Brigadier General Thomas Sumter, The Carolina Gamecock
Thomas Sumter nicknamed the “Carolina Gamecock” (after his house was burned down and he went on a rampage of killing British soldiers), was a hero of the American Revolution and went on to become a longtime member of the Congress of the United States.
Portrait c. 1795 by Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Sumter was born near Charlottesville in Hanover County, Virginia, on August 14, 1734. His father, William Sumter was an emigrant from Wales who operated a mill. Given a rudimentary education, Sumter enlisted in the Virginia militia, and served in the disastrous 1755 Braddock Expedition.
In 1761 Sumter was invited to join an expedition organized by Colonel Adam Stephen to visit the Overhill Cherokee (in present-day Tennessee) to verify that war with the Cherokee had actually ended in the Virginia backcountry. Stephen gave command of the expedition to Henry Timberlake, who volunteered for the assignment. Timberlake was accompanied by Sumter (then a sergeant), an interpreter named John McCormack, and an unknown servant. The group purchased a canoe and 10 days’ worth of provisions with money Sumter had borrowed. The plan was to follow the Holston River to its confluence with the French Broad River, and then proceed to the Little Tennessee River, where the Overhill towns were situated.
Timberlake’s party left Long Island on November 28, 1761. The Holston River’s unusually low water levels almost immediately stalled the journey as the party was forced to drag the canoe over exposed shoals and sandbars. The party ran out of provisions after several days, but McCormack managed to shoot a bear, supplying them with several days’ worth of meat. Around December 7, the party explored a stalactite-filled cave situated approximately 50 feet (15 m) above the river, and Timberlake described an incident in which Sumter swam nearly a half-mile in the near-freezing river waters to retrieve their canoe, which had somehow drifted away while they were exploring the cave.
On December 13, the expedition reached a series of treacherous cascades that Timberlake called “Great Falls.” The party spent a whole day carefully maneuvering their way down the cascades only to find the Holston frozen over immediately downstream. The ice slowed the expedition’s progress, but rains on the night of December 14 thawed the ice, and the party passed through the mouth of the Holston (in modern Knoxville) into what is now the Tennessee River on December 15.
The deeper waters of the Tennessee River allowed the expedition to proceed much more quickly. A hunting party led by the Cherokee chief Slave Catcher met the expedition near the mouth of the Little Tennessee River, and supplied the weary expedition with provisions of “dried venison, homminy, and boiled corn.” The following day, Slave Catcher guided the expedition up the Little Tennessee, although the Timberlake party struggled to keep up, with Timberlake recalling, “my hands were so galled, that the blood trickled from them, and when we set out the next morning I was scarce able to handle a pole.” The Timberlake party arrived in the Overhill town of Tomotley on December 20, where they were greeted by the town’s head man, Chief Ostenaco.
After spending several days in Tomotley as guests of Ostenaco, they proceeded to the Overhill mother town of Chota, where a number of chiefs had gathered in the town’s large council house. Ostenaco gave a speech and ceremoniously buried a hatchet in the ground, symbolizing a state of peace between the English and the Cherokee. Afterward, Timberlake partook in a ceremony in which he smoked several peace pipes with the gathered chiefs, a practice Timberlake personally found “very disagreeable,” but participated without openly complaining.
The party continued southward to Citico, where Timberlake was greeted by a ceremonial dance involving some 400 Cherokee. Timberlake recalled that the dancers were “painted all over in a hideous manner” and that they “danced in a very uncommon figure.” The town’s chief, Cheulah, presented Timberlake with a string of beads and held another pipe-smoking ceremony. The non-stop pipe smoking made Timberlake so sick that he “could not stir for several hours.” The following day, Timberlake and Ostenaco traveled to Chilhowee, the second southernmost of the Overhill towns on Timberlake’s map, where the town’s chief, Yachtino, held a peace procession similar to that at Citico.
The assignment largely completed, the party returned to Tomotley with Ostenaco on January 2, 1762. Timberlake spent the next few weeks studying Cherokee habits and making notes for his map of the Overhill country. At the end of January, rumors began trickling in from Cherokee scouts of renewed hostilities with rival tribes to the north. Although the rumors turned out to be based on a misunderstanding, Timberlake nevertheless grew anxious and begged Ostenaco to guide him back to Virginia. Ostenaco reluctantly agreed, and the party set out on March 10, 1762. Just before departure, Timberlake witnessed the ceremonial return of a war party led by Chief Willinawaw. The party sang “the war-song” and planted a scalp-filled pole next to the council house door.
Portrait of Ostenaco by Sir Joshua Reynolds
The Timberlake party had decided to make the return trip overland, having purchased horses from the Cherokee. Ostenaco, accompanied by several hundred Cherokee warriors, guided the Timberlake group northward across what is now known as the Great Indian Warpath, which follows the western base of the Appalachian Mountains. On March 11, the party arrived at the abandoned village of Elajoy along the Little River in what is now Maryville, and crossed the French Broad River the following day. A week later, they reached Fort Robinson, which the Stephen garrison had abandoned but had left behind a large supply of flour. The expedition left Long Island on March 22, continuing northward to an abandoned army camp where Timberlake was despaired to find that a trunk containing his belongings had been looted. The party finally arrived in Williamsburg in early April.
While in Williamsburg, Timberlake and Ostenaco attended a dinner party at William & Mary College at which Ostenaco professed his desire to meet the king of England. Although he feared the trip would break him financially, Timberlake agreed. In May 1762, Timberlake, Sumter, and three distinguished Cherokee leaders, including Ostenaco, departed for London.
Arriving in early June, the Cherokee were an immediate attraction, drawing crowds all over the city. The poet Oliver Goldsmith waited for three hours to meet the Cherokee, and offered a gift to Ostenaco. They sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds to take their portraits, and they met personally with King George III. The Cherokee returned to North America with Sergeant Sumter on about August 25, 1762.
Statue of Thomas Sumter on the courthouse lawn, Sumter, South Carolina
Upon returning to the colonies, Sumter became stranded in South Carolina due to financial difficulties. He petitioned the colony of South Carolina for reimbursement of his travel expenses, but was denied, and was subsequently imprisoned for debt in Virginia. When his friend and fellow soldier Joseph Martin arrived in Staunton, Virginia, Martin asked to spend the night with Sumter in jail. Martin gave Sumter 10 guineas and a tomahawk. Sumter used the money to buy his way out of jail in 1766. When Martin and Sumter were reunited some 30 years later, Sumter repaid the money.
Sumter settled in Stateburg in the High Hills of Santee in the Claremont (later Sumter) district, now Sumter County. He married the widow Mary Jameson in 1767, and together they opened several small businesses and became successful plantation owners. Due to his wealth and the respect in the community, he was able to form a local militia group.
In February 1776, he was elected Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Regiment of the South Carolina Line of which he was later appointed Colonel. He subsequently was appointed Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia, a post he held until the end of the war. He participated in several battles in the early months of the war, including the campaign to prevent an invasion of Georgia. Perhaps his greatest military achievement was his partisan campaigning that contributed to the decision by Lord Cornwallis to leave the Carolinas for Virginia, where Cornwallis met his fate at Yorktown in October 1781.
He acquired the nickname, “The Carolina Gamecock” during the American Revolution for his fierce fighting tactics, regardless of his size. A British General commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock”, and Cornwallis paid him the finest tribute when he described the Gamecock as his greatest plague.
Thomas Sumter – plaque at the South Carolina statehouse
After the Revolution, Sumter served as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives from March 4, 1789 to March 4, 1793 and from March 4, 1797 to December 15, 1801 when he was elected a U. S. Senator to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Charles Pinckney. Sumter served in the Senate until his retirement on December 16, 1810.
Sumter died on June 1, 1832 at South Mount, his home near Stateburg, South Carolina, at the age of 97 years.
Gravesite of Thomas Sumter
The town of Sumter, South Carolina, wherein his memorial is located, and Sumter County, South Carolina were named for him. The town of Sumter is even dubbed “The Gamecock City” after his nickname. “Gamecock” is one of the several traditional nicknames for a native of South Carolina.
The University of South Carolina’s official nickname is the “Fighting Gamecocks,” though since 1903 the teams have been simply known as the “Gamecocks.”
In addition, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was named for Sumter after the War of 1812. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.
Sumter and his actions served as one of the sources for the fictional character of Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, a motion picture released in 2000.
- Henry Timberlake, Samuel Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 1756-1765 (Marietta, Georgia: Continental Book Co., 1948), 38-39
- Robert Bass, Gamecock: The Life and Campaigns of General Thomas Sumter (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), 9
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 41-48
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 49-54
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 56
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 57-58
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 59-61
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 63
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 65
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 109-113
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 118-129
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 130-133
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 136
- St James Chronicle, July 3, 1762
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 143-144
- Timberlake, Williams (ed.), Memoirs, 145-147
- Henry Timberlake, Duane King (ed.) The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756-1765. UNC Press, xxvii
- General Joseph Martin, A Forgotten Pioneer (1740–1848), Gordon Aronhime, rootsweb.ancestry.com
- John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse, 393