Trivia: Revolutionary War heroine, Mammy Kate

Mammy KateBy Kate E. Stephenson

The longer I write this column, the more powerful I feel. For me, the name Kate has become synonymous with courageous—and this installment takes it to a Revolutionary level.

The year was 1779 when a woman affectionately called Mammy Kate rescued Stephen Heard, the governor of colonial Georgia, from a headless future. On February 14th, Gov. Heard—along with 22 other patriots—were captured by the Loyalist Tories during the Battle of Kettle Creek. Transferred to Fort Cornwallis in Augusta, Georgia (some 50 miles away) he was imprisoned, pending public hanging for his treason against the British Crown.

Enter Mammy Kate, an unlikely heroine in this crusade.

Towering over 6 feet tall and reported to be as strong as she was fearless, Mammy Kate was legally considered Heard’s property, Mammy Kate was an enslaved servant in his household. We know little of her background; the records seem to indicate that she was of pure African blood and by her own testimony the daughter of a king. Her actions during the aftermath of the Battle of Kettle Creek show her to have been a shrewd and valiant warrior worthy of such noble status.

Hearing of Heard’s predicament, the loyal Kate put into action a brilliant strategy: Invisibility. Mammy Kate traveled the long distance to Augusta by horseback to offer her cleaning services to the soldiers of Fort Cornwallis. As a “freelance” domestic servant, Kate had access to many areas of the fort, and was little noticed as she picked up and delivered wash to various quarters—including those of Stephen Heard. Some accounts note that gaining access to the governor took a good deal of finagling. According to lore, after working in the fort for some time Kate worked up to asking permission to do Heard’s washing: “He won’t need them. We will soon hang that rebel,” said the jailer. To which, Kate replied, “Let him hang in clean clothes.” Probably not caring much either way, the jailer granted her request. And that was Kate’s in.

Having become all but invisible to the British officers and sentry, Kate had gained a good lay of the land, and permission to access Heard was all she needed to bust him out. Armed with a large basket full of laundry, Kate entered his cell. When she exited, all that was left were the linens. Dumping the contents of the basket, Stephen Heard hopped into it; as a man small of stature, he easily fit inside. Covering him with a sheet, Kate reportedly hoisted the basket onto her head and walked out of the fort.

Even though Heard was undoubtedly a smallish man, have you ever tried to put something 100 lbs or more on your head?? I certainly can’t imagine the steel spine necessary to get that job done—or the steely nerves it must have taken to so casually stroll out of the fort gates. My face would have totally given me away!

For her bravery and patriotism on Saturday, October 15, 2011, Mammy Kate became the first black woman in Georgia to be honored as a patriot of the American Revolution by the Georgia Society Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The next time you bemoan the trip to the washing machine, just remember dirty laundry saved a man’s life! To ingenuity, creativity, and strength of will—to Kate, a Revolutionary Heroine.

[Online Athens]


[Georgia Encyclopedia]

Trivia runs on every Monday at 10:30am. It is written by the insanely knowledgable Kate E. Stephenson. Read much more about Kate here, and click here to follow her on Twitter. While this column is a repeat of a 2012 favorite, stay tuned for brand new pieces in 2013.

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5 thoughts on “Trivia: Revolutionary War heroine, Mammy Kate

  1. Kaitertot says:

    Dear Kate Stephenson,
    I love every one of your columns. I can’t imagine the amount of research that goes into finding these incredible Kate stories. I find them absolutely fascinating. Keep it up! :)

    • KateFacts says:

      Thanks, Kaitertot! The research is so much fun that I don’t even notice. I’m just constantly amazed at what strong people we Kates are. I’m truly proud to carry the name. Please let me know if you run across any simply irresistible Kate fact. I’d be happy to feature it in the next edition.

  2. katetorg says:

    Thoroughly, thoroughly fascinating.

    • KateFacts says:

      Isn’t it! Who knew you could carry a man on your head? That deserves more consideration the next time I want to smuggle my man somewhere… where can I find a large basket? Although, I’m 5’2″. Might not work.

  3. expliKate says:

    Wow! What a badass!! Awesome article & research.

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