The Widow’s Apron: Life, Death, and a Forgotten Skirmish Along the Old Blackstock Road

Is this tiny stretch of road all that remains of the Old Blackstock Road? This grassy path continues to wind around post-Revolutionary Shiloh Methodist Church, turning left toward Lawson Fork Creek two-fifths of a mile away. Is there an unknown grave of a British soldier somewhere nearby? Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick, South Carolina Heritage Corridor.

This is the story, such as it can be told, of one long forgotten woman in the midst of the revolutionary war, a weaver of homespun cloth who, burdened with crushing grief and guilt, showed a spark of decency, if only for one brief moment, following a deadly skirmish on a hot July day in South Carolina, alongside a most important frontier road.

In the New England Colonies, wearing homespun clothes became a voluntary expression of outcry against British nonimportation policy. The “spinning bee,” or sewing circle, became the rage of New England, a form of social protest against the British government. It was fashionable to express one’s sentiments by wearing clothes made from homemade cloth rather than imported fabrics.[1] Along the Indian boundary line of South Carolina, near Spartanburg, however, a choice between homespun and imported cloth seldom existed. Settlers wore cloth manufactured by the women of their family. By 1780, when the British had seized the South Carolina old frontier forts, roads, settlements and water crossings, trade between settlers was strangled. Cloth was scarce as salt and, often, almost as precious as rum.[2]

The Widow Bishop lived beside the Old Blackstock Road, in sight of where the waters of Lawson Fork Creek crossed, creating a modest, unremarkable ford. Today this is one of the few spots, near the historic post-revolutionary Shiloh Methodist Church in Inman, a neighborhood of Spartanburg, South Carolina, that comes close to looking a bit like it must have in revolutionary times. Locals[3] contend the few hundred yards of grassy road passing the church is all that remains of the old road. No one has yet proven, or disproven for that matter, this claim. Although the actual location of the Bishop home is lost, a possible clue to how it might have been situated comes from British Col. Banastre Tarleton, describing the Battle of Blackstock’s Plantation, not far from the Bishop home: “The great road [Blackstock] across the river [Tyger] passed … close to the doors of houses …”[4] In these times, the ideal home location was near a creek or river, or in this case beside a road, on elevated land that would not flood, where a good spring of water[5] was to be found. The land about Shiloh Church met that criteria.[6] It is also known that before there was Shiloh Church, there was nearby a brush arbor, within walking distance on a Sunday morning by the Widow Bishop, who would have worn her best apron to church.[7] The historian John Belton O’Neall Landrum gave a wonderful description of the old Road; unfortunately, he jumps over this short stretch, before picking up again. Where Lawson Fork Creek crosses the old road, he wrote “Up to this point to the Frank Bush place, near Shiloh Church [Blackstock Road] runs at present, for the most part, over its original bed. The remaining portion of the old road, except for a short distance at different places has long been abandoned.”[8] The “Frank Bush place” was within sight of Shiloh Church, with the Bush and Bishop homes separated by the creek crossing.

The Bishop family had been among the first settlers in what now is Spartanburg city, purchasing three hundred prime acres along this cleverly designed path, a path which evolved to become the equivalent of a colonial interstate. Centuries before Europeans came to America, the best road designers ever created a north-south migration path through Spartanburg District, a path of efficiency that required the least possible expenditure of effort, and calories, to travel. Next came the Yamasee Indians – just as clever as migrating animals in economy of movement, who used the path for trade. They were followed by fur traders. Then came family groups, such as the Bishops, who widened the trail so wagons could travel. Blackstock Road is considered the oldest road[9] in Spartanburg County.

Living beside Blackstock Road, where there were opportunities to trade with those passing by, Elizabeth Bishop built something of a cottage industry. The image of an isolated setter’s cabin is not quite accurate in the case of the Bishop homestead. The fact that parts of Blackstock Road have survived for almost two hundred and fifty years speaks of its importance. This was a route for those who walked, rode on horseback or traveled by wagon. Passing often by the Bishop home would have been escaping debtors, rogues, former indentured servants (“redemptioners”[10]), new settlers, land speculators, traders, pack trains sometimes with as many as a hundred horses, but most often much smaller, each horse carrying between 150 and 200 pounds of goods. Many days as many as twenty wagons would slowly move down the road. [11] And then there were the herds of cattle. Future rebel general Andrew Williamson[12] would have been among the many drovers who spent their youth in forests and cane breaks on horseback, and at “cow-pens,” gathering wild cattle[13] to drive to Charlestown, where they were shipped in vast numbers to places such as Philadelphia and New York.[14] Learning the trade of drover, in Cherokee lands, brought with it collateral skills soon to make such men the kind of guerrilla fighters the British never quite learned how to counter.

For Elizabeth Bishop, Blackstock Road was a flowing stream of gold for someone willing to work from dawn to past dusk, six days a week. She had her own loom room—a great rarity— with a large loom—another rarity, although smaller looms were common among setters, and more than one spinning wheel (perhaps the greatest rarity of all).[15] The coarse cloth she spun and wove was sold, but more likely bartered. Upon reaching Lawson Creek Ford, a “choke point,”[16] travelers would have slowed down, sometimes waiting to cross. Fording was normally not difficult, but it did take caution to go down the bank and come up on the other side without careless mishap.[17]

Sometime near the end of 1779 or start of 1780 – no one knows for certain – Elizabeth Bishop loaded her homespun, forded Lawson’s Fork Creek, and with her infant daughter in her lap, went to a quilting bee at nearby Prince’s Fort, the settlement sanctuary in times of Indian incursion about four miles further down Blackstock Road. Her husband and three older children did not go with her.

It is something of a myth that frontier settlers lived simple, uncomplicated lives. Elizabeth Bishop was a most complex woman, with a past. What happened next is one of the great indian capture stories of frontier times. While at this quilting bee, marketing her cloth, her husband was killed and her children taken captive. There were indications this was a planned, surgical attack by a small band of Cherokee Indians, coming some three hundred miles from Running Water, the camp of Dragging Canoe, near modern Chattanooga, Tennessee.[18] The Bishop home was not seriously plundered and the house was not burned.[19] Other more convenient isolated farms — better targets— were passed over by the raiding party. The Cherokees were after the children. The timing of the attack was such that Elizabeth Bishop would not be home. As a young girl, Elizabeth had married John “Old Trader” Benge.[20] When her father discovered Old Trader also had an Indian wife, not uncommon among those who spent long periods of time among the Indians, he had the marriage annulled, and hid from Elizabeth and Old Trader their three young sons.[21] Among the sub-chiefs of Dragging Canoe was a half-breed son of Old Trader, a fierce and deadly scourge along the frontier, a red-headed warrior[22] who often passed as a white man, known for his well-planned, fast hit-and-run attacks. The Cherokee Indian sense of blood for blood[23] – replacing three lost children with three children taken from the “clan” that committed the offense—surely must have haunted the new Widow Bishop, adding to her crushing grief. In time, the children would be returned, but no one knew this in July of 1780.

The quilting bee Elizabeth attended was far more than a simple gathering of frontier women. Just as a militia muster or attendance at a Presbyterian Meeting House was used to gauge the sentiments of a family—Tory, Whig or neutral—sewing circles in the Revolution came to serve the same purpose. By this time, 1780, such gatherings would have been considered seditious by the British. “Knots of Matrons” had become common in places like Philadelphia and Boston, with some of America’s most “stately, dignified, and beautiful women”[24] competing with one another to remake the spinning bee into a public expression of patriotism. Lacking the refinement found in a Boston parlor, the Prince’s Fort quilting Bee would have been equally a census of sentiments, perhaps with the women expressing feelings such as those of a close neighbor who may have been present: “We are going to hang all the d—d old Tories, take their wives, scrape their tongues and let them go.”[25] Cutting off noses was also considered. This would not have been an outlook openly expressed by one of Philadelphia’s stately, dignified women; but Prince’s Fort held women who measured forte and dignity differently than what would have been found in Martha Washington’s sewing circle.

With the Fall of Charleston in May 1780, British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis began the implementation of his version of the British strategy. Leaving behind the enormous advantages that would have come with staying near the British navy, Cornwallis moved to secure his left flank, something that required taking Georgia and South Carolina out of the war. One part of this strategy was seizing control of how settlers moved about the back county. Control of a route as important as Blackstock Road was vital to the British plan, something the rebels could not allow to go uncontested.

Knowing the Revolutionary history of this old road was something that became important to the historian John Belton O’Neall Landrum. Before setting out along Blackstock road to gather up the traditions and stories from his neighbors about what happened when the British took control of the Blackstock Road forts, Dr. Landrum carefully read, and tweaked, what other historians, such as Lyman Draper, had to say:

Before sunrise the ensuing morning [Saturday, July 15, 1780], fifty-two of the most active men, including Freeman and fourteen of his party [rebels], mounted upon the best horses in the camp, were ordered to pursue the retreating foe, under the command of Captain Edward Hampton. After a rapid pursuit of two hours, they overtook the enemy, fifteen miles away; and making a sudden and unexpected attack, completely routed them, killing eight of them at the first fire. Unable to rally his demoralized men, who had been taken unawares, Dunlap made a precipitate, helter-skelter retreat towards Fort Prince, during which several of his soldiers were killed and wounded.[26]

Draper was describing what happened after a prior skirmish, just hours earlier, had taken place on the border between the Carolinas. The camp mentioned was rebel Col Charles McDowell’s muster at Earle’s Ford. Georgia refugee John Freeman, rebel, now in command following the serious wounding of Col John Jones, was, along with Edward Hampton, who owned the land where the skirmish occurred, chasing down Blackstock Road after British major James Dunlap and loyalist militia colonel Ambrose Mills. Apparently the original thirty-five men in Jones’s command, in the Earle’s Ford skirmish, had been reduced to less than half. What is significant to this story is mention of “fifteen miles away.” This places what happened next – mounted rebels catching up with British dragoons and loyalist militia– very near Shiloh Church.

Of the thirty-five men known to have taken part in the skirmish at Earle’s Ford, ten were also in the pursuit down Blackstock Road. Several recalled, as old men, what happened.

Joseph Dunn[27] was among those in pursuit of the fourteen dragoons from Patrick Ferguson’s American Volunteers, under Dunlap’s command– experienced provincials considered almost on par with regular British units — and Mills’ sixty mounted loyalist militia. Apparently, it was common British strategy to embed trained men, such as dragoons of the American Volunteers, as a backbone to “stiffen” what were seen by British regulars as inferior troops, local militia easily spooked and prone to run.

Probably why Dunn was selected is found in what happened to his brother at the Earle’s Ford Skirmish: “Andrew Dunn the first Lieutenant of horse was one of the killed (he was the brother of this affiant).” Dunn further states: “In the morning, the horse were recalled and ordered to pursue the enemy, which we promptly obeyed; and we came up with them at a house about nine miles distant, where we surrounded them, and made a charge upon them and killed as many as nine or more, and dispersed the others.” This places the skirmish near Shiloh Church. Candidates for the “house” that appear to be where some of Dunlap’s men took refuge and got trapped include the homes of Frank Bush and Widow Bishop. Dr. Uzal Johnson stated that Dunlap “had two men killed and one made prisoner. A Sergeant and Private died.”[28] It is likely Dr. Johnson was speaking only of causalities among the British provincials – the dragoons– and not Mills’ local militia, who would have been scarcely known to him.

In his return down Blackstock Road following the Earle’s Ford Skirmish, James Dunlap maintained a pace of between seven and eight miles per hour. Part of the reason why he may not have moved faster can be found in the tactics he most likely used. Dunlap is one of the British officer corps known to be an advocate of Robert Hinde’s The Discipline of the Lighthorse.

All this is conjecture on my part—the possibility that Dunlap followed Hinde’s rules for light horse; but I am supported by something said by Dunlap’s fellow officers, and friends, about a similar skirmish two months later, at Cane Creek.

British Maj. Andrew Maxwell wrote that Dunlap’s dragoons “adopted Hud’s [Hinde’s] brassis[29] Maxim & most of them got to … fight another day.”[30] I consider this evidence suggesting Dunlap knew about, and perhaps followed, “his Majesty’s command” to codify a better way to regulate the conduct of small men on “nick’d tail” horses.[31]

Dunlap would have moved in the predawn with caution: “The men who are farthest advanced in the front … are frequently to halt, and listen whether they can hear anything.”[32]

A major duty of light dragoons was to cover the front, rear and flanks of a troop convoy, an observation that assumes more significance at the end of this story. Although prescribed for how to enter a village, the same discipline would have applied to a creek crossing: “The patrols … are not to enter any village, without having first detached a man or two to reconnoitre it.”[33]

Returning on the same road he had taken violated the discipline of the dragoons. Dunlap, as one of Patrick Ferguson’s subordinates, had “thoroughly drilled … the younger men in military tactics, and fitted [them] for active service.”[34] Dunlap, leaving Earle’s Ford, must have had in mind that “Patrols … as much as possible, to avoid going at certain hours, and not to keep constantly one way, either in their march out, or return.”[35]

The need for caution, uncertainty, almost no sleep over four days, a herd of thirty-five captured horses, and any number of wounded, along with the need to guard prisoners, plus not knowing the exact timeline of the Earle’s Ford Skirmish – specifically how long it lasted – with whatever hesitation came with getting across Lawson Ford Creek, were all factors in explaining how the rebel pursuit caught up with Dunlap near Shiloh Church, some two hours past daybreak, about 7:30 a.m. on this Saturday morning.

Freeman Jones[36] was not complementary to rebel Col. Charles McDowel’s and Col Andrew Hampton’s reaction to Dunlap’s surprise night attack at Earle’s Ford: “Genl McDowell & Col Hampton were panic stricken and retreated with the foremost of those who fled.” It was Maj. John Singleton, according to Jones who “… rallied as many of his men as he could and thus prevented the slaughter of the men …. The next morning Major Singleton with something the rise of a hundred men … Affiant being of that number, commenced the pursuit and going about five or six miles, overtook the Tory part of the British Army if it may be so called & retook the prisoners & killed some four or five of the Tories …” The role of John Singleton in the pursuit is often underplayed. Freeman’s memory of the distance is an outlier, a singular exception to those recalling the skirmish as being near Shiloh Church.

This is Blackstock Road today, crossing Lawson Fork Creek. To the right, about two-fifths of a mile, would have been the Bishop home. Immediately to the left is the post-revolutionary rebuilt home of John Bush. Four miles further is Prince’s Fort. A slope of 12 degrees would be the maximum limit allowing horses and cattle to cross without stumbling. Photo from Street View, Google Earth.

Richard McClewer[37] talked about how Capt. Edward Hampton’s cavalry “… followed them in the morning and overtook them and made considerable havoc with them …” It is his memory of confusion and havoc that makes his eyewitness account so important. There is some evidence that a detachment of Dunlap’s dragoons, likely under command of a sergeant, probably was watching the road behind them; “the Van-Guard and Rear-Guard should also be composed of Light-Dragoons.”[38] Recall that Dr. Johnson wrote in his diary that a sergeant was killed. Perhaps some of Mills’ militia were already across the creek. There is no proof of this, other than that many of the loyalists could not or did not rally to help Dunlap; most seemed to take it on themselves to continue the remaining four miles to Prince’s fort, deserting the captured horses, apparently retaken, again, en masse, allowing prisoners to escape and leaving the dead where they fell.   Hugh McCall, from his sources, stated “Dunlap, unable to rally, made a precipitate retreat in which several of his men were killed and wounded.”[39]

William Morris[40] remembered how the skirmish brought about the release, and taking, of a large number of prisoners: “Next morning there was a detachment of horse sent after them. Our officers got all the horses they could start & picked those men & started them in pursuit. I was one of the men picked & sent. We had a skirmish with them, we killed some of the enemy and took about 20 prisoners. They had about 20 of our men prisoners which they had taken before, they were all released in the fight or rather got away & returned with us to the Camp.” Although the pursuit by men such as Joseph Dunn provided motive enough to pursue the British, some of the urgency to catch up with Dunlap is found in “got all the horses they could start.” The loss of thirty-five good mounts, in addition to retribution, was a major influence in the risk the rebels took. These “stout” horses were the one common denominator in the three known skirmishes – I suggest four with what happened at Shiloh Church – that took place in a thirty-five to fifty hour period along Blackstock Road: Gowen’s Old Fort, where the horses were first captured by the rebels (something not discussed in this article); Earle’s Ford , where the British capturd (re-captured?) thirty-five horses; Lawson Creek Fork at Shiloh Church; and Prince’s Fort, which ended with Hampton and his men taking back to McDowell’s camp thirty-five horses.

Dr. Landrum, unaware of these eyewitness accounts, recalled after reading Draper what Isaac Pollard had told him years earlier. What Landrum wrote is from the perspective of those who lived, or came to live, alongside the Old Blackstock Road. Although Landrum can be read as giving the impression that Isaac Pollard was a witness to events, Pollard was not born in 1780; he moved with his father to nearby Prince’s Fort after the Revolution. There is a link from Pollard that leads to the Widow Bishop. Isaac’s father, William Pollard, was close friends with James Lawrence. Both men served in the revolution together and both eventually settled alongside the old road. James Lawrence, who lost his first wife, married the Widow Bishop. Dr. Landrum’s father, a minister, was also part of this Prince’s Fort neighborhood web. He served many in this story as pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, less than a mile from Prince’s Fort, and was the minister who often served as the required character witness in their pension applications. The young Landrum grew up knowing well those living along Blackstock Road, undoubtedly hearing their stories.

By the time Dr. Landrum heard what Isaac Pollard remembered, Elizabeth Bishop and James Lawrence had long ago sold out and moved to Georgia.

There was a skirmish near the home of the Widow Bishop. Curiously, it is known about but not really given the acknowledgement it deserves. What took place is seen by historians as little more than a bit of glue holding the Earle’s Ford skirmish together with what took place later in the day at Prince’s Fort.

Near the home of Widow Bishop, on July 15, 1780, there was havoc, violence and death among more than one hundred men. No one knows how many died—maybe three or perhaps as many as eight, many left forgotten where they fell. At least one – perhaps a dragoon sergeant or private of the American Volunteers —lay still, as only the dead can, in the hot sun near Shiloh Church, until the Widow Bishop, wearing her best Sunday apron, made her way to a nearby brush arbor.

It is here that this story, for the moment, comes to and end:

Mr. Pollard said the fight with the enemy continued along the road until Fort Prince was reached. He said further that several men fell dead at difference places on the road – one near the John Bush place, one on the roadside which ran through his plantation, and another at the Lawrence place, near Mount Zion Church. He said that the man who was killed near the John Bush place lay for several days by a large oak tree, which was standing only a few years ago, without being buried. The neighbors concluded at last they would dig a hole and roll him in it …

Widow Bishop happened to be passing by.

Moved to sympathy by the unnatural and inhuman mode of burying, she took off her apron and spread it over the face of this unfortunate victim.”[41]

 

[1] Anne L. Macdonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1988), 28-29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bill Fitzpatrick, “Americana: The Forgotten Tears,” Khabar, March 2012, http://www.khabar.com/magazine/features/americana_the_forgotten_tears, accessed May 7, 2017.

[4] Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, England: T. Cadell, 1787), 178.

[5] “Clearly visible is the outline of the three acres donated by the Grambling family to build the Church. It is this family that purchased the Bishop land. In the oldest part of the cemetery –among the now unmarked stones – is the grave of Isaac Bishop, son of Widow Bishop. Good spring water was essential for survival of the Church.” “Shiloh Methodist Church, A History,” The 29349 Inman Times, May 26, 2016, https://the29349inmantimes.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/shiloh-methodist-church-a-history/.

[6] Alexander Gregg, History of the Old Cheraws: An Account of the Aborigines of the Pedee: The First White Settlers (New York, NY: Richardson and Company, 1867), 117.

[7] John Belton O’Neall Landrum, Colonial and revolutionary history of upper South Carolina (Greenville, SC: Shannon & Co., 1897), 124.

[8] Ibid, 88.

[9] Ibid, 33.

[10] Rebecca Taft Fecher, “The Trading Path and North Carolina,” Journal of Backcountry Studies, Vol 3, No 2, 2010, http://libjournal.uncg.edu/jbc/article/view/26, 9.

[11] Henry William Elson, History of the United States of America (New York, NY: The MacMillian Company, 1904), 83-88.

[12] Llewellyn M. Toulmin, “Backcountry Warrior: Brig Gen. Andrew Williamson,” Journal of Backcountry Studies, Volume 7, Number 1 (Spring 2012), 5.

[13] James W. Lawrence, They Called It Inman (Landrum, SC: Lawrence W. Landrum, Sr., 2001). 3. There is a charming tradition, probably an example of frontier wit more than anything, that in Autumn the old road would be covered by small herds of black cattle being moved to market – “black stock,” hence the name of the road. More likely the road was named after a family named Blackstock, who lived at another water crossing further down from the Bishop home, the site of a significant Revolutionary War battle, that of Blackstock’s Plantation. This old road is one of history’s great arteries.

[14] John H Logan, History of the Upper Country of South Carolina, from the Earliest Periods to the Close of the War of Independence Volume I (Charleston, SC: Courtenary and Company, 1859), 37, 166.

[15] Probate Court, South Carolina, “South Carolina Probate Records, Bound Volumes, 1671-1977”, Will Books, 1810-1903, File #570, A-120, http://familysearch.org/search/catalog/1919417.

[16] Fecher, “The Trading Path”, 7.

[17] This is my observation. I have stood where the bridge now passes over the Creek.

[18] Vicki Rozeman, Footsteps of the Cherokees, 2nd Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: John F Blair, 2007), 75-76.

[19] Landrum, Colonial and revolutionary history, 91.

[20] Dawn LeForce, “The Two Families of John “Old Trader” Benge,” Cherokee Stories, https://thelaforces.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/earl-alvis-leforce/.

[21] Mary Bondurant Warren, Family Puzzlers, Issues 924-949 (Danielsville, GA: Heritage Papers, 1967), 92-93.

[22] “Mothers would scare wandering children with: ‘If you don’t watch out, Captain Benge will get you.’” Don Chesnut, On this Day in History, March 31, 1793, http://www.luftex.com/benge-bob.html.

[23] William Blount to Henry Knox, August 6, 1793, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol 4 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1934).

[24] Mcdonald, No Idle Hands, 28.

[25] Landrum, Colonial and revolutionary history`, 216.

[26] Lyman Copeland Draper, King’s Mountain And Its Heroes (Cincinnati, Ohio: Peter G. Thomson, 1881), 82.

[27] Pension application of Joseph Dunn, S12811, Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statement & Rosters, revwarapps.org.

[28] Bobby Gilmer Moss, Uzal Johnson, Loyalist Surgeon (Blacksburg, SC: Scotia Hibernia Press, 2000), 46.

[29] Second definition of “Brassis,” meaning strap, belt, thong. In the old Scottish dialect of the Sixteenth Century a “Brassis” was often associated with horses, i.e. “For vj brassis, one courpole [hindquarter]… and thre [three] girthis [girths] to the smayn sadill [saddle].” It appears to me Dunlap was using a technique—a maxim—described by Hinde to carry to safety infantry, behind dragoons. Thomas Dickson, ed. Compota Thesaurariorum Regum Scotorum (Edinburgh, Scotland: General Register House, 1877),

[30] Charles B. Baxley, “Letter between Officers occupying South Carolina at the end of March 1781”, Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, www.southerncampaign.org/2013/11/06/letter-between-loyalist-officers-occupying-south-carolina-at-the-end-of/

[31] Robert Hinde, The Discipline of the Lighthorse (London: W. Owen, 1778), 2.

[32] Ibid, 446.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Draper, King’s Mountain And Its Heroes, 73.

[35] Hinde, Discipline, 445.

[36] Pension application of Freeman Jones, W7900, revwarapps.org.

[37] Pension application of Richard McClewer, S9428, revwarapps.org.

[38] Hinde, Discipline, 464.

[39] Hugh McCall, The History of Georgia (Atlanta, GA: A.B. Caldwell, 1909), 495.

[40] Pension application of William Morris S2864, revwarapps.org.

[41] Ibid.

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