It was bound to happen and I knew that from the start. I expected a good hiding, as it were, and courted it. When you challenge a bit of long held lore, a piece of local history so deep-dyed in the local community’s fabric that it’s been told, retold and recorded in the only “official” history of the county that’s been written, it can cause a ripple.
It’s taken a while, but a couple of people have delighted in passing on to me a few murmurs from the gossip grapevine that amounted to “Did you hear about what he said?” As one of the informants chided me, “You stepped in it.”
I’m just surprised it took so long. It’s now the fall and my crime was committed in the spring. Now comes the time to explain it to all who didn’t witness it.
In April I was asked to speak on local history at the Elbert County Library. I chose to deal the legend of local American Revolution hero Stephen Heard’s rescue from a British jail in Augusta by his loyal slave woman “Mammy Kate” the night before he was to hang. She refused the offer of her freedom as a reward and she and her husband are buried near Heard in the family cemetery in the Heardmont community. It’s a nice story. It just doesn’t have the added virtue of being true.
Local attorney and historian John McIntosh accepted it as gospel in his The Official History of Elbert County 1790-1935, published by the local Stephen Heard Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1940. The story has found its way into multiple histories and into the New Georgia Encyclopedia, though the writer of the entry gives some leeway for doubt by calling it a “local legend.” In October 2011, the story was given the imprimatur of a proclamation by the state chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, duly celebrated with a ceremony at the Heardmont cemetery.
As a Heard descendant (great-great-great-great grandson), the story I grew up on always intrigued me. But it perplexed me that for such a celebrated hero of the Revolution, other than the fact that the Virginia-born Heard (and his extended family) was drawn to our area of northeast Georgia by the 1773 Cherokee land cession, had served some nebulous role as governor and was an intimate friend of George Washington (there is no evidence for that either), the rescue story was all anyone generally knew about him.
Like many if not most historical figures who become cloaked in legends of some durable fabric, the truth turns out more interesting than the tall tales.
To begin with, for the story of his rescue to be at all true there is one necessary condition that would have to be met: It would have to have occurred during a time when Augusta was occupied by either the British forces or their loyalist allies. Augusta was occupied by the British for a few weeks in early 1779 and by mostly loyalist forces from June 1780 until June 1781. In both cases we can, with primary sources, reliably place Stephen Heard elsewhere.
The fall of Charleston, South Carolina, to the British in May 1780 precipitated a surrender of rebelling forces on both sides of the Savannah River. In June 1780, over 400 members of the Georgia militia surrendered to the loyalist forces that had recently occupied Augusta. The only exception was Lt. Colonel Elijah Clarke, second in command of the militia, and a handful of his veteran backcountry fighters. They crossed the river into upcountry South Carolina to join with other diehard holdouts and continue the fight. With Clarke were Heard and the refugee government of Georgia.
Heard, serving on the Executive Council of the state government, had become the council’s president early in 1780 after the previous holder of that office had died in a duel with a political rival. (Georgia’s revolutionary government was factious and contentious enough to embarrass a banana republic. Heard, it seems, possessed a vital talent for avoiding any taint of partisan rivalry, resulting in his leadership by default.) In time, this made him the de facto governor for some months. He also did not surrender and take the British oath of allegiance. With the rest of the Executive Council, he joined Clarke in the field.
Thus begun an odyssey leading him farther into upcountry South Carolina, into North Carolina (where Georgia’s state government records eventually ended up via another means) and finally to Virginia. In March 1781, he wrote a letter from Henry County, Virginia, giving a broad but fairly detailed account of the struggle in the Carolinas and Georgia since he had fled Georgia but nowhere mentions any capture by the British or loyalists. Neither do any of the considerable body of dispatches from the loyalist commander in Augusta, Colonel Thomas Brown to other loyalist commanders and even British General Cornwallis mention the capture of the head of Georgia’s revolutionary government.
The first picaresque story of northeast Georgia’s other legend from the Revolutionary War years, the heroine Nancy Hart, did not see print until 1825, and that in a Milledgeville, Georgia, newspaper that evidently just printed a story the writer had heard. Others would follow, maybe only three plausibly based in fact, later ones obviously of whole cloth. The first written account of the rescue of Stephen Heard, however, does not appear in print until a September 1901 story in the Atlanta Constitution, one of several on a page devoted to stories from Georgia’s past by Atlanta’s Joseph Habersham Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The story even quoted Mammy Kate, as reportedly told to her grandchildren, in a dialogue that echoes 19th century minstrel shows. As with the stories of Nancy Hart, the rescue story does not appear in any historical account until it appeared as a newspaper feature with no cited sources. Then, like the Hart stories, it took on a life of its own.
If the story isn’t true, it’s difficult to fathom how and why it might have been told. There is one vague mention − McIntosh’s Elbert County history − of Heard’s father and brother being imprisoned in Augusta in one instance, but not time is mentioned. Perhaps the genesis of the story, if it has any factual basis at all, grew from that.
If the Heards were imprisoned in late 1780, they wouldn’t have been alone. After Elijah Clarke’s first failed attempt to attack Augusta in September 1780, many suspected of rebel sympathies were held prisoner. The British also issued orders expelling from the area upriver from Augusta relatives of those known to or suspected of having joined with Clarke. An estimated 100 farms were burned. The line of expulsion ended at the Broad River that now forms Elbert County’s border. (If the stories of Nancy Hart dealing with marauding loyalists are true, they likely stem from this time when loyalist troops prowled north of the river.) An estimated 600-700 settlers from the area sought refuge in the mountains of western North Carolina, traveling en masse under Clarke’s protection. (All of this noted in Heard’s March 1781 letter from Virginia.)
The revolution brought a hard time to this corner of northeast Georgia in those months, when life could be more “nasty, brutish and short” than life on the 18th century frontier already could be. Perhaps both the Nancy Hart story and the story of the Heard rescue, if they did in fact originate from this time, were part of a picaresque mythology that grew up to mask what must have been some starkly unpleasant memories.
In the case of Heard, if Mammy Kate and her husband “Daddy Jack,” are actually buried near Stephen Heard in the family cemetery (and their grave markers were not placed until the mid 20th century), it could be the story was told to mask something that embarrassed the Heard family. That Kate might have been Heard’s mistress must at least be considered. It is established fact that Heard’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Heard, fathered children by at least one of his slaves. And having a mistress buried near the master wasn’t without precedent even within Heard’s own extended family. The brother of Heard’s son-in-law (my great-great-great grandfather) had his mistress buried between himself and his wife.
This possible relationship, of course, can be nothing more than speculation, a stab at explaining why.
Even if this speculation is true, it doesn’t genuinely diminish the man Stephen Heard who was in everything known about him a man of his time, and who should be judged in that light.
Freed of the rescue story, in fact, he emerges a more interesting and more important figure. He refused to surrender in the face of what must have seemed hopeless odds, and kept Georgia’s revolutionary government alive, if on the run. By accounts, he was just a shade over five feet tall, but he stood much taller in the face of the direst adversity.
Legends and mythologies have their place, even when they involve people who actually existed. They are part of the cultural story and tell more about the times that spawned them than they tell about the figures at the heart of them. But one must overshadow the other, and let that one be the truth. As in the case of Stephen Heard, it’s usually much more interesting.