Gunpowder Mary: The (nearly) forgotten hero of Kings Mountain

Betty BeanKnox Scene

One thing I’m learning from my newfound interest in genealogy is that women disappear. It’s not that I didn’t already know this, but the point got driven home (again) recently when I decided to take advantage of some of my new ancestor-search tools to go back in time and find my late husband’s 1968 obituary. He was a soldier stationed in West Germany (as we called it then), and died in a car crash that our baby daughter and I survived. I was hospitalized at Ft. Campbell and was unable to attend the funeral, so I have no memory of the event – something I’ve always regretted.

It took me about two minutes flat to find the long, detailed Nashville Banner obituary full of familiar names and happy/sad memories. There’s our daughter among the survivors, my brother Johnny among the pallbearers. In-laws. Friends. Family. And there’s Mrs. Joseph P. Sbuttoni Jr., a.k.a. me. There was no ill intent, no disrespect. Nobody set out to delete me. Women got married and became someone else in those days, and my story is pretty ordinary, even though few who know me now would recognize me as the grieving widow.

But what does that have to do with genealogy? Well, my Tennessee ancestors were a tough, determined lot who seemed to relish a good fight, but I’ve had a tough time finding out much about the women who were left behind as the men rode off to war. Here’s a summary of most of what one of my reference books says about the mothers and wives of the Overmountain Men: “The women, strong and self-reliant, milked, gardened, cooked, carded the wool. … This was a way of life that the Beans, Robertsons, Browns, Carters, Boones, Crocketts and the host of other pioneers knew. …”

And although women like Bonnie Kate Sherrill and Lydia Russell were fierce and could probably outwork, outrun, outfight and outwit most men, they were relegated to “wife of” status and probably wouldn’t be remembered at all if they hadn’t married John Sevier and William Bean Jr. (I wrote about Lydia’s terrible youngest son Russell last week).

Gunpowder Mary

So, when I ran across a woman whose contribution to the battle that Thomas Jefferson called “the turn of the tide of success” in the Revolutionary War was so crucial that it might have been lost without her, I thought I’d better find out more about Gunpowder Mary.

Mary McKeehan Patton has not been forgotten – there’s a stretch of highway and a historical marker at Powder Creek in Carter County that bear her name – but she deserves to be at least as well remembered as Molly Pitcher or Betsy Ross or Paul Revere. Probably more, because she most likely would have faced the gallows if she’d been caught making gunpowder for the Overmountain Men to carry to Kings Mountain.

She was born in England in 1751. Her parents were Scottish, and immigrated to the Colonies in the late 1760. They settled near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where her father, David McKeehan, operated a gunpowder mill. Mary learned the family trade and married David Patton in 1772. Her father had died by the time the British outlawed gunpowder manufacture in the Colonies, and the young couple decided to pack up the mill and move down to Overmountain country where outlaws thumbed their noses at royal decrees.

Legend has it Mary burned the place down on her way out of town so the British wouldn’t discover what she’d been up to, which means she was a real good fit for Overmountain territory.

So it came to pass that the Pattons built a mill on the creek that became known as Powder Branch, conveniently located near a couple of guano-producing bat caves. David Patton joined up with the local militia.

They clearly fit right in with the Overmountain Men, whom the British considered nothing but a pack of backwoods outlaws who’d disregarded George III’s 1763 Royal Proclamation forbidding them to settle Cherokee lands west of the Appalachians. The War for Independence had been grinding on for four years when the dashing British Major Patrick Ferguson was sent to shore up Cornwallis’s army in the Carolinas.

The ginger-haired Ferguson had packed a lot into 33 years of living. He was a brilliant soldier and a superb marksman who had invented a breech-loading rifle that was considered the finest such weapon of its time. He was an accomplished writer who attempted to shape his place in history by serving as his own public relations man when he memorialized the time he passed on an opportunity to shoot down Gen. George Washington, who had ridden into a nest of British snipers at Brandywine Creek.

Ferguson vowed to treat the locals with kindness and generosity.

But that was before he had to deal with the Overmountain Men, who refused to abide by any of the known standards of civilized conduct or conventions of war. They got on the Major’s last nerve and he pronounced them the “dregs of mankind.” By the fall of 1780, when he couldn’t stand it anymore, he freed a Whig prisoner and sent him over the mountains with a “Don’t make me come over there” message to the hooligans that went roughly like this:

“Lay down your arms and submit to royal rule, or I’ll march the British army over the mountains to hang your leaders and lay your country waste with fire and sword.”

He would live long enough to regret the ultimatum. But just barely.

He had hoped that his braggadocio would inspire the Tories of the region to take up arms in service of the Crown. Instead, his threats drew a crowd of Patriot militias to Sycamore Shoals. They came from southern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and western North Carolina and their numbers grew to 1,500 tough, angry frontier fighters. Many accounts mention the women folk packing up food and warm clothing for the long ride south to engage Ferguson’s troops at the South Carolina border.

There are not many mentions of Mary Patton, who was busy whipping up 500 pounds of top-grade black powder for Col. John Sevier’s sharpshooters.

Although I’m not related to Gunpowder Mary, I’m pretty certain she knew plenty of Beans, because they were gunsmiths, long hunters and Indian fighters, and were doubtless heavy consumers of her wares. They were also the very embodiment of the rabble Ferguson had in mind. Their patriarch, Captain William Bean Jr., headed up the Watauga Riflemen, some of whom would have a hand (or some other organ) in shooting Ferguson off his horse, stripping off his uniform and relieving their bladders on his body before wrapping him in an ox hide and burying him where he fell.

And Mary Patton thrived. She had a good head for business, was a caring mother and tireless worker who left her children a fortune when she died in 1836. I’m convinced she would fare equally well today. She even has a Facebook page:

“Gunpowder Mary. She was a real woman.”

Perhaps our state government should consider putting this Patriot’s likeness on display in Nashville. I hear there’s going to be a space opening up soon.

Editor’s Note: The beautiful art that illustrates this story was painted by Jeff Trexler, commissioned by Martin & Stormy Mongiello of The American Revolutionary War Living History Center.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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