Richard Pearis and the Mobilization of South Carolina’s Backcountry Loyalists

The War Years (1775-1783)

October 27, 2014
by Jim Piecuch Also by this Author

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When British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton began operations against Charleston in March 1780, he decided not to call upon the Loyalists in the South Carolina backcountry to assist him. Although employing Loyalists to aid the regular army was a key element of British strategy in the South, Clinton believed that they would be endangered if he summoned them prematurely. He did not wish to “expose them to the malevolence of their enemies before I was fully certain of success,” he wrote, “and thus bring danger and trouble upon themselves, at a time when the King’s army, being employed in the reduction of Charles town, could not assist or second their struggles.”[1]

On May 3, with Charleston’s capitulation a virtual certainty, Clinton put into motion his plan for mobilizing the Loyalists. He delegated the task to James Simpson, the former royal attorney general of South Carolina who was serving as Clinton’s secretary during the campaign. Acting on the general’s instructions, Simpson issued orders to several Loyalist refugees who were with the army to proceed to the backcountry and call on the Loyalists there to join the fight. Although Simpson indicated in his orders that Clinton was sending more than one emissary to the Loyalists, the only individual known to have undertaken this mission was Richard Pearis.[2] Pearis was so successful in carrying out his orders that he quickly established the basis for a successful Loyalist militia in South Carolina; however, his successes were just as quickly undone by British officers.

Little is known about Pearis’s early life. He was born in Ireland, the year not known, and immigrated to North America with his family at the age of ten. By 1752 he had settled in Virginia and became involved in the Indian trade. Two years later he had formed a partnership with Nathanial Gist, son of the famed frontiersman and associate of George Washington, Christopher Gist. In 1755, shortly after the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed Pearis captain of “a Company of Provincials in the Virginia Service,” as well as an agent to the southern Indian nations. Pearis, who by then may have been married to a Cherokee woman, appears to have played an important role in recruiting Cherokee warriors to participate in British Brigadier General John Forbes’s expedition against French Fort Duquesne in 1758. The French evacuated the fort as Forbes approached, and Pearis claimed that he “was the first British Subject who entered Fort Pitt [the name the British later gave to the former French post] at its reduction for which I had General Forbes public Thanks.”[3]

The home of Richard Pearis, one of the first European settlers in upstate South Carolina, cropped from a historical marker in Greenville, South Carolina, near the original location of the house. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The home of Richard Pearis, cropped from a historical marker in Greenville, South Carolina, near the original location of the house. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the war, Pearis moved to the area of present-day Greenville County, South Carolina. He continued to trade with the Cherokees, who apparently held him in high regard and according to some accounts gave him 100,000 acres of land, where he built a house, trading post, mill and storage buildings along the Enoree River. He probably resided there with his white wife, Rhoda, and their children Richard Junior, Margaret, and Sarah, while his Indian wife Pratchy and their two children, George and Nelly, continued to live among the Cherokees; this would not have been unusual in the Cherokees’ matrilineal society, where a couple’s children were raised by the wife’s male relatives.[4]

When the Revolutionary War began, rebel leaders in South Carolina expressed concern over the political opinions of prominent backcountry settlers. In August 1775 the Council of Safety in Charleston specifically named Pearis and Moses Kirkland as two people whose support for the Revolution was doubtful and who needed to be watched. Pearis made his stance clear in the fall, when he and other backcountry Loyalists learned that the Council of Safety was sending gunpowder and lead to the Cherokees for use in the Indians’ winter hunt. The shipment was intended to secure Cherokee neutrality by weaning that nation from its reliance on British supplies. Patrick Cunningham, however, who hoped to free his imprisoned brother Robert, began spreading word in the backcountry that the munitions were intended to arm the Cherokees for an attack on the Loyalists. Pearis participated in circulating the report. He was not present when Patrick Cunningham and 150 Loyalists overpowered the guards and seized the wagonload of munitions in November, but when rebel militia colonel Andrew Williamson summoned his men to recover the ammunition, Pearis took the field with the Loyalist force.[5]

Williamson marched to the backcountry town of Ninety Six with 1,900 rebel militiamen and built a makeshift fort, where they were almost immediately surrounded by 2,200 Loyalists commanded by Pearis, Cunningham, Joseph Robinson, and Euan McLaurin. On November 22, after several days of skirmishing, Williamson and the Loyalist leaders agreed to a truce. Both forces would disband and return home, and ask the Council of Safety and South Carolina’s royal governor, Lord William Campbell, to arbitrate the dispute. The Loyalists failed to realize that Campbell had no authority whatsoever; the Council of Safety was the de facto governing body in South Carolina. In addition, the Loyalists did not know that several thousand additional rebel militiamen were on their way to assist Williamson. The commanders of these units claimed that since they had not personally agreed to the truce, they were not bound by it. The rebel force easily dispersed the small bodies of Loyalists who tried to oppose them and arrested more than one hundred Loyalist leaders, including Pearis, who was captured in mid-December.[6]

Pearis was sent to Charleston with the other captives. After two months in prison – he said that he “lay in Irons” – he and thirty-three other prisoners petitioned the Council of Safety, expressing regret at their differences with their countrymen and offering to “Settle Peace” with the rebels. The petition was ignored. However, upon learning in July 1776 that the Cherokees had attacked the southern frontier, the prisoners asked the Council to be released so that they could help fight the Indians. At the time, with the exception of some Loyalist refugees who joined the Cherokees in their attacks, both rebels and Loyalists viewed the Cherokees as enemies and were willing to put aside their differences to fight a common foe. This time the Council relented after the Loyalists took an oath of allegiance to the rebel government. Robert Cunningham and Pearis reported to Williamson’s militia camp, but neither was permitted to serve. Williamson trusted Cunningham, but believed that the militiamen would object to serving with a prominent Loyalist, and he was extremely suspicious of Pearis because of his long relationship with the Cherokees.[7]

After leaving the militia camp Pearis returned to his home, where he was shocked to find that “my Estate was burnt and destroyed, my Wife 2 Daughters and one Son were surprised by break of day by one Colonel [John] Thomas and 400 Militia, [who] beat and abused my daughters and made them all prisoners, after burning, destroying, and carrying away the Property.” Pearis’s wife and children had been forced to march twenty-five miles on the day of the attack, without food, and were then put aboard an open wagon and transported another one hundred miles “and turned out to shift for themselves amongst a Parcel of Rebels.” They stayed at the unnamed location for three years, living on charity and “their own Industry … and under continual apprehension of being massacred.”[8]

Pearis found his family and lived with them a short time, “but was so harrassed that he was obliged to fly for Protection to Charles Town.” There, Governor John Rutledge promised that he would be protected. On September 18, Pearis petitioned the South Carolina legislature, asking that his slaves and cattle taken by Thomas’s men be returned, and that he receive some form of compensation for the destruction of his property. The house referred his petition to a committee, and no action was taken until 1778, when the legislators passed an act granting colonels Thomas and Ezekiel Polk immunity for their burning and looting of Pearis’s property, and barring Pearis and his heirs from taking any legal action to recover the plundered property from those who had purchased it. The decision was based on the legislature’s conclusion that Pearis had “acted as an enemy to the State.”[9]

Pearis had departed Charleston long before the legislature rejected his petition. Fearing for his life despite Rutledge’s promises, Pearis left the city and moved inland to the area between the Broad and Saluda rivers. There, in the early summer of 1777, he began organizing Loyalists to march to Florida. Based on the route of his subsequent journey and his familiarity with the Indians on the western frontier, it is likely that he planned to lead the group into Cherokee territory and then southward through Creek lands to Pensacola. Before the four hundred Loyalists who had agreed to follow Pearis could leave, the rebels learned of the plan and sent Williamson’s militia to prevent their flight. Nearly all of the Loyalists abandoned the attempted escape, but Pearis and six men succeeded in making the trek through Indian lands to Pensacola. Pearis stated that the circuitous route, traversed entirely on foot, was seven hundred miles in distance, and the only food he and his six associates had was provided by the Indians they met on their way. Upon his arrival at Pensacola in July, he was commissioned a captain in the West Florida Loyal Refugees by John Stuart, British Indian Superintendent for the Southern Department.[10]

Pearis commanded one of two companies in the unit, and both were weak. A 1779 return listed 28 officers and men in Captain William McIntosh’s company and 25 in Pearis’s company, some of whom were on detached duty. Nevertheless, Pearis and his troops had already achieved some success. When about one hundred American troops under Captain James Willing traveled by boat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and seized the West Florida settlements of Natchez and Manchac in February 1778, Stuart dispatched Pearis and his company to drive out the invaders. Uniting with some local Loyalists under Adam Chrystie, Pearis and the combined force of only fifteen men attacked one of Willing’s detachments at Manchac in April, killing several of the forty American troops and capturing the rest. Coming only a few days after another Loyalist victory at White Cliffs on April 16, the success at Manchac left Willing with only a handful of men and restored British control in the Mississippi River region of West Florida. Pearis left his troops to garrison Manchac and returned to Pensacola, where Stuart assigned him to guide Indian agent David Holmes and a party of Creeks to St. Augustine, which was threatened by American invaders from Georgia.[11]

After completing that mission, Pearis remained in East Florida until the end of 1778, when Major General Augustine Prevost ordered him to accompany the British invasion force advancing overland to Savannah, Georgia. Pearis was present when the British captured Fort Morris at Sunbury on January 9, 1779, and with the rest of Prevost’s troops joined Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell’s British soldiers at Savannah, which Campbell had captured on December 29, 1778. Later in January, Pearis accompanied Campbell on his expedition to Augusta. He remained in Georgia until the spring of 1780, when Prevost ordered him to Charleston.[12]

Given Pearis’s familiarity with the South Carolina backcountry and its inhabitants, and his long record of service to the British, Clinton saw him as an obvious choice to act as an emissary to the Loyalists. Simpson issued Pearis detailed orders concerning the task. First, Pearis was to travel to areas where there were known to be substantial numbers of Loyalists, inform them of the British army’s arrival in South Carolina, and assure them that they would be protected by the army. Pearis would also announce Clinton’s plan to march troops into the backcountry once Charleston had surrendered, and request that the Loyalists “should hold themselves in readiness to assemble on the first nottice of the Kings Troops being in Motion.” While awaiting this news, the Loyalists should gather “as much ammunition and Provisions” as they could find. The necessary provisions should be taken from rebels, and any surplus destroyed. Pearis was also to advise the Loyalists “to procure as many Horses as possible.”[13]

After these tasks had been accomplished, the Loyalists were to assemble, and if their strength was sufficient, “Seize and Secure Such of the People as have been most Subservient to the purposes of the Rebellious Leaders in enforcing their Tyrannical Laws, and thereby prevent the mischief they will attempt.” The Loyalists should then march to unite with the British army, and if “opposed by the Rebels they must resolutely endeavour to cut their way through them.” However, they should not engage in “any doubtful Offensive operations.” The instructions also included orders to destroy all rebel military posts the Loyalists might encounter on their march, and discussed Clinton’s plans to organize a militia to police the reconquered colony.[14]

Pearis promptly set out for the backcountry, where he experienced tremendous success. There is little reason to doubt the accuracy of Pearis’s account, as his statements echo those made at that time by many other observers. Pearis’s report differs from them only in providing many details not found elsewhere, and in his reaction to the subsequent unraveling of his accomplishments.[15]

In Pearis’s words, his mission was “to go to the frontiers of South Carolina, there to raise the friends of Government, which I compleated to the amount of 5 or 6000.” These figures are probably accurate, given the extent of Pearis’s travels and the number of men who served in Loyalist militia units in the backcountry. Pearis also reported that he and those who joined him “disarmed all the Rebels from Savannah River to Broad River near the Borders of North Carolina, being upwards of one hundred Miles in breadth, destroyed their Forts and imprisoned their leaders to the number of 40.” Pearis’s blow to the rebel leadership had the potential to be as effective as the similar effort that the rebels had undertaken against the backcountry Loyalists in late 1775, when the arrests of Pearis and others had left the Loyalists disorganized and demoralized. He added that during his journey he “took 3000 Stand of arms, 22 Swivels, 27 Blunderbusses, and a quantity of Ammunition.”[16]

Pearis did not accomplish all of this alone; he was assisted by other Loyalists who joined him as he traveled through the backcountry. Upon hearing of Charleston’s surrender, some Loyalists took action before Pearis arrived with Clinton’s instructions. Robert Cunningham and David Fanning had already begun organizing Loyalists and led their men to Andrew Williamson’s plantation to capture the rebel brigadier general, only to find on their arrival that Williamson had just surrendered to Pearis and a small party of his followers.[17]

Pearis had established a solid foundation for the restoration of British authority in the South Carolina interior. Disarmed and leaderless, even the most ardent rebels would have had difficulty mounting effective resistance to the British and Loyalists. It appeared that Clinton was moving to capitalize on this early success. On May 29, his aide Major John Andre wrote Pearis extending Clinton’s thanks for his efforts, and reporting that Clinton had sent troops into the backcountry to aid the Loyalists.[18]

Despite this promising beginning to British operations in South Carolina, the situation almost immediately began to disintegrate. Even worse, from Pearis’s perspective, was the fact that it was not the rebels who were undermining his achievements, but British officers. Pearis lamented that his mission “was no sooner compleated than Colonel [Alexander] Innes, and afterwards Colonel [Nisbet] Balfour arrived to take upon them the Command. And in a short time after they returned the arms & ammunition into their hands and released their [rebel] Leaders.” These actions were taken to conciliate the former rebels, but instead all the British achieved was to rearm their enemies and provide them with commanders. Innes, Balfour, and their superior, Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, proved to be the architects of their own undoing.[19]

Cornwallis and his subordinate officers of the regular army did not hold Pearis in high regard. On June 14, Lieutenant Colonel Balfour wrote to the earl enclosing some documents from Pearis and including his own assessment of the Loyalist leader. “Mr. Paris, a fellow of infamous character, has a sett with him that must imediately be sent home; otherwise there will be much distress amongst the inhabitants,” Balfour wrote. “I have therefore desired Innes to proceed to General Williamson’s,” where Pearis evidently was at the time. Innes was to “take the command, and send the militia home untill I come to embody them … and to send Colonel Paris to me, and afterwards to meet me at Ninety Six, leaving recruiting partys etc; but allways leaving him every latitude to act as circumstances occur.” Balfour thought that “indeed this is the idea … he has himself. When he comes to me, I shall keep him but a very short time and send him here in his way to Charles Town.” Despite his desire to get Pearis out of the backcountry, Balfour asserted that the Loyalist was an asset to the British: “His assistance will allways be of use, as he is very active and clear in every thing.”[20]

The letter from Pearis that Balfour forwarded to Cornwallis had been written to Innes on June 12. It was a brief statement that Pearis was on his way to Andrew Williamson’s plantation, White Hall, “to receive the arms etc deposited there; from thence I shall proceed to Fort Rutledge on the same business.” Innes jotted a brief note on the letter stating that “I had wrote to [Pearis] to know by what authority he acted,” and Pearis had provided a copy of his instructions from Simpson. Pearis also included the articles of capitulation signed on June 10 by representatives of the rebel garrison of Fort Rutledge and of the people living on the south side of the Saluda River. In accordance with his instructions, Pearis’s terms required the rebels to turn over their “arms, amunition, and military stores,” and to discharge the militia except for the men in garrison at Fort Rutledge, who could remain to protect the inhabitants from Indian attack until relieved by Loyalist troops. Pearis and one of his associates, Captain David Rees of the South Carolina Royalists, had signed the document on behalf of the British.[21]

Unlike Balfour, who disliked Pearis but considered him useful, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Innes had no respect for the Loyalist officer. “I would not have entrusted Pearis with a corporal’s guard, and, added to that, he is a man of very indifferent character,” Innes told Cornwallis on June 15.[22]

Cornwallis accepted Innes’s opinion and did not forget it. On December 20, in a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon, he indicated that he had heard that Pearis was serving in the South Carolina Royalists. “It is very extraordinary if Parris is a captain” in that unit, the earl wrote, since Innes “assured me in June last that Parris was one of the greatest scoundrels in the whole country.” Rawdon replied that Pearis was not serving in the regiment.[23]

Pearis, angered at seeing most of his work undone by Cornwallis and his subordinates, and very likely aware of their estimation of him and his abilities, moved with his family to the vicinity of Augusta, Georgia. During the American siege of the town that resulted in its surrender on June 5, 1781, Pearis was among the defenders of Fort Cornwallis. He was “nearly assassinated by the Rebels” after his capture, according to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brown, who commanded the Loyalist garrison. The Americans paroled Pearis on June 8, and by 1783 he was at St. Augustine in East Florida. After the war he settled at Abaco Island in the Bahamas, where he died, possibly in 1794 although some accounts indicate that he was alive in 1800. The British government compensated him for his lost property in the amount of 5,624 pounds and awarded him an annual pension of 70 pounds.[24]

The success of Pearis’s mission in May and June 1780 demonstrates that large numbers of South Carolina Loyalists were ready and able to support the British after the capture of Charleston. With the rebels disarmed and their leaders arrested, the Loyalists would have faced far less opposition in the backcountry, and thus Major Patrick Ferguson, who had been appointed inspector of militia by Clinton, would have had a longer interlude of calm during which to organize and train the men. The result, a more effective Loyalist militia facing a weaker rebel insurgency, may have led to a British and Loyalist triumph in the partisan war and the successful British reconquest of South Carolina. Instead, in the misguided hope of winning over former enemies with lenient treatment, Cornwallis and his officers strengthened the insurgency that played so significant a role in causing British defeat in the South.

The author wishes to thank the David Library of the American Revolution in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, for their fellowship support that enabled the author to conduct the research that led to this article.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Life-size representation of Richard Pearis, at the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

 


[1] Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 175-176.

[2] James Simpson to Richard Pearis, May 3, 1780, www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/scmil/scmlet1.htm, accessed Sept. 22, 2014.

[3][3] “Richard Pearis,” http://donmchugh.tripod.com/paris/richardpearis.htm, accessed Sept. 22, 2014; “Richard Pearis,” http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=marciamcclure&id-11162, accessed Sept. 22, 2014; Richard Pearis, Loyalist Claim, Audit Office Papers (AO) 12/49/310 and 13/93/601.

[4] “Richard Pearis,” donmchugh.tripod.com; “American History: Greenville County, South Carolina,” www.electricscotland.com/history/america/counties/greenville.htm; Pearis Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/310.

[5] Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 49, 54; Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/310.

[6] Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 54-55; Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/310.

[7] Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 56, 70; Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/305; “Memorial of Richard Pearis to the South-Carolina General Assembly,” Sept. 18, 1776, http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/amarch/getdoc.pl?/var/lib/philologic/databases/amarch/.25, accessed Sept. 22, 2014.

[8] Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/307.

[9] Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/310; “Memorial of Richard Pearis,” http;//lincoln.lib.niu.edu; “Act to Indemnify Colonel John Thomas and Ezekiel Polk for Seizing, Selling, and Disposing of the Effects of Richard Pearis,” 1778, Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina: Acts from 1752 to 1786, Vol. 4 (Columbia, SC: A. S. Johnston, 1838), 425.

[10] Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/305-306, 311, AO 13/93/617-618; Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 95.

[11] “West Florida Loyal Refugees Return,” c. April 30, 1779, www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/wflr/wflrretn1.htm, accessed Sept. 22, 2014; Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 13/93/601-602; Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 107.

[12] Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 13/93/602.

[13] James Simpson to Pearis, May 3, 1780, www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/scmil/scmlet1.htm, accessed Sept. 22, 2014.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 176-180, for reports similar to Pearis’s account.

[16] Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/306.

[17] Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 180.

[18] John Andre to Pearis, May 29, 1780, Pearis Loyalist Claim, AO 13/93/614.

[19] Pearis Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/306.

[20] Nisbet Balfour to Earl Cornwallis, June 14, 1780, in Ian Saberton, editor, The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press, 2010), 1:89-90.

[21] Pearis to Innes, June 12, 1780, and Articles of Capitulation, Fort Rutledge and South Side of Saluda, June 10, 1780, in Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers, 1:92-93, 96=97.

[22] Alexander Innes to Cornwallis, June 15, 1780, ibid., 1:118.

[23] Cornwallis to Francis, Lord Rawdon, Dec. 20, 1780, and Rawdon to Cornwallis, Dec. 21, 1780, ibid., 3:219, 222.

[24] Pearis, Loyalist Claim, AO 12/49/306; Saberton, ed., Cornwallis Papers, 1:90n.; Pearis’s Parole, June 8, 1781, www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/wflr/wflrparole.htm, accessed Sept. 22, 2014; “Pearis,” rootsweb.ancestry.com.

6 Comments

  • Richard is my 6th Great Grandfather, i am descended through his son George Parris, name change due to differing cultural groups, a common practice then.

    George was his son by his Cherokee wife, Richard Grandson, my 4th GGF Moses Parris became a senator and judge in the nation and signed the constitution of 1839.

    1. My other 6th Great Grandfather is Edward Wilkinson, who also had a Cherokee wife, my 3rd Great Grandfather married his Granddaughter, he was an American Indian Agent to the Cherokee.

      Richard also had contact with him, although i read not particularly in a good way, I am surprised to find such an article so fair with him, many references are not too favorable, which also reflects the way some had interacted with him in the past on both sides.

  • Richard is also my 6th great Grandfather, I am also descended through George Parris’s other son Robert Parris.

  • Richard Pearis is my 6th great grandgather as well. Family trickles down through George Parris and into Oklahoma. Charles Robert Parris and Bertha Mae Pevehouse, my great great grandparents. So thankful for this information.

  • Both Richard Pearis and Edward Wilkerson are Grandfathers in my line. It’s quite remarkable how years after both became dust in the wind their descendants would unite and create generations of children carrying a mixture of their genes.

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