The site sits astride an ancient American Indian trade route known as the Cherokee Path. When Cherokee power was broken during the French and Indian Wars, European settlers flooded the South Carolina backcountry. During the American Revolution, a fort was built by the British army near Ninety Six as part of a defensive network for control of South Carolina. Following a siege by Patriot forces in 1781, the British abandoned the fort and destroyed the town. Reconstructed after the war as Cambridge, the community continued as a business center until the mid-1850’s.
Ninety Six National Historic Site
P.O. Box 496
Ninety Six, SC 29666
ph.: (864) 543-4068
fax: (864) 543-2058
Web site: www.nps.gov.nisi/
Long before Europeans arrived in backcountry South Carolina, Cherokee Indians had worn a path from their primary town of Keowee in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the coastal region. This ancient American Indian trade route, about eight feet wide and worn to a depth of several feet, was called the Cherokee Path. After the founding of Charles Towne by British settlers in 1670, trappers and traders followed that same trail inland in their search for furs. This commercial artery–running through rich soil, dense forests, and plentiful game–was essential to the opening of the Carolina backcountry to European exploitation. One convenient campsite along the trail was said to be ninety-six miles from Keowee, hence the name “Ninety Six.”
In 1751 the first trading post at Ninety Six was built by Robert Gouedy, but few Europeans settled in the area from fear of the Cherokee. During the various colonial wars between the French and the British, the Cherokee allied themselves with the French and fought to defend their lands from the white invaders. Their defeat in 1763 meant the forfeiture of their ancestral lands to the British crown, and European settlers, no longer fearful of the once powerful Cherokee, flooded the South Carolina backcountry. Gouedy’s store became a magnet for settlers, and by 1775, Ninety Six was a thriving frontier village of twelve houses surrounded by dozens of farms. The courthouse and jail for the entire Ninety Six Judicial District, which comprised most of western South Carolina, was also sited there.
The issue of separation from the British crown divided Loyalists and Patriots in the southern backcountry, and a bloody civil war resulted. In 1775, Loyalists and Patriots fought for control of the strategic center at Ninety Six, but an expedition from the low country captured the important town for the Patriots. Over the next six years, a brutal war between the factions took place, with little quarter asked or given. In 1778, the British “Southern Strategy” moved their major military effort from the New England and Middle colonies to the Southern colonies, which they believed they could retain. A defensive network of posts throughout South Carolina was built to control the region and to protect the Loyalists. At Ninety Six the town stockade was connected to a star-shaped fort and was defended by Loyalist troops.
By 1781, British strategy was in a shambles. Defeats at Cowpens and Kings Mountain, coupled with the departure of General Charles Cornwallis’s British army for Yorktown, meant that South Carolina Loyalists were facing elimination. American General Nathanael Greene’s strategy was to reduce the various British posts, thereby forcing the British to the coast. In May, 1781, his forces besieged Ninety Six and began constructing a series of parallel and approach trenches. Learning of the approach of a relief column, Greene ordered an assault on Star Fort on June 18 but suffered a bloody repulse. Greene abandoned the siege, the longest of the American Revolution, and withdrew. Within weeks, the British abandoned the fort, destroyed the town, and evacuated over one thousand Loyalists and their families.
Following the American Revolution the town was reconstructed as Cambridge. In 1800 the courthouse was moved, and, although the community continued as a business center, it never regained its political significance. An epidemic in 1815 decimated the population, and thereafter Cambridge was little more than a crossroads. By 1850, the location was but a memory, supplanted by the nearby community of Ninety Six.
At the historic site a walking loop of about one mile beginning at the visitors’ center encompasses a section of the Cherokee Path, the Patriot approach lines to Star Fort, and a reconstructed village with two historic houses. A minimum of one hour should be reserved for a visit. Other places of interest include Park Seed Company in Greenwood and historic Abbeville.
Bass, Robert D. Ninety Six: The Struggle for the South Carolina Back Country. Lexington, S.C.: Sandlapper Store, 1978. Provides a good analysis of the military importance of the region and of the Loyalist-Patriot bitterness. Cann, Marvin. Ninety Six, a Historical Guide: Old Ninety Six in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1700-1781. Troy, S.C.: Sleepy Creek, 1996. Brief history of Ninety Six, including excellent maps. Can be ordered from the Ninety Six National Historic Site. Edgar, Walter B. South Carolina, a History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. Best history of South Carolina. Places struggle for Ninety Six and the backcountry into overall context of the history of the state and region. Hatley, M. Thomas. The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Analyzes the impact of the collision of two cultures–Native American and European. Treacy, M. F. Prelude to Yorktown: The Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene, 1780-1781. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963. Places Ninety Six into a larger context and analyzes its strategic importance. Gives proper credit to the brilliant strategy of Greene.