This story was originally published in OLD NEWS, ©2001 OLD NEWS, and is used here by permission.

"Historian Challenges Story of Emily Geiger, American Patriot"

by Paul Chrastina

In the mid-1840s, American poet and author Elizabeth Ellet began research for a book that she planned to write, to be titled Women of the American Revolution. Ellet felt that historians had failed to recognize the importance of female patriots in winning America’s War of Independence from 1775 to 1783. Her goal was to uncover the facts about these unsung heroines of American history, and to immortalize their deeds.

Ellet lived in Columbia, South Carolina, where her husband was a professor at the University of South Carolina. While researching her book, Ellet learned about a local tradition which described how a young woman named Emily Geiger had played a dramatic role in the expulsion of the British army from South Carolina during the closing months of the Revolutionary War.

Elizabeth Ellet traveled with her husband thirty miles northwest from Columbia to an area of cotton plantations and cypress swamps near the Broad and Wateree rivers, to learn more about Emily Geiger.

According to area residents interviewed by Elizabeth Ellet, Emily Geiger had crossed through British army positions to deliver an urgent message for American General Nathanael Greene. The incident was said to have occurred during the summer of 1781, when Greene’s army of one thousand Continental soldiers was retreating from a force of two thousand British soldiers under the command of British general Francis Rawdon. Reaching the Broad River, Greene had wanted to send a message to South Carolina General Thomas Sumter, whose force was encamped near the Wateree River to the east.

In Women of the American Revolution, Ellet wrote:

Commenting of the story of Emily Geiger’s ride, Elizabeth Ellet noted:

Women of the American Revolution was a critical and commercial success for Elizabeth Ellet when it was published in 1848. The two-volume work was reprinted several times, with a third volume of stories added in 1850. As its author had hoped, the book elevated the posthumous reputations of many Revolutionary War American women, including Emily Geiger.

Following the success of Ellet’s book. several Revolutionary War historians and authors recounted the story of Emily Geiger’s ride, even though Ellet's account remained the only source for the tale. One of the most popular of these retellings appeared in 1852, when Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution included an illustrated version of the story, based on the information first published by Ellet.

In 1892, South Carolina historian John Chapman retold the story of Emily Geiger in his book, Annals of Newberry County, South Carolina.

Over one hundred years after the events he described, Chapman included dramatic new details regarding Emily, her family, and her mission, without revealing his sources.

Where Elizabeth Ellet wrote, "as to her person or adventures on the way, we have no further information," Chapman introduced a complete cast of secondary characters and scenes to fill out the story. Although there was no description in Ellet’s version of Emily’s father, Chapman portrayed him as "an ardent patriot, but an invalid and unable to serve his country in arms." Chapman also put words into Emily’s mouth, writing that she "was often heard to say: "’Oh that I were a man, that I could fight for my country,’ whenever she heard of any American reverses, or of any outrages committed by the British or Tories"

As in Ellet’s story, Emily’s problem was to carry a message from to General Greene to General Sumter. In Chapman’s version, however, Emily had to contend with hot pursuit by Tory spies on her ride toward Sumter, and after being captured, she was taken directly to Lord Rawdon for interrogation. Prior to being searched by the Tory matron, Chapman wrote that Emily, "Quickly read over her message, and no hiding place being found, began to eat it piece by piece. The last piece was in her mouth, when the woman finally arrived. Emily covered her face with her hands as if she were weeping, until it was safely swallowed. The search was made, nothing found, so after a little time, Emily was called back before Lord Rawdon who told her she could go...."

In conclusion, Chapman noted that, "After the war, Emily Geiger was married to a planter in the neighborhood named Threwits. Whether she was more than once married, I do not know. . . . She left children; but of her descendants at this time I know nothing—not even whether there are any now living. But I hope there are some, and that they are brave, heroic and true, as ever Emily Geiger was."

By the late 1800s, Emily Geiger had become a well-known heroine of the American Revolution in South Carolina. The purported location of her grave, on the abandoned Threwits estate fourteen miles northwest of Columbia, became a local tourist attraction, and the Daughters of the American Revolution organized an Emily Geiger Chapter. At the same time, however, one historian, Dr. J.B.O. Landrum, pointed out that the Emily Geiger story was based entirely on oral tradition, first recorded by Elizabeth Ellet.

In 1897, Landrum retold the story of Emily’s ride in his book, Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina. The purpose of his work, Landrum wrote, was "to present only such statements as he firmly believes to be wholly true, eliminating all matters of doubtful authenticity [and also] to renew chronicles of the past, reviving deserving names, characters and traditions that had once been the hearthstone talk of generations long since passed away."

Dr. Landrum credited the story of Emily Geiger’s ride solely to Elizabeth Ellet. He noted cautiously that, in researching his own book, he had found no mention of the young girl’s secret mission in any of the standard military histories of the Revolution, nor in the published correspondence of Nathanael Greene and his officers.

In 1930, the Secretary of South Carolina Historical Commission, Alexander S. Salley, Jr., charged that the Emily Geiger story was probably a fiction. Salley took particular offense to the alleged site of Emily Geiger’s grave. In an acerbic article titled "Grave of Emily Geiger: Myth Worshipers’ Mecca," Salley criticized "credulous patriots" who visited the grave site. Salley pointed out that, although local residents asserted that Emily Geiger was buried in the Threwits cemetery, he had gone to the site and found no grave marker there bearing her name. "In a plowed field behind the field in which the old dwelling stands," Salley wrote, "we found a piece of a tombstone sticking out of the ground near the edge of woods. We prodded about into the soft dirt with a rod until we struck the other piece of the tombstone and dug it up. Putting the two pieces of stone together we read the following inscription: Sacred to the memory of Josephine Love Threewits. . . . This is the only tombstone there and there is no indication that there ever were any other graves there."

"Some of the absurdities that are offered in support of spurious history," Salley wrote, "would be amusing if so many people did not take them seriously."

Salley claimed to have also made a thorough search of historical records and to have found no verifiable trace of Emily Geiger’s existence. He wrote, "Of course such a person as Emily Geiger might have lived. . . despite the fact that she is ignored by the wills of all of her Geiger relatives who left wills, despite the fact that not a single mention of name in any writing or in any publication earlier than Mrs. Ellet’s book published in 1848, has been discovered, but it is highly improbable."

Salley did not explain why members of the Geiger family, and their neighbors living near the Broad and Wateree Rivers, would have invented the name, "Emily Geiger," if no such person had ever existed.

The disparaging tone of Salley’s article aroused indignation among members of the Geiger family, who defended the truthfulness of Emily’s adventure. Although they were unable to provide any proof, family members rebuffed Salley’s arguments by claiming that Emily had died in her mid-twenties, and would therefore not have been mentioned in her relatives’ wills. They also claimed that, as a young man, Salley had courted a descendant of Emily Geiger and had been spurned. They accused him of seeking revenge on the family by discrediting Emily Geiger’s role in the Revolution. Salley did not reply to the accusation.

Despite this challenge, Elizabeth Ellet’s attempt to immortalize the name of Emily Geiger seems to have succeeded. In 1974 the Emily Geiger Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a memorial marker at Emily’s grave site.

SOURCES:

  1. Women of the American Revolution. by Elizabeth F. Ellet. Baker and Scribner. 1848.
  2. Annals of Newberry County, South Carolina. by John A. Chapman. 1895.
  3. Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina. by Dr. J.B.O. Landrum. Shannon & Co. 1897.
  4. Patriots in Petticoats. by Patricia Edwards Clyne. Dodd, Mead and Company. 1976.
  5. INTERNET: http://sciway3.net/clark/revolutionarywar/geigeroutline.html  (this web site) (note article originally stated: http://www.geocities.com/frankoclark/revwar/geigeroutline.html , correct at the time, before SCIWay graciously provided us server space.)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This story was originally published in OLD NEWS, ©2001 OLD NEWS, and is used here by permission.

OLD NEWS (ISSN 1047-3068) is published nine times a year by Susquehanna Times & Magazine, Inc. Each issue is 11" x 17" (tabloid) size, 12 pages long and contains 4-6 articles on historical topics ranging in time from the fifth century B.C. to the 1920s. Subscriptions cost $15 per year.

For more information, visit OLD NEWS online: http://www.oldnewspublishing.com/

Return to Emily Geiger Outline
Return to Women of the Revolution in South Carolina
Return to Turning Point
Return to SC Revolutionary War Outline Page

This material was graciously provided by the author, Paul Chrastina, for inclusion on this web page at my request.  ©2001 OLD NEWS, all rights reserved, used here with permission.  

Dr. Frank O. Clark, webmeister.