Lawless Backcountry: Hunters, Bandits, and Other Outcasts During the South Carolina Regulation, 1761-1772

By Cullen Green


            On August 25, 1766, the South Carolina Gazette reported about John “Ready Money” Scott, a local entrepreneur, slave owner, and future Revolutionary bankroller, nicknamed for his strict requirement for cash payment. Scott was attacked by bandits, a condition that was growing more common in the South Carolina backcountry, but his tale was particularly harrowing. Demanding money, his assailants brutally tortured his wife, branding her with hot irons, putting ash in her eyes, and topping her head with a beehive. When he refused to acquiesce, they threw Mrs. Scott aside and held fire to his face “till his eyes were ready to start out of his head,” burnt his toes and hands, and branded him until he swore upon a bible three times that he had no more money to give.[1] Scott’s case is indicative of the state of the backcountry in the 1760s. Organized groups of bandits, locally referred to as “banditti,” had grown larger and more threatening for about two years. Farmers could not raise cattle for fear of their theft. Travelers were robbed on the streets while hunters and vagrants ran rampant in the forests.[2] The government in Charleston had done nothing to stop them.

            With the South Carolina government situated on the coast in Charlestown, individuals living in the western regions of South Carolina, known as the backcountry, had no government support–no local courts, sheriffs, or jails; no public schools; and no law enforcement. The region suffered from extreme poverty and lawlessness for a decade until the government created new western judicial districts in 1770. In the meantime, local property owners formed themselves into vigilante groups, styled themselves as “Regulators,” and enforced their view of law. Mostly, they targeted “hunters”—vagrants armed with guns who roamed the backcountry killing animals (often farm animals), leaving half-eaten carcasses that attracted wolves and other undesirable wildlife. In North Carolina, groups of Regulators fought against government corruption and high taxes, famously culminating in the 1771 Battle of the Alamance in which the governor crushed the Regulator army. In South Carolina, however, more palpably abject lawlessness and neglect did not lead the Regulators to rebellion. Instead, Regulators peacefully petitioned the government for redistricting and the establishment of new courts and law offices to keep the peace, which was officially accomplished in 1770, then realized in 1772. From the period of 1761 to 1772, hunters, bandits, and other social outcasts dominated the South Carolina backcountry.

            The topic of the South Carolina Regulation has been covered by some scholarship. Rachel Klein’s article “Ordering the Backcountry,” based on Richard Maxwell Brown’s book on the subject, frames the Regulator Movement as resulting from the traditional planters’ desire for security, wealth, and social standing.[3] She provides descriptions of the backcountry, including in-depth characterizations of hunters, bandits, and law enforcement efforts. Robert Paulett’s PhD thesis “To Lay What Restraint They Could” expands on Brown and Klein by focusing on qualifying the claim that the backcountry was lawless through the use of specific examples and narratives.[4] I do not intend to refute Klein or Paulett’s arguments. My interest lies with non-traditional actors, the social outcasts who did not leave primary sources. My aim is to describe the lives of those targeted by the South Carolina Regulation. 

            With inadequate official governance in the Pre-Revolutionary South Carolina frontier, locals formed a government system on-the-fly (the Regulation) which suffered from heightened violence, corruption, and disorder. Social outcasts, such as hunters, vagrants, squatters, and bandits, profited greatly from the lawlessness. They poured into the region, causing the chaos that necessitated the Regulation.

            The perspective of the hunters themselves and others living in the margins of the backcountry is obscured by insufficient source material; however, their perspective is critical to understanding the social disorder of the backcountry and the subsequent Regulator Movement. Reading traditional sources (e.g., Reverend Woodmason’s writings and the Statutes of South Carolina) against the grain to infer the outlook of hunters, vagrants, and bandits reveals that the legality, profitability, and convenience of these pursuits facilitated nontraditional lifestyles in a time of overwhelming poverty, lawlessness, and hardship even though they might have desired otherwise.

Carte General de la Caroline
Source: Birmingham Public Library Cartography Collection

Hunting: A Growing Problem

            The Regulation in South Carolina was a civilian response to lawlessness. Particular groups of people took advantage of this lawlessness—hunting, especially at night by use of fire, was among the original causes of the Regulation. Hunters were landless men armed with rifles who roamed the backcountry stalking deer. Their goal was the sale of deerskin, a common South Carolina export.[5] They might keep one animal for its meat in order to sustain themselves, but mostly they skinned in the field. Taking the skins to sell while leaving the meat to rot, they often attracted dangerous wildlife to the corpses.[6] This lifestyle became more common in the western regions of the colonies. When broadly explaining the American frontier in his letters, French American writer Jean de Crèvecoeur complained of hunters who bid “farewell to the plough.” He explains how men would often find hunting an easier pursuit than planting crops.[7] Some South Carolinian hunters turned to use torches at night, which illuminated the forest and frightened animals, making for an easy kill. However, it caused forest fires and “several [people] killed as a result.”[8] The regional landed elite opposed and despised the increasing number of hunters who had become emboldened in their methods.

            Deeply disturbed by the hunters’ presence, landowners who comprised the majority of the Regulators, fought against them. As Paulett argues, hunting ran contrary to the ideal planter community of regional landowning whites who regarded “uncontrolled movement [as] contrary to their view of orderly society.”[9] Lieutenant Governor William Bull wrote of the “back inhabitants who choose to live by the wandering indolence of hunting than by the more honest and domestic employment of planting.”[10] Hunters often possessed little more than the deerskins and their hunting rifles. Planters were not only concerned with the physical damage caused by their practices, but also the cultural implications of a generation transgressing traditions. Reverend Charles Woodmason, a Londoner itinerant minister preaching in the region, described disdainfully those who did not “practise any means of industry” but instead “range the country with their horse and gun, without home or habitation.” Woodmason eagerly sought to establish new public schools and churches to instill “the principles of religion and goodness” in a population he considered to be unruly.[11] The hunters’  way of life was fundamentally contradictory to the traditional English ideal. Lowlanders and landowning backcountry men were typically English, while hunters were often (stereotypically) of Scottish, Irish, or other European descent,[12] all of which contributed to the discrepancy in aspirations for the community. The Regulators complained about those who followed “Hunting-Shooting-Racing-Drinking-Gaming, and ev’ry Species of Wickedness” in their remonstrance to Charlestown.[13]

            The planter response to hunters’ growing presence and activity in the region was harsh and critical. The South Carolina Regulation arose originally out of disdain for hunters and vagrants, as they fought bandits and other rovers for some time before their petition to the government;[14] however, the remonstrance requested, among other things, that “court houses, goals, and bride wells, be built in proper places, and coercive laws framed for the punishment of idleness and vice,” and that “hunters be put under some restrictions, and obliged not to leave carcasses unburied in the woods.”[15] These appeals would be soon realized with a 1769 Act to prevent hunting deer at night and a 1787 Act to prevent vagrancy.[16] Furthermore, Paulett notes the Regulators’ success in physically punishing hunters and bandits, or “at least driving them into neighboring colonies.”[17] Although the 1772 establishment of new circuit courts in the backcountry largely ended lawlessness, the circumstance forced the Regulators to petition the government for assistance or take matters into their own hands in the period preceding its enactment.

Hunting: Legal and Profitable

            Night time hunting was one of the original causes of the South Carolina Regulation. Interpretation of traditional sources referencing hunters provides perspective as to why they acted in such a nonconventional way if it was legal and economical to do so. The first analysis of traditional sources is not directly of the sources themselves, but rather of what is missing. Before 1787, The South Carolina Statutes lacked any legislation relating to vagrancy–it was technically legal.[18] Although the backcountry was without any regular police force or even effective sheriffs or courts, it was also bereft of the written law that Regulators sought. While the Vagrant Act does not specifically mention hunters, it does target “all persons not following some handicraft trade or profession,” and those “occupying or being in some possession of land, shall not cultivate” determining them, presumably to be vagrants and ordering jail time and whipping for those found guilty of vagrancy. This definition includes not only hunters, but also horse-racers, gamblers, thieves, and even stage actors and jesters.[19] Planters targeted those living an unconventional lifestyle; yet, the technical legality of vagrancy in South Carolina before 1787 allowed for atypical customs.

            The legality and therefore ease of vagrancy is a straightforward way to explain the phenomenon of hunting in the backcountry, but it is far from the only factor. In reading primary accounts of hunters, close interpretation  helps to determine other factors. Anglican missionary Reverend Woodmason was “not one to hold his tongue” and historians have called him “a master of invective.”[20] He often accompanied the Regulators and preached to vagrants, hunters, and bandits alike, describing them in his writings. His description of the hunter community near Broad River is of particular interest, saying,

            As in many Places they have nought but a Gourd to drink out off Not a Plate Knive or Spoon, a Glass, Cup, or any thing–It is well if they can get some Body Linen, and some have not even that. They are so burthen’d with Young Children, that the Women cannot attend both House and Field–And many live by Hunting, and killing of Deer. There’s not a cabbin but has 10 or 12 Young Children in it.[21]

One could conclude that their lifestyle of hunting and having large families led them to extreme poverty. On the contrary, a plausible argument is that their poverty pushed them to a location with little government oversight, and their custom of hunting was out of necessity. Woodmason writes of their innumerous children (and of the young age of the parents), which he suggests left no time for fieldwork. However, having many children must have been a necessity to combat the high child mortality rates, especially among the poor. Woodmason, who was an upper-class Londoner, ascribes their condition to their actions; however, hunters were barely scraping by. If they could barely afford a plate to eat from, how could they afford grain to plant or land to plant it on?

            The Statutes of South Carolina also aid in the understanding of hunters. In 1769 the Charlestown government passed an act for the “Prevention of Mischiefs Arising from Hunting Deer at Unreasonable Times,” which prohibited all night hunting and all deer hunting for skins. The concern was valid, as night hunting had apparently led to forest fires that killed at least two men. The act, however, did not prohibit the hunting of deer for food. As it states,

Provided also, that nothing in this act shall extend or be construed to extend to any person who shall kill at any time any deer for food, for the necessary subsistence of himself or his family, so as such person do not sell or dispose of the skin of any deer so killed.[22]

This special clause implies that lawmakers did not see all deer hunting as objectionable. They only targeted those who profited and made their livelihood from the sale of skins. After all, as Paulett has argued, the deerskin trade was particularly profitable in the South Carolina area. With deerskin exports to England fetching almost 19,000 pounds sterling in 1769, deer pelts were the colony’s second-largest export.[23] PPlanters did not envision hunters as part of their ideal society, and wanted to push them out of the colony or punish them for their actions. The act suggests that some hunters were experiencing a degree of success in the sales of their deerskins–otherwise why exclude hunting for food from the ban? These people, who experienced abject poverty, discovered a way to make a healthy sum of money quickly and in a non-traditional way that greatly disturbed the landed elite. Hunters did not fit into the conventional, time-honored colonial standard of planting or raising crops. Therefore, despite the hunters’ successes, the Regulators and the government sought to punish or remove them.

Banditry: Backcountry Quick Cash

            Hunters were not the only people living non-traditional lives in the backcountry. “Banditti” infested the region. Banditry, especially organized banditry, eventually became the main target of the South Carolina Regulation. Traditional sources referencing bandits provide insight into their perspective from which an interpretation can be drawn to determine why they behaved in such a nonconventional way. Perhaps it was convenient for them to do so. Yet, in their remonstrance, the Regulators complain to Charlestown,

Our large stocks and cattel are either stollen and destroy’d - our cow pens are broke up - and all our valuable horses are carried off - houses have been bum’d by these rogues, and families stripp’d and turn’d naked into the woods - stores have been broken open and rifled by them (wherefrom several traders are absolutely ruin’d) private houses have been plunder’d; and the inhabitants wantonly tortured in the Indian manner for to be made confess where they secreted their effects from plunder.[24]

Banditry became more common and more rampant in the region for about three years.[25] The lack of government in the region made banditry easy. Regulators tied Anthony Duesto, a former merchant, to a post and whipped him for engaging in banditry in 1771 after having led a successful bandit ring for some time.[26] Even some landed, relatively well-off men were turning to the “profession.”

            Banditry was profitable and could be performed with relative ease. John “Ready Money” Scott’s assailants—those who tortured him and his wife—made off with about 80 pounds each. They nearly got away with their assault if not for one of the bandits confessing to authorities of his involvement.[27] Victims had no recourse except to travel to Charleston, which was about 200 miles away. Even if they knew exactly who their assailant was (as they often did), their only compensation came at great personal cost. The Regulators revealed this dilemma in their Remonstrance:

When cattle and horses are stolen, and the thief is publicly known (as they will commit their robberies openly at noon day) persons who see and know of these evils, are backward in making information, as they thereby are certain to subject themselves to much trouble and expense, beside the risque they run of being plunder’d themselves by the rogues, in revenge for informing against them.[28]

Only a harrowing trip to the coast would allow a victim any chance of justice. This made banditry, for a time, essentially risk-free. Until Regulators violently fought back, bandits dominated the region, taking advantage of the lack of any regular police force, sheriffs, or courts. If not as relatively harmless as hunting, people turned to this nontraditional lifestyle out of necessity.


            Only a harrowing trip to the coast would allow a victim any chance of justice. This made banditry, for a time, essentially risk-free. Until Regulators violently fought back, bandits dominated the region, taking advantage of the lack of any regular police force, sheriffs, or courts. If not as relatively harmless as hunting, people turned to this nontraditional lifestyle out of necessity.[29] This public, however, did not include the nontraditional: the vagrants, hunters, and other targets of Regulators, legislation, and vigilantism. These individuals have no voice in the traditional Backcountry sources. This paper concludes that the poverty and lawlessness of the region forced regular men into such unconventional lifestyles. Just as hunting and vagrancy were facilitated by their profitability, so too was banditry emboldened by the lax enforcement of the laws.


[1] Account of Scott’s assault was printed in the South Carolina Gazette (Charleston) Aug 25, 1766, quoted in Robert Paulett, “To Lay What Restraint They Could.”

[2] South Carolina Gazette, Oct 19, 1767.

[3] Rachel Klein, “Ordering the Backcountry: The South Carolina Regulation,” The William and Mary Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1981): 661-80.

[4] Robert Paulett, “”To Lay What Restraint They Could”: Deerskins, Regulators, and Social Disorder in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1761-1772″ (2000).

[5] Robert Paulett, “To Lay What Restraint They Could,” 46.

[6] Cooper and McCord eds., Statutes, IV,310-312, “An act for the preservation of Deer, and to prevent the mischiefs arising from hunting at unreasonable times.”

[7] J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer III, 1782.

[8] Cooper and McCord eds., Statutes, IV, 310-312 “An act for the Preservation of Deer”

[9] See Robert Paulett “To Lay What Restraint They Could” Chapter 4.

[10] Letter from Bull to Hillsborough, Oct 4, 1769, S.C.

[11] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 226.

[12] J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer III, 1782.

[13] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 226.

[14] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 234.

[15] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 231.

[16] Cooper and McCord eds., “Vagrant Act,” Statutes, V, 41.

[17] Robert Paulett, “To Lay What Restraint They Could,” 52.

[18] Cooper and McCord eds., “Vagrant Act,” Statutes, V, 41.

[19] Cooper and McCord eds., “Vagrant Act,” Statutes, V, 41.

[20] Charles S. Sydnor and Louis B. Wright respectively on the reverse of my copy of Woodmason The Carolina Backcountry.

[21] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 39.

[22] Cooper and McCord eds., Statutes, IV, 311.

[23] South Carolina Public Records Office quoted in Robert Paulett “To Lay What Restraint They Could,” 46.

[24] The Regulator Remonstrance in Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 215.

[25] Ibid.

[26] South Carolina and American General Gazette. Feb. 5, 1771 quoted in Robert Paulett, “To Lay What Restraint They Could,” 1.

[27] The confession of George Burns was printed in the South Carolina Gazette (Charleston) Feb. 22, 1768 found in Robert Paulett, “To Lay What Restraint They Could,” 41 and Klein “Ordering the Backcountry,” 677.

[28] The Regulator Remonstrance in Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 216.

[29] Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry, 237.


Primary Sources

Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John Letters from an American Farmer (New York, 1904 [orig. publ. London, 1782]), 69.

South Carolina Gazette (Charleston) and

South Carolina & American General Gazette (Charleston) as quoted in secondary sources.[1]

The Statutes at large of South Carolina 1752-1814, volumes IV and V. Edited by Thomas Cooper and R. McCord. Hathitrust, Columbia, South Carolina 1839.

Woodmason, Charles. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason. Anglican Itinerant, ed. Richard J. Hooker. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

William Bull to Lord Hillsborough, Oct 4, 1769, Records in the British Public Record Office Relating to South Carolina, Tran- scripts, XXXII, 393-396.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Richard Maxwell. The South Carolina Regulators. Cambridge, Massachusetts 1963.

Klein, Rachel N. “Ordering the Backcountry: The South Carolina Regulation.” The William and Mary Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1981): 661-80.

Paulett, Robert. “”To Lay What Restraint They Could”: Deerskins, Regulators, and Social Disorder in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1761-1772″ (2000). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. Paper 1539626269.

[1] I did not have access to the physical slides of the SC Gazette or the SC & American General, as they are located in Charleston. All references to and quotes from these newspapers were accessed in “To Lay What Restraint They Could” and “Ordering the Backcountry.”