The Overmountain Men

c. 1776—c. 1783

The Overmountain Men were American frontiersmen who lived west of the Appalachian Mountains and took part in the American Revolutionary War. They are most well-known for their victory over British Loyalist forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.

John Sevier, First Governor of Tennessee

John Sevier led a group of Overmountain Men. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Overmountain Men Summary

The Overmountain Men were American militia forces that lived west of the Appalachian Mountains and attacked British forces at Kings Mountain in 1780. They came from western North Carolina, present-day northeast Tennessee, and the Holsten Valley area of southwest Virginia — all areas that were “over” the mountains. Their settlements violated the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement west of the mountains. The presence of the pioneers also created tension with the Cherokee Tribe that lived in the area. When the American Revolutionary War started, the pioneers organized their settlements as the “Washington District” and formed a Committee of Safety. The Cherokee, who were allied with the British, attacked the settlements. The militiamen that made up the Overmountain Men defeated them and gained control of the Watauga Valley and Nolichucky Valley. In 1777, the district became Washington County, North Carolina.  In 1780, when British forces threatened their settlements, the Overmountain Men took action. On October 7, they attacked British forces at Kings Mountain, routed them, and changed the course of the American Revolutionary War.

Quick Facts About the Overmountain Men

  • The pioneers who lived west of the mountains were reluctant to join the war effort and were independent of the other colonies.
  • After defeating the Cherokee, the settlements were allowed to join North Carolina as a Washington County.
  • Afterward, the Overmountain Men fought against British Loyalists and their Native American Indian Allies on the frontier.
  • The Overmountain Men mobilized when they heard about the atrocities that took place during the Battle of Waxhaws, which is also known as Buford’s Massacre.
  • They contributed to the American victory at the Battle of Musgrove Mill in August 1780 but returned to their farms when it was over.
  • When their homes were threatened by British forces that moved into western North Carolina, the Overmountain Men mobilized. They attacked the British and won the Battle of Kings Mountain in October.
This painting depicts the Overmountain Men attacking the Loyalists at Kings Mountain. Source: American History Central.

Significance of the Overmountain Men

The Overmountain Men were important to the history of the United States for their efforts to help defend the western frontier and their victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Some of the leaders of the Overmountain men went on to play important roles in the establishment of Tennessee and Kentucky.

The Overmountain Men and the Battle of Kings Mountain

Why did the Overmountain Men Join the Patriot Cause?

When the war broke out, the people living in the Carolina backcountry and the Appalachians were hesitant to join the Patriot Cause. They lived far from the east coast, west of the Appalachian Mountains, and were scattered through the western frontier of North Carolina, Virginia, and present-day Tennessee.

After the British captured Charleston and then smashed the Southern Army under the command of General Horatio Gates at Camden, they moved into position to invade North Carolina. The British forces were under the command of General Charles Cornwallis and he sent Major Patrick Ferguson west to gather a militia of Loyalist volunteers and protect the left flank of the army. 

As Ferguson moved west, he issued a threat to the people living west of the Appalachian Mountains and told them he would “hang their leaders, and lay waste to the land with fire and sword.”  The American pioneers responded by gathering their militia forces and marching toward Ferguson’s small army of Loyalist militia.

The Overmountain Men Gather at Sycamore Shoals

The Overmountain Men traveled to Sycamore Shoals, an outpost on the Watauga River, in present-day Tennessee. From there, they rode to Grassy Creek, North Carolina. By September 28, roughly 900-1,000 men were gathered under the command of men like Colonel Isaac Shelby, Colonel John Sevier, Colonel William Campbell, and Colonel Charles McDowell. They camped at Grassy Creek that night.

On the 29th, they moved out. Half the men went with Campbell and the others went with Shelby and Sevier. Both groups crossed the Blue Ridge and moved into position to attack Ferguson at Kings Mountain.

Battle of Kings Mountain, Overmountain Men
“Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals” by Lloyd Branson. Image Source: Tennessee State Museum Website.

Kings Mountain — A Turning Point in the American Revolutionary War

On October 7, 1780, Ferguson and his men were camped on top of Kings Mountain. The Overmountain Men surrounded the mountain and launched an attack. They caught Ferguson by surprise and, after roughly an hour, completely overwhelmed the Loyalist militia. After Ferguson was killed in the battle, the Loyalists surrendered. With the loss of Ferguson and nearly 1,100 men, Cornwallis was forced to abandon his plan to invade North Carolina. It was a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War and Cornwallis eventually ended up in Yorktown. Once there, he was besieged by American and French forces and was forced to surrender on October 19, 1780.

Key Leaders of the Overmountain Men

William Campbell

Campbell was a farmer, pioneer, and soldier from Virginia. He signed the Fincastle Resolutions, which was one of the early statements of armed resistance to British authority. He represented Hanover County in the Virginia House of Delegates. Campbell led militia forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

John Sevier

Sevier was a soldier, frontiersman, politician, and founding father of the State of Tennessee. He was elected the state’s first governor in 1796. During the American Revolutionary War, he served as a colonel of the Washington District Regiment in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Sevier also commanded the frontier militia in dozens of battles against the Cherokee in the 1780s and 1790s.

Benjamin Cleveland

Cleveland was a pioneer and officer in the North Carolina militia. He is best remembered for serving as a Colonel in the Wilkes County Regiment of the North Carolina Militia during the American Revolutionary War. Cleveland led militia forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Isaac Shelby

Shelby was a prominent politician after the war. He was the first and fifth Governor of Kentucky and served in the state legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina. Shelby fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain, Lord Dunmore’s War, and the War of 1812. While serving as the Governor of Kentucky, he led militia forces in the Battle of the Thames. He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his bravery in that battle.

Joseph Winston

Winston pioneer, planter, and soldier from Surry County, North Carolina. His first cousin was statesman and Founding Father Patrick Henry. Winston led forces at Kings Mountain. After the war, he served in the United States House of Representatives and the North Carolina Senate.

The Overmountain Men at Kings Mountain

This video from PBS Charleston provides an overview of the Overmountain Men and the significance of their role in the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Overmountain Men
  • Date c. 1776—c. 1783
  • Author
  • Keywords Overmountain Men, Battle of Kings Mountain
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 26, 2024