I recently wrote about the gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals on Sept. 25, 1780. Last year I wrote about the Overmountain Men’s march to defeat the British at Kings Mountain. I also wrote about the Overmountain Victory Trail Association which recreates the historic march each year as best can be replicated 240 years later.
I have been on the annual march for at least 16 years. I always say it will be my last, but when the time rolls around I am back out there for the 17 days of what is a reenactment on the move. As I have pointed out, it has become more of an educational opportunity, which is a suitable transgression.
This year’s march was much changed from years past. Due to COVID-19 concerns, most of the normal programming was canceled. School programs were to be by video only. Parks were closed or severely limited in what they allowed. Social distancing was a big concern.
My desire to take part this year is based as much in joining the folks that make the annual trip that I have bonded with over the years. It’s that family reunion thing. The trail is the only place I see some of them or spend much personal time with them. We had a couple from Missouri, Richard Luce from Kentucky and a young lady from Michigan that have participated for years. Sarah Vogt, a 23-year-old first timer from Limestone, made the entire trip on her first try. The rest of the group, which averaged around 18, were from East Tennessee. All along the trail, there are some who drop in for a couple days and then drop out. It is that hearty group that makes the entire trek.
Another morsel of enticement for me was the fact that this year is the 240th anniversary of the battle that “turned the tide of the American Revolution.” That is according to Thomas Jefferson and the British themselves. Folks in the northeast part of the country ignore Kings Mountain and give the turning point of the war to the Battle of Saratoga. OVTA president David Doan said there was no thought of canceling this year’s march, and “only a state trooper blocking the road would have prevented us from crossing the mountains.” Then he added, “we would have then taken to the backroads, but we were coming.”
Most of the OVTA group had been busy since taking part in “The Gathering” Sept. 12, the Constitution Bell Ringing the 13th, and a Sept. 20 wreath laying at the grave of John Brody, one of six known African-American patriots who participated in the Battle of Kings Mountain. They also partook in a wreath laying at the grave of William Campbell at Seven Mile Ford. Campbell was the overall commander of the Overmountain Men and a brother-in-law of Patrick Henry.
Sept. 23, they camped at the Abingdon Muster Grounds, where some programming took place. They also visited the Arthur Campbell Home and participated in a colonial wedding, a real honest-to-goodness wedding. That was the second such event in a month.
The next evening, they camped at the site of the Pemberton Oak near Bristol. Longtime OVTA leader Tom Vaughan is a Pemberton descendant and the oak was in his mom’s yard. It was under this oak that Capt. John Pemberton mustered his company of men to march to Sycamore Shoals on Sept. 24, 1780. In 2002, after a heavy rain following six weeks of drought, the giant oak soaked up so much water that it crashed to the ground with a thunderous crack that sounded like thunder on a clear, calm, sunny morning. The stump was all that was left of the monstrous symbol of liberty. A DAR plaque marks the site where the oak stood and its scion now grows. That evening they presented a public program, telling the story, at the Rocky Mount historic site near Johnson City.
I joined in on the 25th, the actually gathering day, a nice rainy day at Sycamore Shoals. This year’s river crossing was canceled due to the river level being up, and the swiftness of the water. Safety is always the prime concern and rapidly moving water is unforgiving. We gathered under a pavilion and enjoyed Ridgewood BBQ as the rain fell.
On Saturday morning we enjoyed the send-off sermon of Rev. Samuel Doak in the tradition of 240 years ago. Mark Halback was the good reverend on this morning. We were offered the opportunity to follow the actual footsteps of the Overmountain Men in hiking Yellow Mountain Gap, where the Appalachian and the Overmountain Victory Trail cross. The program that evening was in the Roan Mountain State Park amphitheater. These events were not advertised due the virus situation, but the amphitheater filled quickly with folks from the nearby campgrounds. We spent the night in the nearby municipal park.
Sunday we drove to Spruce Pine, N.C. We have always stayed on the grounds of Riverside Elementary School. On the nearby Sibelco Corporation property is the grave of Robert Sevier. Sevier was the father of Valentine Sevier of Greeneville. He was wounded at Kings Mountain but wanted to die at home. He didn’t make it back and was buried in the Davenport Cemetery. Sibelco hosts us annually with a couple circus tents and meals for over 500 school children. Sadly, with the virus this program was canceled this year.
OVTA president David Doan presented Sibelco with a 2020 Heritage Award for its support of the story of the Overmountain Men and care-taking the grave of Sevier. We were each given a “treat bag” prepared by the schoolchildren. Each contained a handwritten note with a drawing telling us how much they missed their favorite annul field trip. That was especially touching and we made a group picture holding our drawings. It is heartwarming that the teachers and students took time to remember us during this tumultuous time we are experiencing. We certainly missed camping at the school, breakfast with the children and the programs at Sibelco. One nice thing about anniversaries: they roll back around fairly quick.
That afternoon we presented the OVT story in the Spruce Pine amphitheater. Steve Ricker asked me to fill in for his closing part of the story. We had a good turnout from the local folks. It was not advertised, but in a park curiosity draws folks to hear what we have to say. We spent the night at the Altapass Apple Orchard on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is where we got our first taste of fall weather.
Monday Sept. 28, we moved down to Marion, N.C. at the Carson House. We were again greeted by rainy weather and cooler air. On Tuesday we hosted programs for homeschool students. We hiked the Paddy Creek section of the OVT near Lake James. In the afternoon we went to the local cemetery, where we honored our good friend and longtime march participant Ronnie Lail. The OVTA color guard fired a volley and a “Mourn on Arms” ceremony was performed. A children’s honor guard also presented honors. That evening the DAR ladies fed us a great meal, and we again presented the story for them.
Wednesday we followed the trail to the Charles McDowell House. McDowell’s moving his militia across the mountains out of harm’s way was one of the reasons that British Major Patrick Ferguson sent his famous threat: to march his army across the mountains, hang the patriot leaders and lay waste with fire and sword if they did not cease and desist from their support of the rebel forces in the Carolinas. This threat was taken seriously by the Overmountain people, and they were soon off in pursuit of Ferguson. With them was McDowell and 200 of his men who had sought temporary refuge at Sycamore Shoals.
They camped at the McDowells’, where they were allowed to burn fence rails for heat and to kill some of the family’s beef to eat. We spent the next few days visiting sites that we either never visit because of the schedule or that are not a direct part of the trail. With school and public programming cut to a minimum, we took advantage of the opportunity to visit these other locations that tie into the story of the Revolution in the Carolinas.
On Thursday, Oct. 1 we finally found a river that was agreeable to cross. The Catawba River near Morganton has been a crossing point in recent years, and the first forded on this year’s adventure. Yours truly remained on the bank and took pictures. I have crossed enough rivers and find being the photographer more agreeable than getting wet.
We next visited Linville Gorge National Park, another of the side trips, with beautiful visits. Then it was on to South Mountains State Park, where we had evening programming scheduled. It was another unannounced program, where suddenly people start showing up, and before you realize what is happening, there are 40 people in the seats. Amazing!
Oct. 2-3, Chivous Bradley a longtime OVT promoter had met us at Gilbertown, which is now a deserted field. In 1780 the Overmountain Men found Ferguson’s cold campfires there as they tracked down their nemesis. It was the only place they camped on the same ground as the British.
Chivous hosted us at this lovely lakeside property for a cookout and to tell the story to the invited guests – Socially distanced of course. We spent the night there on the farm. Chivous’ son in law is the sheriff, and we were camping literally in his front yard.
The next morning he took us to see Poor’s (Dennard’s) Ford along the Broad River. The ford is on private property and we had never visited the site before. The old ford is in good shape. The original iron rod with the loop eye for the draw rope is still visible in the river. The old roadbeds still are visible on both sides of the river, undisturbed by progress. The significance of this spot is that here, knowing the Overmountain Men were gaining on him, Ferguson issued another proclamation. It said, “The backwater men have crossed over the mountains – grasp your arms and run to camp. If you choose to be degraded forever by a set of mongrels, say so at once, and let your women turn their backs on you, and look out for real men to protect them.” This was signed as “Pat. Ferguson, Major 71st Regiment.” That is the cleaned-up version.
Following this we ventured to a local outdoor BBQ place where Dalton Wade was informed he couldn’t get a double cheese burger because there was a beef shortage. I think they were a bit overwhelmed by what looked like a “pirate band” showing up at their stand.
Next we went to Biggerstaff’s Old Fields, a place I have been several times. The property now is owned by the county and has been cleaned off. Here on Oct. 9, 1780 the Overmountain Men tried and hanged some of the Tories captured on Kings Mountain. Chivous showed us where the old road was and the bridge that crossed the creek, where the hanging tree is believed to have been located. He also showed us the suspected burial site of those hanged.
That evening we were off to Gray’s Chapel, a longtime campsite near Alexander’s Ford and a nice long section of the preserved trail. We usually have busloads of school children here, but not this year. That evening some locals dropped in and a fresh new crew shared the story with them.
Saturday, we went down to Walnut Grove near Roebuck, S.C., where the annual Revolutionary War Days was being held this year for reenactors only. Several of our Fort Watauga/Sycamore Shoals cohorts were there. They did have a drive-through program for the locals in the evening that featured, among many things, live cannon firing. Another night at Gray’s Chapel and we went back to Walnut Grove for some live-streamed programming.
In a new twist, that afternoon, we drove down to Fort 96, a major British stronghold and a flourishing town in 1780. It is still a flourishing town, but the British burned the original of it when they left. Most of us had not been there, or had not been there in years. It was named Fort 96 because it was 96 miles from Charleston. It is a part of our OVT story and the Southern Campaign story.
Next week we’ll review the night before Kings Mountain and once more go to the mountaintop.