Daniel McGirth, Banditti on the Southern Frontier

August 23, 2016
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


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The story repeated itself time and again across the southern districts of Georgia.  Alarms raised loudly across a broad area with tales of imminent Indian raids and McGirth’s banditti coming from every direction against every plantation.  The men would arm themselves and hunker down to protect home and family from these raiders.  However, while the Georgians protected each plantation individually, the militia officers gathered no support, and Daniel McGirth calmly plundered a few choice properties.  Over a two year period, McGirth and his men utilized such tactics to steal thousands of cattle and everything else of value from most of the plantations in southern Georgia.  Even where the population was large enough that militia forces might be raised, “from experience, it has been found that by reason of those false alarms, impracticable to assemble the militia till too late.”[1]

In his many raids, McGirth displayed little concern for the politics of his victims.  While commissioned a Colonel and sanctioned by the British to operate out of East Florida, McGirth still plundered the homes of Loyalists as well as Patriots.  Indeed, by war’s end, he would be wanted by both sides as a plundering rogue.  But all of that skips the story of just how Daniel McGirth came by such a bad reputation.

Turning to the British

Before the war broke out, Daniel McGirth lived with his family in the Kershaw District of South Carolina.  He married into a well-respected family and had a bright future ahead of him.  The McGirths and Daniel’s new in-laws were Patriots and he served as a scout in the early campaigns of the southern back country.  Familiar with hunting and all the frontier skills, McGirth was “highly valuable to the Americans for the facility with which he acquired information of the enemy, and for the accuracy and minuteness with which he communicated what he had obtained.”[2]  Daniel McGirth had a natural talent for frontier tactics and fighting as a partisan.

Artist’s impression of Daniel McGirth escaping with his horse. Joel Chandler Harris, Stories of Georgia (New York: American Book Company, 1896).
Artist’s impression of Daniel McGirth escaping with his horse. Joel Chandler Harris, Stories of Georgia (New York: American Book Company, 1896).

In late 1776 McGirth was scouting for the Americans along the Saltilla River in Georgia when an officer tried to impress his horse, the Grey Goose.  Daniel was quite fond of the animal and refused to give her up.  The situation escalated into a physical confrontation after which McGirth found himself court-martialed and immediately “sentenced to the pubic whipping.”  After part of the lashes had been applied, McGirth remained in custody waiting for the rest of his sentence.  In a major lapse of security, he escaped and recovered the Grey Goose, riding off to seek vengeance against the Americans by joining the British.[3]

They tell the story of McGirth’s defection in a less flattering way in Georgia, without the court martial or the Grey Goose.  In McCall’s early history Daniel and his brother joined Captain John Baker’s expedition against some Tories who had been working with the Indians on raids along the southern frontier with East Florida.  While the brothers stood guard duty one night, “they devised the plan, and executed it, of stealing the horses belonging to the party, and deserted with the greater part of them to the enemy.”  Their treachery ended the expedition and left the frontier open for raiding.  To reward him for the work, the British made McGirth a lieutenant colonel in the Florida Rangers commanded by Thomas Browne.[4]

Colonel Baker

McGirth had been with the British only a few months when opportunity came knocking to score a bit of vengeance on John Baker, now a colonel in the Georgia militia.  In April and May 1777, the Georgians made another attempt to invade East Florida in hopes of putting a stop to all the raiding.  On the 17th of May, Baker led his militia regiment deep into South Georgia where they planned a rendezvous with Col. Samuel Elbert of the Georgia Continental battalion.  The militia made camp before marching out on a scouting patrol to view the area.  “He had marched but a short distance, when some mounted militia and Indians, under the command of Colonel McGirth appeared in his front and fired a gun, which he supposed to be a signal for the main body of the enemy in the rear.”[5]

Baker was absolutely correct in his assessment.  Instead of following McGirth into the ambush, Baker remained in place and tried to steady his men.  Unfortunately, about thirty of Baker’s men ran off just before Thomas Browne led his men forward from their concealed positions and attacked.  Forced to “retreat through a galling fire,” Baker barely escaped, losing his own horse to one of the panicked militia men.

McGirth came away with about eight to ten prisoners.  Rather than go to any trouble securing them or taking their paroles, he placed the prisoners “under the care of an Indian guard.”  During that night, the “Indians fell upon them unexpectedly” and killed several men “with knives and hatchets.”  In the confusion that followed, about half the prisoners escaped and later made their way to Elbert’s camp with the story.[6]  McGirth had taken a fair measure of revenge but now he developed a taste for the raiding and plundering that made him famous.

Over the next eighteen months McGirth kept pressure on the districts in South Georgia.  During 1777 his “frequent incursions to drive off cattle for the supplies of St. Augustine”[7] succeeded in capturing an estimated 10,000  head.  By November 1778 McGirth was raiding all the way up to the Midway Settlement just a few miles below Savannah.[8]  Along the way he picked up some brutal tactics.  McGirth came upon a small stockade fort owned by Moses Way.  “It was garrisoned by eight or ten men who were sent from Barrington.  Their horses were grazing near the fort.  Early in the morning, when Way’s son went to collect the horses, McGirth made his appearance, took him prisoner, tied him to the horse by his legs, and then made him ride in full view of his father.  McGirth commenced the attack upon the fort, and the firing continued from sunrise to sunset, when Colonel Baker appeared, and McGirth retreated.”[9]

With Colonel Baker back in the area, McGirth could not resist another chance to have at him.  McGirth set up an ambush for the American militia force near Bull-Town Swamp.  Baker led his men right into the trap and was wounded along with two other men.  As things worked out, McGirth also helped General Prevost set a similar trap on the road into Midway Settlement which was used to kill General Screven of the Georgia militia.

Plundering Georgia

McGirth continued on with his command when Archibald Campbell invaded Georgia and recaptured Savannah.  Early in 1779 he accompanied Campbell on an excursion to Augusta.  They anticipated large groups of Loyalists anxious to join them and return crown control to the back country.  Instead, Campbell faced a large force across the river in South Carolina that threatened to cut him off from Savannah.  Campbell retreated back toward the coast but left McGirth in the Ceded Lands above Augusta to rendezvous with a large group of Loyalists that were marching across the back country to join the British.  The Loyalists were attacked at Kettle Creek while McGirth camped nearby with 500 men.  Instead of coming to the aid of the defeated Loyalists, “McGirth and his party made a precipitate retreat to Augusta and rejoined the British troops under Campbell.”[10]

For the next year, the British remained within a perimeter that surrounded Savannah and stretched south along the coast.  Their defensive works went as far west as Ebenezer.  This occupation meant that McGirth needed new hunting grounds for his raiding operations.  He worked the western frontier settlements and the areas around the Savannah River.  By August 1779 Georgia’s back country was alarmed and sent Col. John Twiggs’s militia regiment in search of McGirth.

Twiggs’s men remained mounted and came up with McGirth at Buck-Head Creek with thirty or forty men.  McGirth’s party traded fire with the Georgians for about fifteen minutes before Twiggs led a direct charge at McGirth’s camp.  At that point McGirth’s men scattered, forcing him to make a fast getaway into a neighboring swamp.  Even though he did escape, McGirth took a rifle ball through the thigh and lost over a dozen men, nine of whom were killed on the spot.[11]

By the Spring of 1780, McGirth was back in the field.  Almost all of the Patriot armies were under siege at Charleston and the interiors of Georgia and South Carolina lay open for raiding.  Daniel McGirth appeared not to care whether his victims were Patriots or Loyalists.  The citizens reported “immense waste and destruction brought upon the province at large while such men as Springer, McGirt, and a great number of that stamp were suffered and we feared encouraged to enter houses and plantations at their discretion, to live at free quarter wherever they pleased and carry off negroes, cattle, horses, and property of all kinds under the idea that all was free plunder.”[12]

While the Loyalists complained about McGirth’s plundering ways, Gov. James Wright was busy trying to send the raider on a mission to punish certain rebels who were causing trouble along the Savannah River across from Ebenezer.  A particularly well-known rebel named M’Kay was operating near his home on the South Carolina side of the river.  In what may be the single most heinous act attributed to McGirth and his men, he sent a patrol under Capt. Timothy Hollingsworth to try and capture M’Kay.  They crossed the river at Stone’s Ferry and began “killing every man he met who had not sworn allegiance to the king.”[13]  At least seventeen men died in just two days before McGirth’s men gave up the hunt and returned to Georgia without M’Kay.  They left a thirty mile swath of ruin ten miles wide that “in breadth, was desolated by these banditti.”

While searching for M’Kay, the men even “resorted to the torture of his wife” in their attempt to find and capture the partisan.  “The mode of inflicting the torture, was by taking a flint out of the lock of a musket, and putting her thumb in its place.  The screw was applied, until the thumb was ready to burst.”  As one might imagine, Mrs. M’Kay soon gave up her husband’s whereabouts along with the location of her family valuables.[14]

The raids and constant plundering proved too much for Governor Wright and the good Loyalists of Georgia.  Soon after the fall of Charleston and subsequent British occupation of the Georgia and South Carolina back country, Wright received a petition accusing a “set of men called McGirth’s people” of murder, plunder, and “breaking up the settlements in this province.”[15]

The governor responded with a Proclamation against McGirth and a $50 reward for his capture and delivery to the jail.  The Proclamation suggested that “Daniel McGirth, commonly called Colonel McGirth, keeps together a body of men, occasionally under the command of a Captain Morris and Lieut. Timothy Hollingsworth, who, when some of their people are guilty of robbery and other felonious acts, rescue them from and protect them against civil authority, to the great terror of his Majesty’s liege subjects, and the hurt of the property of individuals.”[16]

Just two months later McGirth’s name shows up again.  This time a prominent Loyalist from the Houstoun family complained about the pillaging.  He mentioned the rebel M’Kay raiding along the Savannah but then got back to McGirth, who was back in his old raiding grounds.  “And my Lord, there is another set of villains, the remains of McGirt & his gang, who go armed on horse back about the country, twenty of them or upwards together and steal & carry off great numbers of cattle into East Florida.”[17]

For the rest of the year, McGirth continued to dodge justice from both sides.  However, by the spring of 1781 the situation in Georgia had deteriorated for the British to the point that Governor Wright seriously considered employing Colonel McGirth to command a troop of horse that was sorely needed for patrolling the roads to Augusta.  As the Patriots put Augusta under siege in May, McGirth offered to march “to the relief and assistance of Colonel Brown.”  Probably the biggest testament to just how far McGirth’s reputation had fallen among the British, even while caught in a desperate situation, his petition was not approved.[18]

With a price on his head, McGirth returned to the swamps of South Georgia and East Florida.  From there, he put together a new gang that included a “great number of negroes armed” with muskets from the British armory.  Reports to Governor Wright said that McGirth’s men “go about disguised in the night time, breaking into houses, beating, abusing, shooting at the inhabitants, & plundering them in many cases of their all . . . It is difficult to name a single inhabitant, in all that district, who have not been robbed & plundered by them of their horses, cattle, & other stock.”[19]

Even when the war wound down, McGirth’s activities continued.  Several well-known Loyalists from the South Carolina back country joined him in East Florida, including the infamous “Bloody-Bill” Cunningham.  The British governor put up with their indiscriminate raiding for a year or so before trying to crack down on McGirth’s activities.  At that point the British began to lose interest because the Treaty with Spain had granted them control of East Florida.  However, before the transition, Governor Tonyn declared all of McGirth’s property forfeit and subject to seizure.

For the first several months of Spanish control, McGirth and the other Loyalist banditti continued to operate with impunity.  By the beginning of 1785 the Spanish felt secure in their position and went after McGirth.  At first they offered the opportunity to voluntarily leave the colony but McGirth and the others believed their position secure and remained.  Unfortunately for McGirth, the Spanish captured him along with Bloody Bill and the other Loyalists.  They found themselves in the St. Augustine prison where conditions were so harsh that McGirth’s wife sent out appeals to the British to please intercede on his behalf.[20]

Within a few months, the Spanish released McGirth on the promise that he leave East Florida and not return.  By September, McGirth was caught again.  The Spanish gave him a few more months in the jail before releasing him to join his family in New Providence.  Over the next decade, McGirth spent time alternating between East Florida and South Georgia, making his living off what plunder he could get.  He even managed to join Elijah Clarke’s ill-fated attempt to establish the Trans-Oconee Republic in the Creek lands of west Georgia.  When that expedition ended McGirth found himself in the hands of the Georgia militia.  They first sent him to the Spanish in East Florida but they simply set McGirth free since he was an American citizen.  The Georgia governor then requested his arrest for old crimes committed in the state, but nothing ever came of it, no specific case was ever made.  Instead, McGirth returned to his original neighborhood in South Carolina and lived with his wife’s family.  He maintained a low profile and kept some of his wife’s nephews around to protect him from old grudges.[21]


[1]Memorial of Simon Munro & R. Kelsall, September 6, 1781, reprinted in Mary Bondurant Warren, Georgia Governor and Council Journals, 1781 (Athens, GA: Heritage Papers, 2010), 124.

[2] Joseph Johnson, Traditions and Reminiscences chiefly of the American Revolution in the South (Charleston, SC: Walker & James, 1851), 172.

[3] Ibid., 173.

[4] Hugh McCall, History of Georgia (Savannah, GA: Williams, 1816), II:74.

[5] Ibid., 121.

[6] Ibid., 124.

[7] Ibid., 132.

[8] Ibid., 140.

[9] George White, Historical Collections of Georgia (Cobb county, GA: George White, 1854), 527.

[10] McCall, History of Georgia, 202.

[11] Ibid., 239.

[12] Martin Jolie, R. Kelsall, April 24, 1780, in Warren, Georgia Governor and Council Journals, 1780:51.

[13] Tarleton Brown, Memoirs of Tarleton Brown (The People Press, Barnwell SC, 1894), 17.

[14] McCall, History of Georgia, 307.

[15] Petition of Citizens to Governor Wright, June 17, 1780, in Warren, Georgia Governor and Council Journals, 1780:21.

[16] Proclamation of James Wright, June 22, 1780, in ibid., 1780:222.

[17] Houstoun to Wright, August 20, 1781, in ibid., 1780:63.

[18] McGirth’s Petition to Governor Wright, May 16, 1781, in ibid., 1781:113

[19] Memorial of Munro & Kelsall, September 6, 1781, in ibid., 1781:124.

[20] Harry M. Ward, Between the Lines (Westport, Connecticut, 2002), 213.

[21] Ibid.

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