Dorcas Richardson Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Fruitful in noble spirits were those wild and gloomy times; and woman’s high truth and heroic devotion poured a solemn radiance over the dreary and appalling scene of civil war. No pen has recorded the instances innumerable in which her virtues shone conspicuous; they are forgotten by those who enjoy the benefits thus secured; or but a vague recollection remains, or an example is here and there remembered in family tradition. Even to these examples what meagre justice can be done by the few scattered and desultory anecdotes which must take the place of a complete history!

      Living in the midst of the storm and struggle, and bearing more than her own share of the terrible trials which fell to woman’s lot, Mrs. Richardson afforded an example of modest heroism, and of humble, cheerful faith. Her residence was in Clarendon, Sumter District. She was the daughter of Captain John Nelson, a native of Ireland, who married Miss Brownson, of South Carolina. The ferry over the Santee River, established and kept for several years by them, is still called Nelson’s Ferry, and many of their descendants continue to live on both sides of the river. It is said that Lord Cornwallis, on his march into the interior, after the fall of Charleston, established his head-quarters at this ferry, at the house of the widow Nelson.

      She received from him an assurance that her property should be protected. When a large quantity of plate which she had buried for security was discovered and claimed as a prize by the captors, she reminded his lordship of his promise; but he refused to order the restoration of the plate, saying that the protection he had pledged extended only to things above ground !

      Dorcas was married at the age of twenty, in 1761, and removed to her husband’s plantation, situated about twenty miles further up the river, on the east side, near the junction of the Congaree and Wateree. In this home of peace, contentment and abundance, she enjoyed all the comforts of southern country life among the prosperous class, till the outburst of that storm in which the fortunes and happiness of so many patriots were wrecked.

      At the commencement of the war Richard Richardson was captain of a company of militia in the brigade of his father General Richardson; and with him embraced the quarrel of the Colonies, in defence of their chartered rights. Both were zealous, firm, and influential officers. The captain was frequently called out with his company by order of the new government; and his first expedition was against the loyalists in the upper districts, incited by the royal governor, Lord William Campbell. General Richardson commanded, and was aided by Colonel William Thompson, which his regiment of regulars called the Rangers. The enemy was dispersed, most of their leaders captured, and the arms and ammunition they had seized recovered. Captain Richardson was appointed with his mounted men to guard the prisoners to Charleston. This occurrence took place at the close of 1775; and the winter having set in earlier than usual with uncommon severity, the young soldiers suffering much from the cold, sleet, and snow, it was called the Snow Campaign.

      When the three regiments of regulars were raised and officered in 1775, Captain Richardson and his father were retained in the militia on account of their great popularity and influence; Edward, a younger brother, being appointed captain of the Rangers under Colonel Thompson. A second regiment of riflemen, however, was raised in March of the following year; and Richard Richardson was appointed captain under Colonel Thomas Sumter.

      From this time, during the six succeeding years, he was able to be very little at home with his family.

      At the surrender of Charleston he was taken prisoner with his father and brother. In violation of the terms of capitulation, Richard was sent to a military station on John’s Island, where he nearly fell a victim to the smallpox. The British having failed to observe the conditions on which he had surrendered, as soon as he recovered sufficiently to move about, he made his escape; and being disguised by the effects of the disease, returned to the neighborhood of his home, where he concealed himself in the Santee Swamp. This extensive swampland borders the river for many miles, presenting to the view a vast plain of dense woods which seem absolutely impervious. The recesses of those dark thickets, where the trees grow close together, and are interlaced by a luxuriant growth of giant creepers, often afforded hiding places for the hunted Americans. At this time the British troops had overrun the State; and Colonel Tarleton had made the house of Captain Richardson, with some others, a station for his regiment of cavalry. They lived luxuriously on the abundance of his richly-stocked and well-cultivated plantation; while Mrs. Richardson and her children, it is said, were restricted to a single apartment, and allowed but a scanty share of the provisions furnished from her own stores. Here was an occasion for the exercise of self-denial, that the wants of one dear to her might be supplied. Every day she sent food from her small allowance to her husband in the swamp, by an old and faithful negro, in whose care and discretion she could implicitly trust. She had expected the seizure of her horses and cattle by the British, and had sent Richardson’s favorite riding-horse into the swamp for concealment, with a few cattle which she wished to save for future need. Every thing that fell into the enemy’s hands was consumed. The horse was shut up in a covered pen in the woods, which had once been used for holding corn; and he thence received the name of Corncrib. He was subsequently killed in the battle of Eutaw.

      Mrs. Richardson not only sent provisions to her husband in his place of shelter, but sometimes ventured to visit him, taking with her their little daughter. These stolen meetings were full of consolation to the fugitive soldier. The spot he had chosen for his retreat was a small knoll or elevation in the heart of the swamp, called “John’s Island,” by way of distinction from another in the neighborhood, occupied by other whigs, which bore the name of “Beech Island.” On this many of their initials may still be seen, carved on the bark of the trees.

      It was not long before the British had information of Richardson’s escape. They naturally concluded that he was somewhere in the vicinity of his family and relatives. A diligent search was instituted; scouts were sent in every direction, and they watched to surprise him, or find some clue to his retreat. In secret and publicly rewards were offered for his apprehension; but without success. One day an officer, caressing the little girl, asked when she had seen her papa; the mother grew pale, but dared not speak, for a short time only had elapsed since the child had been taken on a visit to her father. The thoughtless prattler answered promptly, that she had seen him only a few days before. “And where ?” asked the officer, eager to extract information from innocent lips that might betray the patriot. The child replied without hesitation, “On John’s Island.” The officer knew of no place so called except the large sea island from which Richardson had escaped. After a moment’s reflection, he came to the conclusion that the child had been dreaming, relieved the mother’s throbbing heart by saying, “Pshaw, that was a long time ago!” It may well be believed that the little telltale was not trusted with another visit to the spot.

      Not unfrequently did the officers, in the most unfeeling manner, boast in the presence of the wife, of what they would do to her husband when they should capture him. Once only did she deign the reply, “I do not doubt that men who can outrage the feelings of a woman by such threats, are capable of perpetrating any act of treachery and inhumanity towards a brave but unfortunate enemy. But conquer or capture my husband, if you can do so, before you boast the cruelty you triumph you mean to mark your savage triumph ! And let me tell you, meanwhile, that some of you, it is likely, will be in a condition to implore his mercy, before he will have need to supplicate, or deign to accept yours.” This prediction was literally verified in more than one instance during the eventful remainder of the war.

      Tarleton himself was frequently present during these scenes, apparently a pleased, though generally a silent spectator. He would remark at times, in the way of self-vindication, “that he commiserated the trials, and wondered at the endurance, of this heroic woman; but that his sanction of such proceedings was necessary to the success of His Majesty’s cause.” Weak cause, indeed, that was constrained to wring the cost of its maintenance from the bleeding hearts of wives and mothers !

      On one occasion, some of the officers displayed in the sight of Mrs. Richardson their swords, reeking with blood – probably that of her cattle – and told her it was the blood of Captain Richardson, whom they had killed. At another time they brought intelligence that he had been taken and hanged. In this state of cruel suspense she sometimes remained for several successive days, unable to learn the fate of her husband, and not knowing whether to believe or distrust the horrible tales brought to her ears.

      One day, when the troops were absent on some expedition, Captain Richardson ventured on a visit to his home. A happy hour was it to the anxious wife and faithful domestics, when they could greet him once more in his own mansion. But before he thought of returning to his refuge in the forest, a patrolling party of the enemy appeared unexpectedly at the gate. Mrs. Richardson’s presence of mind and calm courage were in instant requisition, and proved the salvation of the hunted patriot. Seeing the British soldiers about to come in, she pretended to be intently busy about something in the front door, and stood in the way, retarding their entrance. The least appearance of agitation or fear, the least change of color, might have betrayed all by exciting suspicion. But with a self-control as rare as admirable, she hushed even the wild beating of her heart, and continued to stand in the way, till her husband had time to retire through the back door, into the swamp near at hand. The brave captain was not idle in his seclusion; but collecting around him the whigs of his acquaintance who remained firm in their devotion to their native land, he trained them daily in cavalry exercise. When Tarleton ravaged the plantation and burnt the dwelling of his deceased father, General Richardson, he passed so near the ruins as to see the extent of the desolation. General Marion happened at that time to be in a very critical situation, and unaware of the great superiority of the enemy’s force close at hand. The gallant Richardson hastened to his aid; joined him, and conducted the retreat of his army, which was immediately commenced and successfully executed. The British were not long in discovering that the captain had joined the forces of Marion; and their deportment to his wife was at once changed. One and all professed a profound respect for her brave and worthy husband, whose services they were desirous of securing. They endeavored to obtain her influence to prevail on him to join the royal army, by promises of pardon, wealth, and honorable promotion. The high-spirited wife treated all such offers with the contempt they deserved, and refused to be made instrumental to their purposes. They then despatched his brother Edward, who was a prisoner on parole upon the adjoining plantation, to be the bearer of their offers. By him Mrs. Richardson also sent a message to her husband. It was to assure him that she did not join in British solicitations; that she and her children were well, and provided with abundance of everything necessary for their comfort. Thus with heroic art did she conceal the privations and wants she was suffering, lest her husband’s solicitude for her and his family might tempt him to waver from strict obedience to the dictates of honor and patriotism.

      Edward went as directed to the American camp, took his brother into Marion’s presence, and there faithfully delivered both messages with which he had been charged. The specious offers from the enemy were of course rejected, and the messenger, conceiving himself absolved from his parole by the treatment he had received, remained with Marion till the termination of hostilities in the State.

      Several times after this did Richard place his life in peril to visit his amiable family. Hearing that Tarleton’s troop had been ordered away from his plantation, he obtained permission to go thither for a short time. He arrived in safety; but had been seen on his way by a loyalist. A party of them was immediately assembled, and was soon to be seen drawn up in front of his house. Corncrib, the faithful steed, was hitched outside the gate; his master hastily came forth, leaped on him, and galloping up the avenue, where the enemy were posted, passed through the midst of them without receiving either a shot or a sabre wound. just as he passed their ranks, one of his well-known neighbors fired at him, but missed the aim. All this took place in the sight of his terrified family, who often afterwards described his danger and providential escape. His wife could only account for this by conjecturing that the party had determined to take Richardson alive, and thus claim the reward offered for his apprehension; and that when in their midst, they could not shoot him without the risk of killing some of their comrades. His daring gallantry entirely disconcerted them, and saved his life.

      Some time after this, he again asked the indulgence of a visit to his family; but General Marion, in granting it, mindful of the danger he had before encountered, insisted that he should be accompanied by an escort. The party had scarcely reached the house of Richardson, when, as before, a large body of British and tories was seen advancing rapidly down the avenue, eager to surprise their intended victims. To remount in all haste their wearied steeds, and rush down the bank at the rear of the house seeking concealment in the swamp, offered the only chance for escape. In this they all succeeded, except a young man named Roberts, with whom Mrs. Richardson was well acquainted, and who was taken prisoner. In vain did she intercede for him with the British officers, and with streaming eyes implore them to spare the life of the unfortunate youth. They hanged him on a walnut tree only a few paces from her door, and compelled her to witness the revolting spectacle! When she complained with tears of anguish, of this cruelty to herself, and barbarity towards one who had offended by risking his life in defence of her husband, they jeeringly told her they “would soon have him also, and then she should see him kick like that fellow.” To such atrocities could the passions of brutalized men lead them, even in an age and nation that boasted itself the most enlightened on earth!

      When peace returned to shed blessings over the land, Mrs. Richardson continued to reside in the same house with her family. Tarleton and his troopers had wasted the plantation, and destroyed everything movable about the dwelling; but the buildings had been spared, because they were spacious, and afforded a convenient station for the British, about midway between Camden and Fort Watson on Scott’s Lake. Colonel Richardson, who had been promoted for his meritorious service in the field, cheerfully resumed the occupations of a planter. His circumstances were much reduced by the chances of war; but a competence remained, which he and his wife enjoyed in tranquillity and happiness, surrounded by affectionate relatives and friendly neighbors. Of their ten children, four died young; the rest married and reared families.

      Mrs. Richardson survived her husband many years, and died at the advanced age of ninety-three, in 1834. She was remarkable throughout life for the calm judgment, fortitude, and strength of mind, which had sustained her in the trials she suffered during the war, and protected her from injury or insult when surrounded by a lawless soldiery. To these elevated qualities she united ostentatious piety, and a disposition of uncommon serenity and cheerfulness. Her energy and consolations, through the vicissitudes of life, were derived from religion; it was her hope and triumph in the hour of death.

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