Overmountain Men cross Watauga River, spread their message far and wide

John Thompson • Updated Sep 25, 2019 at 9:30 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Ever since the nation’s bicentennial, reenactors have been telling the story of the Overmountain Men and how they gathered at Sycamore Shoals, went over the mountains and fought Maj. Patrick Ferguson and his Tory force at Kings Mountain.

For the first few decades, the Overmountain Victory Trail Association was content to just reveal the story to people who were familiar with it. That has now changed, and there is a new mission for the group. That mission is: “Keeping the story alive.”

Steve Ricker, director of interpretation for the group, said the way to keep the story alive is to focus on telling the story to the next generation.

Ricker said that mission has changed the way the reenactors negotiate the trail each year on the anniversary of the Sept 24 to Oct. 7 march from Abingdon, Virginia, to Kings Mountain, South Carolina.

“They used to just stay on the trail the whole time and keep to themselves,” Ricker said.

Now they coordinate with all the school districts along the trail and work to set up times that they can speak with students about what took place in their neighborhood in the fall of 1780.

Ricker said they usually coordinate to speak with third- or fourth-graders because that is the age the students first begin to study the history of the American Revolution.

That is exactly what is happening this year at the 239th observance of the Gathering of the Overmountain Men.

Prior to the 2 p.m. reenactment of the crossing of the Watauga River by Col. William Campbell’s militia from Virginia, there was an all-morning outdoor history class on what the Tennessee frontier was like. The fourth-graders from the three city of Elizabethton elementary schools participated.

Teaching stations were set up around Fort Watauga, where the Elizabethton students learned about such things as Revolutionary weapons, Mary Patton and her manufacture of gunpowder for the patriot cause, life on the homefront, as well as such basics as frontier skills, butter churning, 18th century music, and colonial games.

The education will continue again today at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. This time, the students will be from the Carter County School System.

Ricker said the message was presented to 13,000 students last year. He said he usually spends about 80 hours a month telling the story. “It is the story of America and what we can do when we stand together.”

Many others who have long experience with the Gatherings at Sycamore Shoals saw this year’s reenactment as remarkable successful.

“It was a marvelous day, bright and sunny,” said Jennifer Bauer, park manager. She said the beautiful weather was complemented by the large number of visitors and dedicated people of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association and rangers from the National Park Service, including the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail and the Kings Mountain National Military Park.

Bauer said it all came together to help the Overmountain Victory Trail Association’s mission to “keep the story alive.”

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