Roan Mountain, Tenn. — Predawn mists cast ghostly shadows in the trees. From my tent pitched in a shaded valley of Roan Mountain State Park, I imagine buckskin-clad men, carrying long rifles, slipping quietly through the surrounding forest.
I have come to the hills of Tennessee to trace the route of the Overmountain Men, fiercely independent pioneers who, in September 1780, marched more than 250 miles over some of the most rugged terrain in eastern America into
an honored, yet little known place in American history. On Oct. 7, 1780, after two weeks of relentless pursuit, they defeated Capt. Patrick Ferguson and more than 1,300 British Loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain, S.C. Thomas Jefferson described
the victory as the "Turn of tide of success" that led to the British surrender at Yorktown, ending the American Revolution the following year.
Today, the historic trek is commemorated by the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, a driving route from Abingdon, Va., to Kings Mountain that may be unsurpassed for its mix of history and spectacular scenery
(especially during the fall leaf season). The trail winds across pastoral mountain valleys and ridges, and through welcoming communities rich in history.
I began my journey at Rocky Mount (U.S. 11E east of Johnson City, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays), a 1772 farm that is now a living history museum tracing the lives of the "overmountain" people — so named because they
chose to settle west of the Appalachians.
From there a short drive leads to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Site in Elizabethton. Here, more than 1,000 men mustered at Fort Watauga for the march across the mountains and the fight for freedom. Today, a reproduction of
the old fort stands adjacent to the mustering field (1651 W. Elk Ave., 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 1-4:30 p.m. Sundays).
After a night of wind and rain that offered a taste of the marchers' many hardships, the morning broke clear and cloudless. I was lured to Carver Gap beneath Roan Mountain's 6,285-foot summit for a breathtaking view of the
steep ridges and narrow valleys that made the pioneers' trek seem even more remarkable. From the park, the car route follows U.S. 19E out of the fertile Doe River Valley and southward toward the resort town of Spruce Pine, N.C. Along the way, faint
evidence of Bright's Trace (or the Yellow Mountain Road), the primitive path the patriots followed during the first days of their journey, is still visible. (For hikers on the Appalachian Trail, a tablet 4 1/2 miles north of Carver Gap marks the point
where the old road descends into Yellow Mountain Gap.)
South of Spruce Pine, the route (N.C. 226) crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway at Gillespie Gap. Here, fearing a British ambush, they split into two wings, with one continuing on the planned route to Quaker Meadows (Morganton,
N.C.), and the other following a trail through Hefner Gap.
The Museum of North Carolina Minerals (hours vary, call 828-765-2761), at the Parkway intersection, features displays of the state's rich geologic treasures, as well as an exhibit about the Overmountain Men. The original
five-mile path to Hefner Gap, now a blazed trail, enters the woods just across the road from the museum (check with museum staff for information about hiking the trail).
After a steeply winding descent to Marion, the route follows U.S. 70 and N.C. 126 along scenic Lake James, beneath Linville Mountain. Lake James State Park hugs the shoreline and is an ideal stop for a picnic lunch. Driving
into Morganton, I passed Quaker Meadows where the soldiers celebrated the arrival of 400 men who had come from Wilkesboro, N.C. In town, I paused to see the birthplace of former U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin (of Watergate fame), stroll the grounds of the restored
pre-Civil War courthouse and browse shops along Concord and Green streets.
Buoyed by reinforcements, the Overmountain Men headed south (along the route of present day U.S. 64) toward the village of Gilbert Town (north of present day Rutherfordton), where Ferguson had last been sighted. There they
discovered Ferguson's cold camp and continued pursuit, traveling southwest, camping at Alexander's Ford on the Green River. Before dawn on Oct. 6, breathless riders galloped in with news that they were going the wrong way — Ferguson's men had marched
east toward Charlotte.
Hastily breaking camp, the patriots crossed into South Carolina and reached Cowpens by late afternoon. At Cowpens National Battlefield (S.C. 11 in Chesnee, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily), site of a Patriot victory on Jan. 17, 1781,
I viewed displays about the Overmountain campaign and walked along the preserved Green River Road, the same path the men took as they raced east.
At Cowpens, they learned that Ferguson was at Kings Mountain, less than 30 miles away. Excitedly, they broke camp and marched through a night of torrential rain to finally confront the Loyalists. Early on Oct. 7, they
crossed the Broad River at Cherokee Ford (off U.S. 29 north of Gaffney), reaching the slopes of Kings Mountain at 3 p.m.
My journey to the mountain was much easier. Less than an hour after leaving Cowpens, I was pitching my tent at Kings Mountain State Park (adjacent to the military park), anticipating my visit to the battlefield the next day.
After a tour of the visitor center at Kings Mountain National Military Park (N.C. 216, south of I-85, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily), I began my trek along a 1 1/2 mile paved footpath with interpretive markers encircling the ground
where the pivotal battle was waged. Though the Loyalists had the high ground, the Patriots were skilled marksmen with long rifles that were accurate at triple the distance of the English weapons. Within an hour, more than 200 Tories, including Ferguson,
lay dead and the survivors raised a white flag of surrender. The heroic march of the Overmountain Men was over, and America was a step closer to independence.