The McKay Family’s Personal War on the Savannah River


September 26, 2016
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


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By the end of the war, James McKay had earned quite a reputation for severity against the Loyalists.  So much so that, even in Georgia, site of the most vicious private fighting, McKay was sanctioned for brutality.  Even with the sanction, many of the people defended his actions as appropriate while others agreed the vengeful acts uncalled for yet still whispered an understanding of why James McKay had behaved so outrageously.   

Not much is known about James McKay (pronounced McCoy) before 1780.  He likely served as a captain in the Ranger troops in the Georgia Ceded lands in 1774.  At that time they were responding to attacks by certain Creek Indian war parties that were resisting the land cession.  Captain McKay doesn’t show up again until after the fall of Charleston.  As the British were consolidating their hold on Georgia and South Carolina in June 1780, Gov. James Wright named James McKay to serve as one of the road commissioners “from the other side of the Ogechee Ferry to Midway, Newport and Sunbury.”[1]  He would soon come to regret his choice.

Almost immediately following his appointment as road commissioner, James McKay returned to his status as Captain McKay and proceeded to raid and plunder British shipping on the Savannah River.  McKay formed his men into “plundering parties” after which they “robbed and murdered many of his Majesty’s peaceable and loyal subjects, and attacked the guards of the public boats navigating the Savannah River, with provisions, ammunition, and clothing, for the garrisons of Ninety-Six and Augusta.”[2]

The British responded by sending the notorious Col. Daniel McGirth on a patrol into the district above Ebenezer.  They hoped to catch McKay at home but failed to come up with him.  “Disappointed in their expectations of getting possession of McKay’s person, they resorted to the torture of his wife to extort from her a knowledge of the place of his concealment.  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 thump was ready to burst.”  Needless to say, Mrs. McKay told what she knew, which did not include her husband’s whereabouts, but did include the hiding places of all the family valuables.[3]

After McGirth failed to catch up with him, McKay continued to pressure British supply lines along the river.  He continued throughout 1780 into the spring of 1781.  His men took “a position in the swamp of Savannah River, and were employed in watching the communication between Augusta and Savannah.  They had frequently intercepted boats, laden with provisions and other stores, which they took and secured or destroyed.”[4]

McKay continued this pattern until April when the British commander at Augusta, Lt. Col. Thomas Brown, received news of the most recent raid.  At that time, Augusta was in desperate need of fresh supplies and Brown tried to respond.  He sent Lt. Kemp with ten Provincial Regulars and twenty Loyalist Militia on patrol to “pursue the plunderers.”  Unfortunately for Kemp, the guide Brown hired was a Patriot sympathizer and provided Colonel McKay with notice as to their mission and route.  He led the small column right into an ambush.[5]

“The militia under the command of Kemp fled upon the first fire; he and the soldiers, unable to resist a very superior force, surrendered themselves prisoners.”  The attempt at clemency did not succeed where McKay was in charge.  He had Kemp brought forward for examination.  McKay asked if Kemp would like to turn away from the British and join his party.  When Kemp refused, McKay had him stripped and shot.  At that point, “the same question was put to the soldiers; nine out of the ten refused, and shared the same fate.”  McKay’s seventeen-year-old son, Rannal McKay, led the way in butchering the prisoners.  The tenth soldier joined McKay but then deserted back to the British with the news a few days later.[6]

Once the news of Kemp’s murder reached Augusta, Brown immediately reacted with a strong force that included 170 Indians and 400 “loyal” militia.  While camped one night on his way toward McKay’s district, Brown was attacked by Patriots led by Col. William Harden.  His force included young Rannal McKay and the guide, Willie, who previously led Kemp and his men into the ambush.  They had success in the dark confusion and all 400 of Brown’s militia deserted to join Harden and the Patriots.  Now reinforced, Harden tried to press his advantage the following morning.  Unfortunately, the ‘loyal’ now “disloyal” militia showed no better courage as Patriots than they had as Loyalists.  Harden’s force, “being totally without discipline, were defeated with considerable loss.  Among the prisoners, Willie and young McCoy, and eleven of Kemp’s murderers, were taken.”[7]

At that point, Mrs. McKay tried to come to the aid of her son.  Having previously given parole, he was known to the British and now faced the death penalty.  Even worse, Brown had knowledge of Rannal’s personal participation in the murder of his soldiers.  Fully aware of Thomas Brown’s history with hangings, Mrs. McKay was rightly concerned about Rannal’s future.  She tried to approach Brown with pleas that he might allow her to visit with her son.  Brown refused and even continued to refuse after she brought out refreshments for him and the other officers.  One officer, a Scot named McKinnon, “who was a soldier of honor, and unused to murderous warfare, remonstrated with Brown against hanging the youth, and gave Mrs. McKay some assurances that her son would be safe.”[8]

In spite of McKinnon’s plea on behalf of the young man, Thomas Brown was unmoved.  He built a three foot tall calaboose (small jail or dungeon) out of fence rails to house his prisoners and ordered Captain McKinnon to guard it while a gallows was prepared.  “On the ensuing morning, the prisoners, Rannal McKay, Britton Williams, George Smith, George Reed, and a Frenchman whose name is not known, were ordered forth to the gallows; and after hanging until they were nearly dead, they were cut down and delivered to the Indians, who scalped them, and otherwise abused their bodies in their accustomed savage manner.”[9]

To be fair, in his own account after the war, Thomas Brown denied having all of the prisoners scalped while still alive.  Instead, he claimed that 11 men (including Rannal McKay) “suffered on the gallows” and only the guide, Willie, was turned over to an Indian with a personal beef with Willie who “immediately killed him with his tomahawk.”[10]

Regardless of whether the men were hanged and scalped or merely hanged, Brown’s actions served as motivation for more Patriot actions.  In this case, not only was Augusta placed under siege for the remainder of Brown’s time of command but an even younger McKay boy joined the cause.  “The fate of young M’Kay inspired his brother, a youth of fifteen, to join his countrymen and add his strength in avenging the murder of his brother.”[11]

A little more than a month later, the youngest McKay and his mother tried to make good on that vow of vengeance.  When Augusta fell in early June 1781, Colonel Brown found himself a prisoner of the Patriots.  He was protected by a “strong guard of Continental troops . . . for their safety.  Young M’Kay, the brother of the one who was executed by Brown, sought an opportunity of putting Brown to death; but the guard prevented him from executing vengeance, for the murder of his brother.  Mrs M’Kay was said to have armed herself for the same purpose, and asked leave of the guard, who escorted him to Savannah to speak with him; but they would not permit her to do so, until she gave the requisite assurances that she would not injure him; when her request was communicated to Brown, he observed that he was not afraid to face men in the field, but was apprehensive of the consequences of encountering an enraged woman.”  Nevertheless, he allowed her an opportunity to speak, which she did in terms “mild and pungent”.[12]

Brown managed to avoid death at the hands of the McKay family but Captain McKay remained active in the field until the close of the revolution.  His riflemen fought a number of small actions along the Savannah River above Ebenezer as, once again, the British had pulled their lines back to that area.  In early November 1781 McKay took his men with Col. James Jackson and Paddy Carr on a raid against some Loyalists trapped in a house near the Ogeechee.  Unfortunately, McKay’s riflemen didn’t really do their reputation much good.  Once it became clear the Loyalists had no intention of surrendering, “McKay’s riflemen deserted him in search of plunder.”[13]

McKay continued his plundering of traffic along the Savannah.  In response the British continued to look for a chance to catch him.  In February 1782 a Loyalist patrol was out foraging when they got news that McKay was at home.  They formed a plan to murder colonel “McKay at his own plantation.  The house was surrounded in the night, and the enemy fired through the logs into the bed, in which it was understood McKay usually slept.  McKay was not at home, but his wife was in the bed and supposed to have been in sound sleep; the ball passed through her body, and she was found dead in the morning.  She had an infant in her arms, but it was not injured.”[14]

Very few modern historians would include James McKay or his family in books on the American Revolution.  As individuals, they simply didn’t have a large role in any significant events.  The McKay family stands out, however, as a fine example of how the Southern Campaigns were fought.  When authors speak of how the conflict turned brutal and vicious on a very personal level, they might very well have the McKays in mind.  In one family we see husbands and wives, father and sons, and two brothers taking part in the war together, as a shared experience.

In the beginning of the article, Georgia historian Hugh McCall’s early remarks were mentioned.  He suggested that McKay’s harsh treatment of Loyalists during the revolution might be understandable even if not really justified.  I am not certain what other acts McKay may have been guilty of but we do know that he directed the mass murder of prisoners in April 1781.  Is this behavior justified after the attempt to murder him and torture of his wife?  Does Brown’s retaliation against Rannal McKay make the behavior more understandable?  What about the later murder of Mrs. McKay in a bungled attempt on the Captain? Certainly Hugh McCall felt that, given the context of Georgia during the time of British occupation, McKay’s participation in the vicious cycle of violence was quite understandable.


[1] Council Journal Book 2, June 29, 1780, reprinted in Mary Bondurant Warren, Georgia Governor and Council Journals 1780 (Athens, GA: Heritage Papers, 2009), 22.

[2][2] Thomas Brown to Ramsay, December 25, 1786, reprinted in George White, Historical Collections of Georgia (New York: Pudney & Russell, 1854), 616.

[3] Hugh McCall, History of Georgia (Savannah, GA: Williams, 1816), 2:307.  McCall went on to suggest that McKay’s later actions against Tories were a bit justified in light of his wife’s treatment.  “To such causes as these, the subsequent sanguinary mode of conducting the war in Georgia, is justly attributable.”

[4] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:363.

[5] Brown to Ramsay, December 25, 1786, reprinted in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 616.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 617.

[8] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:366.

[9] McCall at 2:366.

[10] Brown to Ramsay, December 25, 1786, reprinted in White, Historical Collections of Georgia, 617.  After admitting to letting the Indians have Willie for execution, Brown justified his actions by lamenting the burning of Indian villages by Andrew Pickens in the later stages of the war.  “such a scene of devastation and horror!  Thirteen villages destroyed!  Men, women, and children thrown into the flames, impaled alive, or butchered in cold blood!”  He also claimed the Indians at Fort Howe (where Patriot accusations flew) “were touched at the sight of a defenseless enemy.”

[11] McCall, History of Georgia, 2:366.

[12] Ibid., 2:380.

[13] Ibid., 2:393.

[14] Ibid., 2:401.


  • Mr. Lynch:

    You have managed to tantalize and whet the appetite with your excellent articles. Now is the time (I am getting too old to have to be able to wait much longer) to finish and release your book. This is my primary area if interest. The Southern backcountry war with few exceptions has been until lately largely bypassed by most historians.

    I have obtained a much better knowledge of partizan warfare by purchasing and shooting replica flintlock long rifles and muskets. Standing in woods and being able to easily hit 2′ x 2′ targets with a long rifle at 150 yds vs being lucky to hit any of six side by side 2′ x 2′ targets with a smoothbore musket at 100 yds and if I were standing in the open field with people firing back do not believe I would be any better at 50 yds. I now know why these backwoods people fought as they did.

    Also, reading about the Ulster Scots and the Scot Borderers provided informative insight into the no quarter and vengeance mode of fighting.

    Thank you again for these articles.

  • Mr. Chavous, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kind remarks. In truth, I get the most enjoyment from reading biographical works on the southern campaigns. I read Robert Bass as a young man and, even to this day, I love his Gamecock and Swamp Fox books. There are a number of really good books already done on the major campaigns of the south so I like to concentrate on those back country militia men who are in such danger of being forgotten. Focusing on the men instead of the events. My focus lately has been to shed light on the participants of events described in general terms as personal vendettas and local feuds. Very interesting details that broadly written books simply cannot get into. So, the short answer is that you are getting much of my future book in these articles. As to the rest, well:

    Because I am a hobby historian, much of my year is already spoken for but the last three months of the year are always something of a boost. Time to do more writing and traveling. In fact, I just came back from a fabulous day with Bruce Ventner and Eric Schnitzer at the Saratoga battlefields. Their combined knowledge the northern theater operations made for a fantastic experience. Bruce is doing Francis Marion next with a traveling seminar in South Carolina. I can’t say encourage people enough to go and attend these events.

    But I digress, thanks again and please keep an eye out for my future articles. If the JAR is willing, my next item will concentrate on a very notorious Tory from the Ninety-Six district.

  • I am very interested in the comments about the Ulster Scots and Scot Borderers as My ancestors were mostly Ulster Scots (Rankin, Cox, Moffatt, Harbison) perhaps George and Stringfellow, but I think I may have had relatives on both sides of the issue. I know the generations long anger of the Ulster Scots made them a ferocious antagonist.
    Where do I find these publications?

  • I have read the Hugh’s History of Georgia 2nd Edition and also the book about Col. Tarleton Brown. It appears that the date for the Battle of Wiggins Hill came from the book about Tarleton Brown. I am curious about this as I am a descendant of Britton Williams who was hung by Col. Brown after the battle. In the records of South Carolina there is a request for pension from Britton’s wife Elizabeth which states the date of Britton’s death as 13 January of 1781. I am wondering if you know of this document? Col. Tarleton Brown stated that he did not directly recall the date of the battle of Wiggin Hill but stated it may have been anywhere between January and April. I would like your input on this as I am trying to get the date correctly stated as I am gathering data for my family history.


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