Absolving David Fanning—from Dreck to Rumph


November 24, 2015
by Hershel Parker Also by this Author


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I keep promising myself to write on how David Fanning, the Tory guerrilla turned British colonel, became a psychotic murderer off the battlefield in North Carolina in 1782. But was it late 1781? First, I have to try to settle tough questions. Did Fanning really do no harm to any human being in South Carolina?[1] Did he really stage a dramatic public presentation of himself as backwoods Tory savior early in 1781?[2] Did he really learn of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown days before Gen. Griffith Rutherford learned of it?[3] How did he deal, practically and emotionally, with being abandoned when the British evacuated Wilmington, leaving him without ammunition, other supplies, and what he had gloried in, praise?[4] How many people, men and women, did he slaughter in cold blood? We don’t know.

We are still hampered by the absence of wartime North Carolina newspapers, diaries, and ordinary personal records and by flaws in stories that circulated word of mouth before North Carolinians tried to write their own histories, and even after histories were published. Misunderstandings and legends are still being repeated. I’m ready to believe the worst about Fanning, partly because my docket of Fanning’s previously unknown murders keeps getting longer,[5] but in this air-clearing piece I cast doubt on his guilt or absolve him of three different murders or sets of murders.

In 1851 Fanning’s first victims (off the battlefield) were identified by Joseph Johnson:[6] “His first marauding expedition is said to have been to Deep river; and the earliest sufferers from his rapacity and violence, were Charles Spearing, Captains Dreck and Dye.” Fanning “went to Spearing’s in the night, shot him as he ran from the house, took his gun, scoured the neighborhood, and returned to Rains’” (that is, he went back to John Rains’s house on Brush Creek near where it flows into Deep River below Fanning’s frequent base at Cox’s Mill in Randolph County). Former North Carolina Gov. D. L. Swain had provided the text Johnson published, and in 1853 he salvaged it to introduce a valuable paper left by Archibald D. Murphey, the great researcher who died in 1832 before finishing his history of North Carolina.[7] Here Swain named the “earliest sufferers” as “Charles Shearing, Captains Duck and Dye.” That is, he corrected “Spearing” and “Dreck” but did not fix the problem with the syntax and the captains, whose fate was left ambiguous.

The next year Eli W. Caruthers, using some of the late former congressman Archibald McBryde’s notes (as Murphey had done), and assuming that the sufferer “Charles Sherring” must have been an “active and resolute Whig,” dated the attack on him to about the time of Fanning’s raid on Pittsboro (that is, on the Chatham Court House, July 17, 1781). “Sherring” had hidden in a corn crib, Caruthers said. Suspicious, searching in the dark, Fanning fired between the logs, hitting Sherring’s “wind-pipe and the neck bone.” Somehow Sherring kept silent despite his agony, then after Fanning left he rode eight miles to get his wounds dressed by his friend Cornelius Tyson.[8] Fanning had not killed him, after all.

Three decades later John H. Wheeler revisited this story without using Caruthers and without thanking Swain: “One of the earliest sufferers was Charles Shearing, of Deep River, to whose house he [Fanning] went at night, and shot him dead as he fled.”[9] On December 14, 1910 the Siler City Grit quoted Wheeler, without attribution. Ten days later the Greensboro Daily News challenged the quotation. The Daily News had learned the facts of Shearing’s death eight years earlier from the nonagenarian Methodist minister, Louis Phillips, whose family had lived near Shearing on Deep River, just over Chatham County into Cumberland (later Moore) County. Shearing had been “a notorious cattle thief” who slaughtered his stolen cattle on a large boulder which, in 1910, was still called “Shearing’s Rock.” Shearing had been outlawed, after the war, and Ben Elkins and Louis Phillips, the father of the minister, were sent to capture him. Shearing rushed toward Elkins “with upraised hoe, declaring he would kill him,” and Elkins fired, “killing Shearing almost instantly.”[10] After reading the Daily News, the Grit on January 11, 1911 printed Caruthers’s long account of Fanning’s attack on “Sherring.”

"Fanning Loses the Bay Doe" from the book, "The Master of the Red Buck and the Bay Doe", William Laurie Hill (Charlotte, NC: Stone Publishing Co, 1913).
“Fanning Loses the Bay Doe” from the book, “The Master of the Red Buck and the Bay Doe”, William Laurie Hill (Charlotte, NC: Stone Publishing Co, 1913).

So! Far from being the first person Fanning murdered, Shearing lived on as a public menace until Ben Elkins shot him. But what about Captains Dreck and Dye or Captains Duck and Dye? In his Revolutionary pension application, Stephen Collins recalled being mustered on Christmas Day 1780 in Chatham County into a horse corps headed by Capt. Jacob Duckworth with “Hopkins Die Lieutenant,” under Col. Philip Alston.[11] The Duck and Dye of Swain’s confused notation were Jacob Duckworth and Hopkins Dye (or Die). Some pension applicants thought Duckworth’s name (not a nickname) was simply Duck. What Swain sent Johnson was mangled and stayed mangled.  Presumably there was some connection—maybe Jacob Duckworth and Hopkins Dye pursued Fanning after his attack on Shearing.

Next I look at Jacob Leonard, a Rowan County man.[12] Stationed near Wilmington when the British evacuated on November 18, 1781, he had been marched back up to Cross Creek (Fayetteville). From there, as he recounted, “he marched up through the State in order to attack Colonel Fannon who was at the head of a band of tories who murdered his the said Jacob Leonard’s father and Frederick Fritz in the time of the said Jacob Leonard’s absence from home on this tour and also rifled the houses &c.” He had encountered Fanning, perhaps before he knew his father was dead: “The said Jacob Leonard further states that he and his company of Light horsemen met with said Fannon and men and had a small skirmish in which they put the tories to flight and further states that he and his company marched up towards home where he and the other soldiers were discharged.” The butchery of Leonard and Fritz occurred some forty or fifty miles from where Brush Creek runs into Deep River, Fanning’s hideout. On a tall marker for Fritz and Valentine Leonard, the descendants of Fritz in 1896 recorded that the men were cruelly assassinated in their own homes by Tories on November 2, 1781. They did not name Fanning as having been responsible.[13]

Fanning’s whereabouts on November 2, 1781 are not known. He had been injured at Lindley’s Mill at the border of Alamance (Orange) County and Chatham County on September 13. Sometime in October, his arm not fully healed, he fought at Brush Creek. Sometime in October he fought at Bear Creek in Cumberland (Moore) County. J. D. Lewis says he intercepted news of Yorktown in late October or early November.[14] Up Deep River in late November Fanning started picking off Whigs, some newly discharged and innocently walking home thinking the war was over. After robbing them Fanning usually gave them paroles and let them go.[15]

Could Fanning have been on the November 2 raid, tender arm or not? Yes, though it involved crossing familiar Randolph County and venturing into Rowan County. He always had the finest horses, whether by Tory gift or his old South Carolina habit of “furnishing” himself with the finest horses he could steal.[16] If he conducted that slaughter in Rowan County, was it because both the older men and Jacob Leonard and two sons of Fritz had come to his attention by their fighting at the Guilford Court House? For all we know, Fanning or someone in his troop might have had a particular grievance against one of the men, but that is only speculation. Jacob Leonard may have told the simple truth, or the murderers may have been Rowan County Tories terrified at the way the war was going and determined to do their worst to their Patriot neighbors while they could.

My third example shows the power of Fanning’s reputation, mainly a word-of-mouth phenomenon. In September and October 1782 David Fanning made himself conspicuous in British-held Charleston for his braggadocio. Unabashed around the wealthy Charlestonians and British officers, he flourished as the famous Col. David Fanning who had held much of North Carolina in thrall for months after Maj. James Craig had abandoned the colony for him alone to defend. He would, he bragged, capture Francis Marion dead or alive and cut off his head. For a handsome enough reward he would bring the heads of Marion and Nathanael Greene to Gen. Alexander Leslie.[17] Now if Leslie, in evacuating the city, would merely leave “the artillery, as they stood on the works,” Fanning and two dozen other Loyalists would “hold some foothold in the country” with the help of local Tories and negroes.[18] Leslie, of course, was delaying only until enough ships arrived so he could evacuate safely, and Fanning resigned himself to organizing Loyalists to go to East Florida under his direction. He ordered them aboard the transport ship New Blessing and went on board himself on November 6, then waited a week for the ship to sail.[19]

When Charleston fell to the British on May 12, 1780, Fanning had joined forces with the South Carolina Loyalist William Cunningham “to embody a party of men” to “take Coln Williams of the Rebel militia prisoner.”[20] So Fanning wrote, and we assume (still without verification) that it is true, but we don’t know how long the two operated together.  A few months later, after side-stepping the battle at King’s Mountain, Fanning went to Deep River, in North Carolina. There in 1781 he became “celebrated” (meaning notorious) for daring guerrilla fighting and then after July 5, 1781 for fighting as “Colonel of the Loyal Militia of Randolph and Chatham Counties”—a designation which he quickly magnified to “Colonel of the Loyal Militia of North Carolina.”[21] Only after Craig’s evacuation of Wilmington did Fanning begin to become infamous for psychotic slaughter. As for Cunningham, John C. Parker, Jr., prints two horrific pages listing those he slaughtered during November and December 1781, his mission having been “to punish as many patriotic Americans as possible.”[22] Like his erstwhile partner, Fanning also had become fixated not so much on fighting for the Crown as on punishing those who violated arbitrary conditions he himself laid down. Whether or not they reunited in Charleston in 1782 is not known, but Cunningham followed Fanning into exile on December 14 with thirty-eight of his dragoons.[23]

The Americans began publishing newspapers in Charleston soon after General Leslie evacuated the city in December 1782. This was in the Charleston Weekly Advertiser for February 19, 1783:[24]

Saturday the 8th instant intelligence was received that a party of tories under the command of the notorious Cunningham and Fanning had made their appearance to the southward, plundering and destroying all that opposed them, that they had reached Colonel Thompson’s plantation which they had stript of every thing moveable. Three different divisions of the military were immediately dispatched after them to prevent their retreat, by taking four different roads. We hope to give a good account of them in our next.

This followed in the Weekly Advertister for February 22, 1783:

Charlestown, February 22. The Militia under the Command of Capt. Rumph, came up with a Party of the Enemy, under Cunningham and Fanning, a few Days past, near Orangeburgh, killed one, wounded another, and retook five Horses that they had stole. Another Party of our Militia, under Major Hart, came up with Cunningham, in the cruel Act of murdering three Waggoners, who were coming from Town; he rescued two, one of the Name of Melvin, Commissary to General Pickens’s Brigade, was killed before Major Hart could come up with them; they were immediately charged, and pursued ten Miles, but made their Escape by the swiftness of their Horses, four of which were taken by our People, and the Riders saved themselves by taking to the swamps. We suspect they will be entirely routed in a few Days, ad the Militia have turned out with Spirit, and have Dogs that follow their Track.

The hunt for the long-gone William Cunningham continued for months. On April 16 the Weekly Advertiser named Cunningham but not Fanning’s.[25]

To the end, therefore, that such villains may be brought to condign punishment, the General Assembly have directed that I should, in and by this Proclamation, offer a Reward of Three Hundred Guineas for the taking of the said William Cunningham, dead or alive, and One Hundred Guineas each for John Lawrence alias John Lane, and William Lee, with a free and full Pardon to those who will apprehend such offenders.

Given under my Hand, and the Great Seal of the State, at Charlestown, this 29th day of March 1783, and in the Seventh year of the Independence of America.

Benjamin Guerard.

By his Excellency’s command,

John Venderhorst, Secretary.

Captain Jacob Rumph’s “partisan company” in the Orangeburgh District “was conspicuous for its raids and fights with South Carolina tories in 1783,” Marcus J. Wright explained; Col. William Russell Thompson had “commanded the battalion, or regiment, of which Captain Rumph’s company was a part.”[26] They fought ruffians, but not Cunningham and Fanning, the ghost riders. From 1783 onward, Fanning legends would intermix with more or less verifiable history, complicating attempts like mine to talk straightforwardly about what transformed a simple backwoods fellow into an abandoned partisan who all by himself designed a red and black costume for his troop of murderers to wear.[27]


[1] The Narrative of Col. David Fanning, ed. Lindley S. Butler (Davidson, NC: Briarpatch Press; Charleston: Tradd Street Press, 1981), 27; Fanning says “we fired” upon rebels but adds coyly, “what injury we Did them we could not tell.” In this section of his narrative he was presenting himself as victim who suffered frequent harsh imprisonment and financial losses.

[2] Eli W. Caruthers, Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Character, Chiefly of the “Old North State” (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1854). Caruthers 154-156, drawing on McBryde’s notes on his interviews, describes Fanning’s presentation of himself at a Brush Creek church, as does William Laurie Hill in The Master of the Red Buck and the Bay Doe: A Story of Whig and Tory Warfare in North Carolina in 1781-83 (Charlotte: Stone Publishing Company, 1913), 7-15.

[3] J.D. Lewis, “The Loyalist Leaders in North Carolina—Colonel David Fanning,” says that   “in late October or early November” Fanning intercepted an express messenger carrying the news of Cornwallis’s surrender to Nathanael Greene in South Carolina. http://www.carolana.com/NC/Revolution/loyalist_leaders_nc_david_fanning.html

[4] Fanning had reveled in the red coat and silver pistols bestowed upon him by Maj. James H. Craig, and apparently had worn a hat decorated with a silver star. See the pension application of Joseph Stincipher, S1891, who recalled capturing Fanning’s hat; in support of William Cox, R2400, Joseph Northern described capturing “one large hat with a silver star on the crown supposed to be Fanon’s hat.” The pension applications cited here are transcripts in Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, http://revwarapps.org/ ; quotations are checked against images of the manuscript documents, available on http://www.fold3.com .

[5] Two recent finds are in my “Fanning’s Bloody Sabbath as Traced by Alexander Gray,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 4, 2015, Gray’s account of the murders of young Mr. Bland and of the unnamed young man who disregarded a warning not to go on alone toward Cross Creek. Two more are in “Faith Rock and Fanning” in the Raleigh Sentinel (June 3, 1873), where the elderly Joseph Evans comes down to Asheboro from Back Creek to question the visiting editor Josiah Turner, who was serializing Fanning’s Narrative. Were his grandfather William Evans and his granduncle John, murdered by Fanning, going to be in a later installment?

[6] Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences Chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (Charleston: Walker & James, 1851), 569. The nineteenth century historians did not know that Shearing had been sentenced to death as a horse thief in 1779 but recommended for pardon because of his “reputable Family.” Documents of the American South (13.950); the pardon is in Documents of the American South (24.311).

[7] “North Carolina; Civil War of 1781-’82; Col. David Fanning,” University of North Carolina Magazine (March 1853), 2.70; Swain’s introduction is 70-72 and Murphey’s article 72-86. Murphey is the brilliant “Florian” who wrote a long-lost article on the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence which survives in the Salem, Massachusetts, Gazette for July 3, 1821.

[8] Revolutionary Incidents, 157-160. Blackwell P. Robinson in Moore County North Carolina 1747-1847 (Southern Pines, N. C.: Moore County Historical Association, 1956), 199, gives Tyson’s location as “North side Deep River, between Horse Shoe and Carbonton.” Tyson is a major character in William Laurie Hill’s 1913 book and “Charley Sheering” is a heroic Whig, a tall, strong “stalwart specimen of manhood” (14), a giant (27) a Whig so prominent locally that Fanning decides to murder him as “a bloody example” (35). (“Whig” is right; otherwise Shearing would not have been pardoned in 1779.)

[9] Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians (Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Printing Works, 1884), 112.

[10] Shearing’s death occurred in 1786, according to “Hardin v. Cheek, 48 N. C. 135 (N. C. 1855),” the Supreme Court of North Carolina. The Shearing story comes home to me when I see the eyewitness Louis Phillips on the same page of the 1790 federal census as my five-times great grandfather, Joseph Magee (McGehee).

[11]  Pension application of Stephen Collins, S30335.

[12] Pension application of Jacob Leonard, S7141. Not the Brunswick County Jacob Leonard in J. D. Lewis’s 2012 NC Patriots 1775-1783: Their Own Words / Volume 2—The Provincial and State Troops (Part 1).

[13] http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=14649064

Presumably these descendants of Fritz did not know what Jacob Leonard had written in his pension application.

[14] See note 3.

[15] See the pension applications of John Gaspenson, S1818, Thomas Kennedy, S31185, Daniel Bryan, S1172, and Archibald Daniel, S32204.

[16] Tory gift: Swain, 70; Caruthers 162-163; Narrative, 25 (“furnished ourselves with horses”). Fanning (26) writes plaintively that “Capt. Going” seized him, for no cause. The pension deposition of John Barden, S2991, shows that Capt. John Gowen captured Fanning and his companion because he recognized their horses as both stolen from well-known owners. Fanning’s displaying himself in public in Deep River and Brush Creek country on “a common draft horse” early in 1781 (Swain 70) is either a preposterous legend or an instance of Fanning’s purposeful self-dramatizing.

[17] David Neilan and I lament that on 325-326 of Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973) Hugh F. Rankin did not document all the assertions he made on 284. Rankin may have had reliable sources, for Gen. Nathanael Greene in his message to Marion on July 9, 1782 warned that Fanning was determined to have him “dead or alive” (Robert Wilson Gibbes, Documentary History of the American Revolution, 1776-1782 (New York: D. Appleton, 1857), 3.198). Neilan kindly sent me his annotated text of the letter in advance of his edition of the Francis Marion Papers.

[18] The Narrative of Col. David Fanning, 81. The Philadelphia Pennsylvania Packet September 12, 1782 also lists signers of the “foothold” document.

[19] The Narrative of Col. David Fanning, 83.

[20] The Narrative of Col. David Fanning, 30-31.

[21] The Narrative of Col. David Fanning, 38, 39.

[22] John C. Parker, Parker’s Guide to the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, Battles, Skirmishes, and Murders, 2nd Edition (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2013), 481; Parker totes up the slain in “William Cunningham’s ‘Bloody Scout’ Campaign of 11/10 to 12/26/1781,” 481-482.

[23] J.D. Lewis, “The American Revolution in the South—Evacuation of Charleston” online. http://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/revolution_evacuation_of_charleston.html]

[24] The following extracts are transcribed from Newspapers.com. This piece was reprinted in the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Packet for April 3, 1783; its readers knew of Fanning’s brutality from the Packet for May 23, 1782.

[25] The 1783 Charleston papers that say “Fanning” means David Fanning. Col. Edmund Fanning, then in exile, was no marauder; John Fanning served the British in South Carolina but was never described as murderous and is not even in the index to Parker’s Guide.


[26] Marcus J. Wright, “Minor Topics: Revolutionary Troops,” The Magazine of American History (1888), 20.416.

[27] The text in The Narrative of Col. David Fanning, 71, is scrambled; see endnote 3 in my “Fanning Outfoxes Marion,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 8, 2014.

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