The legend of the Overmountain Men celebrates the blow a group of local men struck against British forces during the Revolutionary War. However, that victory might never have been possible without the efforts of a woman named Mary Patton.
Events this weekend at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area will lead up to the annual re-enactment of the Overmountain Victory Trail March on Wednesday, Sept. 25.
Marchers will cross the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals Tuesday afternoon just as the frontiersmen did 233 years ago. Forces will muster at the park Tuesday night in preparation for the march Wednesday morning which will take them to Shelving Rock in Roan Mountain, then over the North Carolina mountains and onto King’s Mountain, S.C.
A number of brave men took part in that original march, which led to the Overmountain Men taking on Loyalist militia commanded by British Major Patrick Ferguson and defeating them.
Among the Overmountain Men were important figures in local history, including Isaac Shelby, John Sevier, William Campbell, Joseph McDowell and Robert Young, who is credited with bringing down the British officer.
Among those who played a crucial role in the defeat of British loyalists in South Carolina in 1780 was someone who never made the trek across the mountains. She was Mary McKeehan Patton, whose family immigrated to the Colonies from England in the late 1760s.
Mary Patton manufactured black powder — gunpowder — that was vital to the success of the Overmountain Men at King’s Mountain on Oct. 7, 1780.
Mary McKeehan was married to John Patton in 1772. Historians believe that she learned the art of gunpowder manufacturing from her father. Mary and John and their two children sold their powder mill in Pennsylvania and migrated to the Watauga because of the threatened British invasion of Pennsylvania.
The person most responsible for bringing John and Mary Patton to North Carolina (as it was then) was Andrew Taylor, who served in the Pennsylvania Militia and may have known Patton at that time. He established a mill for them on what became known as Powder Branch, adjacent to his homeplace. Andrew Taylor’s son, Nathaniel, was famous as a general in the War of 1812, and the Taylor family home, Sabine Hill, stood nearby.
Mary Patton probably taught other members of her family to manufacture gunpowder, including the Hyders and the Peoples. It has been said that Mary Patton was a powder maker by trade; a ginseng digger for recreation and a fluent conversationalist.
Patton’s crucial role in the Battle of King’s Mountain was to provide 500 pounds of gunpowder to the 850 Overmountain Men from her mill.
Patton was known to be thrifty and a good business person. Some historians write that Patton would travel as far as South Carolina to sell her powder for a dollar a pound, which she used to buy land.
Land warrants issued to John Patton by the State of North Carolina are as follows:
1. Warrant No. 518 dated Oct. 9, 1778, for 100 acres
2. Warrant No. 2334 dated Dec. 8, 1779, for 30 acres
3. Warrant No. 2335 dated Dec. 8, 1779, for 100 acres
4. Warrant No. 2556 dated May 2, 1780, for 200 acres
The final survey of these lands was made and recorded March 2, 1793, and payment was made at that time along with a deed for the 430 acres.
John Patton died early in life leaving his wife and family without support except for the powder mill, which Mary took charge of operating. She became known as one of the best powder makers in the settlement.
During the War of 1812, Mary and her grandson, Samuel E. Patton, made and furnished powder to Gen. Nathaniel Taylor for his troops before his departure to Mobile, Ala.
Although she is not well known nationally among the women who contributed to the American victory in the Revolutionary War, Mary Patton became something of a folk heroine in the Watauga Settlement, and several stories of her heroism continue to be told.
One of the stories is that Patton, when returning home alone following a delivery of black powder, was confronted by a masked bandit who demanded her money. Promptly, she told him that her husband was some distance behind her and was carrying the money. The bandit hesitated, and Mary spurred her horse and reached home safely.
On her trips, it was said Mary would shoe the mare herself. When the journey was completed and she was back home, she would remove the shoes to save them for the next trip.
Mary Patton died Dec. 15, 1836, and was buried by her grandson, S.E. Patton, on a nearby hilltop, in what is now known as the Patton-Simmons Cemetery.
The land on which the powder mill was built passed down through several generations of the family and finally was sold outside the family.
John and Mary Patton were the parents of six children. Each of the children left a large family of children, who have multiplied until their descendants may now be numbered by the hundreds.
On the Monument in the public square in Elizabethton, dedicated to the soldiers of all the American wars, appears the name of Mary Patton.
She also appears each year as a character in the long-running outdoor historic drama, “Liberty,” at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. In recent years, Lisa Bennett and her daughters, Rachel and Chenoa, have shared the responsibility of portraying the Revolutionary War heroine.