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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Backcountry Loyalist

"Permit us, in behalf of ourselves, and many others of His Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects within the County of Anson, to take the earliest opportunity of addressing your Excellency, and expressing our abomination of the many outrageous attempts now forming on this side the Atlantick, against the peace and tranquility of His Majesty's Dominions in North America, and to witness to your Excellency, by this our Protest, a disapprobation and abhorrence of the many lawless combinations and unwarrantable practices actually carrying on by a gross tribe of infatuated anti-Monarchists in the several Colonies in these Dominions."

Address of the Inhabitants of Anson County [North Carolina] to Governor Martin, March 1775 (227 people signed)

From the beginning, the attitude of the British Home Ministry was that a small minority organized the Colonial rebellion and that the great majority of loyal subjects just needed the assistance of British troops and supplies to counter the revolutionaries. This attitude influenced British strategy in prosecuting the war, particularly regarding the southern colonies. The crown felt that they could quickly bring the Carolinas and Georgia back into the fold and thereby breaking the facade of colonial unity. An attempt on Charleston, South Carolina, failed in 1776, mainly because the required British forces were delayed in coming from England. British attention was diverted northward, and the next three years saw the British army chasing Washington across New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. After Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, the southern strategy was again considered vital to success. British leaders still held the assumption that loyalists far outnumbered rebels in the southern region. The British didn’t foresee that the area was in the midst of a full-fledged civil war, and in turn, all their assumptions were completely wrong.

The historiography of the period has often glossed over the violent nature of the American Revolution in the South. Traditionally, especially during the 19th century, southern Loyalists were portrayed as the perpetrators of much of the violence that occurred while American patriots were forced to act in kind. Even today, thinking about the movie The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character begins the movie as a moderate voice, one who was wary of the radicalism of declaring independence. It is not until witnessing the horrendous cruelty of the British against civilians that forces Mel Gibson to take up arms and support the American cause. The movie reinforces the continuing theme that the Americans were justified in their actions and the Patriot cause was noble and just. Of course, the reality was much different. Both sides used violence as a means of persuasion. Nowhere was this seen better than in the backcountry of the Carolinas and Georgia.

The backcountry was the frontier. Settlement occurred only a few decades before open hostilities with the home country. Settlers ventured into the Carolina upcountry seeking opportunity and escape. Many had been Scotch-Irish immigrants who were known to be fiercely independent and had a strong aversion to any kind of authority. In Georgia, many settled on lands recently ceded to the colony by the native Creek tribes. In these areas, settlers were mainly small, subsistence farmers. Economically and socially, they starkly contrasted with the more established and wealthy coastal regions. Along the coast, there was the growth of large plantations, and the society was more sophisticated and more educated. Involvement in politics was a long-standing and expected tradition. Those in the backcountry were more concerned with everyday issues, especially the threat of attacks by hostile Native American groups. Therefore, on the eve of the Revolution, supporters of the American cause, the Whigs, had difficulty getting the region on board with war even after the Whigs gained control of colonial governments.

Many on the frontier were reluctant to join the patriot cause because of fear of Native American depredations. Settlers saw British authority as their protector against raids, and many felt protection would be lost if the colonies declared independence. While the First Continental Congress met in 1774 to draft a coordinated response to British policies, those along the southern frontier wrote petitions declaring their alignment with the crown. In one parish near Augusta, Georgia, the residents signed a petition stating their “dissent to all resolutions by which his Majesty’s favour and protection might be forfeited.” Among the signers would be those who would later become staunch Whigs exemplifying how political allegiances constantly shifted throughout the Revolution. The Whigs also made use of this fear of violence by Native Americans. In early 1775, they spread rumors that the British were encouraging the Cherokee to raid the frontier as part of their strategy to suppress the rebellion.

The Continental Congress passed the Continental Association in the fall of 1774. The agreement was meant to provide a united colonial response to British policies. The heart of the agreement was the "non-importation, non-consumption, non-exportation" of British goods. Enforcement was left to local committees, and public pressure was the main tactic used. In July 1775, Georgia was the last to adopt the Association after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. This worried those in the backcountry, and counter-associations were organized by those still loyal to the crown. One of the members was Thomas Brown.

Born in 1750, Thomas Brown hailed from Whitby, England, along the North Sea coast. His father was a merchant and an alum manufacturer. Brown’s prospects in England were limited, and when he was 24, his father provided him with a ship and seventy indentured servants. Having heard about the newly acquired land from the Cherokee, Brown sailed for Georgia. He arrived as tensions between colonies and home country were mounting. He established a settlement named Brownsborough in St. Paul Parish near Augusta in November of 1774. Then-Governor James Wright appointed Brown the local magistrate. He became well-known and well respected in Augusta, and soon he sent his ship back to England for more settlers. At this time, Brown stood to lose a lot if the rebellion continued. He and others joined a Loyalist organization that started in South Carolina. They set about persuading the local inhabitants to remain faithful to the Loyalist cause.

Facing the political, economic, and social divide between the coastal communities and the backcountry, the Whig-controlled governments resorted to force and intimidation to convert people to the patriot cause or neutralize the threat of Loyalist sympathizers. At the end of July 1775, Brown was ordered to appear before the association committee seated at Augusta. Brown refused, and the committee sent over a hundred armed men to Brown’s residence in South Carolina. On the evening of August 2, the armed men surrounded the house and demanded that Brown surrender and sign onto the Continental Association. Brown warned them that he would defend himself if anyone tried to harm him physically. Several men attempted to disarm him, and in the scuffle, Brown shot one of the group's leaders. Brown suffered several knife wounds while a blow from the stock of a rifle fractured Brown’s skull. The men subsequently overpowered him. While still semi-conscious, the armed force escorted Brown back to Augusta and presented him to the committee. Here he was scalped, and his legs tarred and burned. This resulted in losing two toes and the ability to walk for several months. He would suffer headaches for the rest of his life from the blow to the head. It can be presumed that Brown feared for his life, and at that moment, he recanted his previous Loyalist leanings and voiced his support of the American cause. Friends came to his aid, and he hurried off toward the frontier of the South Carolina upcountry.

No sooner had Brown arrived in the vicinity of Ninety-Six, South Carolina, than he reneged on his oath to the Patriot cause and returned to his previous activity of drumming up support for the British. This resulted in Brown being labeled an enemy of the people, his property confiscated, and he was forced to flee south to St. Augustine in British East Florida.

The former Spanish colony of East Florida had been brought under British rule at the end of the French and Indian War. The area had only been recently settled by the British, and the population did not have the same tumultuous relationship with the crown as did their more northern brethren. Therefore East Florida remained steadfastly loyal to the crown. The colony became a haven for Brown and other like-minded Loyalists. It also was a crucial base of operations for the British in their goal of regaining the southern colonies. Once in East Florida, Brown became a vocal advocate of using Loyalist militia and Native Americans to attack along the frontier while the regular British troops invaded from the coast. Unfortunately for Brown and others, the British didn’t seem fully committed to this grand strategy, and the necessary forces and resources were never adequately deployed. And by the time they were, any hope of a sufficient number of Loyalists had evaporated. As the war dragged on, the local inhabitants realized they could not count on the British protecting their lives or property, especially in the backcountry. They began to believe it was better to cast their lot with the Patriot cause.

The British failure to regain control of the South caused the region to sink into what was essentially guerrilla warfare. Thomas Brown raised a Loyalist militia regiment known as the Florida Rangers. He decided to implement one part of the grand strategy, and with Native American allies, he started a campaign of raiding along the Georgia frontier. Skirmishes between Loyalist and American militias continued for nearly four years, during which Brown showed himself as a capable military commander. In 1779, he was given command of a new unit called the King’s Rangers. These were provincial troops, more disciplined and better trained than a militia, but at the same time not considered part of the regular army. When the British took Savannah in 1779 and then Charleston in 1780, it appeared that the British strategy would finally succeed. Over the next year, Brown defended the area around Augusta, but after a brief siege by American forces, he and his troops surrendered in June 1781. He was released in a prisoner exchange and continued fighting outside Savannah. But when the city fell in the summer of 1782, Brown felt the cause was lost. He and thousands of other Loyalists escaped back to East Florida. Some would eventually migrate to Nova Scotia, but many, like Thomas Brown, would end up in the British West Indies. Brown himself would end up first in the Bahamas, then Grand Caicos, and finally, he established a plantation on the island of St. Vincent. There he died in 1825.

The story of Thomas Brown highlights the violence perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Neighbors turned on neighbors as each side sought an advantage and sought to recruit sympathizers. The British failure to provide the needed protection of life and property against the attacks of either Native Americans or Patriots cost the crown a significant number of loyal supporters. These supports either actively helped the Patriot cause or remained neutral, crippling the British efforts to regain Georgia and the Carolinas.


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