776, the Overmountain settlers (most of whom were Whigs opposed to the monarchy) began preparing for an invasion by the Cherokee, who were encouraged by the British and the fiery rhetoric of Dragging Canoe to push the American frontiersmen out of the Overmountain settlements. The invasion came in July of that year. While settlers were chased out of Carter's Valley and the Nolichucky settlements, the Cherokee were defeated at Eaton's Station on July 20 and at Fort Watauga on July 21, and eventually retreated. The settlers' struggles gained them the sympathies of North Carolina's revolutionary leaders, who in 1777 allowed the Overmountain settlements to join the colony as Washington County.[3]

The Overmountain Men took part in varying degrees in numerous operations against British loyalists and the British-aligned Cherokee and Shawnee all along the Appalachian frontier. 20 Wataugans helped defend the Boonesborough and Harrodsburg settlements (in modern Kentucky) from Shawnee attacks in 1778.[3] In early 1780, a group of Overmountain Men led by Isaac Shelby joined up with Colonel Charles McDowell to raid loyalist outposts in the South Carolina mountains. The Overmountain Men captured Fort Thickety on the Pacolet River and aided in the Patriot victory at the Battle of Musgrove Mill. With the approach of harvesting season, however, most of the Overmountain Men returned to their farms on the frontier. McDowell stayed behind with a small contingent to continue harassing loyalists.[4][5]

Call to arms

Sign at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park recalling the muster of the Overmountain Men

After winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Camden in August 1780, British General Charles Cornwallis invaded North Carolina, and sent Major Patrick Ferguson into the mountains to root out the Patriot irregulars and protect the region's loyalists. Ferguson quickly routed McDowell's badly-outnumbered force, and McDowell retreated across the mountains to the Watauga settlement. Ferguson pardoned a captured frontiersmen named Samuel Phillips (a cousin of Isaac Shelby) so that Phillips could carry a message to the Overmountain settlements. In the message, Ferguson warned the Overmountain Men that if they didn't lay down their arms, he would "march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste the country with fire and sword."[6]

Upon receiving the message, Shelby rode 40 miles (64 km) to Watauga to consult with John Sevier, and the two agreed to raise armies and cross the mountains to engage Ferguson. On September 25, 1780, several hundred frontiersmen gathered at Sycamore Shoals. Lead had been mined at nearby Bumpass Cove for ammunition, Sullivan County merchant John Adair volunteered funds for the expedition, and women prepared clothing and food for the long march. Black powder for the expedition was manufactured by Mary Patton at the Patton mill along nearby Powder Branch.[7] The assembled force consisted of 240 men from Washington County, North Carolina (now Washington County, Tennessee and surrounding counties) led by Sevier, 240 from Sullivan County led by Shelby, and 400 from southwestern Virginia led by Colonel William Campbell. This main body planned to meet up with the remnants of McDowell's army in the mountains, bringing the total number to just over 1,000. Homeguards were left at the Holston and Watauga settlements under Anthony Bledsoe and Charles Robertson, respectively.[6]

March over the mountains

Map showing camps of the Overmountain Men, September 25–October 7, 1780 (Abingdon and modern Knoxville and Asheville shown for reference)

Campbell and his company of 400 Virginians gathered in Abingdon near Bradley's Tavern, in a field on the Bradley farm on September 23, 1780 and began the first leg of the march to meet up with a group of Tennesseans at Rocky Mount on September 24. They arrived at Sycamore Shoals on the 25th. On September 26, after a fiery sermon by Reverand Samuel Doak, the Overmountain Men began their long march over the Blue Ridge, marching from Sycamore Shoals to the base of Roan Mountain, where they camped for the night. After crossing the mountain at Yellow Mountain Gap, they followed a well-worn path up the North Toe River Valley to Bright's settlement (modern Spruce Pine, North Carolina). On September 29, the force split up at Gillespie Gap (atop the eastern Blue Ridge), with Campbell's contingent descending to Wofford's Fort in Turkey Cove, and Sevier and Shelby descending to North Cove to link up with McDowell. The force reunited the following day and spent the night at the McDowell family plantation at Quaker Meadows (modern Morganton, North Carolina), where they were joined by a 300-man contingent under Benjamin Cleveland and Joseph Winston.[6][8] While camped atop Bedford's Hill on October 1, the force's leaders bickered over who had full command, and Charles McDowell was dispatched to the headquarters of General Horatio Gates to request he name a permanent commander. McDowell left his unit under the command of his brother, Joseph McDowell.[9]

On October 4, the Overmountain Men reached Ferguson's base at Gilbert Town (near modern Rutherfordton), although Ferguson had evacuated eastward toward Charlotte to be closer to the main British army. The following day, while camped at Alexander's Ford along the Green River, a spy told the frontiersmen that Ferguson was headed for Ninety-Six, and the force thus headed southeastward into South Carolina. On October 6, the frontiersmen reached Cowpens, where they were joined by a force of 400 South Carolinians under James Williams and a smaller force of North Carolina militiamen under Frederick Hambright. A spy notified the force that Ferguson was camped 30 miles (48 km) to the east, and a large number of frontiersmen marched through the night in hopes of forcing a confrontation.[6]

Battle of Kings Mountain

Isaac Shelby

Main Article: Battle of Kings Mountain

With the Overmountain Men and Patriot forces fast approaching, Ferguson decided to entrench his 1000-strong loyalist force atop Kings Mountain, a 60-foot (18 m) flat-top hill about 50 miles (80 km) west of Charlotte near the North Carolina-South Carolina line. Patriot forces reached Kings Mountain on the afternoon of October 7, and formed a U-shape around the mountain, effectively surrounding the loyalists. Around 3 P.M., after several minutes of minor skirmishing, William Campbell told his men to "shout like hell and fight like devils,"[4] and two companies simultaneously opened fire on the loyalist positions. Shelby, Sevier, Williams, and Cleveland pushed from the north side of the mountain, while Campbell, Winston, and Joseph McDowell pushed from the south side.[10]

While Kings Mountain was difficult to scale, the mountain's slopes were heavily wooded, providing Patriot riflemen with ample cover. Both Campbell and Shelby twice attempted to charge up the mountain, but were driven back by loyalist rifle fire.[4] After about an hour, however, the frontier sharpshooters had taken a devastating toll on the loyalists' ranks, and Campbell and Shelby managed to reach the summit. Ferguson was finally killed by sharpshooters, and the remaining loyalists surrendered.[11] Loyalist casualties included 157 killed, 163 so severely wounded they were left on the field, and 698 captured. Patriot casualties were 28 killed and 62 wounded. Among the Patriot dead was South Carolina militia leader James Williams. John Sevier's brother, Robert, was mortally wounded. The loyalist prisoners were marched to Hillsborough, where several were put on trial for atrocities committed on the frontier, and nine were hanged.[12]

Aftermath and legacy

His western flank now exposed, Cornwallis abandoned his invasion of North Carolina and fell back to Winnsboro, South Carolina. After the victory, Sevier dispatched Joseph Greer to Philadelphia to deliver news of the victory to the Continental Congress.[13] Most of the Overmountain Men returned to the Overmountain settlements, where in subsequent months John Sevier and Arthur Campbell (brother of William) led an expedition against the Cherokee to further secure the frontier. William Campbell returned to South Carolina in 1781 to aid Daniel Morgan's Continentals against another British incursion into the region, but arrived the day after Morgan's decisive victory at Cowpens.[14]

In later years, Sevier and Shelby played important roles in the establishment of Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively. Other influential Overmountain Men included John Crockett (father of Davy Crockett), Joseph Hardin, Sr., Joseph Dickson, Daniel Smith, William Russell, and John Rhea, all of whom were at Kings Mountain, and Anthony Bledsoe, who commanded the homeguard for the Holston settlement while the main force was away. In 1980, Congress appropriated funds for the establishment of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which follows the original marching route of the Overmountain Men between the mustering grounds at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and battle site at Kings Mountain National Military Park, and includes several branch trails in Virginia and North Carolina. The Overmountain Men are the subject of numerous books, including a historical novel by Cameron Judd, and a play entitled The Wataugans.


  1. ^ Borden Mace, "Overmountain Men." Encyclopedia of Appalachia (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), p. 1607.
  2. ^ a b c John Finger, Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2001), pp. 47-52.
  3. ^ a b Finger, pp. 58-71.
  4. ^ a b c Finger, 84-89.
  5. ^ Pat Alderman, Overmountain Men (Johnson City, Tenn.: Overmountain Press, 1970), pp. 52-53.
  6. ^ a b c d Alderman, pp. 81-96.
  7. ^ Susan Goodsell, Mary McKeehan Patton. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002. Retrieved: 18 June 2009.
  8. ^ C. Hammett, The Battle of Kings Mountain., 2000. Retrieved: 15 June 2009.
  9. ^ The March from Sycamore Shoals. Originally published as Historical Handbook Number Twenty-Two (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955). Maintained on the web by Kings Mountain National Military Park. Retrieved: 15 June 2009.
  10. ^ National Park Service, Battle of Kings Mountain – map. Retrieved: 15 June 2009.
  11. ^ The Battle of King's Mountain. The American, 2001-2007. Retrieved: 15 June 2009.
  12. ^ David Eggenberger, A Dictionary of Battles (New York: Crowell, 1967), p. 220.
  13. ^ Joseph Greer. Tennessee Society of the Sons of the American Revolution — General Joseph Martin Chapter, 2004-2006. Retrieved: 15 June 2009.
  14. ^ Augustine Webb. Tennessee Society of the Sons of the American Revolution — General Joseph Martin Chapter, 2004-2006. Retrieved: 15 June 2009.

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