The tall tale of the King's Mountain Messenger

In my forthcoming book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I plan to share several stories and anecdotes which helped to build John Sevier's legend in the Volunteer State. One such story can be found in what I like to call the "tall" tale of Joseph Greer.

"King's Mountain Messenger" historical marker.
Image credit: King's Mountain Chapter
Daughters of the American Revolution.
Joseph Greer was most famously known as the Revolutionary War soldier dispatched by John Sevier to carry the message of victory over British loyalists at the Battle of King's Mountain to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress gathered to govern our new nation. Historians, genealogists, and descendants of Joseph Greer have all noted that he was a towering man, standing at least 6-feet 7-inches tall, and was said to have had great skill in dealing with the Native American  population. According to various accounts of his journey, Indians shot Greer's horse out from underneath him and on one occasion he hid inside a hollow log while the Indians sat on it. Greer made his treacherous 600-mile journey through hostile territory with only a compass to guide him, and a blinding determination to spread the news of this great victory, earning him the nickname of the "Kings Mountain Messenger."

The Continental Congress received Greer's message on November 7, 1780, one month following the victory at King's Mountain. No one within the halls of government had known about the battle until Greer's arrival, but news of this victory over the British loyalists quickly spread throughout the former colonies, reviving hope that the United States of America would emerge from this brutal war as a victorious nation. Thus, the Battle of King's Mountain is largely remembered as the turning point of the American Revolution in the South due in no small measure to the message that Joseph Greer carried along his incredible journey. That message also helped to establish John Sevier as a Revolutionary War hero, placing him on a path to future greatness.

However, one curious fact cited in this story continues to vex me. How tall was Joseph Greer? At 6-feet 7-inches tall, he would have certainly stood out among his fellow frontiersmen. The average height of a man of the 18th century was about 5-feet 7 1/2-inches, according to evidence from excavations of graves dating to the American colonial period.

In reading various accounts of Joseph Greer's "King's Mountain Messenger" story, one finds that the man's stature was of paramount importance to the telling of this tale. Take for instance the following biographical sketch found within the Joseph Greer Family Papers, 1782-1868 held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Amidst the coon skin caps and references to Tennesseans when Tennessee had yet to become a state stands a giant of a man whose legend became larger than life, simply by delivering a message of victory and liberty.

Written in July of 1929, the following sketch not only gives us a window into what Joseph Greer's trek was like immediately following the Battle of King's Mountain, but more importantly, it also gives readers a glimpse into the thinking of those who endeavored to chronicle Greer's journey many years later. One oddity that stands out, however, is how much Greer's physical stature had grown over time. Note how Greer's height had increased by five full inches in this version of the "King's Mountain Messenger" story...

A Tennessee Hero
The Kings Mountain Messenger
Joseph Greer

   The First battle which broke the opposition of the British in the war for American Independence was fought at Kings Mountain, South Carolina -- on October 7th 1780, under the command of John Sevier, Tennessee's first Governor, aided by Virginians, Kentuckians, Carolinians, and Tennesseans.
   These hardy liberty loving Americans drove Ferguson and his red coats to defeat, and from that event British aggression begun to crumble and American Independence was assured. The very beginning of the birth of this Nation.

   Among the volunteers who came from Watauga, was a physical giant, seven feet tall; in the making of this man nature exhausted her ability; only twenty-six years old, full of vigor and inheriting through his Irish Ancestry, and indomitable will, for some good reason, not shown in history, presumably a knowledge of his fearlessness, determination, or perhaps some outstanding feat of bravery in battle, this young giant was selected by those in command to advise President George Washington and the Congress then in session at Philadelphia, that the heroic frontiersmen in coon skin caps and with flint lock guns had reaped the first American Victory in the Revolutionary War, by defeating the British at Kings Mountain.
   A signal honor -- an outstanding incident in this Nation's history -- A Tennessean selected to bear the good news to the Nation.
   Alone Joseph Greer, begun his long trip walking over the mountains and valleys, guided by his compass from Watauga to Philadelphia, slung across his shoulder his musket and food. His experience as a surveyor, his knowledge of Indians, enabled him to safely reach Philadelphia; on arrival, he inquired the way to American headquarters; brushing past the doorkeeper without a word, strode into the midst of the assembled Congress and delivered the message, which fanned the flame of patriotism into an all consuming soul fire, from which resulted the American Victory, the origin of the United States of America.
   The great size, the physical bearing of this twenty-six year old American, bedecked with a coon skin cap and his long overcoat, his trusty musket and brass compass as a pilot, amazed the people of Philadelphia.
"Speeding the News to the Continental Congress."
Image credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives
Tennessee National Guard poster
Mf.212 "Prominent Tennesseans Photographs"

Now, fast-forward to 1968, where in "One Heroic Hour At King's Mountain," published in The Overmountain Men, Pat Alderman takes even greater creative license with Greer's height and age...

"Young Greer, twenty years old and over seven feet tall, was armed with a musket and compass for the long dangerous trip...

...On Greer's arrival in Philadelphia he made his way to Congressional Headquarters. The door keeper tried to bar his entrance. The giant Messenger pushed him aside, stalked down the aisle, and delivered his message to a surprised body of men. It is said that General Washington commented: 'With soldiers like him, no wonder the frontiersmen won.'"

Was Greer twenty years of age or twenty-six? Did he stand at 6-feet 7-inches or over seven feet tall? And by the way, George Washington's comment is enclosed in quotation marks, yet you'll never find a footnote citing the source of this quote. That, of course, was Alderman's style. He wasn't interested in documenting his sources. He was only concerned with making history "interesting."

Finally let's examine James Ewing's account of this story, published in A Treasury of Tennessee Tales. In his chapter entitled, "King's Mountain Messenger," Ewing writes:

"For sheer drama, few happenings of early times can match the sight of seven-foot, two-inch Joseph Greer, a Tennessee backwoodsman, walking boldly into the chambers of the Continental Congress and informing the startled members that the battle of King's Mountain had been won."

In history, facts are often embellished, and over time these embellished stories become legends, indistinguishable from the truth. These stories eventually become part of our historical memory, which has an importance all its own. Fact, fiction, or a little bit of both, this is a story worth telling and remembering, even if it is a "tall" tale.

Thomas Greer photographed in clothing reminiscent of that his father, Joseph, wore when he announced the American victory in the 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Joseph Greer was chosen to make the difficult journey to Philadelphia due to his skills in dealing with Native Americans, whose lands he had to cross.
Caption and image credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives online exhibit, "The Volunteer State Goes to War: A Salute to Tennessee Veterans."


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.