Surname derivations can be pretty interesting. Last names, particularly for people of British descent, were often derived from what they did for a living (e.g., “Cooper,” “Miller,” etc.) or from a feature of their geographic location—“Haynsworth” is a home surrounded by trees; “Lee” is a meadow. (My own name dates back to the Norman invasion of A.D. 1066 and was taken from a book of the Old Testament.)
One of the more interesting surname origins, as I learned in a recent conversation with a neighbor, is “Sumter.” A variation of “Sumpter,” it is from the French sometier, meaning someone who drives pack-bearing horses or mules. For those who have always wondered why it’s pronounced as though it had a “p” in it, now you know!
The conversation got me to wondering—what do we really know about the man to whom this name belonged, the Fighting Gamecock of the American Revolution, Brigadier General Thomas Sumter? His battle exploits, yes—those are quite well known, as they should be. And with Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, D-Day, Flag Day and Independence Day, this is the time of year that we observe several remembrances of the patriots who made our country great.
But just who was Thomas Sumter, the individual?
Born near present-day Charlottesville, Virginia on August 14, 1734, he was one of five children, son of a Welsh miller whose family arrived in the colonies in the late 1600’s. He worked as a surveyor, miller and shepherd, but before his 21st birthday, young Thomas Sumter had already seen action as a member of the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War. It appears that military service was in his blood (along with a reputation for being slightly wild, being active in both cockfighting and horse races). This streak of daring stayed with him throughout his long life, and for the most part, it served him well.
After the war, Thomas Sumter became active in affairs concerning the Cherokees, and they considered him a great friend. Following the Cherokee War in 1761, he escorted three Cherokee chiefs to London for a meeting with King George III (where he passed himself off as a British Army officer!). The visit was successful, except for one small detail that Sumter overlooked—the sixty pounds he’d borrowed to finance the trip in the first place (bear in mind that in today’s currency, this would be approximately $13,500, before adjustment for inflation). Sumter traveled to South Carolina upon his return from England, taking his companions to meet the Royal Governor, and then hanging out in Fort Prince George, Eutaw Springs and Charleston for several months.
When he finally got home to Virginia, the old debt came back to haunt him, and he was promptly imprisoned. With the help of a friend, he either escaped or bought his way out of jail with ten guineas and a tomahawk, and made his way back to South Carolina. It was to be home for the rest of his life.
Eventually, the British government reimbursed Sumter for his travel expenses, which enabled him to build a crossroads store in Eutaw Springs on the Santee River. In 1767, he married Mary Cantey Jamison, a wealthy, somewhat physically incapacitated widow some years his senior. Their son, Thomas Sumter, Jr., was born the following year, and the Sumters became established in St. Mark’s Parish (near Pinewood). They opened several small businesses and became successful plantation owners.
This all happened before the American Revolution. Thomas Sumter settled down to become a prosperous merchant and family man until 1775, when Colonel Richard Richardson asked him to form a local company of militia to aid in the struggle for American independence. Sumter did so, and went on to serve in several campaigns during the war, sustaining gunshot wounds in battle to the leg, shoulder and chest that did nothing to stop his determination in helping the cause. Although he never got along particularly well with his allies (particularly the “Swamp Fox” General Francis Marion), they, along with General Andrew Pickens, the “Fighting Elder,” became three of the most remarkable military leaders in the history of our state.
Before his days of glory, Sumter had at one point become frustrated enough at the lack of action that he resigned his commission in 1778. But the British came looking for him, and in 1780 they besieged his home. Thomas Sumter wasn’t there—he had put on his old uniform again and answered yet another call to battle—so on the orders of Colonel Banastre Tarleton, forces led by Captain Charles Campbell picked up Mary Cantey Sumter in her wheelchair, deposited her on the front lawn, and burned the house to the ground before her eyes. (There’s a story that one British soldier, apparently overcome with guilt, was thoughtful enough to leave a ham under her chair—bless his heart.)
Needless to say, Thomas Sumter was not happy. It was at this point that he threw the rule book out the window and began to display a genius for strategy and guerilla warfare, laying waste to the troops that had destroyed his home and dealt his wife an emotional blow from which she would never really recover, although she lived to an advanced age. Sumter’s exploits were such that either Tarleton or Cornwallis once referred to him in a letter as “our greatest plague in this country.”
General Thomas Sumter’s service to his country during the Revolutionary War is well-known and documented. After the war, he went into politics, ultimately serving as a US Senator. He retired from public life in 1810. During this time, he established his home in the High Hills where he founded the town of Stateburg, acquired land grants totaling more than 150,000 acres (much of which he gave away), bred racing horses and experimented with growing tobacco, cotton and silk worms.
On May 31, 1832, General Sumter went on an eleven-mile horseback ride with his grandson. He died the following day at his home of natural causes, in his 98th year, the last surviving General of the American Revolution. By any measure, it was a most remarkable life.
Today, General Thomas Sumter is remembered for the South Carolina city and county that bear his name, along with counties in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, Charleston Harbor’s Fort Sumter and Sumter National Forest. He was part of the composite that made up the character of “Benjamin Martin” in the 2000 Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot, as acknowledged by screenwriter Robert Rodat, who said that “Benjamin Martin is a composite character made up of Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and Francis Marion, and a few bits and pieces from a number of other characters.”
In 2012, General Sumter’s presence is still very much in evidence in our community. The Sumter County Museum’s “Legacy of the Gamecock” permanent exhibit is dedicated to him and contains a wonderful minature that is the only known portrait of him as a young man. General Sumter Memorial Park, located off Acton Road (near SC 261) in Stateburg is the final resting place of this grand old patriot and his family. His memory lives up to his epitaph, Tanto Nomini Nullum Par Elogium: “So great a name (has) no adequate praise.”
For more information, please contact the Sumter County Museum (open Thursday through Sunday) at (803) 775-0908 or the Swan Lake Visitors Center at (803) 436-2640.