Alexander's Ford Trail - a field filled with tall, golden-brown grass under a grey, overcast sky. A line of bare-branched and evergreen trees forms the backdrop, suggesting a season of autumn or winter.
Clearing near the ford - This would be a great place for an army to camp the night.

Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford

The Story of Alexander’s Ford in Bradley Nature Preserve

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Colonel Isaac Shelby pulled back firmly on the reins. His galloping horse jerked its head to the side in protest before slowing to a halt. The date was August 19, 1780. Shelby and his men had just given the British a black eye at the Battle Of Musgrove’s Mill near Clinton, South Carolina and were chasing the fleeing Loyalist forces. The Patriot forces planned to chase the British all the way back to their garrison and take the town of Ninety-Six. But a messenger had just been spotted bringing word from Horatio Gates.

Disaster – the Patriot army had been utterly defeated at Camden. Colonial forces in SC were in disarray, and there was no one who could stop Cornwallis’ advance. Worse for Shelby, Major Patrick Ferguson and his army were advancing on his position.

He knew he couldn’t fight the entire British army alone, so he chose the only course of action he had left. Grabbing the reins once again, he gave the order: “Fall Back”. Men grumbled and horses whinnied as his detachment reluctantly changed coarse and galloped as hard as their horses could towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Patrick Ferguson had had enough

A Scottish officer in His Majesty’s service, Major Patrick Ferguson had been tasked with protecting Cornwallis’ western flank. Shelby and his men with their hit and run attacks had been a thorn in his side the entire summer. Now with Gates out of the way, he was free to track Shelby down.

Unfortunately for Ferguson, Shelby had a good head start and a good fast horse. Word came that his foe had crossed over the mountains back into Cherokee country. Under the Treaty of Lochaber, the area west of the Blue Ridge Mountains belonged to the Cherokee who were allies of the British and not part of the British Colonies. By September 10th, Ferguson moved his army to Gilbert Town north of Rutherfordton North Carolina to consider his next move.

Not yet ready to march into Cherokee Country, Ferguson chose what he thought a sensible course of action. He sent a prisoner over the mountains with a message for Shelby and his men. The Overmountain Men were issued an ultimatum: “If you do not desist your opposition to the British Arms, I shall march this army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste your country with fire and sword.” That message sealed his fate.

Rise of The Overmountain Men

Up to this point, the settlers west of the mountains had been reluctant to join in the wider war against the British. That changed in the face of Ferguson’s threats. Isaac Shelby and his confidants decided it would be better to face Ferguson in a time and place of their own choosing instead of waiting for him to attack. So he sent out a call to arms throughout the frontier region, and men came from as far away as Virginia in answer. In the end more than 1000 men gathered at Sycamore Shoals in present day Tennessee with one goal in mind, to hunt down Patrick Ferguson.

It is in place here to quote a description of these men in buckskin, white by blood and tradition, but half Indian in habit and instinct…They resolved not to await the attack, but to anticipate it. Without order or authority from Congress, without tents, commissary, or supplies, the Indian fighters of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee quickly assembled at the Sycamore shoals of the Watauga” –James Mooney from Myths of the Cherokee (1900)

The group of men who set out from Sycamore Shoals on September 26, 1780 weren’t an army by any definition of the time. They were all volunteers and only expected to serve a few weeks and then return home to tend to their crops and harvest. They weren’t sanctioned by the Colonial leadership at the time. They weren’t fighting in the name of Jeffersonian Ideals or at the behest of men they’d never met in Philadelphia. They were fighting to save their homes and their families. This fight was personal. Patrick Ferguson had issued a challenge, and they were answering.

By October 4 the Patriot army was approaching Gilbert Town only to learn that Patrick Ferguson and his army had abandoned the garrison and were fleeing south. Having lost his trail, the Patriots reasoned that he would be heading to the British encampment at Ninety-Six. So they marched on and on October 5 made camp at Alexander’s Ford on the Green river.

That night at the ford, they were approached by a stranger bringing word of Ferguson’s true destination. He had turned east and was planning to link up with Cornwallis in Charlotte. That stranger was Edward Lacey, a Colonel in the Patriot militia commanding a force of 200 men fleeing ahead of Cornwallis’ advance. He had heard rumors of a large force of Overmountain Men moving south and had set out to find them.

The Overmountain Men were initially suspicious of their good fortune, but not having any other leads to go on, they choose to listen to their new acquaintance. They made plans to meet up again the next night near Cowpens in South Carolina.

The next day when the armies again met up the intelligence was proven true. Patrick Ferguson was to the east and waiting for them at Kings Mountain.

Visiting Alexander’s Ford Today

For details on our visit check out our Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford Field Report

Today Alexander’s Ford is part of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which follows the route taken by the frontiers men who fought at the Battle Of Kings Mountain. The site of the ford is located at the end of a 1.2 mile trail through the Bradley Nature Preserve in Polk County, North Carolina. The trail is pretty easy with steep sections at the start and end. There’s a picnic shelter at the trail head and picnic tables along the trail.

After a little more than a mile, you’ll reach an open area, possibly the exact spot where the Overmountain Men made camp during

The tricky part is finding the trailhead. The best way to do it is to navigate to Gray’s Chapel on Grays Chapel Church Rd 28139. That will put you right at the start of the trail.

Fast Facts About Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford

Type:Historic Site – Hiking Trail
Location:Grays Chapel Church Rd, Rutherfordton, NC 28139
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Things to do: Hiking, picnicking, bird watching

Map to Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford