The Tavern of John McHeath


The Stage Coach Inn was located about
twenty miles from McHeath’s Tavern.

Local history books provided the setting and conflict for my story, The Least of These.

The Revolutionary War was a brutal time in South Carolina when neighbors chose sides, resulting on a whopping one-third of the population as active Loyalists. This created a more true civil war than any in U.S. history. Neighbors destroyed each other’s homes, raped, scalped, and hacked each other to bits. Corpses were even dug up and abused.

A re-created tavern at the Living
History Park, North Augusta, S. C.

Real-life character Tarleton Brown and his young fictional savior, Mary Edith Dillon, sided with the Patriots. I needed a loyal subject of His Highness King George III to act as their foil.

From The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan, I learned the focal point of colonial life in my town was a tavern located on Red Hill, run by a man named John McHeath.

McHeath’s inn was famous for its whiskey. However, taverns were not only where folks went to throw back a few shots. They were often the only community buildings available. They could be used as courtrooms, schoolhouses, and even church services. To prevent drunkenness during these tamer activities, a set of wooden bars would be lowered to block access to alcohol. Even today, 

Note the bar that was lowered for
non-alcoholic activities.

we say, “The bar is closed.”

Taverns were prevalent along main thoroughfares and trading routes in the backwoods. McHeath’s Tavern served as an oasis on the Charles Town-Augusta stagecoach road where travelers stopped for food, drink, or a night’s rest, if needed. Locals showed up to hear gossip, make contacts, or enjoy a game of cards, or patrons might enjoy the occasional brawl or cockfight. I can imagine some gritty political discussions, too.

Inside the tavern at the Historic
Camden Revolutionary War Site
With that, the stage is set. Let the drama begin.

RESEARCH TIP: I learned much of this information from the tavern keeper at the “Living History Park” in North Augusta, South Carolina (http://www.colonialtimes.us/). Re-enactors are a great source of knowledge since they tend to be very passionate about their topic and strive for accuracy to the smallest detail. And like any enthusiast, they love to talk about their interest. 

Also helpful, I found a facsimile of a colonial tavern at the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site of Camden, South Carolina. Since McHeath’s inn is long gone, it helps to have one I can enter, walk around, and get a feel for.

What’s the Big Idea?

Don’t just lay there–do something!
Years ago, I took one of those quizzes in I-can’t-remember-which writing magazine that rated my creativity on par with a zucchini.
Harsh.
Maybe that’s why I like to base my stories on actual historical occurrences. Little known stories from our hometown newspaper and county library have generated interesting ideas for me.
My first book, The Least of These, came from the memoir of nearly-forgotten Tarleton Brown, the local Revolutionary War hero here in Barnwell, South Carolina. Even our esteemed state historian, Walter Edgar, not only omitted him from his tome, South Carolina: A History, but also from his book that focused solely on the American Revolution, Partisans & Redcoats.
In 1843, a veteran of the South Carolina Rangers, Colonel Tarleton Brown, published his memoirs in a short-lived newspaper known as the Charleston Rambler. He described in fascinating detail his Revolutionary War exploits in Barnwell, at that time considered a backwoods, frontier region. No famous battles occurred, but the fighting was fierce and real people suffered.
Tarleton Brown tells the story of the aftermath of 1781’s Siege of Augusta, Georgia, when he decided to “peep” into the fort they overtook. “…[B]ut it was a sore peep to me, as I took small-pox from it.”
Since no one in his family had ever had the disease, he hired Peggy Ogleby to care for him under a large oak tree. “This slut was a Tory, and informed her clan where I was. They said they would come and kill the d—n rebel, but as I had an invisible and Almighty Protector, they had not the power to execute their malicious design.”
A more modern edition of
Tarleton Brown’s memoirs
Apparently in 1843, he was still pretty pissed off about it. Somewhat vague about his method of escape, though.
My husband is an amateur historian and, through some research, discovered a treatise in our library recounting local history. The Village of Barnwell by William Hansford Duncan had originally been printed some time between 1912 and 1915.
This source tells a story of Tarleton Brown not found in his memoirs. He had been captured by Tories, it seems, and scheduled to hang. But the captors wanted to celebrate with a few whiskeys first, giving Brown the opportunity to gallop off on the horse to which he was tied.
To me, both these stories seem to leave something out—the likelihood of outside help in Tarleton’s escapes. Why not, then, have an ordinary young girl, very much “under the radar” in the society of the day, become integral in helping this Patriot fight the good fight? This girl would be very poor and considered beneath the consideration of those around her, yet she would be an invisible hero.
This was the seed I planted to “grow” The Least of These, a book I am re-writing for the third time. They say it’s the charm.