A History of Ninety-Six, South Carolina

The unusual name was given by early traders in the 1700s because they mistakenly believed it was the number of miles to the Cherokee village of Keowee in the upper South Carolina foothills. After its naming, many other places in South Carolina adopted this "mileage from Keowee" in their names, e.g., the early town of Six Mile in Pickens County.

By the mid-1700s, European colonists found it a favorable place to settle. During Ninety Six's early days, troubles with local Indians increased. In 1760, Cherokees twice attacked Fort Ninety Six, built for the settlers' protection. By the early 1700s, Ninety Six village reached its peak with a growing population, twelve houses and a newly constructed court house and jail.

With the District Court Acts of 1768/1769, seven new "overarching Districts" were created, one being named the Ninety-Six District, and the town of Ninety Six was designated as the district seat.

Ninety Six also figured prominently in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. The first land battle south of New England was fought here in 1775 and in 1780, the British fortified the strategically important frontier town. From May 22 - June 18, 1781, Major General Nathanael Greene, with 1,000 Patriot troops, staged the longest (yet unsuccessful) siege of the Revolutionary War against 550 Loyalists who were defending the heavily fortified town and fort of Ninety Six.

The British abandoned and burned Ninety Six in the summer of 1781, but the town was reborn as Cambridge in 1787. Today the Ninety Six National Historic Site protects the British Star Fort and other features of the colonial and Revolutionary era.

South Carolinians have a particular "pet peeve" about this town and District. 95%+ of those who grew up in South Carolina are convinced that there is no hyphen (-) between Ninety and Six, and many get quite upset when they see the name as "Ninety-Six." However, if one closely scutizines official documents of the mid-1700s, most (not all, for sure) do include the hyphen as proper English seems to dictate. This Author has been chastized many time for keeping the name as Ninety-Six. Oh well. Pretty sure there are much more important things to get irritated about, huh? Locals may disagree.
Before Spanish adventurers arrived in South Carolina in the 16th century, the rolling hills of the piedmont offered abundant game to Cherokee, Creek, and Catawba hunters. The first European settlers in the region were Indian traders and cattle drovers, followed by Scots-Irish farmers who poured down from Pennsylvania.

About 1750, Robert Gouedy established a plantation and store on the Cherokee Path at a place called Ninety Six, a name inspired by an estimate of the distance to Keowee, a principal Cherokee town.

South Carolina still has a town named Ninety Six - ten miles east of Greenwood on SC-34. Two miles south of town is the Ninety Six National Historic Site where you can tour the archaeological digs, walk an interpretive trail, see the historic star fort and ask all the questions you want at the visitors' center.

Archaelogical Dig Showing Remains of the Star Fort at Ninety Six

Ninety Six was originally a geographical term. Traders out of Charles Town thought that this stopping place was 96 miles from the important Cherokee town of Keowee in the Blue Ridge foothills. Following an ancient path worn by Indians, they packed firearms, blankets, and trinkets into the backcountry and swapped them for deer skins and furs. By 1700 or so, this trail, known as the Cherokee Path, was a major commercial artery. Over it flowed traded goods essential to the prosperity of the young colony.

The region then was a wilderness paradise, with temperate climate, rich soil, vast forests of hardwood, clear-running streams, and abundant game. After the power of the Cherokee was broken in 1761, settlers flooded into the country beyond the Saluda River. Ninety Six lay in the middle of this land boom. The first settler here was one Robert Gouedy, who opened a store in 1751. A veteran of the Cherokee trade, he parlayed that hazardous enterprise into a huge business that rivaled that of some Charles Town merchants. He grew grain and tobacco, raised cattle, served as a frontier banker, and sold cloth, shoes, beads, gunpowder, tools, and rum. He eventually amassed over 1,500 acres, and at his death in 1775 some 500 persons were in his debt.

On the eve of the American Revolution, Ninety Six was a thriving village of twelve houses, a sizable court house, and a sturdy jail. At least a hundred persons lived in the vicinity, and the land was cleared for a mile around. On the question of independence, sentiment was probably even more divided than along the coast. In what has been called the first major land battle in the South, 1,800 Loyalists on November 19, 1775 attacked one-third that number of Patriots under Major Andrew Williamson gathered at Ninety Six. After several days of fighting, the two sides agreed to a truce. But Patriot spirit was running high, and the lowcountry leaders soon mounted an expedition that swept away organized Loyalist resistance. Yet crushing the king's friends did not bring peace to the backcountry. Instead, a savage "civil war" of the two factions broke out that lasted until 1781.

Major General Nathanael Greene's Siege of Ninety-Six that year left the village a smoking ruin. The departing Loyalists set fire to the few buildings still standing and even tried to destroy the star fort. Within a few years a new town began to arise near the site of the old one. Taking the name Cambridge in 1787, it flourished for a while as a county seat and the home of an academy. The loss of the court house in 1800 started a decline from which the town never recovered. By mid-century, both old Ninety Six and newer Cambridge were little more than memories.

The Cherokee Path, the most direct route between Charles Town and the Cherokee towns in the northwestern part of the province, had become a major thoroughfare for trappers and traders traveling between the coast and the frontier. The first documented use of the Cherokee Path by the British was recorded by Captain George Chicken, who led a militia detachment to the coast via the trail in 1716. At a point on the Cherokee Path that was said to be 96 miles from the Cherokee town of Keowee, Captain Chicken and his unit blazed a new trail southwestward to the Savannah River. Ninety Six arose at the junction of these two trails.

The people who first settled in the vicinity of Ninety Six in the 1730s initially had no formal claims to the land. Thomas Brown, a trader who had resided previously at the Congarees, was the first to seek formal title to a tract of land, 250 acres, at Ninety Six. However, his 1736 claim had not been settled by the time of his death in 1737.

Ten years after Thomas Brown submitted his claim at Ninety Six, agents made a request to the colonial Commons House of Assembly to encourage British subjects to settle near Ninety Six by offering all new immigrants an exemption from all provincial taxes, except those exacted on slaves. At Governor James Glen’s recommendation, the Assembly voted to suspend the specified taxes to all northern frontier residents for a period of fifteen years.

To pre-empt any negative reactions that the Cherokee might have to an influx of new settlers into the high country, Governor Glen met with sixty-one Cherokee headmen at Ninety Six on June 1, 1746, to re-affirm peaceful relations. A few months later, in February of 1747, a transfer of the lands in the Long Canes Creek and Little River drainages was negotiated with the Cherokee in exchange for ammunition valued at £975.

With the promise of peace, there came an influx of land speculators to the Ninety Six area. Foremost among them was John Hamilton who in 1749 acquired title to 200,000 acres just south of the Ninety Six area, and commissioned a survey in 1751 in order to subdivide and sell it. The northern line of the survey, commonly known as Hamilton’s Great Survey Line (or the 1751 grant line) which ran in a northeast to southwest direction, is still a visible landmark.

Among the first to arrive were Dr. John Murray from Charles Town, John Turk from Virginia, James Francis from Saluda Old Town, Andrew Williamson from Scotland, and John Lewis Gervais, a German immigrant. By the summer of 1751, Robert Gouedy had purchased 250 acres at Ninety Six just south of the Great Survey Line and had constructed a trading post along the Cherokee Path (also referred to as Charles Town Road) that passed through his property. Gouedy had previously been a trader at Great Tellico, a village of the Overhill Cherokees from whom Gouedy had obtained an Indian wife who later bore him three daughters. When he settled at Ninety Six, Gouedy soon married a white woman, Mary, who also bore him two children, James and Sarah. His trading post prospered, and at Gouedy’s death in 1775, his land holdings had exceeded 1,500 acres, his “Ninety Six Plantation” had 34 black slaves, and his trading post had become the center of activity for a large section of the high country. Serving as both commercial center and bank for the backcountry area, 400 settlers and traders had open accounts at Gouedy’s store when he died in 1775.

The influx of settlers into the South Carolina upcountry caused the relations between the settlers and the Cherokees to deteriorate, finally breaking down in the spring of 1751 when a theft of 331 deerskins from a Cherokee hunting camp by white raiders went unpunished by the magistrate at Ninety Six. By summer, retaliatory Indian raids became a constant threat, so two colonial militia units were dispatched to patrol the upcountry. And, at the request of the local populace, the colonial militia built a small military outpost on Gouedy’s property.

Following the deaths of several white settlers along the frontier, peace was restored for a brief period in 1753 when the British agreed to pay for the stolen deerskins and to help protect the Cherokee from their Indian enemies by building Fort Prince George at Keowee. Ninety Six then became a supply station and rest stop for those traveling to the Keowee fort. Construction of another fort, Fort Loudoun, among the Overhill Cherokee in eastern Tennessee was subsequently begun in April of 1757 following negotiations two years earlier in which the Cherokee promised assistance to the British in fighting the French and their Indian allies in their most recently begun military campaign for North American territories in the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The previous war, the War of Austrian Succession (known as King George’s War in the American colonies) had begun in 1740 and ended in 1748 with the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which restored to France all the possessions it had lost in North America. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle proved, however, to be little more than an uneasy truce between the vying powers with isolated skirmishes that quickly escalated into full conflict when the French built a series of forts in western Pennsylvania then seized the Forks of the Ohio River in 1754. At first the British suffered several military setbacks against the French, but by 1758, the tide had turned and the British enjoyed victory after victory. British military success and the promise to aid in the war against the French, however, did not prevent some Cherokee from accepting overtures from their supposed enemies and switching alliances to attack British settlers in the Carolinas and Georgia in 1759.

To counter the threat of additional Cherokee attacks, William Henry Lyttelton, who had succeeded James Glen as Governor of South Carolina in 1757, promptly proceeded with reinforcements of over 1,300 men to Fort Prince George. Stopping at Ninety Six along the way, it was decided that a stockade fort and magazine should be built to protect the local citizenry. To expedite the construction, Gouedy’s barn was chosen to function as the fort’s magazine. A stockade measuring ninety feet square was then constructed around the barn with sheds added to one side of it to shelter the garrison troops. The stockade, consisting of upright logs set firmly into an earthen embankment with a facing ditch, was completed on November 27, 1759, having been constructed in less than a week. It included two bastions at diagonally opposite corners, a banquette (firing step), and a gate. This outpost, dubbed Fort Ninety Six, was the scene of several conflicts between the British and Cherokees during what is aptly viewed as a war within the French and Indian War, the Cherokee War (1760-1762) in the Carolinas.

By the end of January in 1760, the threat of Indian attack had prompted many settlers and their families to gather at Fort Ninety Six for safety. On February 2nd, a patrol from the fort took two Cherokee warriors prisoner, and the following day approximately forty (40) Cherokees attacked the fort, ultimately suffering two (2) casualties and burning all the buildings on the Gouedy plantation except the successfully defended fort before withdrawing. The fort was besieged again briefly one month later when about 250 Cherokees attacked the fort at Gouedy’s on March 3rd. Under near-constant gunfire for roughly 36 hours, the garrison inside the fort suffered only two wounded, while the Cherokee reportedly suffered six dead. Before they withdrew, the Cherokees destroyed as much as they could within two miles of Ninety Six, setting fire to buildings, ruining grain supplies, and killing livestock.

Asking for assistance in the war against the Cherokees, the provincial government’s requests were answered with the arrival of over 1,300 British regulars under the command of Colonel Archibald Montgomery in Charles Town on April 5, 1760. Proceeding to Fort Prince George where he intended to launch his military campaign against the Overhill Cherokee, Montgomery and his regulars rested at Fort Ninety Six for four days in late May before completing the journey to Fort Prince George, leaving fifty (50) men behind at Fort Ninety Six to protect his supply route. Montgomery’s dreams of a quick and decisive military campaign were short-lived, however, as the Cherokees avoided any confrontations until June 24th, when they ambushed Montgomery and his men while enroute to attack Echoe. Seventeen British were killed and another sixty-six (66) were wounded in the fracas, while the Cherokees reportedly lost fifty (50) warriors. Stinging over the loss of his men, and having destroyed the Cherokee towns of Echoe and Estatoe, but without exacting any severe blows to the Cherokees, Montgomery considered the Indian campaign concluded and returned to New York.

Montgomery’s failure to engage the Cherokees further soon led to the fall of Fort Loudoun, which surrendered its forces on August 8, 1760, after a siege of several months reduced the garrison to near starvation. Allowed to withdraw from the fort under the terms of the surrender, the retreating British garrison was attacked less than fifteen (15) miles from the fort. Twenty-seven (27) men and three (3) women were killed, and Captain John Stuart and twenty-six (26) men were captured and marched off to the Cherokee towns where some were tortured and killed while others were later ransomed to South Carolina and Virginia.

Montgomery’s failure to subdue the Cherokees necessitated a second British campaign against them in 1761, this time led by Lt. Colonel James Grant. While Grant drilled and prepared his forces for the impending campaign at Charles Town, Major William Moultrie and 220 soldiers were sent to Fort Ninety Six to establish an advance supply base for the army. Moultrie’s first order of business was to erect a new fort near old Fort Ninety Six for the use of Grant’s army. Rodeffer has suggested that the site of this new stockade, named Fort Middleton, may have been at the juncture of the Keowee/Whitehall, Island Ford, and Charles Town Roads, which was later chosen as the place to build Ninety Six Village. Moultrie then made some major structural modifications to the original 1759 fort, including enlarging the stockade by tearing down one side and extending it outward by 30 feet (to accommodate at least two new storehouses for provisions for Grant’s army).

Lt. Colonel Grant and his troops arrived at Ninety Six in mid-May and made final preparations for his campaign against the Cherokees. History repeated itself with only one minor engagement occurring early in the campaign near Cowhowee, when the Cherokees ambushed the British and inflicted a loss of ninteen (19) dead and fifty-two (52) wounded upon Grant’s army before fleeing the scene of the battle. For the remainder of the campaign, Lt. Colonel Grant met virtually no opposition as he marched his troops from one abandoned village to the next, burning the houses and fields as they went. Deprived of their homes and crops, the Cherokees soon capitulated and sued for peace. The Cherokees were required to return all prisoners and property seized during the war, to allow the British to build forts on their territory, and were prohibited from journeying below Keowee without permission.

The victorious Carolinians were also able to force additional land concessions from the defeated Cherokees, who surrendered to the English all lands south of a straight line drawn between the Reedy and Savannah Rivers, a line which today serves as the boundary between nearby Abbeville and Anderson Counties. Now open to white settlement, the South Carolina frontier was flooded by immigrants, mostly of Scots-Irish and German descent, who traveled overland along the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania and North Carolina as well as by sea through Charles Town and thence inland by road.

Although the end of the Cherokee War and the subsequent land concessions made South Carolina’s upcountry safer for white settlement, there were still social and political problems facing those who settled the Carolina piedmont. With no constabulary, local residents who were easy prey for outlaws, resorted to vigilante groups to mete out frontier justice until the South Carolina General Assembly finally provided the backcountry with law enforcement authority in 1769. This took the physical form of court houses and jails to be built in each of seven judicial districts. The law authorizing these structures in the Ninety Six District specified that the buildings be made of wood. The structures were finished in 1772 on two of several lots that had been set aside in 1769 by John Savage for the purpose of establishing a town to be named Ninety Six along the Charles Town Road just north of the Great Survey Line that separated his 400 acres from Gouedy’s plantation.

The remoteness and relatively low economic status of the majority of high country settlers also left most of the settlers in the Ninety Six area in the early 1770s feeling disenfranchised from the system of colonial government, whose control rested primarily in the hands of the wealthier lowcountry bureaucrats. Unaffected by many of the economic and political concerns that confronted the lowcountry inhabitants, such as the recent taxes levied on luxury goods (e.g., Townshend Duty Act of 1767 and Tea Act of 1773), the upcountry was far less receptive to the calls for independence from British rule that were now being circulated in Charles Town and the colonies to the north. The dumping of tea into the harbor at Boston by the Sons of Liberty in defiance of the Tea Act, and Britain’s reprisals against the Bostonians as punishment, prompted the meeting of the First Continental Congress to solidify colonial opposition against Parliament’s actions, and direct the formation of a provincial congress in each of the colonies. In January of 1775, the members of the South Carolina First Provincial Congress met to form a provisional separatist government and began recruiting South Carolinians to the Patriotic cause.

After May 15, 1781, the only British outposts that remained in the backcountry were Augusta and Ninety Six. Major General Nathanael Greene decided to attack both simultaneously and dispatched Lt. Colonel Henry Lee and Brigadier General Andrew Pickens to attack Augusta while he marched to Ninety Six. The Patriot army, led by Major General Greene, and accompanied by military engineer Count Thaddeus Kosciusko arrived at Ninety Six on May 22, 1781, encamping in four areas around the fort. At first, Major General Greene was daunted by the strong fortifications that lay before him at Ninety Six, but set aside his doubts and immediately began the siege.

With only 974 men at his disposal, Major General Greene followed the advice of his military engineer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and concentrated his attack on the Star Fort (see above), the strongest point of the fortifications. Initially, siege trenches to attack the fort were imprudently begun a mere 70 yards from the stronghold, but a barrage of cannon and musket fire followed by a Loyalist bayonet charge forced the Americans to abandon their trenches and begin again further back at a distance of some 200 yards. In support of the siege operations, Kosciuszko, directed the construction of two earthen cannon batteries approximately 350 yards north of the Star Redoubt "on the other side of a broad ravine." Slowed by the nearly rockhard soil, the first section or parallel of the siege trench was completed on May 27th, and the second parallel on May 30th. With only 70 yards to go to reach the Star Fort parapet, the construction of a third parallel was made more difficult by constant gunfire from the Star Fort. This impediment was soon silenced by the placing of snipers atop a log tower built near the third parallel. From their high vantage point, the American snipers pinned down the British defenders inside the Star Fort, immediately shooting anyone who attempted to raise their head above the parapet wall. With this advantage, Major General Nathanael Greene formally demanded the British surrender on June 3rd, but the commander of the fort, Lt. Colonel John Harris Cruger, having suffered few casualties was not disposed to accept.

To counter the vantage point provided by the tower, Lt. Colonel Cruger’s men added three feet to the Star Fort parapet using sandbags, leaving openings at intervals as portals for musket fire. Despite these measures, the sniper fire from the tower still made it perilous to man the cannon from the Star Fort, so they were dismounted and used only at night. Meanwhile, the Patriot forces continued to extend the siege trenches toward the Star Fort.

On June 8th, Lt. Colonel Henry Lee arrived at Ninety Six from Augusta, having successfully taken the Georgia outpost. He almost immediately set his men to digging siege trenches approaching Holmes Fort, the redoubt protecting Spring Branch and the stockaded village’s western approach. Meanwhile, beginning from the third parallel, Kosciusko undertook the construction of a tunnel that was to extend under the parapet of the Star Redoubt with the intention of blasting a large breach in the earthwork using several barrels of powder placed in the tunnel under the parapet.

While the Patriots patiently tunneled and dug closer to their respective objectives, the British responded by sending out sorties at night to destroy segments of the siegeworks and attack the guard parties located near the trenches. Despite these minor setbacks, the trenches were advanced to within a few feet of the Star Fort by June 12th, and Lt. Col. Lee had succeeded in moving his cannon into a commanding position of Spring Branch from which the British got their water. With access cut off to their only water source, the British defenders attempted to dig a well within the Star Fort, but failed to reach water.

While Major General Greene waited patiently for the siege trenches and the tunnel to reach their objectives, news of the siege of Ninety Six had reached Charlestown, and on June 7th a British force of over 2,000 left Charlestown to relieve the beleaguered fort. Patriot spies in Charlestown sent word of the British relief column to Major General Greene, who realized that if Ninety Six was not taken before the relief column arrived, he would have to retreat without achieving the military victory that was so close to being within his grasp. Thus, on June 18th, even though the tunnel was incomplete, Major General Greene ordered a simultaneous attack on the Star Fort and Holmes Fort. In the brief but bloody battle, the British repulsed the frontal assault that was launched from the siege trenches facing the Star Fort. Lt. Col. Henry Lee and his men, on the other hand, had succeeded in taking Holmes Fort. Because of the large amount of casualties suffered in the assault on the Star Fort and news that the British relief force was but two or three day’s march from Ninety Six, Greene decided to end the siege and to prepare for withdrawal toward the northeast. A temporary truce was arranged for the exchange of prisoner’s and burial of the dead. During the 28-day siege, the British had losses of 27 killed and 58 wounded; the Continental Army under Major General Greene’s command suffered 58 dead, 70 wounded, and 20 missing. These figures do not include, however, the casualties that were suffered by the numerous Patriot Militia. In his memoirs, Henry Lee reports that total American losses amounted to 185 killed and wounded, which, if accurate, would indicate a total of 51 casualities were suffered by the Patriot Militia.

After Major General Nathanael Greene’s retreat, the British reasoned that keeping the isolated outpost garrisoned would be too difficult, and decided instead to evacuate Ninety Six. The fortifications were dismantled and the town was destroyed. The British then withdrew from the backcountry, back to Charlestown where they remained as an isolated enclave for the remainder of the war. Although Major General Greene’s siege of Ninety Six had failed, his summer 1781 campaign through the South had forced the British to abandon plans of controlling the Carolina backcountry, and prompted Lord Cornwallis’ decision to invade Virginia instead, where he and his army were later captured at Yorktown. Nathanael Greene’s southern campaign was vital in turning the Revolutionary War in America’s favor, and proved to be a key to the British capitulation at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

On April 3, 1852, the U.S. Post Office Department officially changed the name of an existing town named Lodi (which obtained its Post Office in 1828) to Ninety-Six. It has been in continuous operation ever since. In 1852, Ninety-Six was in Abbeville District (county). In 1897, Greenwood County was created out of Abbeville County and Ninety-Six has been in Greenwood County ever since.

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