Born in Amelia County, Virginia in 1755, David Fanning had a difficult childhood. His father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was 9. In 1764, Fanning and his sister lived with separate families after his mother’s death, and Needham Bryan, a Wake County justice, became Fanning’s guardian. Fanning later claimed in his autobiography that his abusive foster parents forced him to run away.
When he was 16, Fanning began boarding with John O’Deniell and his family in Orange County. While staying with the O’Deniells, Fanning learned to read and write and became known for training horses. O’Deniell also cured Fanning’s “scald head,” a skin disease that caused open sores on his head and resulted in hair loss. Fanning’s condition was so bad that he always ate alone and always wore a silk cap, even among his closest friends.
When 19, Fanning moved to the Pee Dee area of South Carolina and settled along Raeburn’s Creek. Fanning claimed to be a “planter in the back part of the southern provinces,” but he also traded with the Cherokee and Catawba Indians. The upcountry region of South Carolina largely stayed loyal to the British Crown, despite Whig campaigns to rally support for independence. Fanning became a radical Loyalist, he claims, after Whigs assaulted and robbed him at the beginning of the war.
As a loyalist, Fanning served as a sergeant in Captain James Lindley’s company. In late December of 1775, North Carolina and South Carolina Whigs soundly defeated Lindley in a South Carolina battle during the “Snow Campaign.” In January 1776, Whigs captured Fanning for the first, of the ultimately fourteen times he would be captured before the end of the Revolutionary War. Fanning eventually was either released or escaped each time he was captured.
Fear of an Indian attack in June 1776 prompted local Whigs to arrest preemptively many Loyalists, including David Fanning. But Fanning did not stay imprisoned long; he orchestrated an prison escape during a July 1 Indian raid and led a group of fellow prisoners to safety among Cherokee sympathizers. After aiding in a failed Indian assault on a Whig fort, Fanning traveled to and briefly stayed in North Carolina. After being captured and escaping three times in a nine-month period, Fanning returned to Raeburn’s Creek, South Carolina in March 1777.
Fanning would spend the next year and a half imprisoned, hiding from Whigs, and commanding loyalist militias. In 1777, Fanning was tried for treason, but he was acquitted. The following year, Fanning led a loyalist militia in taking Whig supplies and prisoners along the Georgia border during a period of loyalist uprisings. During one mission, Fanning was seriously wounded and nearly captured. By 1779, the Whigs were offering a 300-dollar reward for his capture. Given his predicament and the loss of loyalist support in the state, Fanning accepted a conditional pardon from South Carolina Governor John Rutledge in August 1779.
Fanning returned home and served with a Whig militia, likely as a frontier scout. But once the British won at Charleston in May 1780, Fanning returned to the loyalist cause. Fanning spent the next five months recruiting loyalist sympathizers to serve in militias and scouting along the Indian border. After the Whig victory at Kings Mountain in October 1780, Fanning left South Carolina for the Deep River area in Chatham County, North Carolina where he continued to recruit loyalists. By February 1781, Fanning was recruiting enough loyalist to form his own militia that he would eventually lead in skirmishes around the state while scouting for Lord Cornwallis before and after the battle at Guilford Courthouse. Fanning’s efforts were rewarded on July 5, 1781 when Major James H. Craig commissioned him colonel of the Loyal Militia of Randolph and Chatham Counties. Fanning and his militia would wreak havoc on the North Carolina backcountry for the following year, engaging in thirty-six skirmishes and battles, including the skirmish at the House in the Horseshoe.
In September 1781, Fanning led a major recruitment campaign at Cox’s Mill to aide in what would be his boldest endeavor of the war. Fanning’s infamous reputation throughout central North Carolina enabled him to raise 950 men for the mission. Fanning joined forces with Colonel Archibald McDugald’s 200 men and Colonel McNeil’s 70 men, and attacked North Carolina’s temporary state capital in Hillsborough. In a surprise attack on the morning of September 12, 1781, loyalist forces defeated the Whig defenders of the capital, released loyalist prisoners of war, and took nearly 200 Whigs prisoner. Fanning and his cohorts not only captured several Continental officers at Hillsborough; he also took General Assembly members, Governor Thomas Burke, and his aides.
Whig commander, General John Butler, attacked Fanning’s forces at Lindley’s Mill near Cane Creek the following day in an effort to free the Whig prisoners. Fanning was severely wounded during the battle that lasted for four hours and resulted in the death, injury or capture of 250 men. General Butler’s company was forced to retreat, and Colonel McDugald delivered the Whig prisoners to the British forces stationed at Wilmington while Fanning recovered from his injuries and managed the remaining loyalist troops.
Despite the loyalist successes at Hillsborough and Lindley’s Mill, the British left Wilmington in November 1781. Without the aide of the British in Wilmington and with Whig numbers increasing, Fanning began negotiations for a pardon with General Butler at the beginning of 1782. However, Fanning and the Whig leadership would continuously reach truces and violate negotiations over the following five months as violence in the North Carolina backcountry increased.
In April 1782, Fanning married Sarah Carr and left North Carolina for a truce area in South Carolina. Within five months the couple moved to Charleston and then to Saint Augustine, Florida. In May 1783, North Carolina issued an Act of Pardon and Oblivion that exempted only three men, one of which was David Fanning.
The Fannings left the newly independent nation in 1784 and settled at Long Reach, King’s County, New Brunswick, Canada. For a brief period, Fanning’s life began to improve as he acquired land and two mills and held office in the Provincial Assembly beginning in 1791. Fanning was expelled in 1801 however, after being convicted and sentenced to death for raping a fifteen year old named Sarah London. Fanning claimed London’s allegations were false and petitioned the provincial governor for a pardon. Fanning was granted the pardon but ordered to leave the province. Fanning moved his family to Annapolis County, Nova Scotia, where he became a ship builder and invested in merchant vessels. Fanning died on March 14, 1825 at his home in Digby, Nova Scotia.