Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes historian Vanessa Smiley to the blog.
The thing about Ninety Six National Historic Site is that it’s unassuming exterior hides a wealth of history. It’s also nowhere near a major highway, meaning you have to want to get there if you’re thinking of visiting. And when you do get there, you will realize that there’s more history per acre than its demur entrance lets on. Located in the back country of South Carolina, Ninety Six has a history that speaks to the stories of Native Americans, the American frontier of the 18th century, and the American Revolution.
The site at Ninety Six holds a treasure trove of study on these subjects. Native American, mostly Cherokee, activity was heavy in the area long before European settlers arrived. One of the earliest backcountry trading posts, established by Robert Gouedy in 1759, made Ninety Six a hotbed of trading activity thanks to its location at the crossroads of twelve different roads and paths, linking the area to nearly all parts of the colonies.
Ninety Six also saw tensions with its Cherokee neighbors rise to the point of attacks on a newly-fortified the village. When those attacks failed and tensions eased, the village began to grow so that by the 1770s, there were a dozen homes, taverns, shops, and a courthouse and jail within the town proper.
You can still visit the original site of both the trading post and the town, though very little remains of either.
In 1775, a new war made its way to Ninety Six and it became the site of the first land battle south of New England in the American Revolution. Before the Declaration of Independence was even written, the Revolutionary War had found its way to the Carolina backcountry. The First Battle of Ninety Six (also known as the First Siege of Ninety Six or the Siege of Savage’s Old Fields) took place November 19-21, 1775.
Though it ended in a truce, it was not without causalities. A Patriot named James Birmingham was killed while defending the stockade fort the Patriots, under Major Andrew Williamson, were holding. Two centuries later, human remains were discovered by an archaeological project within the outline of that fort. Archaeologists believed these remains were Birmingham, though his identity has not been verified (DNA testing of his known descendants may one day help uncover that mystery).
Later in the war, Ninety Six was a strategic location for the British. Its location at a significant crossroads of routes meant that holding Ninety Six, among other things, also meant protecting backcountry supply routes. From December 1780 to early 1781, the Star Fort was constructed, an earthen eight-point fort whose shape allowed both muskets and cannons to fire in all directions around the fort.
The Star Fort was the primary location of the second battle at Ninety Six, known as the Siege of Ninety Six. From May 22 through June 18, 1781, Major General Nathanael Greene attempted to seize the fort with 1,000 men against the 550 Loyalists defending it. Today, the siege trenches have been partially reconstructed but what remains of the Star Fort is original. Though weather has eroded its original impressive height of 14-17 feet, it is still a site any Revolutionary War historian must see. The Fort is one of the best-preserved examples of an original 18th century fortification.
But wait, there’s more!
If 18th century earthen fortifications aren’t your thing, what about 18th century mines? The mine at Ninety Six had nothing to do with traditional mining, but was instead the engineering brainchild of Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko. The plan was to dig the mine under the Star Fort, pack it with gunpowder, then blow it up, allowing the Patriot forces to storm the fort and take it. They never had the chance to see if this would have worked however, as the siege ended before the mine was finished.
Though not accessible to the public today, studies have been done on the mine, including a 2014 3D mapping of the mines and the Star Fort was completed. You can view multiple presentations on the project, including the final mapping information, through links on Ninety Six NHS’s website.
Here’s one of the most interesting stories about the Star Fort and the mines: while both were built by soldiers (the Star Fort by Loyalists, the mines by Patriots), they were also built by enslaved African Americans from nearby farms and plantations. Little research has been done about who these enslaved men were, so if anyone is looking for a research project, it would be remarkable and humanizing to know the names and possible life stories of these people. The park hopes to get funding one day to support professional research on this very subject.
At the end of the war, as the British were leaving Ninety Six, they set fire to the town and the original town never recovered. The current town of Ninety Six sits north of the National Historic Site. Efforts by the local community in the 1970s helped preserve the Star Fort and the surrounding landscape so that its history wasn’t forgotten.
It’s unfortunate that many people aren’t aware of the significance of Ninety Six, but maybe that’s not 100% a bad thing. The fact that it’s not located next to a major highway means more of its resources have been preserved and protected simply from the lack of people visiting. Today, almost 100,000 people visit Ninety Six National Historic Site, though only a decade ago the number was just over half that.
The park is gearing up for the America 250th anniversaries, especially since it holds the first 250th anniversary for the National Park Service in the southern theater (the First Battle’s 250th is November 2025). Visitation numbers are expected to surge during these anniversary events, so get out and visit the site while it’s still on the quiet side.
Vanessa Smiley is the Project Manager of Media Development for the National Capital Area at Harpers Ferry Center (HFC) and has worked in interpretation and education for the National Park Service for 15 years. Before joining HFC, she served as the Chief of Interpretation at the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution Parks Group in South Carolina, consisting of Cowpens NB, Kings Mountain NMP, Ninety Six NHS, and the Overmountain Victory NHT. She also served as Acting Superintendent at Guilford Courthouse NMP in Greensboro, NC from February through June 2019. Her other previous parks include Harpers Ferry NHP, the C&O Canal NHP, the George Washington Memorial Parkway at Clara Barton NHS, Glen Echo Park, and Great Falls Park, and Morristown NHP She received her undergraduate degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and her Master’s degree in Resource Interpretation from Stephen F. Austin State University.
Vanessa’s professional expertise includes audience-centered interpretation, program outreach, digital media, interpretive media development and project management, and youth programming. Outside of work, Vanessa enjoys researching family histories, listening to podcasts, reading true crime non-fiction, and attempting to make the perfect sangria. She and her husband live in Morgan County, West Virginia with their small farm of rescue animals.