I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my forebears. We’ve just finished our first summer production of my Revolutionary War drama Liberty Mountain, a story about the settling of the southern colonies and their part in the winning of American independence. Our 15 performances played to large and enthusiastic audiences in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and we’re already at work on the 2016 summer production.
The centerpiece of Liberty Mountain is the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain, where a fierce and determined band of Patriot frontiersmen defeated a larger, better-trained force of Loyalist militia. Until that battle, the British were winning the war in the south. But Kings Mountain turned the tide and led directly to the British surrender at Yorktown a year later.
I’ve long been interested in the Kings Mountain battle because one of my ancestors, Col. James Williams, was killed there. He was, by reliable accounts, a brave warrior who led Patriot militia forces at a series of battles across Georgia and both Carolinas. At Kings Mountain, his horse was shot out from under him as he led his troops up the mountainside, so he continued on foot until he was struck by a musket ball at the summit. One account says that as he fell, he cried out, “For God’s sake, don’t give up the hill, boys!” They did not.
Col. Williams and his exploits have long been part of my family’s lore, but until I got involved with Liberty Mountain, I didn’t know the details of the connection. With the help of my friend Greg Payseur of the Broad River Genealogical Association, I’ve been able to trace the lineage back to Williams and several other ancestors who fought in the Revolution.
They’re all on my mother’s side of the family, the Coopers, some of whom migrated from England in the 1630’s to help found Philadelphia, then drifted south into the new frontier. One of them, Fleet Cooper, set up shop in Sampson County, North Carolina where he became a committed rebel and a signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. There are historians who doubt the “Meck Dec” actually existed, but Cooper family lore insists it did – that it preceded the better-known Declaration and was the first time colonists put pen to paper and declared independence from England. It’s also known that the Crown put a price on Fleet Cooper’s head, so he must have done something audacious to rile up the King.
I’m enjoying getting to know more about those folks who preceded me – something of how they lived, the ideals they believed in. And in writing Liberty Mountain and seeing a talented and committed cast and crew bring it to life on stage, I’m in a way re-creating those people and their time.
Now, anybody who’s delved into personal history knows that every family has its abundant share of rogues, renegades and black sheep. I’m sure the Coopers are no exception, but I’ve also come across a passel of them on my father’s side, the Inmans.
Those folks hail from upstate South Carolina. There were Inmans who fought bravely in the Revolution, but then there was the other bunch. Years ago I met a judge in Alabama who had been doing some genealogical research on his South Carolina ancestors, who came from the same area as mine. He said, with something of a twinkle in his eye, “The records show that some of the Inmans were chased out of Spartanburg County in the early 1800’s for horse thievery.” Oh well, you take the bitter with the sweet.
Where did the horse thieves go? Into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and beyond. It was a wild and lawless frontier in those days, and it probably took folks like my renegades to tame it.
I relish both sides of my family tree, and find a checkered past quite useful. When I act uprightly, I attribute some of it to the Coopers. When I need to be ornery, I lean on the Inmans. They both serve me well.
So yes, you have to be careful with ancestors. They can be a source of pride or a darn good excuse. I’m glad I have some of both.
For information on Liberty Mountain, visit www.kmlibertymountain.com.