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This Day in History: Mammy Kate saves a future Governor

At about this time in 1779, a slave known as Mammy Kate performs a heroic deed. Or did she? “Mammy Kate’s story,” one historian concludes, “is an example of how hard it is to discover the facts of the life of a woman who lived 200 years ago, especially one who was enslaved.”

The story handed down through the ages has survived because of oral tradition and narratives passed from family member to family member.

The sketch is by Mr. Cordner Smith of Washington, Georgia. It first appeared in the 1913 book Grandmother Stories from the Land of Used-To-Be.

Mammy Kate was the slave of a man named Stephen Heard. He was a planter and a soldier who would go on to become Governor of Georgia. On February 14, 1779, he fought gallantly at the Battle of Kettle Creek. At some point after that, he was captured by Loyalists.

Mammy Kate hatched a plan to rescue Heard, although the details are murky.

According to some versions of the story, Mammy Kate rode 50 miles to Augusta to find Heard. Other versions claim that Mammy Kate was already nearby when Heard was captured because she was a camp follower.

Either way, Mammy Kate would intervene before Heard was hanged as a traitor.

Mammy Kate was said to be “the biggest, the tallest, the most imposing Negress” in Georgia. An 1820 letter described her as a “giantess, more than six feet tall,” and a woman who was of “pure African blood and declared herself to be the daughter of a great king.”

Mammy Kate would need every last bit of that strength if her plan was to work—and it didn’t hurt that Heard was apparently a very diminutive man.

Again, the story can vary. Some versions have Mammy Kate winning the trust of the guards by acting as their laundress for several days or weeks. Another version has her talking her way into the prison on only one occasion, asking for the opportunity to bring her master some fresh bed linens and some food. Or perhaps she convinced the guards to bring Heard clean clothes in which to die.

One way or another, she was able to enter the prison with a large laundry basket on her head. Heard’s great-granddaughter describes what came next:

“Grand Papa got into the basket and the other prisoners packed the clothes around him and helped Aunt Kate put the basket on her head. She then walked boldly out and Grand Papa made good his escape.”

Mammy Kate had left at least one of Heard’s horses, an Arabian named Lightfoot, tied up nearby. Heard and Mammy Kate were soon galloping towards safety.

Heard was thankful and offered to set Mammy Kate free. “You can free me, Marse Stephen,” she reportedly said, “but I won't free you.”

Nevertheless, the grateful Heard gave Mammy Kate a small tract of land and a place to live near his own home. She continued to work for him for the rest of her life and is now buried near Heard with a headstone that reads:


who rescued her

master, Stephen Heard,

in Feb. 1779 on eve

of his execution by

the British

It’s an incredible tale and historians seem unsure what to make of it. Is it possible that Mammy Kate helped Heard escape but that the details became exaggerated over time? Written correspondence could have confirmed some portion of the story, but almost none of the Heard family’s correspondence survives. And, in a day and age when so many were illiterate, oral tradition can’t be dismissed completely.

Either way, one simple truth that can be gleaned from Mammy Kate: Many unsung heroes and heroines worked toward American independence. We may never know the details of the risks that they took, but we do know that we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.

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