Ever since I could begin to get excited about school and learning, I have been excited about history. It’s all my dad’s doing, really. We would take trips to museums all the time (if you haven’t been to the Lexington Museum, it’s small but worth it) and visit local battlefields to walk in the footsteps of American, Native American, British, and other soldiers that died fighting on US soil.
Yet one figure has always stood out to me in my years spent touring and learning with my dad: a strong, young, fearless girl who some scholars believe to something of a local legend, Emily Geiger.
Emily Geiger was born in 1763 in what would now be considered the region of Lexington, South Carolina. Her parents, John and Barbara Geiger, were Patriots in a pro-British region of the state. During her early teenage years, Nathaniel Greene and Thomas Sumter were actively fighting for the Continental Army in South Carolina.
Greene, camped out at Fort Ninety-Six, desperately needed to send word to Sumter, camping out near the Wateree River, for backup in dealing with Lord Rawdon. To do this, Greene needed a spy willing to cross multiple British-controlled areas of the state. The ride from one camp to another would take about two days.
Emily Geiger volunteered. In her mind, a young girl taking a trip to visit family would seem less conspicuous than one of Greene’s men. Greene agreed.
Emily began her journey on a route that was rather direct. Troubles arose almost immediately as she stopped at the home of a Tory family who knew John Geiger. The family gave her food and a place to sleep, but upon hearing word of a possible spy in the area they alerted nearby British troops. Emily was to be stopped and searched in the morning.
Escaping through a window during the night, Emily rode to a second home that belonged to a family friend. The family arranged for a horse and gave Emily a hot meal, providing the name of another family up the road that would do the same.
The journey to her third stop took Emily right through British-controlled territory. She was stopped by Rawdon’s forces and held in a tent under suspicion that she was the spy British troops were looking for. As Rawdon’s men sent for an old Tory woman in the area to do the search, Emily began feverously reading Greene’s note. After memorizing the words meant for Sumter, Emily ripped up the letter and began to eat it. The Tory woman did not take too long to arrive, however, and Emily had to pretend to sob in order to finish hiding all trace that she was a Colonial spy. Upon finding nothing, Emily was let go.
The young girl was able to deliver Greene’s message successfully, though a day behind schedule, and Sumter was able to reinforce Greene. Together, the Colonial forces pushed Rawdon and his troops to Charleston where they were held until the Charleston evacuation in 1782.
Her life afterwards was simple; she married, settled down in what is now Cayce, SC, and had a single daughter. She died during childbirth.
Emily’s story had me hooked the moment I read it. And by hooked, I mean obsessed. In elementary school for a report, I dressed up like Emily Geiger. Later in my first year of college, I dedicated a final paper to the heroine. It was while writing this paper that I began to find claims that the story I had loved and memorized as a child may be more fable than fact.
While the military strategies of Greene and Sumter have been proven, along with Emily Geiger’s mere existence, the story of her role is backed up by little documentation. In fact, the first time anyone learned about the story of Emily Geiger was in 1834 in a British periodical, The Percy Anecdote. This 1834 telling inspired author Elizabeth Ellet to document Emily’s journey as fact in her book Women of the American Revolution. Ellet made many claims about reliable sources, but lists none.
Ellet’s publication inspired John Chapman to place Emily Geiger’s story in South Carolina textbooks in the 1890’s, still with little evidence to support it, where it stayed until 1906. In 1930, Alexander Salley Jr brought up the issue of evidence to support the claims that Emily Geiger was a key role in Greene and Sumter’s ability to drive Rawdon to the coast. At present, there seems to be some debate about the validity of the tale. Geiger family records have been found that support their claim to fame, and Emily’s story has started to be taken as fact again. Some scholars still believe her trip to be myth.
Regardless of the validity of the story of Emily Geiger, her heroism has had an impact on South Carolina. There is a historical marker in Cayce, where she lived with her husband until her death, and the Daughters of the Revolution honored her in 1926. A comic book published shortly after Pearl Harbor to rally patriotism in the hearts of US citizens featured and honored her. Some historians even believe the young women in the South Carolina state seal is Emily Geiger, as a way to honor the vital role she may or may not have had in securing the colonies freedom from the British.