By Vikki L. Jeanne Cleveland
No one who knew Benjamin Cleveland in his formative years could have been too surprised that he would eventually earn a nickname like "Terror of the Tories." This future Revolutionary hero and his brothers were considered "a reckless lot" by their neighbors in Orange County, Virginia, and Ben in particular exhibited a raw courage that few his age possessed. Even drunken rowdies bent on destruction could not intimidate him.
"Home Alone" long before Macauley Culkin popularized the concept, Ben was one day visited by a group of hooligans who "playfully" began tossing Cleveland household belongings into a fire. Ben quickly reached for his father's rifle.
"Gentlemen," he said firmly, "do you see this?"
Yes, indeed they did. They also saw the threatening attitude of the young boy before them.
"We'd better be off," one of them wisely announced. "We don't know what this excited child might do."
Born May 26, 1738, to John and Elizabeth Coffey Cleveland, Benjamin Cleveland was raised in Orange County, Virginia, about seven miles from the mouth of Blue Run. Some sources have maintained that Ben was born and lived on the famous Bull Run Creek in Prince William County. However, W.W. Scott in his History of Orange County, Virginia asserts that "the fact of [Ben's] birth in Orange seems incontestable. There are Orange County records showing that Ben's father owned six hundred acres of land in Orange County in 1734. Cleveland's Run, about a mile northeast of Barboursville in Orange County, was named for Ben's family. As Baptists, they were probably members of the old Blue Run Church there."
Unfortunately, youthful exuberance frequently tinctured the reputation of the Cleveland boys. A letter by H.M. Stokes, written in 1843, described the brothers in general and Ben in particular as being "immoral." They always seemed to be losing their money in ill-advised gambling pursuits. Much of their time was spent at the race track, and much of their time at the track was spent fighting. When Ben played cards, his unbeatable strategy was to accuse his opponent of cheating, knock the man down, sweep the pot into his own pocket, and walk away. No one dared to challenge him. Even as a young man, he presented an imposing figure about six feet tall and approaching three hundred pounds. He carried his size well, however, and several who knew him spoke of his "martial bearing," his athleticism, and his "iron constitution." Ben himself proclaimed that his muscular power was limited only by the strength of his bones.
Ben's limited formal education included only the rudiments of "reading, writing, and arithmetic to the rule of three." In truth, Ben possessed an "excellent mind" and a "naturally vigorous intellect," but several sources have taken great pains to mention his inadequate education. John H. Wheeler in his history of North Carolina even mentioned that Ben had a speech impediment that prevented his entering political life. Former South Carolina Governor Benjamin F. Perry, Ben's namesake, disputed such claims. Governor Perry's father had been one of Ben's close friends and neighbors, and the governor himself described ben as "a great man by nature." Because of the absence of schools, academies, and colleges in colonial America, Governor Perry explained, "A scholar in the backwoods of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina was a rare thing. Most Revolutionary patriots in this area were illiterate, and justice was never done to their services and memories as would have been in more literate areas."
In 1758 Ben married Mary Graves, daughter of Joseph Graves. Although Mary was described as having a "weak intellect," she was also "a very amiable young lady who exercised great influence over [Ben] in moralizing his future conduct."
Apparently the transformation was a gradual one. The newlyweds had to settle on Joseph Graves's plantation because Ben's "habits and pursuits" had prevented his accumulating any property of his own. On the other hand, Ben's father-in-law "had a good living consisting of a tolerably good plantation, and a smart bunch of Virginia born negroes, and plenty of other good property." During the harvest season, Ben invited his neighbors to help on Joseph's plantation, rewarding them with plenty of liquor and fiddle music. The day's work usually ended in debauchery.
During the early years of his marriage, Ben fathered three children. However, only two of them, Absalom and John, were by Mary.
Colonel William C. Martin, one of Ben's close personal friends, wrote the following to noted historian Lyman Draper:
"When young, back in Virginia, Benjamin Cleveland, though married, had an illegitimate daughter [Jemima]. She married a man named Evan Edwards; they moved 'to the west' and had several children, and were poor. Cleveland asked [my] father, who knew Edwards, to ask his daughter to come to him and he would help her. I knew her in Virginia but had no idea she was Cleveland's daughter until he wrote me. I sent word to her and she came from Powell Valley to Tugaloo, where Cleveland was then living. The Indians had killed her husband, and she was in dire circumstances. I went to Cleveland and told him that his daughter was nearby, and Cleveland wept. Said he did not know what to do--that he was afraid of his wife and his son, John. John was a large and terrible man and held a rod of terror over all around him. Cleveland did tell his family though, and they said they would receive the daughter as one of their own, which they did. By then her children had been moved down, and she settled near Cleveland's home. She was quite a respectable woman, remarried, and did well."
In an effort to break Ben's cycle of bad habits and associations, Joseph Graves encouraged moving both himself and an extended Cleveland family westward. In 1765 England had opened new land in the province of North Carolina, and new settlers were needed to push the Indians farther west. In 1769 Joseph Graves, Ben and his family, and Ben's brother Robert moved to an area called Roaring Creek in what was then Rowan County, North Carolina. Roaring Creek is a northern tributary of the Yadkin River near the foot of the Blue Ridge. Rowan County evolved into Surry County before becoming present-day Wilkes County.
With the assistance of his father-in-law's servants, Ben started a farm and devoted his attention to stock raising and hunting. He later relocated on the northern bank of the Yadkin. His new plantation was called "Round About" because of the horseshoe shape of the land which was situated in a loop of the Yadkin river that ran "round about" Ben's place. The name is somewhat prophetic, for later Ben would be known as "All Around About Cleveland" when his weight increased to over four hundred pounds.
Despite his good intentions, Ben had a strong aversion toward "the drudgery of farm life." He focused his energies on hunting and exploring the wilderness in search of pelts and furs, which he would sell easily in the eager markets of Salem and Salisbury. He also enjoyed hunting deer ar night by torch light, a kind of hunting called "fire hunting." Daniel Boone, his neighbor on the Yadkin and a fellow horse breaker and huntsman, regaled Ben with stories of the "promised land" in Kentucky and the glories of the long hunt. Images of this hunters' heaven consumed him, and early in the hunting season of 1770, Ben began his own long hunt with companions Jesse Walton, Edward Rice (sometimes spelled Wryce), Lewis Bond, and William Hightower.
Probably this friendly band was bond for Kentucky, but they were misdirected somewhere along the way. After traveling for over one hundred miles before stopping to take furs and pelts, they camped, according to different reports, either on the Nolichucky River in eastern Tennessee or on the Little Tennessee River in southwestern North Carolina.
Visiting them in this camp one day were apparently friendly Indians, with whom Ben and his friends smoked the inevitable peace pipe before proceeding with their mission's purpose. However, at the Cumberland Gap, the mountain pass where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet, the hunting party was plundered by a hostile group of Cherokees.
Though Ben offered food and a pipe of peace to the Indians, his hospitality was rejected. The Indian leader furthermore declared that the "goodly amount" of furs and pelts taken by the white men belonged to the Cherokees. After issuing an order to get out of Cherokee country at once, the Indians took all the furs, horses, and rifles--except one old shotgun and a few charges of powder and shot.
The hunters had no choice but to begin their long trek home afoot, followed by Jesse Walton's faithful dog Toler. A "fortunate shot" from the old gun killed a deer, but the meat did not last long enough. After existing for several days on berries and joints of cane, the men had to kill Toler and use him for meat.
Finally, in a state of near starvation and with nothing to show for their long hunt, Ben and his companions arrived safely in the settlements.
Ben, however, was not one to let bygones be bygones, and in the spring of the following year (1771), with the help of some well-chosen friends, he returned to the place where the Cherokees had robbed him. Big Bear, a friendly Indian chief, furnished him with an escort to visit several towns and assist in recovering Ben?s stolen property.
Although Daniel Boone's legend has been the one perpetuated throughout history, certainly Ben possessed the same pioneer spirit and fearlessness as Boone. Even before Ben was involved in Revolutionary campaigns against them, Indians respected him for his courage, skill, and determination. Supposedly Ben could track down wild beasts as well as his bloodhounds could. As expert in woodcraft and the art of Indian warfare, he could also scent the red man in the air.
Ben is mentioned as a hunting buddy in Daniel Boone's "definitive" biography by John Bakeless, but there is no record that he ever went on a long hunt with Daniel. Still, it is possible that Ben did explore into Kentucky some time in 1772-1773. Surely no Indian threat would have deterred him.
Back home in the settlements, Ben was making friends and influencing people through his new vocation: surveying. He was by trade a house carpenter and builder, but surveyors were in great demand in North Carolina as people claimed land and built their homes. So Ben studied the profitable enterprise of surveying. Some researchers have maintained that his studies did not begin until after the war, but more have asserted that Ben was surveying throughout the 1770's. He had served as a tax collector for the part of Surry County that later became Wilkes, but it was the more favorable associations he made with his surveying that, perhaps, led to his being chosen to serve as the area's first representative in the legislature (1778) and then the state senate (1779).
Even as the area was prospering, however, there were mounting troubles with the British. By 1774 Ben was becoming excessively outspoken in his denunciations of British policies concerning the colonies. When news of colonial taxation by King George and the Parliament reached the Yadkin Valley, Ben was among the first to resent the threatened tyranny.
North Carolina State Archives Military Troop Returns show a "Field Return of Regiment of Militia for Surry County at a General Muster," dated June 28, 1774. Listed in this record were Jesse Walton as captain, Benjamin Cleveland as lieutenant, and William Jerrell as ensign along with three sergeants, three corporals, one drummer, and eighty privates who were not listed by name.
By 1775 local tempers were reaching the limits of restraint when neighbors and friends of the Upper Yadkin Valley traveled to Cross Creek (now Fayetteville) to sell their surplus products and to purchase supplies of iron, sugar, salt, and other necessities. Before they were permitted to make these transactions, however, the colonists were compelled to make an oath of allegiance to the king. When Ben heard of this blatant act of tyranny, he swore he would "dislodge the scoundrels" and raised a select party of riflemen to march upon the Loyalists and scatter them.
Ben's mission continued as he scoured the countryside and captured several Loyalist outlaws, one of whom he executed. The villain in question was a man named Jackson, who had set fire to the home and fully-stocked storehouse of Ransom Sunderland, one of the many Surry County inhabitants who were "devoted friends of American liberty."
On September 1, 1775, Ben was offered the position of ensign of the North Carolina Line under the command of Colonel Robert Howe, but he declined the honor, preferring to serve with the militia in his own locality.
During this time, Ben was also chairman of the Surry County Committee of Safety, a committee formed by citizens. William Lenoir served as secretary. Surry County citizens on the committee included Joseph Winston, Jesse Walton, John Hamlin, Samuel Freeman, Benjamin Herndon, Charles Lynch, John Armstrong, James Hampton, Richard Goode, George Lash, David Martin, and Charles Waddle. According to historian John H. Wheeler, the resolutions of this committee breathed "a determined resistance to oppression and formed a government simple and effective for the protection of the citizen."
By the summer of 1776, the British had enticed the Cherokees into open hostilities with the colonists. Fighting had flared in several locations as British agents tried to divert the patriots' mental and logistical focus. Working as a colonial scout on the western frontier, Ben took his men to Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River, from where they ranged the scope of the frontier in a display of force for the Cherokees. Ben's activities caused the Indians to have second thoughts about being associated with the British, and the tribes smoked the long pipe of peace with Ben and his friends.
This peace was only temporary, however, and by the autumn months the Indians were agitated again into ravaging the frontier. This time General Griffith Rutherford led a strong force against the Cherokees, and Ben and his men joined the campaign in the Surry Regiment under Colonel Joseph Williams and Major Joseph Winston. William Lenoir, Ben's lieutenant, frequently spoke of the hardships and privations the troops had to endure in this service. Often low on provisions, the company had few blankets and no tents. The men were dressed in mended clothing made of a crude material derived from the field and forest. They were often harassed on their march by ambush parties, and all shared in the skirmishes and bushwackings of the campaign because there was no official general engagement.
General Rutherford had begun with two thousand men before Ben and his volunteers added to their strength. In South Carolina General Andrew Williamson was pushing toward Indian Territory with a similar force. Although the activities of North Carolina and South Carolina were not coordinated, the combined forces succeeded in complete devastation of practically all Cherokee towns and crops from Sugartown in Lesser Towns to Chota in the Overhills Towns (in what is now Tennessee). Driven back across the mountains where they remained, the defeated Cherokees paid for their continuing association with the British with the Long Island Treaty of the Holston and the Treaty of Dewitt's Corners in South Carolina.
During the fighting, Ben's excursions ranged into South Carolina and the Tugaloo Valley. Years later he would say that he had whipped the Indians in the place where he was determined to live.
Ben was promoted to captain November 23, 1776. He also attended the legislature, not as a member but as a citizen using his influence for the division of Surry County and the formation of a new county for the better convenience of the Upper Yadkin settlements. Wilkes County was subsequently formed.
While securing the country around Cape Fear, Ben and his men engaged in the Battle of Moore's Creek and captured and executed several outlaws while burning many Loyalist towns. "Cleveland's Bulldogs" were earning Ben a reputation for brutality in partisan warfare characterized by "inhumanity, summary hangings, and mutilation." On some occasions he would hang Tories by their thumbs until they confessed to British movements--thus creating a local expression "hanging one by his thumbs." While Ben did resort to the severest measures of punishment againt Tory outrages and maraudings, he still had a commanding influence over many and caused them to abandon their Loyalist associations and unite with the patriots. According to a writer of Ben's time, "Cleveland was literally all things to all people. By his severities he awed and intimidated not a few, restraining them from lapsing into Tory abominations; by his kindness, forbearance and even tenderness, winning over many to the glorious cause he loved so well."
Ben's fiercely loyal mountain men were "untrained but hardy and accurate of fire." Admirers and countrymen called them "Cleveland's Heroes" or "Cleveland's Bulldogs," but to the British and the Tories they were "Cleveland's Devils." According to Ben, each of his men was equal to five ordinary soldiers. Ben summoned them to his side by walking into his elevated Round About yard and sounding a huge hunting horn.
Tory depredations were considered worse than those of the Indians. Though by today's standards some might think Ben was excessive in his punishment of the Loyalists, the colonists victimized by Tory aggression and brutality realized that Ben was administering "an eye for an eye" justice at a time when there was no dependable centralized means of law enforcement. Many Tories in North Carolina and South Carolina joined the British only for plundering and robbing. They had no political or moral principles and cared nothing for king and country. These Tories particularly enraged Ben.
In 1778 Ben was made colonel of the militia. Despite his reputation for brutal justice (or perhaps because of it!), he was appointed justice of the Wilkes County court and placed at the head of the Commission of Justices. Regarded as one of the most popular leaders of the mountain section of the state, Ben was easily elected to the state's House of Commons during this year.
Even while Ben was busy with these affairs of county and state, he was active in sending scouting parties into certain mountain regions to break up Tory bands infesting the frontier. One detachment of Cleveland's Bulldogs caught a Tory desperado named Zachariah Wells and brought him to Hughes Bottoms, about a mile from Round About. Here thirteen-year-old James Gwyn and a colored boy were at work in a cornfield when Ben joined those who had taken Wells prisoner. The band of freedom fighters included Ben's two sons, his brother Robert, and Lieutenant Elisha Reynolds.
Needing something to hang Wells with, Ben borrowed the plow lines from James Gwyn's horse. James, innocent of the ways of war, was shocked at so summary an execution and begged his neighbor not to hang the poor fellow who looked so pitiful and was suffering from a former wound.
"Jimmie, my son," Ben explained gently, "he is a bad man. We must hang all such [damned men]." Captain Robert Cleveland was cursing "at a vigorous rate" as he prepared the wincing, squirming prisoner for execution. Ben was not unaffected by the boy's naive pleas, and tears flowed down his cheeks as he adjusted the rope around the neck of Zachariah Wells. The big-hearted colonel regretted the necessity of hanging the trembling culprit, especially in front of young Jimmie, but he also knew that the lives of the Yadkin River patriots would be much safer and they would all sleep more peacefully when the country was rid of such vile desperadoes. Wells soon dangled from a convenient tree, and his body was buried in the sand and loam on the bank of the Yadkin.
Wherever Ben travled, he remained vigilant for any glimmer of Tory influence. Once, upon seeing a weedy cornfield, he said to the man standing there, a man named Bishop, "Are you a Tory or a patriot?"
"Sir," Bishop replied, "I am just a plain farmer."
"Well, that being the case," Ben told the plain farmer, "the next time I find so many weeds in this corn, you will be given thirty lashes!"
From this particular episode, we can understand why some of Ben's neighbors considered him dictatorial. Nevertheless, from then on, the Bishop cornfield was the cleanest anywhere!
Perhaps Ben was despotic in nature, and certainly he was severe on Tories, but his strong patriotic nature preserved the western Carolinas from British and Tory ascendancy. In 1779 his abrupt justice was further demonstrated by his handling of two hoodlums, James Coyle and John Brown, who had terrorized the entire country between Wilkes County, North Carolina, and Ninety-Six, South Carolina. After their spree of rape, murder, robbery, and plundering, they were eventually caught and brought before Ben, who was so incensed he wanted to kill them himself. He thrust his sword at Coyle, but a glancing blow broke the blade. Now even more enraged, Ben had them seized by his men and hanged from the nearest tree. James Harwell, who had housed and protected these hoodlums, were severely beaten by Ben's men.
Ben and Benjamin Herndon, who was also involved in this justice, were subsequently indicted for murder in the Superior Court of the District of Salisbury, but on November 6, 1779, the North Carolina House of Commons offered a resolution to the governor, who signed it, and Ben and Herndon were pardoned for their actions.
On June 20, 1780, Cleveland's Bulldogs turned out to crush the Tories at Ramsour's (sometimes spelled Ramseur's) Mill. However, they were with the force led by General Rutherford and saw no action, arriving shortly after the Tories' defeat. In a second engagement, the Bulldogs chased Colonel Bryan's British forces from the state and secured the region of New River. Again, Tory leaders and outlaws were hanged.
According to Wheeler, Ben was the leader of more than a hundred fights with the Tories. A "perfect athlete" with a "large frame and an iron constitution" that was accustomed to the forest and climbing mountains, Ben was able to endure any fatigue and hardship in his pursuit of Tory desperadoes. According to Governor Perry, Ben was "bold, fearless, and self-willed, full of hope and buoyancy of spirits....He was a stern man and loved justice more than he did mercy. He knew that very often mercy to a criminal was death to an innocent man."
In the fall of 1780, Ben led 350 Heroes to their most famous moment of the Revolution, the Battle of King's Mountain, when he learned that British Colonel Patrick Ferguson intended to march into North Carolina.
Mounted columns of Carolinians and Virginians came from the west over the mountains in snow "shoe mouth deep" in response to the threat. These "over-mountain" men had years before established their settlements and their homes in remote regions far and independent from the Royal authority in the eastern colonies. Though the American Revolution had been raging for five years, these men had until now been unthreatened by the war, but Ferguson's invasion of the South Carolina upcountry changed their perspective.
In his own campaign, Ferguson had succeeded in recruiting several thousand Carolinians of loyal British persuasion. With them he began to hunt down and punish the "rebels" who continued to resist Royal authority. During the summer of 1780, Ferguson marched and counter-marched through the Carolina upcountry as the over-mountain men swept eastward and engaged him or his detachment in fierce little actions of sometimes confused guerrilla warfare.
In August an American Continental Army from the north had suffered a crushing defeat by Lord Cornwallis at Camden, and the over-mountain men had retired home to rest and strengthen their forces, resolving to recross the mountains and go after Ferguson again. While they were at home keeping watch to the east, Cornwallis mounted his invasion of North Carolina. To protect his left flank from guerrilla attack and to enlist still more Loyalists, he ordered Ferguson to move north into western North Carolina before joining the main army at Charlotte.
On the afternoon of October 6, Ferguson reached King's Mountain, just south of the North Carolina border, where he decided to camp and await the enemy.
King's Mountain is a rocky, woody, outlying spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains that rises sixty feet above the plain around it. A plateau at its summit runs about six hundred yards long and seventy feet wide at one end and 120 feet at the other end, giving Ferguson a seemingly excellent campsite and defensive position for his 1100 men.
As Ferguson waited to engage the enemy, he must have felt self-assured to the point of cockiness. His position was apparently impenetrable. He was heard to proclaim from his mountain, "This is a position from which God Almighty cannot drive us!" He was supremely confident of himself and his troops. According to Botta, the Italian historian of the Revolution, Ferguson and his men were "the most profligate and the most ferocious description of men....Believing anything admissible with the sanction of their chief, they put everything in their passage to fire and sword." Ferguson furthermore scorned the prowess of the freedom fighters, referring to them as "back water men."
He most surely had underestimated his opponent. The atrocious excesses of the British had inflamed the Whigs with the desire for revenge. Without any authority from Congress or the state authorities, the Whigs assembled and demanded that their officers lead them into battle. They had no commissaries or quartermasters, no provisions or baggage wagons. Each man carried his own "wallet," blanket, and gun. They slept on the ground, drank from streams, and ate parched corn and roasted pumpkins.
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