The Murder of Colonel Dooly Of Georgia: A Revolutionary War Mystery


May 3, 2017
by Robert Scott Davis Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Georgia historian Otis Ashmore wrote that “of the many heroic men who illustrated that stormy period of the Revolution in Georgia that ‘tried men’s souls’ none deserves a more grateful remembrance by posterity than Col. John Dooly.”[1] The colonel was Georgia’s first folk hero. His life is an epic heroic tale of how he lost his brother Thomas in an Indian attack, led his forces to victory at the Battle of Kettle Creek, and died as a martyr to the American cause.

This story inspired more legends and even a variation on a Boy Scout marching song. Tales were told of woman warrior Nancy Hart capturing the Dooly’s killers. American humor literature began in part with the sayings of Judge John Mitchell Dooly, the colonel’s son and whom the story goes was treated with great deference by the famed crippled black Revolutionary War veteran Austin Dabney.[2]

The real John Dooly did much more. He formed a vigilante militia regiment when colonial government in Georgia ceased to exist in 1775. That same year he led a company from the frontier to defend Savannah from the British in the Battle of the Rice Boats and that summer against the Cherokees.

As a continental officer, he recruited men for the Georgia forces in Virginia in 1777 but he had to resign his commission when he seized a Creek Indian delegation in retaliation for his brother’s death. In 1779, he exacted his revenge on the Creeks in battle. That same year, as commander of the Georgia militia, he led a cattle rustling invasion of British occupied Burke County and later an unsuccessful charge upon the British lines at Savannah as part of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. In Georgia’s darkest hour, Dooly was simultaneously a member of the state’s ruling Executive Council, commander of the militia, and State’s Attorney. He was a commissioner for laying out Washington as the county seat of Wilkes County, where he served as the first sheriff.[3]

In late June 1780, however, all of Georgia and South Carolina were being overrun by the British army. John Dooly surrendered the Georgia militia to William Manson, a local merchant acting on behalf of Thomas Brown, commander of the garrison of Loyalist (American) Provincials who occupied Augusta, and for the King. Dooly and those men were then allowed to go home as prisoners of war on parole. Some one hundred other Georgians, however, did not surrender but withdrew to South Carolina to continue the war under such leaders as Elijah Clark, John Jones, and John Twiggs.

Sometime on or after August 6, 1780, John Dooly was murdered. According to legend he was killed by Tories, initiating the times when the murder of prisoners in the Revolutionary War South became a cynical joke called a “Georgia parole.” [4] Unnatural death was common. Of the state of Georgia’s dozen chief executives during the Revolution, for example, Archibald Bulloch may have been poisoned; Button Gwinnett and George Wells were killed in political duels; and John Adam Treutlin and Myrick Davies were reportedly executed by Loyalists.

Nothing in John Dooly’s real life was simple, including his death. Records show the complexities of his life as opposed to the usual case of what historian Hugh Bicheno described as “propaganda not merely triumphing over historical substance, but virtually obliterating it.” [5] The first biography of John Dooly (1828) has his murderer as a McCorkle of South Carolina whom John’s brother George later killed. Pioneer Georgia historian and likely Dooly acquaintance Hugh McCall wrote that he was killed in his home late at night by Loyalists under a Captain Corker and that Dooly’s Burke County campaign of June 1779 had resulted in the death of a Corker. A William McCorkle of South Carolina died “in action” on November 20, 1780 but was supposedly a patriot.[6] Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Beckhaem told McCall that the Loyalist who ordered the killing was Capt. William Corker. Loyalist Capt. William Corker of Burke County survived the war, however, and was even taken off of the state’s Banishment and Confiscation Act.[7]

Other explanations point to a secret history of Dooly’s death. Lt. Col. Elijah Clark returned to Wilkes County with a daring plan to attack and capture Augusta, Georgia, the center of the western frontier of the South. He failed to persuade Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson and Col. Andrew Pickens to violate their paroles and join him. Dooly also had nothing to do with this scheme. Undaunted, Clark assembled roughly 400 men, some accompanying him only under duress. On September 14, Clark and his following took the town as Thomas Brown and his remaining men held out in the stone McKay/McLean/Seymour/White House trading post. Brown was seriously wounded. He and his men were reduced to drinking their own urine to survive. He refused to surrender, however, and swore brutal retaliation.

On September 18, Loyalist reinforcements from Ninety Six, South Carolina under Lt. Col. John Harris Cruger arrived and drove Clark’s men from Augusta. Cruger then had some of his prisoners hanged and others turned over to Indians for execution. With his men, Indians, and the Loyalist militia, he swept through Wilkes County burning 100 farms, all of the forts, and its court house. From Dooly’s home on September 23, he wrote of his progress but made no mention of Dooly. Clark escaped and led some 600 men, women, and children as refugees to Tennessee with little food and in terrible weather. The American corps of Cornwallis’ British army attempted to intercept them but was itself destroyed by Patriot militia at the Battle of King’s Mountain on October 7, 1780.[8]

Even beyond the above, Dooly’s murder could have actually had its origins before the war. John Dooly came to the South Carolina frontier near the village of Ninety Six after 1763. He became a merchant, surveyor and land speculator whose court suits brought on death threats and violence between the contending parties.[9] In 1774, Dooly moved his family to the newly opened Ceded Lands of Georgia, what would become Wilkes County. He wanted the Savannah River Leesburg plantation and refused to give it up as long as he lived despite successful suits filed against him by its owner Thomas Lee.[10]

As a colonel, Dooly had also authorized the confiscation of private property for his troops and, as state’s attorney, he had prosecuted several of his neighbors as Loyalists. Nine of these “Tories” were condemned to die for treason but the ad hoc state government granted reprieves to all but three of them. Dooly had also taken sides in Georgia’s sometimes deadly partisan patriot politics. He even failed to provide receipts for the money given him to pay his soldiers. In September 1780, facing heavy private debts that he could not pay, John Dooly may have been murdered because he was preparing to rejoin the Patriot cause. He had incentive to break his parole. Georgia’s restored colonial assembly had passed a law naming him as one of the men never again to be allowed to hold public office and ordering his property confiscated.[11]

Snippets of information from men who knew the colonel add to or distract from whatever the truth might be. John Watkins remembered Dooly as murdered by one of his own men following Dooly surrendering and disbanding his regiment. A John Smith would claim to have heard of a plot to kill Dooly nine days before it happened and that he tried unsuccessfully to warn the colonel. Another John Smith who lived with the Dooly family claimed that a Loyalist Captain Wilder murdered John Dooly. Capt. Joseph Wilder, however, died in the fighting near Wrightsborough in 1781.[12]

John Dooly thus may have been murdered as an act of revenge. He surely counted as a martyr, but for what? The same ambitions that drove him to become a Patriot proved his undoing and he was seen as dying for actions he took for the American cause. Because of his success as a leader Corker, Cruger, McCorkle, or Wilder may have executed him as an example for his men or in retaliation for Elijah Clark’s attack on Augusta. He was a martyr in a holocaust brought against the people of the Georgia backcountry that came out of the rapid economic, political, and social changes that had been taking place on the frontier. It was a greater revolution that began years before and which would continue long after the war for independence.

In the latter part of the Revolution, George Dooly led a company in repeatedly taking revenge against the Loyalists/Tories for the deaths of his brothers Thomas, John, and Robert in the American cause. Reportedly, the men they killed included John’s murderers.[13] Dooly’s widow and children were, however, eventually evicted from the Leesburg property and lost whatever property remained to his debts. To avoid his creditors, his family did not apply for the military bounty land for his service until after 1796.[14]  Dooly County, Georgia was named for John in 1821, many years after that honor was bestowed on the memory of several of his contemporaries such as Elijah Clark and likely then only through the influence of his son the prominent Judge John Mitchell Dooly. [15]


[1] Otis Ashmore, “Colonel John Dooly” in Allen D. Candler, ed., Men of Mark in Georgia, 12 vols. (Atlanta: A.B. Caldwell, 1907-1912), 1: 54.

[2] Hugh McCall, The History of Georgia, 2 vols. (Savannah: Williams, 1811, 1816), 2:85-86, 193-204, 306; E. Merton Coulter, “Nancy Hart, Georgia Heroine of the Revolution: The Story of the Growth of a Tradition,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 39 (June 1955): 118-51 and “A Famous Duel That was Never Fought,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 43 (1959): 365; George R. Gilmer, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author (New York: D. Appleton, 1855), 212-15.

[3] For John Dooly’s background see Robert S. Davis, “A Frontier for Pioneer Revolutionaries: John Dooly and the Beginnings of Popular Democracy in Original Wilkes County,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 90 (Fall 2006): 315-49.

[4] John Dooly to Alexander McGowan, August 8, 1780, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah. For the Georgia parole see Harold E. Davis, The Fledgling Province: Social and Cultural Life in Colonial Georgia, 1733-1776 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 17; William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far as It Related to the States of North and South Carolina and Georgia (2 vols., New York: David Longworth, 1802), 2: 336; E. W. Carruthers, Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Characters Chiefly of the Old North State (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1854), 431; Dr. Thomas Taylor to Rev. John Wesley, February 28, 1782, Shelbourne Papers, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor; Royal Georgia Gazette (Savannah), March 14, 1782.

[5] Hugh Bicheno, Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), xxv.

[6] McCall, The History of Georgia, 2: 271, 296, 306. Adiel Sherwood, A Gazetteer of the State of Georgia (Philadelphia: Martin and Boden, 1829), 198; Bobby Gilmer Moss, Roster of South Carolina Patriots in the American Revolution (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985), 607.

[7] Peter Wilson Coldham, comp., American Migrations 1765-1799 (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000), 789; Mary Bondurant Warren, comp., Revolutionary Memoirs and Muster Rolls (Athens, GA: Heritage Papers, 1994), 22, 164, 168.

[8] Gordon B. Smith, Morningstars of Liberty: The Revolutionary War in Georgia, 1775-1783 2 vols. to date (Milledgeville, GA: Boyd Publishing, 2006-), 211-15, 219-21; J. H. Cruger to Lord Charles Cornwallis, September 28, 1780, Cornwallis Papers, 30/11/64, p. 116, National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew; Elijah Clark to “Gov. Campbell,” November 5, 1780, Thomas Sumter Papers, 4VV272-73, Lyman C. Draper Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison; William Stevenson to Lieutenant Colonel Barton, September 25, 1780, in Remembrancer: Or Imperial Repository of Public Events, vol. 11, pt. i, (London, 1781): 280.

[9] John Dooley, James Dooly, and John Dooly, COM index and Court of Common Please Case files, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia; Katie-Prince Ward Esker, South Carolina Memorials, 1731-1776 (Cottonport, LA.: Polyanthos, 1973), 1; Jesse Hogan Motes III and Margaret Peckham Motes, comps., South Carolina Memorials: Abstracts of Land Titles Volume 1 1774-1776 (Greenville, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1996), 390, and Laurens and Newberry Counties South Carolina: Saluda and Little River Settlements 1749-1775 (Greenville, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1994), 45, 47, 49-51, 53-54, 57-58, 61- 63, 67, 72-73, 88-89, 107-108, 113, 116, 153, 177, 179.

[10] Allen D. Candler, comp., The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia,  3 vols. (Atlanta: Franklin Turner Co., 1908), 2:117, 223, 225-226, 236,-37 359; Davidson, Early Records of Georgia, 1: 8, 12, 18, 33;  Michael Martin Farmer, comp., Wilkes County, Georgia Deed Books A-VV,  1784-1806 (Dallas, TX: Farmer Genealogy Co., 1996), 397; Alex M. Hitz, “The Earliest Settlements in Wilkes County,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 40 (September 1956): 261-63.

[11] Receipts, 1775, William and Edward Telfair & Company Collection, Special Collections, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University, Durham; Dooly to McGowan, August 8, 1780; John Dooly estate papers, Record Group 257-2-10, Wilkes County grants of administrations and guardianships, April 4, 1787, microfilm drawer  44, roll 31, and Superior Court minutes (1788-1794), April term 1788, microfilm drawer 45, roll 29, Georgia Archives, Morrow; Ge Lee Hendrix, comp., Edgefield County South Carolina Abstracts of Deed Books 1-12 (Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1985), 7-8; Grace G. Davidson, comp., Early Records of Georgia Wilkes County 2 vols. (Macon, GA: J. W. Burke Company, 1933), 2: 2-12; Candler, The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia, 2:177-79; Smith, Morningstars of Liberty, 1: 204.

[12] Revolutionary War pension claims of John Smith, Ga. R31967, John Smith, Ga. R9769, and John Watkins, Ga. R11190, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900 (Microfilm M804, rolls 1154 and 582), Records of the Veterans Administration Record Group 15, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington; Warren, comp., Revolutionary Memoirs and Muster Rolls, 22; Smith, Morningstars of Liberty, 1: 202.

[13] George Dooly vs. Hannah Caudle, Joseph M. Toomey Collection, GAr; Revolutionary War pension claim of John Smith, Ga. S 31967, (Microfilm M804, roll 2219, NARA); Leslie Hall, Land & Allegiance in Revolutionary Georgia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 153; Smith, Morningstars of Liberty, 1: 202.

[14] Candler, The Revolutionary Records, 2: 359-60; Farmer, comp., Wilkes County, Georgia Deed Books, 546;  Daniel Crumpton, comp., Wilkes County Georgia Land Records Volume One (Warrenton, GA: Daniel Nathan Crumpton, 2014), 158, 358, 533; legal notice, John Dooly estate, Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle and Gazette of the State, July 17, 1790,  February 14, 1801; Warren, comp., Revolutionary Memoirs and Muster Rolls, 169.

[15] Stephen F. Miller, The Bench and Bar of Georgia: Memoirs and Sketches, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott, 1858), 1: 333. George R. Gilmer wrote that John Mitchell Dooly hid under a bed during his father’s murder but later killed nine of his father’s murderers despite being only a youth. Gilmer, Sketches, 183.

One thought on “The Murder of Colonel Dooly Of Georgia: A Revolutionary War Mystery

  • Bob–
    Enjoyed much your article on the mystery surrounding the murder of Colonel John Dooly. Hopefully there will come a day when all of us begin to understand what took place in the South is as important as what happened in the North, and equally important to why the American Revolution turned the way it did.

    I am constantly amazed at how the men in Georgia resolved their differences or settled disputes. Tread carefully around others or know how to fight better. Must have been something in the water. But then, isn’t the very definition of frontier made of stuff like this?

    I note with great interest your use of the concept holocaust to characterize events in Georgia. This is not to suggest those in the North did not suffer; they did, but it is difficult to trace a figure in the South that does not lead to a personal holocaust — the loss of almost everything in their life, including their health in decades to follow, if they survived.

    In reading your article, I jotted down many of the names you mention. It is remarkable how a study of each leads to more killing, deaths, more destruction–homes burned, family members killed, starvation, living like animals in forest and swamps– I mean, what became of those who were already sheltering at a subsistence level when their homes got burned? 100 homes along the frontier is a LOT of homes. And how many — at least 4 or 500 hundred wives and children?–with their noses already just above the water, sank because of this? It was a holocaust.

    I know there are a few, such as our elusive Andrew Williamson, that did not suffer greatly DURING THE WAR but name someone else who escaped this holocaust? It’s a short list. In the South, it was always a revolution fueled by revenge, plunder, retaliation — something akin to feudal war lords who are right because they have the might.

    And, as a small last comment, I note you mention John Jones–what so many call the “John Jones of Burke County” without offering proof of which one. Tracing him is proving to be more fun than I can handle all at once. Getting him from one Burke County to another is giving me indigestion.

    Again, Good read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *