Elizabeth Steele, Nathanael Greene and Their Legendary Encounter

On November 22, 1790, Elizabeth Maxwell Steele, a legendary patriot during the American Revolution, died at her home in Salisbury.

Twice widowed, Steele was the only woman operating a tavern in Rowan County before the war. She was self-sufficient, wealthy and well-connected, and during the Revolution she used her means to become what she called a “great politician.” Steele wasn’t a politician in the modern sense of the word. Rather, she looked out for her family’s and her community’s interests by seeking and sharing information about the war.

Legend has it that in February 1781, Steele overheard General Nathanael Greene in her tavern complaining of being “fatigued, hungry, and penniless”. The story goes that she gave Greene two satchels of money and that the relieved general took a portrait of King George III off the wall and wrote on the back, “O George, Hide thy face and mourn.” He then hung the picture up backwards.

The portrait survives with those words chalked on the reverse. There is no way to authenticate the story, but it is known that Greene was in the vicinity at the time. Irrespective of the legend, Steele was an exceptional woman who was vital to local discourse during the Revolution.

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