In 1776, British-allied Cherokee began a campaign into southern and western colonial settlements, prompting a South Carolina backcountry militia led by Major Andrew Williamson to rise in defense of the colonial territories. Assisted by Captain Andrew Pickens, the force of 1,100 men initiated a scorched earth campaign, targeting Cherokee villages in western South Carolina.
On August 12th, 1776, Captain Pickens led a 25-man scouting party ahead of Williamson’s main body of militiamen. As Pickens’ squadron passed through a cornfield, they were ambushed by 185 Cherokee. Thinking quickly, Pickens ordered his vastly outnumbered force to form two rings facing outwards. The small inner ring and the larger outer ring took turns firing, allowing the inner ring to reload while the outer ring fired.
The Cherokee surrounded Pickens’ men in a circle of their own, and the two groups fired at each other from close range. Hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Cherokee attempted to break through the ring. The strategy bought enough time for Pickens’ brother to hear gunfire and enter with a relief party, forcing a Cherokee retreat into the woods. Nevertheless, both sides took heavy casualties. Pickens lost 11 of his 25 men. The Native Americans lost 65 men and left 14 wounded – a heavy cost for the Cherokee, who had only about 2000 warriors nationwide.
Pickens’ men buried the fallen Patriots in the abandoned Cherokee village of Tamassee, later setting the village ablaze to ensure that no resources remained for their enemy.
Little is known about the British-aligned Cherokee leadership in this encounter or how much they knew about the South Carolina militia’s whereabouts prior to Pickens’ approach. However, despite the struggle’s bloody outcome, the Cherokee developed a great respect for Pickens. They believed he was a brave warrior, and according to Pickens’ grandson, the Cherokee referred to the Patriot captain as Skyagunsta, or Wizard Owl. Pickens eventually became a neighbor to the Cherokee, building his final home near the battle site.