During the American Revolution, the Cherokees were considered loyalists. Esseneca became a battle site and was burned to the ground by patriot troops.
Two men are attributed with maintaining Anglo-Cherokee relations during the colonial period: John Stuart (1718-1779) and Alexander Cameron (?-1781). Stuart was superintendent for the southern district (VA, NC, SC, GA, & FL) of the British Indian Department from 1761-1779. He appointed Cameron as his Cherokee agent.
Sometime in 1775 or early 1776, Captain William Freeman met with Cherokee chiefs at Esseneca to reassure them of friendly relations between South Carolinians and Cherokees. He believed the chiefs were genuine in their promises of peace, but felt that Cameron and Stuart, well-known loyalists, had the influence to make the Cherokee their enemy. Freeman convinced the SC Council of Safety of this opinion. They decided that it was crucial to get Cameron (who had left his plantations in present-day Abbeville County in 1775 for the Overhill towns) out of Cherokee country.
Major Andrew Williamson sent Captain James McCall to carry out this mission. McCall was originally told to negotiate the return of property stolen by Cherokees or the loyalists residing with them. He did not learn of his true mission - capturing Cameron - until after he and his men had passed the Cherokee Ford on June 20th.
On June 26th, McCall and co. were camped near Esseneca. That evening, McCall and his interpreter John Ballinger were in a meeting with the chiefs when both they and their camp were attacked.
The Cherokee (and most likely some loyalist settlers) took McCall and Ballinger as prisoners. They lost two men, but McCall's company lost four - John Holland, John Patterson, John Huffman, and Ensign Patrick Calhoun.15 Calhoun was in fact a cousin of John C. Calhoun, who would not be born until six years later.16
McCall was taken to an Overhill town but escaped after a few weeks, thanks to the help of a Cherokee woman.17
General attack on the frontier
On June 30th, there were a number of Cherokee advances against frontier settlements stretching from GA to VA. The general attack may have been in conjunction with the (unsuccessful) British one against Fort Sullivan in Charleston two days prior.18
At this point, the Council of Safety should have realized the Cherokee weren't simply supporting one side or another of the Revolutionary War. Both men and women, loyalists and patriots, were killed in the onslaught - even the loyalists who had erected "Passover Poles" before their homes to indicate their position.19 The Cherokee were taking advantage of the circumstances: "the war between the king and his American subjects had given them an excuse as well as the means to drive the white squatters from their land."20
The Battle of Esseneca
The Cherokee attack sparked a campaign of retaliation. Williamson headed the SC campaign and marched with a band of militia to the Lower towns.
On July 22nd, Williamson heard that Cameron had arrived from the Overhill towns and was encamped at Oconoree Creek with both loyalist settlers and Cherokee from Esseneca.21 Wanting to surprise Cameron, Williamson led his men to ford the river at Esseneca, which his scouters had told him was deserted.
When they reached the first few houses in the town in the early hours of August 1st, they found themselves ambushed by Cherokees and loyalists who had hid behind the fence along the road. Williamson's forces were close to being driven out of the town when Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Hammond led a charge that turned the tide in their favor.
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After dawn, Williamson had the eastern half of the town burned, including its provisions of dried peas and 6,000 bushels of corn. Hammond later burned the western side.22 With its structures ash, provisions gone, and people retreating to the Middle and Overhill towns, Esseneca was no more.
Williamson and his men returned to their camp on Twenty Three Mile Creek before resuming the campaign. Between August 8th and 12th, they went on to destroy the towns of Estatoe, Tugaloo, Tomassee, Keowee, and Eustaste.23
Upon returning to the base camp, Williamson found his men weary. He granted them some time off, but told them to return to Esseneca on the 28th. On the 16th Williamson left with about 600 men for Esseneca, where they erected Fort Rutledge, named after the president of South Carolina at the time, John Rutledge.
The specific location of the fort is unclear. In 1908 the Daughters of the Revolution had a marker about the fort put up on a hill on Hunnicutt Creek that a 1920 map of Clemson labels as "Fort Hill." However, in 1961, when the diversion dam and earthen dikes to keep Lake Hartwell from flooding the eastern side of Clemson University were underway, The Tiger reported that the site of Fort Rutledge had been uncovered and a number of artifacts found.24
When, in 1784, the State of South Carolina granted the land in this area to Robert Tate, it was called the "Fort Hill Tract" because of Fort Rutledge. In 1802 the land was deeded to Rev. James and Elizabeth McIlhenny, who had a small house called Old Clergy Hall built.
When John C. Calhoun became owner of the estate in 1826, he renamed the plantation home Fort Hill. This is the name it still goes by today.