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Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

The trail leading up to the turning point of the American Revolution was long and hard, and runs through the heart of Southern Appalachia.

Each year along the 330-mile Overmountain Victory Trail, state and federally run parks and historic sites celebrate the heroism and endurance of the backcountry pioneers who fought a momentous military campaign that ultimately proved of monumental significance in altering the course of American's War of Independence.

Sculpture of Overmountain patriot militiaman crouched ready to fire at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Tennessee. The banks of the Watauga River in present-day Elizabethton was the site of the militia muster prior to the Battle of Kings Mountain. – Mark Engler

Beginnings of a War's End

In late September of 1780, about 1,000 backcountry patriot militiamen from the fertile river valleys and rough-hewn wilds of Western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia and what is now Northeast Tennessee joined together and set out across the Blue Ridge mountains.

The object of their audacious mission was to locate and attack a detachment of British forces under the command of General Lord Charles Cornwallis, who was in the process of executing an invasion of the southern colonies in hopes that he could ultimately take Virginia and finally crush the American rebellion.

Along the course of their grueling two-week mounted expedition, the Overmountain militia picked up more volunteers and fighters from other parts of the Carolinas and Georgia.

On Oct. 7, at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, the ragtag band of scruffy Scots-Irish frontiersmen and subsistence farmers with a savage aptitude for close-quarters combat surrounded an encampment of tory militia and in short order made proverbial mincemeat of the western wing of Cornwallis' forces in the South.

In just over one hour, the patriot militia killed 119 British loyalists and their commanding officer, Major Patrick Ferguson, and captured another 664 and held them as prisoners. The patriot side lost 28 killed and 62 wounded.

“The American victory at the Battle of King's Mountain altered the tenor of the American Revolution, disheartening Cornwallis and his army, threatening and eventually altering British military strategy, and adding renewed vigor to the American cause,” recounts the Encyclopedia of North Carolina.

The outcome of the Battle of Kings Mountain was so shocking and disruptive to the British efforts to suppress the colonial rebellion that it set in motion a chain of events culminating in the surrender of General Cornwallis in Yorktown just a year later.

That their audacity and determination constituted the decisive turning point in the Revolutionary War was acknowledged by no less than American presidents and British generals.

Thomas Jefferson later described the Battle of Kings Mountain as “the turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War, with the seal of our independence.” British Gen. Henry Clinton lamented in retrospect that the Battle of Kings Mountain "proved the first link of a chain of evils that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America."

Fiery Rhetoric Backfires

Called the “overmountain” settlements because they were situated over the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Watauga River country had become something of a staging ground for launching operations against the British army and tory loyalists in the East. In the British government’s view -- and in the view of hostile Indian tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee -- the settlers had in fact put down roots illegally in the region.

In order to defeat the American colonial rebellion, Cornwallis believed the Overmountain agitators and other partisans in the high country and piedmont regions had to be brought to heel.

He ordered Major Ferguson and a regiment of his own Crown-loyal militiamen to move into the restive western territories and root out hostile elements, all the while hoping to recruit more tory fighters along the way. Cornwallis was “convinced that southern Whigs would flock in droves to the Loyalist camp if British strength were shown,” according to an official account of the events.

In the course of advancing that mission, Ferguson issued the Overmountain communities a bellicose admonition: “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.”

As it turned out, Ferguson shouldn’t oughta done that.

Outraged by the threat, frontier settlers and backwoodsmen gathered on the banks of the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals in what’s now Northeast Tennessee. Rather than waiting for the Crown to bring the war to them, they resolved to take the war to the Crown.

The “irregular revolutionaries” rode across the rugged Appalachian Mountains to the vicinity of Charlotte, NC. In a brilliant, brazen climax to their cross-country maneuvering, they launched a decisive assault on Ferguson’s forces at Kings Mountain.

“The achievement at King's Mountain was impressive,” historian Max Dixon wrote in “The Wataugans,” a book published in the 1970s by the Tennessee American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. “Without national, or even state orders, militia units of the west had organized and executed an extraordinarily successful military campaign. They had tracked and brought down one of Cornwallis’ crack units -- outnumbered and on a field of the enemy’s choosing.”

“Explanations of the remarkable success of the venture have never been lacking. Some have said that it was a ‘hunting-rifle’ victory, and others a ‘victory for Indian tactics,’” Dixon went on. “Still others have found errors in Ferguson's tactics or strategy. More convincing than any of these are those explanations which look to the men themselves and their uncommon leadership.”

Indeed, among the organizers and commanders of the Overmountain attack were John Sevier and Isaac Shelby, who would go on to become the first governors of tennessee and Kentucky, respectively.

And the formidable guerrilla war-waging skills of the Overmountain men were earnestly attested to by those in the best position to judge -- their enemies.

One loyalist who fought against the Overmountain Men at Kings Mountain described them afterward as “the most powerful men ever beheld -- tall, rawboned, sinewy.”

Another American tory, upon hearing beforehand that the Overmountain Men were on the warpath, warned that underestimating the resolve and ferocity of these denizens of the “extreme backwoods” would prove disastrous -- for they were hardy fighting specimens from the wilderness among whom “no labor could tire and whose rifles seldom missed their mark.”

Tom Vaughn, a local historian from South Holston Valley in Sullivan County, Tennessee, tells of how at Cherokee Ford -- within 10 miles of the Kings Mountain and on one of their last river crossings of the odyssey -- the patriots traversed a raging flood-stage torrent in a downpour and lost nary a man nor beast of burden to the surging currents.

“What they did was they put the strongest men and the strongest horses in the river to brace or catch anybody that got swept off their horses as they crossed,” said Vaughn, who serves in various capacities for the nonprofit Overmountain Victory Trail Association, including as an event reenactment participant, interpretive actor, lecturer and governing-board member.

“These were rather determined folk,” he reckons.

Path to Preservation

This year also marks the 40-year anniversary of the establishment of the 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.

The purpose of preserving the route was to recognize and raise awareness about the importance and difficulty of the military feat that independent Southern Appalachian militias performed for the cause of winning American independence.

The route was designated a National Historic Trail at the behest and legislative leadership of Republican United States Congressman Jim Broyhill of North Carolina.

“It took quite a bit of determination on their part, and also, I’m sure, fear of what might happen if they did not take this very dangerous duty,” Broyhill said in a 2017 interview for a video about the Overmountain Trail. “If it were not for the victory at Kings Mountain, we could very well be speaking the King’s English now, instead of good ol’ American.”

Today, nearly all the land that the trail followed is observable via the Overmountain Commemorative Motor Rout, which “passes through mostly rural countryside” and typically every year “the march reenactment proceeds both on foot and in cars, allowing those not wishing to walk to join.”

More than 90 miles of the Overmountain Victory Trail is walkable now, and the park service’s ultimate goal is to eventually acquire easements so that the entire route is open to hiking.

Streaming Through Habitat, Recreation Lands

A large chunk of the region the Overmountain Men traversed is situated along the upper reaches of the Tennessee River watershed, which today contains some of the most pristine streams in the American Southeast -- home to self-sustain wild brook trout populations and exquisite -- albeit strenuous -- backcountry hiking.

One of the longest stretches of uninterrupted walkable trail five or six miles begins at Hampton Creek Cove, a Tennessee state natural area near Roan Mountain State Park, and proceeds through Yellow Gap, intersects with the Appalachian Trail on the Tennessee-North Carolina border along the way and provides as good as strenuous a sampling of the journey as you’ll find anywhere anywhere.

Hampton Creek on the Tennessee side, and Roaring Creek just over in North Carolina, contain some of the finest wild native brook trout habitat both states have to offer.

"If you want to go to where the best brook trout streams are, you're gonna have to come up to upper East Tennessee," advises Jim Habera, an aquatic biologist with Tennessee’s fish and game department. "Carter County and Johnson County are kind of the epicenter of brook trout fishing in Tennessee."

Marquette Crockett, a regional stewardship coordinator for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, describes the North Carolina’s Upper Roaring Creek as “simply magical.”

“This is one of the most incredible stretches of mountain stream,” she said. “From a biological standpoint, Roaring Creek is one of the most productive native trout streams in the state. It feeds into the North Toe River, which is home to endangered species like the Appalachian Elktoe mussel.”

Hidden History

As dramatic and exhilarating as is the tale of the Overmountain militia's arduous journey and the Battle of Kings Mountain -- and despite the recognition by Congress and efforts to raise awareness about their feats of daring and endurance -- it doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

In fact, most people outside the region where the events transpired probably haven’t even heard of it.

“It is absolutely the most untold story of the American Revolution,” said Steve Ricker, director of interpretive programming for the Overmountain Victory Trail Association, a group that works with the National Park Service to develop educational outreach programming and organize commemorative activities.

The general public’s unfamiliarity with that particular sequence of military events extends to the “Southern Campaign” of the Revolutionary War in general.

“What people don’t realize is that there were more Revolutionary War battles fought in the American South than anywhere else,” Ricker said. “When the British decided to move south, it was a big mistake. They fought Washington up north for five years, but in the South they got whipped in just a year and 12 days.”

One of the reasons that the march of the Overmountain Men and the Battle of Kings Mountain perhaps hasn’t gotten as much play in the history books and the teaching of America’s founding is that it was in effect this country’s first “civil war;” most of the participants on both sides were American born.

“Patrick Ferguson had a few regulars with him, but it was mostly a loyalist army,” said Rickers. “It was actually Americans fighting Americans.”

Another reason this is the most untold story is simply because it wasn’t the Continental Army that defeated the British in the South -- it was mostly backwoodsmen, said Ricker.

“So many people think they understand the American Revolution,” said John Slaughter, who served for about six years as superintendent of the National Park Service’s Southern Campaign of the American Revolution Group, “But when they hear the stories about the Southern Campaign, and specifically the Overmountain Men and the whole Eastern Tennessee and North and South Carolina connection, they are like, ‘I had no idea.’”

Overmountain March Timeline and Key Locations

September 24: Virginia militiamen from Washington County, under William Campbell, muster at Abingdon, Virginia on the 24th. This is the beginning of the march-route’s western branch.

September 25: John Shelby, John Sevier, and Campbell muster militia men from the Watauga and Holston River valleys at Sycamore Shoals in what is now Elazabethton, Tennessee. They set out to join more militia led by Charles McDowell.

September 26: The Overmountain men spend their first night on the trail at the Shelving Rock, located at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. They use the overhang as shelter against rain to keep their gunpowder dry. Also on Sept. 26, about 350 North Carolina patriot militia from Surrey and Wilkes counties in North Carolina, commanded by Colonel Benjamin Cleveland and Major Joseph Winston, muster at what today is Elkin. They depart the next morning, and join up with other militiamen at Quaker Meadows.

September 27: Overmountain men cross Roan Mountain in recent snow that is “shoe-mouth deep.” The 4,600-foot Yellow Mountain Gap represents the highest point they will have to march over on their journey. Two militiamen, James Crawford and Samuel Chambers, desert here to warn Ferguson about the approaching patriot army. On Sept. 28 to Sept. 30 the Overmountain force splits up so that Loyalists can’t sneak past, and then it reunites at Quaker Meadows.

October 1 and 2: The Overmountain militiamen stop at Bedford’s Hill near the headwaters of Cane Creek to dry out and prepare for battle. They expect to soon encounter British forces. McDowell steps aside as commander of the expedition hands the reins of combat planning and coordination over to Campbell.

October 3: The militia camps by Marlin’s Knob by Cane Creek. South Carolina Patriots under William Hill and Edward Lacey camp nearby at Flint Hill (Cherry Mountain).

October 4: Expecting a possible skirmish at Gilbert Town, the Overmountain Men instead discover Ferguson long gone. They assume he’s lit out for Ninety Six, South Carolina.

October 5: Thinking they follow Ferguson, the Overmountain forces move to the Green River, away from Kings Mountain. Small parties of Georgians under William Candler and North Carolinians under William Chronicle join the Overmountain men. The militia gets word that Ferguson is in fact headed east, so they reverse direction and begin pursuit.

October 6: Now convinced Ferguson is eastbound en route toward Charlotte, Patriots make tracks to meet Lacey and Hill’s South Carolina patriot militia. During the evening of this day at Cowpens, the groups unite. They select 900 of their best fighting men and horses. After taking a quick meal, they set out on the hunt for Ferguson in the midst of a steady rain.

October 7: The Overmountain army crosses the flooding Broad River at Cherokee Ford at 8 am. At 3pm they locate Ferguson’s 1,000-strong tory army atop Kings Mountain and initiate a fierce assault on the British major’s position. The pitched battle rages for a little more than an hour before the Overmountain men claim a decisive victory -- killing Ferguson himself and 120 of his loyalist army, with nearly all the rest wounded or captured. The patriot militia losses come to 28 killed and 62 wounded.

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