Gilbert Town is noted for the fact that both sides camped there before the Battle of Kings Mountain. Its founder, William Gilbert, born in Ireland around 1735, settled in present-day Rutherford County in 1760, having lived previously in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Gilbert married Sarah McCandless against her parents’ wishes while in Pennsylvania and fled to western North Carolina with his new bride. In 1769, after establishing himself in North Carolina, Gilbert began to purchase large tracts of land near his home, until he eventually became the largest landholder in Tryon County.
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Gilbert developed his land with the assistance of immigrant Irish workers whose travel he financed personally. As Gilbert’s lands and workers grew, a town developed around his house, called Gilbert Town. Gilbert Town served as the county seat for Rutherford County between 1781 and 1785. Rutherford County was formed from Tryon County in 1779, but did not have an official courthouse until one was constructed in 1785 in Rutherfordton. Before that, Gilbert’s house served as the meeting point for Rutherford County government, with Gilbert himself acting as justice of the peace and tax collector and assessor. Gilbert also represented first Tryon, then Rutherford counties in the North Carolina General Assembly, furthering his position in local politics. Gilbert Town continued to develop until the mid-1780s, at which time Rutherfordton surpassed it in importance within the county.
In 1779 and again in 1783, Gilbert was removed from office, first for fraud then for forgery. Gilbert was stripped of his title of justice of the peace in 1783, and moved to South Carolina shortly after selling his land to his son-in-law, Major James Holland.
Gilbert Town served as camp for both the British and the Patriot armies during the Revolutionary War. In September of 1780, British Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ferguson, part of Cornwallis’s fighting force, moved into Rutherford County and camped at Gilbert Town. Ferguson, who hoped to meet with Cornwallis in Charlotte to expunge western North Carolina of rebel forces, ran various campaigns into the countryside from Gilbert Town during September. Ferguson also eventually drew the Overmountain Men, Patriot forces from the North Carolina backcountry, to him at Gilbert Town, through personal threats and warnings.
With these threats, though, Ferguson also brought together the forces of backcountry North Carolina, Virginia, and present-day Tennessee. When the Overmountain Men reached Gilbert Town, they constituted a substantial fighting force. The Patriots camped and restocked their arms before continuing their pursuit of Ferguson. The Battle of Kings Mountain, widely acknowledged as a major turning point in the Revolutionary War, was a dramatic victory for the Patriots. The Overmountain Men annihilated Ferguson’s command, killing 120 British soldiers including Ferguson, wounding 123 and taking an additional 664 captive, some of whom were held at Gilbert Town. This marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Cornwallis’ forces in the South, culminating with his surrender at Yorktown in 1781.
Lyman C. Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes (1954)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 296-297—sketch by William Gilbert by N.C. Hughes Jr.
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006) sketch of Battle of King’s Mountain by Noel Yancey
Clarence W. Griffin, The History of Old Tryon and Rutherford Counties (1937)
William S. Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries (1989)