Fort James and the origin of the word, Cracker!

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

The Georgia Rangers inspired the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

From The American Crisis: These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.   Thomas Payne – 1776

Georgia Militia, dressed in traditional Creek Indian hunting coats.

Generations of Florida and Georgia school children were taught that the term “Cracker” originated on the 19th century frontier of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.  It was said to refer to the bull whips used by livestock drovers as they brought herds of animals from frontier farms to coastal towns.

Sleuthing by Georgia historian, John A. Garrison has traced the term back to Medieval Gaelic and . . . would you believe . . . the plays of William Shakespeare in the late 1500s. However, the first recorded use of the term in Georgia occurred during the French and Indian War.

According to Garrison, linguists now believe the etymology of the modern English word, “cracker” to be the Gaelic word, craic, still used in Ireland, but Anglicized in spelling to crack.  In Ireland it means “entertaining conversation.”

The English meaning of cracker as a braggart appeared at least as early as the late 1500s, but probably dated to the 1530s when King Henry VIII repeatedly sent armies into Ireland in failed attempts to brutally make it all the island subject to his authority.  In Shakespeare’s King John (1595) is found, “What cracker is this . . . that deafes our ears / With this abundance of superfluous breath?

The word entered the national vocabulary of the United States in 1884, when the Atlanta Crackers Baseball Team was formed. Throughout their history, between 1884 to 1961, the Crackers were one of most winning teams in professional baseball, even though they were never allowed to play in the major leagues. Over time, Cracker became a nationally recognized pejorative label for white Southerners, even though until recent decades, it was viewed positively by the white Southerners, themselves.

Note that in 1754, the British Crown thought that South Carolina extended to the Mississippi River. The present locations of Augusta, Atlanta and Columbus, GA would have been in SC.

Beginning of the term in the Province of Georgia

In early 1754, the British Parliament established a new royal charter for Georgia, which included a strong governor (appointed by the Crown), freedom of religion for all Christians and Jews, a separate district court system, plus a democratically elected bicameral legislative body. The charter was intended to be a model for all the other colonies. It would eventually become the model for constitution of the United States. Bet you didn’t know that!  A career naval officer, John Reynolds, was appointed the first Royal governor.

For thirty years, South Carolina and Georgia had argued bitterly over who owned what is now North Georgia. The Cherokees were South Carolina’s “pet Indians” while the Creek Confederacy had been a steadfast ally of Georgia . . . frequently volunteering to “punish” the Cherokees for any transgressions in Georgia.   During the period of time in 1754, when the “lame duck” government in Savannah was waiting for Reynolds to arrive, the Creek town of Koweta launched a blitzkrieg against the entire Cherokee Alliance.  The purpose was to finally end the 40-year long war between the Cherokee Alliance and Creek Confederacy by re-conquering all territories in the Northeast tip of Georgia and Western North Carolina that had originally belonged to the Koweta Creeks.  Georgia’s leaders officially ”looked the other way,” but undoubtedly furnished the enormous amount of munitions that such a major military campaign required.

The Kowetas conquered back all their territories in Georgia and North Carolina.  In the process, they burned about a third of the Cherokees’ villages and executed 32 Cherokee chiefs.  The war had started in 1715, when 32 Creek chiefs were murdered in their sleep, while attending a friendly diplomatic conference with the Cherokees. The devastated Cherokees quickly signed a peace treaty in December 1754 on the 40th anniversary of the original murders, but in the 20th century would tell stories about “the time in 1754 that they conquered all of North Georgia.”  

When Governor Reynolds first arrived, he only heard the South Carolina side of the Koweta story and quickly began treating all the Creeks, not just the Kowetas as enemies of the Crown.  In fact, the Kowetas had been fighting as proxies for the white Georgians, who “needed to keep their hands clean.” Both Georgia and South Carolina claimed what is now the northern half of Georgia.  Georgians all along had plotted to make its government and its Indians an established fact on the west side of the Savannah River without catching the attention of the British Crown.  The first official map of the new United States in 1784 showed South Carolina’s version of their property lines, but by the early 1790s, George Washington’s administration recognized the established fact that people living on the west side of the Savannah had established county governments loyal to Georgia.

However, back in 1754, the French and Indian War had just begun. Reynolds arrogant treatment of the Creeks, who greatly outnumbered the whites, almost drove them into the arms of the French.  Then both Reynolds and the governor of South Carolina greatly bungled their relationship with the Crown’s other allies, the Cherokees. By 1757, the Cherokees were raiding the frontiers of the Carolinas and Virginia.  The only thing that probably protected Augusta, GA from being wiped out by the Cherokees, was the presence of hundreds of Koweta Creek soldiers in Northeast Georgia . . . between Augusta and the Cherokees.  Reynolds was then called back to Great Britain.

Formation of the Georgia Provincial Rangers

Reynolds was replaced by Georgia’s most competent royal governor, Henry Ellis, a Protestant Irish aristocrat.  He quickly settled the land and financial claims of the female Creek leader, Mary Musgrove.  Longtime residents of Georgia’s coast were accustomed to treating the Creeks as equals.  However, recently freed bond servants from the Carolinas and Virginia, particularly those from North Carolina, were causing troubles on the frontier with the Creeks. 

The Creeks were accustomed to making frequent trips to Augusta and Savannah through white territory . . . and being treated exactly like white travelers . .  and often being invited to dine in their homes in return for furnishing the wild game for the dinner table.  However, the newly arrived Carolina bond servants treated them as vermin, and many times as hostiles. Some Creeks were shot in cold blood.

 Most of these bond servants were evidently from Ireland and Scotland.  Governor Ellis stated, “We would have no problems with the Creeks, if it was not for the constant turmoil created by those Crackers.  If only we could send them back to North Carolina, or better still, to Ireland.”

Ellis was called back to England and given a promotion to be the Colonial Secretary for the new prime minister.  He was replaced by John Wright, but spent several weeks with Wright to acquaint him with the colony.  Undoubtedly, Governor Wright was introduced to the term, Cracker, by the Irishman, Ellis.

In 1763 Governor Wright and British Superintendent for Indian Affairs John Stuart persuaded the Creeks to cede the territory between the Savannah and the Ogeechee Rivers as far north as the Little River. The Proclamation of 1763 forbade settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.  This barrier funneled westward migration of the older colonies into the Georgia backcountry around Augusta.

Those settlers who had the land legally surveyed and recorded, Governor Wright called the “better sort,” but he admitted that most were squatters who disregarded all laws. Wright and his friends called those newcomers “crackers.”  The friction between the Creeks traveling to Augusta and these poorly educated squatters worsened.  Something had to be done and done fast.

At this time in the development of European Civilization, there was no such concept as a professional police force.  Criminals were typically captured by self-appointed vigilantes or more often, mobs then taken to Royal constables to be jailed.  Volunteer night watchmen were appointed in most larger towns in the colonies, but were typically associated with local militia units.  They could only shout an alarm for a fire or a crime, not arrest someone in the name of the Crown.  In London, England, however, the Bow Street Watchmen Station was staffed by paid employees. Between 1754 and 1780, Sir John Fielding re-organized Bow Street like a police station, with a team of efficient, paid constables.

Also, during this era,  the British Army had developed the concept of the Ranger as a way of countering Le Milice des Habitants, para-military colonial units formed by the French in Quebec to attack British settlements in le petit guerre (guerilla warfare).  British Colonials were hired and equipped by the British Army to operate within independent commands, called His Majesty’s Royal Rangers, to strike back in this guerilla war.  They were the equivalent today of the Special Ops Units in the military.

Governor Wright hit on the brilliant idea of merging the concept of a British constable with the military concept of a ranger.  The colony would hire a para-military force of Irish, Scottish and Creek mixed-blood rangers to patrol the frontier, but also give them the power to arrest law breakers. Since the rangers would be the same ethnic backgrounds as the settlers, they were more likely to have rapport with the law-abiding families. 

Georgia Rangers scout

The Georgia Rangers chose as their uniform, the traditional Creek deerskin hunting coat. These are portrayed in the painting above and you can see one on the right. In the photo, I am dressed as my ancestors would have appeared, while serving as scouts for the Georgia Rangers and later, the Georgia Mounted Rifles.

The Georgia Rangers were organized both as a full-size military company, led by a captain, to confront any Cherokee war party raiding the frontier, but also organized into small squads, led by sergeants, who would track down, arrest or wipe out the white robber bands operating on the frontier.  In both cases, the rangers were also officers of the court, who had the right to arrest any lawbreaker or hostile Indian.   The idea worked and brought peace to the frontier on the eve of the American Revolution.

Construction of Fort James as a regional police station

Fort James was constructed on a promontory overlooking the shoals of the Savannah River near present-day Elberton, GA.  It held a company of 50 rangers. Many, if not, most of the young rangers married local Native American or mixed-blood women.  Several of my Creek and Uchee ancestors served as scouts for the rangers or as regular rangers.  A community of mixed-blood Creeks and Uchees developed in the nearby Ruckers Bottom.  Their descendants still live in Anderson County, SC, Oconee County, SC, Elbert County, GA and Hart County, GA but after World War II, many Savannah River Creeks and Uchees moved to other areas of the country in pursuit of the American Dream.

The Real Nancy Ward

One of the Georgia Rangers was Bryant Ward, who ultimately married a mixed-blood gal named Nancy Ward after his young Irish wife died.  During the Revolution, he helped construct a line of forts along the Tallulah and Tugaloo Rivers, to block invasions by the Cherokees.  Yes, that’s right, the real Nancy Ward was born in the Nacoochee Valley of Georgia, not in the short-lived town of Chota in Tennessee. She was in Northeast Georgia most of the time during the Revolution, not Tennessee.  She was of mixed Jewish and Itsate Creek heritage, but was accepted as a Cherokee much later in life, when she moved to the Ocoee River in Tennessee.  Evidently a very smart lady, Nancy was fluent in English, Creek and Cherokee. So was her daughter, Betsy.

According to The History of Stephens County, GA,  Nancy Ward played a key role in persuading the Creeks, Uchees and Cherokees in Northeast Georgia not to join the British side in the Revolution or to become involved with the Chickamauga Cherokee Hostiles during the 1780s.  While General Joseph Martin was stationed in Georgia during the American Revolution, he befriended Nancy and took her daughter, Betsy as common law wife and interpreter. At the time, he was legally married to a white woman in Virginia. Betsy and Martin had several children together. She was NOT killed by whites in Tennessee during the Revolution. Most of Betsy’s children married white men and lived as citizens of Georgia after the Cherokee Removal.

Ward Creek in Lumpkin County, GA is named after Nancy’s family. Even after moving to Tennessee after the end of the Chickamauga War, Nancy would return frequently to Northeast Georgia to visit her kin, children and grandchildren. She was highly respected by both the Anglo-Americans and the Native Americans there.

Many of Nancy’s and Betsy’s descendants still live in Northeast Georgia. They are quite aware of the fictional version of her life, but until recently been reluctant to talk publicly about it.

We now have solid scientific and archival proof that the version of Nancy Ward’s life seen in the outdoor play, “Unto These Hills” and in a current musical, touring the USA, is pure fiction, created by a distant cousin of hers, four years after her death. There is no mention of either Nancy Ward or the fictional “Battle of Talliwa” in The History of the Cherokee People, written by Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks in 1826. There is no evidence that Nancy was every married to the Cherokee warrior, Kingfisher. He actually died in the Battle of Etowah Cliffs on October 22, 1793, not in the fictional Battle of Talliwa in 1754.

I obtained a certified photocopy of Hick’s handwritten manuscript and transcribed it. This fascinating eyewitness account of Cherokee history from a very credible source will be published in April 2020. The real identity of Nancy Ward is included in a book, about to be published by a PhD from Duke University.

Georgia Mounted Rifles at the Battle of Kettle Creek

The Rangers during the American Revolution

During the first part of the American Revolution, the Georgia Rangers initially were loyal to Governor Wright, but then fought the Cherokees, when they attacked the South Carolina frontier without warning in 1776.  The Rangers then furnished scouts, including my ancestors, to guide the Continental Army’s march into the North Carolina Mountains to neutralize the majority of Cherokees. 

Another famous Ranger was Benjamin Hart, husband of the famous Patriot spy, Nancy Hart.  Benjamin became a Lieutenant in the Georgia Mounted Rifles (militia), while Nancy achieved fame for capturing and hanging a squad of Tory cavalrymen, who entered her home on the Broad River near Fort James.

Nancy Hart was a neighbor of my Creek ancestors

When it became known that the Redcoats had paid the Cherokees to attack frontier settlements, the Rangers’ loyalty totally switched to the Patriot Side.  They became the core of the Georgia Mounted Rifles. The Georgia Mounted Rifles adopted as its uniform, the traditional deerskin hunting coat of the Creeks.  For a period of time during the darkest days of the Revolution, the only part of Georgia still under Patriot control was in the vicinity of Fort James.

The last battle of the American Revolution was fought by a combined army of South Carolina Militia, Georgia Mounted Rifles and Georgia Rangers Creek Scouts around October 22, 1782.  The army was under the command of Colonel Andrew Pickens of South Carolina and Major Elijah Clarke of Georgia.  The Patriots attacked and quickly obtained a surrender from renegade Cherokee Chief Sour Mush, whose camp was on Long Swamp Creek in present day Pickens County, GA. 

The Patriots then attacked the nearby camp of Major Thomas Waters’ Royal British Rangers.  They had been attacking farmsteads on the Georgia frontier and murdering civilians, so no quarter was given.  Waters managed to escape with some of his men.  They fled up the Etowah River to the mountains near Amicalola Falls with their mixed-blood Indian wives.  Waters left his wife behind when he later found his way to the British Army base at Pensacola, West Florida.  Most of his fellow survivors remained in the region and were accepted by the Cherokees when they were given this region in 1785.  However, their descendants petitioned for state citizenship prior to the Trail of Tears and remained in Georgia.  The names of these former Tory families can be found on the rural roads of Dawson and Lumpkin Counties.

In 1838, a famous para-military unit, known as the Texas Rangers, was also designated as law enforcement organization.  At this time, there were still few cities or states with professional police.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police began somewhat later in 1873, as a paramilitary police force protecting the western provinces and territories of Canada.  In the early 20th century, it became a truly national police force, but has always had a more military character than the FBI in the United States.


  1. You mention family names of the Creeks in in a previous article. Some of mine are Posey, Smith, and Eskew. Have you run across any of these names in your research? According to Ancestry my 5 greats Grandfather was in relationship with a Oconee Creek Indian woman, no name, but my 5 greats Grandmother. They lived according to my understanding along the border between South Carolina and Georgia. I often wonder if they might have traveled through the area I live now.


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