Friday, March 27, 2009

James McPherson: Ranger and Rancher on the Southern Colonial Frontier




Print of Yemassee raid on SC frontier found in Library of Congress collection

James McPherson was a prominent rancher, a militiaman who fought in the Yemassee War, a captain and commander of South Carolina’s Southern Rangers, and a trusted frontiersman who helped in the founding of the Georgia colony. McPherson was actively engaged economically and militarily during the period between 1715 and 1750 and contributed to pushing back the colonial frontier and preparing the region of southern Carolina for future settlement. In addition, he led one of the earliest documented cattle drives from the South Carolina colony to the new colony of Georgia. He was a true harbinger of the men who would follow in subsequent western frontiers.

A watershed event in southwestern South Carolina, as well as in all of South Carolina during the early colonial period was the Yemassee War of 1715. The Yemassee and their Creek allies tired of their continued abuse by Carolina’s deer skin traders launched fierce raids on Good Friday, April 15th. They killed many traders, settlers, and livestock. They burned and ransacked frontier homes and outlying settlements. Stunned survivors of these devastating raids were forced to retreat to the walls of Charles Town. The South Carolina colony seemed to be on the verge of destruction.

The Carolinians fought back. They used a victory on the banks of the Salkehatchie River and another at Port Royal as a springboard to drive all the Yemassee out of the colony and across the Savannah River. The danger, however, was not over. The Yemassee’s powerful allies had included many of the Creek tribes in Georgia and Alabama. Carolina authorities desperately sought security for the shaken British colony. The key was found in forging an alliance with the Cherokee in the Appalachian Mountains. They were traditional enemies of the Creeks. With Carolina’s backing and weapons the Cherokee waged war on the Creeks. South Carolinians regained control over the frontier. The Yemassee retreated to Spanish Florida. There they were encouraged by the Spanish to harass British settlers on their former lands in South Carolina. Yemassee raids across the Savannah River during the next 13 years, 1715-1728, left the lands in southern Carolina unsafe. It won the area between the Savannah River and the Combahee and Salkehatchie Rivers the sobriquet of the “Indian Lands.”


In December 1716 the South Carolina government authorized an act for the appointment of rangers to guard the frontiers. Rangers were volunteers or men drafted from the milita who served a specific number of months patrolling the frontier on horseback. The rangers were mobile troops whose primary mission was to search for Native Americans who entered South Carolina as unwanted guests. If unwanted Native Americans were found on their patrols, the rangers were to demand them to leave and/or then, if all else failed, drive them out by force. A combination of small palisade forts and rangers prevented major attacks and stopped most raids by Native American tribes in the following years. By 1718 the rangers and forts were disbanded and abandoned as the Yemassee threat seemed to diminish. But new raids in 1723 and 1726 brought both the rangers and forts back.



Drawing by Bill Drath from Larry E. Ivers, British Drums on the Southern Frontier


James McPherson, of Scottish descent, who was born in 1688 and had served in the South Carolina militia during the Yemassee War, now appeared prominently upon the stage. McPherson became one of the earliest documented backcountry settlers in the lands that are today near the town of Yemassee and part of or near to Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper counties, South Carolina. He sought his livelihood as a cattle rancher. Ranching, although, it never fully recovered from the Yemassee War, was a quick and easy means to obtain wealth in colonial South Carolina before the arrival of rice and indigo. There was little expense or labor involved. Cattle were left to roam the grasslands and forests eating grasses and other wild foods. They were perfectly suited to the mild climate of the Carolina backcountry and were left to forge for food and fend for themselves during the winter. The cattle were rounded up by a minimum number of slaves. They were then, separated out to be slaughtered or driven to market. Butchered meat was packed in wooden barrels with a brine solution and sold to feed the growing population along the southern Carolina coast and/or shipped as provisions to the large sugar plantations in the British Caribbean. McPherson’s 500 acre cowpen was one of the largest cowpens in the area and was manned by McPherson’s family and slaves. Cowpens were areas that were defined by a combination of natural features such as streams or rivers as well as manmade features such as fences. The waterways and fences designated the area in which cattle could range free. McPherson’s Cowpens at the head of the Combahee River where the Salkehatchie and Little Salkehatchie Rivers converged was at a perfect spot to ship goods to market on the coast.



By 1726, in response to renewed Yemassee raids, a division of Carolina rangers were moved to Saltcatcher’s Fort which had been established on or near McPhersons’ Cowpens on the Salkehatchie River and named after the Saltcatcher Indians, a Yemassee group who had inhabited the spot until driven out in 1715. McPherson was appointed Captain of the rangers. Over time they became known as the Southern Rangers or McPherson’s Rangers. They went on mounted patrols scouring the lands between the stockade of Saltcatcher’s Fort on the headwaters of the Combahee to Fort Prince George on the Savannah River looking for Yemassee raiding parties. Fort Prince George or Palachacola Fort was a fort located on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River across the river from an old Native American town known as Palachacola Town. The site of the fort is in the extreme southwestern portion of Hampton County. It was a strategic point because all Native Americans entering lower South Carolina had to stop at the fort for permission from Charles Town authorities before continuing into South Carolina. A detachment of Carolina rangers who became known as the Palachacola Garrison were assigned to this fort. They patrolled the region north to present day North Augusta and Fort Moore (See previous blog: A Glimpse of the “True” Old West) and east toward the lands patrolled by McPherson’s Rangers.

In 1733 McPherson and the Southern Rangers were ordered south by the South Carolina government to support the founding of the Georgia colony. McPherson’s troops provided safe passage for General James Oglethorpe and the new settlers who established the city of Savannah. Later he was ordered to establish a fort in Georgia on the Ogechee River where two Native American paths crossed in order to protect the new town of Savannah. This fort became known as Fort Argyle. Mcpherson’s Rangers manned the fort and he became a close advisor to Oglethorpe.

By 1735, safely protected by the lands of the new colony of Georgia, South Carolina abandoned the ranger system and withdrew support for its rangers and forts. The colony of Georgia kept McPherson on for two more years as an advisor but in 1736 he returned to ranching in South Carolina. His close ties to the new colony of Georgia provided him with contacts useful to his ranch operation. And in 1736 he drove a herd a cattle, “all the way overland” from South Carolina to the new Scottish settlement of Darien in southern Georgia to provide the settlers there with fresh provisions of milk and meat. It was the first of any such documented long-distance cattle drives in the lower South and the South Carolina Gazette said that it created “joy” among the new Scottish settlers “to find the communication for cattle by land opened.” We wish we knew more about this drive over numerous deep, salty, intercoastal rivers, muddy marshes, and trackless woodlands. It sounds like quite an adventure. A cattle drive, not quite a rival to those cattle drives north by those hardy cowboys of Texas, but still an impressive accomplishment.



McPherson continued to buy cattle and drive them to Georgia to be slaughtered. He would later return to serve the colony of South Carolina as intrigue with Spanish Florida and then later French Louisiana emerged in the 1740’s and 1750’s. He served in revamped versions of the rangers in 1744, 1746, and 1751. McPherson lived more than half of his life as a solider and rancher on the frontier. During his lifetime the frontier shifted north, south, and west of the Carolina colony. McPherson, who was instrumental in that shift, lived to see the end of that era. He died at age 83 in 1771. James McPherson, ranger and rancher, is a suitable hero for southern South Carolina’s colorful frontier past.

Andy Thomas

Works I consulted for this Blog:

Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore, and George Rogers, Jr., The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume I, 1514-1861 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier: 1670-1732 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1929).

Larry E. Ivers, British Drums on the Southern Frontier: The Military Colonization of Georgia, 1733-1749 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1974)

For the cattle drive see: South Carolina Gazette (Charles Town, 1732-75), October 9, 1736 edition.

1 comment:

  1. Capt. James McPherson was my ancestor. Thank you for your article.

    Clayton Rhodes
    Savannah, GA

    ReplyDelete