1998: Jeremy Vargas Sagastegui 1948: Arthur Eggers, by Earl Warren

1780: The Biggerstaff Hanging Tree earns its name

October 14th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, American Revolution patriots hanged nine captive loyalist prisoners in North Carolina, in the wake of the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Although the colonials would ultimately accomplish their break with the British Empire, the British and their local loyalists had a strong run in a southern campaign from about 1778.

But even at their acme, the redcoats could not extend their writ westward past the Appalachian Mountains, into the frontiers where hunger to swallow up Indian land made for ferocious adherence to the pro-independence cause, since the Crown was trying to limit settler expansion in those zones. The ones who turned their muskets against their king would become known as the “Overmountain Men” — and the Battle of King’s Mountain was their glory.

Feeling their oats after thrashing Horatio Gates‘s rebel army at the Battle of Camden — seen here in the Mel Gibson/Heath Ledger movie The Patriot

— the Brits sent the capable Scottish Major Patrick Ferguson into the mountains to roust out the irregulars. After some weeks of maneuver, Ferguson faced off with the Overmountain Men on October 7 at a wooded crag just south of the border between the Carolinas: barely a “mountain”, and definitely not the king’s. In an hourlong fight, the Overmountain militia overwhelmed Ferguson’s command, killing Ferguson himself.

Historical novel about the events surrounding King’s Mountain. (Review)

It was a stunning blow to the British, and checked that rampant southern campaign; as British prospects slipped away in subsequent years, King’s Mountain would loom as a mighty portent. The British commander Sir Henry Clinton considered King’s Mountain “the first link in a chain of events that followed each other in regular succession until they at last ended in the total loss of America.” In a more buoyant mood, Thomas Jefferson judged this battle “the joyful annunciation of the turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War, with the Seal of our independence.”

Not so joyful were nearly 700 Tory prisoners whom the colonial militia hurriedly marched west to Gilbert Town (present-day Rutherfordton) in the western reaches of North Carolina. The militia’s blood was up already from British atrocities; at King’s Mountain, the British had difficulty surrendering to baying guerrillas who killed the first man to offer the white flag, baying for revenge upon previous massacres of patriots.

While holding their prisoners at the farm of Aaron Biggerstaff — a Tory who had been killed at King’s Mountain, even as his Patriot brother languished in British custody — word reached the Overmountain Men that yet more revolutionists had been executed in British custody.

Vowing to put a stop to this this, they put 36 of their prisoners to a drumhead trial on October 14 and sentenced them all to death. Nine of them were actually hanged that evening, three by three: Ambrose Mills, Robert Wilson, James Chitwood, Arthur Grimes, Thomas Lafferty, Walter Gilkey, John McFall, John Bibby, and Augustine Hobbs. Mills, a colonel and the leader of the loyalist forces in this western county, was the most prominent of the bunch.

Intercession by Patriot officers and the Biggerstaff women put a stop to the proceedings; the other 27 “condemned” were simply suffered to return to the horde of POWs, and marched out the next morning.

A sign noting the place of the Biggerstaff Hanging Tree is one of the markers on the National Parks Service’s Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,North Carolina,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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