Benjamin Cleveland was born on May 26th, 1738 in Bull Run, Prince William County, Virginia. He was the son of John Cleveland, a house-joiner, and Martha Coffee. His education was limited and he strongly disliked the constant effort of farm work. He was a hunter for several years, living irresponsibly. In 1761 he married Mary Graves and made a reluctant attempt at farming. The couple had two children, but Cleveland also had another child by a woman in Virginia.
About 1769, at the age of thirty-one, Cleveland moved to the Upper Yadkin in North Carolina with his father-in-law and family. They settles near Mulberry Fields, in Wilkes County. There he began to earn a good reputation among the locals. He still did not show any strong interest in farming, so while his father-in-law’s slaves cleared land for the new plantation he continued to hunt. He later moved to Surry County on the north side of the Yadkin River. In the early 1770’s he learned about promising land in Kentucky from his neighbor Daniel Boone and in the summer of 1772 Cleveland organized a party to search for it, but they were robbed by a band of Cherokee around Cumberland Gap and returned home due to the lack of supplies. After his return Cleveland regained his strength, gathered a party of gunmen, and daringly returned to the Cherokee area, moving from village to village to recover his possessions. This event permanently established his reputation as a strong Indian fighter.
In 1774 Cleveland sat as a justice in the Surry County court and was appointed that same year to be a juror at the superior court in Salisbury. In 1775 news of the Battle of Lexington cause the Surry court to quickly change to a safety committee. He was offered the position of ensign in the Revolutionary Army by the provincial congress, but he turned down the offer to become a captain of the Surry militia in 1776. He fought against Loyalist forces in the Wake Forest region and in the autumn 1776 he led a company in Rutherford’s campaign against the Cherokees in North and South Carolina. During the course of this campaign militia forces completely destroyed thirty-six Cherokee towns. In 1777 he served at Carter’s Fort and the Long Island of Holston, in East Tennessee while a treaty was negotiated. He was made Justice of the Peace of Wilkes County in 1778 and became a colonial in the Wilkes County militia. Cleveland also held other civil positions in the years of the Revolution. He was the commissioner of the Loyalist’s confiscated estates, supervised elections, county ranger, and in 1778-1779 he was a member of the North Carolina House of Commons, representing Wilkes County. In 1780 be became a member of the N.C. Senate for a term. He voted against tax raises and supported a bill to capture and sell slaves that had been illegally freed. Cleveland himself was a slave owner.
In June 1780 he helped to drive Loyalists from Ramsour’s Mills and then fought at the battle of King’s Mountain. This battle was against Major Patrick Ferguson, who was the left wing of the British army’s attack on the South. The Revolutionaries won decisively, killing Ferguson, and the battle became the turning point of the war in the South. In 1781 Cleveland was briefly captured by Loyalists but was soon rescued by his friends and brother Bob. Throughout the war Cleveland was merciless to the Loyalists that fought against him. He hanged those that he did not like, had others whipped, and allowed some to give an oath of allegiance with the promise of good future conduct. In 1779 he was indicted at the superior court of Salisbury for murdering two Loyalists, but was pardoned by the governor at the request of the General Assembly. Cleveland was not always nice to his own people either. The people around Salem complained about the militia under Cleveland who had a habit of taking things without paying for them.
At the end of the Revolution Cleveland was forced to give up his land and in 1785 Cleveland moved to the western border of South Carolina and became an associate judge in Pendleton County. He became quite overweight with the loss of his active lifestyle, and reached the weight of 450 pounds. He was forced to travel by cart as he was no longer able to ride a horse and wore only a shift in warm weather. Cleveland died in his chair in October 1806 at his plantation on Tugaloo River, in current Oconee County, S.C. A monument was erected to him on July 29th, 1887 at Fort Madison, South Carolina and in 1841 North Carolina named a county after him.
"Of all the fierce frontiersman whose
activity spread consternation among the partisans of King George in the
Southern campaigns of the American Revolution, not one stood higher than
Colonel Benjamin Cleveland." (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical
History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 69).
Colonel Cleveland was born on May 16, 1738, in Prince William County, Virginia. His family home was on Bull Run, the same creek that later became famous during the Civil War. The family moved sixty miles west to Orange County when Cleveland was still young. (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 69).
Cleveland showed a bold and forceful personality even when he was a boy. It is said that "at the early age of twelve he seized his father's gun and put to flight a party of drunken rowdies who were raising a disturbance at his home while John Cleveland, the father, was absent." The young Benjamin was not fond of farming, thinking it too tame, and instead became a good hunter. "To him the life of a hunter was a source of profit as well as pleasure, for the hides, furs, and pelts won by his rifle brought him no inconsiderable income." (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. pp. 69-70).
Tradition says that Cleveland fought in the French and Indian War, where he learned how to be a soldier. (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 70).
Sometime before he left Virginia, Cleveland married Mary Graves, the daughter of a wealthy gentleman. They had two sons and a daughter. Around 1769, Cleveland moved his family to North Carolina. They first settled on the shore of Roaring Creek, a tributary of the Yadkin River. (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. pp. 70, 73).
In 1772, Cleveland left for Kentucky with four other men. He had heard tales of the abundant hunting from Daniel Boone himself. On the way, the party was robbed of all of their provisions, including their guns, by a party of Cherokee Indians, who demanded that the white men go back to where they had come from. The group did. Later, Cleveland returned to Cherokee territory in order to get his horse back. He was able to do so with the help of a few friendly Cherokee. (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 70).
When the Revolutionary War began, Cleveland was commissioned as an ensign in the Second North Carolina Regiment. In January, 1776, he was promoted to lieutenant. In November of the same year, he became a captain. Eventually, he resigned from the Continental Line and joined the militia. He saw action at Moore's Creek and skirmished with the Cherokees until a peace treaty was worked out in July 1778. (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. pp. 70-71).
In 1777, Wilkes County was formed, "chiefly through the instrumentality of Captain Cleveland, and he was made colonel of the militia forces of the new county in August 1778. In 1778 Colonel Cleveland represented Wilkes in the North Carolina House of Commons, and was State Senator therefrom in 1779." (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 71).
Cleveland was kept busy throughout the rest of the war. "To tell in full of the desperate encounters in which Cleveland engaged would fill a volume. He was constantly engaged against the enemy, in 1777 serving in enemy campaigns, going on the expedition to Georgia in 1778, and returning in 1779, and afterwards marching against the Tories at Ramseur's Mill, though he did not reach that place in time for the battle" (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 71).
"'Old Round About,' as Cleveland was familiarly known (taking that sobriquet from his plantation of the same name), probably had a hand in hanging more Tories than any other man in America. Though this may be an unenviable distinction, he had to deal with about as unscrupulous a set of ruffians as ever infested any land--men who murdered peaceable inhabitants, burnt dwellings, stole horses, and committed about every other act in the catalogue of crime."(1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol V. p. 71).
The historian Dr. Lyman C. Draper wrote of Colonel Cleveland: "Cleveland was literally 'all things to all people.' By his severities he awed and intimidated not a few --restraining them from lapsing into Tory abominations; by his kindness, forbearance, and even tenderness winning over many to the glorious cause he loved so well." (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 72).
Cleveland distinguished himself most in the Battle of King's Mountain on October 7, 1780. "The battle of King's Mountain was fortunately a great and overwhelming victory for the Americans; and among all the desperate fighters there engaged not one showed more personal courage than Colonel Cleveland. " (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 72).
"After the victory at King's Mountain more than thirty Tories were condemned to death, and nine were executed--the others being reprieved. The executions here alluded to were...punishments for past crimes--house-burnings, outrages against women, desertions and betrayals, assassinations of non-combatants. These measures were also in retaliation for past British cruelties--a few days before this eleven Americans having been hanged at Ninety-Six in South Carolina and many more having been accorded similar treatment at other times. Cleveland was a member of the court (or court martial) --the nature to the tribunal being of a perplexing character --which tried and condemned these Tories. The Battle of King's Mountain restored comparative order to western North Carolina, yet there was more fighting to be done, and Col. Cleveland as usual bore more than his share, serving under General Griffith Rutherford. (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. pp. 72-73).
After the war, Cleveland lost his plantation, "The Round About" to "a litigant who had a better title therefor." Cleveland moved on to South Carolina, where he became an Indian fighter and then a judge after the fighting ceased. Apparently, the more sedentary lifestyle of a judge did not agree with Cleveland, for "Before he died Cleveland attained the enormous weight of four hundred and fifty pounds." (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 73).
Colonel Cleveland died in Oconee County, South Carolina, in October of 1806. "By chapter 9 of the Laws of 1840-41 a county was formed out of Lincoln and Rutherford and named for Colonel Cleveland. In this act the name was misspelled Cleaveland, but by another legislative enactment --passed many years later --the error was remedied." (1906. Ashe, Samuel. Biographical History of North Carolina. Vol. V. p. 73).
Ashe, Samuel, ed. Biographical History of North Carolina, Vol. 5. Greensboro, NC: Charles L. Van Noppen, 1905.
Carnes, Mark C., and Garranty, John A., editors. American National Biography, Volume 15. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Fiske, John, and Wilson, James Grant, editors. Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 4. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1888-1889. Reprint. Detroit: Gale Research, 1968
Powell, William S., ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Volume. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.