Pickens was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants, Andrew Pickens, Sr. and Anne (née Davis). His paternal great-grandparents were Huguenots Robert Andrew Pickens (Robert André Picon) and Esther-Jeanne, widow Bonneau, of South Carolina and La Rochelle, France.
In 1752 his family moved to the Waxhaws on the South Carolina frontier. He sold his farm there in 1764 and bought land in Abbeville County, South Carolina, near the Georgia border.
He established the Hopewell Plantation on the Seneca River, at which several treaties with Native Americans were held, each called the Treaty of Hopewell. Just across the river was the Cherokee town of Isunigu (“Seneca”).
He served in the Anglo-Cherokee War in 1760–1761. When the Revolutionary War started, he sided with the rebel militia, and was made a captain. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General during the war.
On February 14, 1779, he was part of the militia victory at the Battle of Kettle Creek in Georgia.
Pickens was captured at the Siege of Charleston in 1780. He saw action at the Battle of Cowpens, Siege of Augusta, Siege of Ninety Six, and the Battle of Eutaw Springs.
Pickens also led a campaign in north Georgia against the Cherokee Indians late in the war. His victorious campaign led to the Cherokees ceding significant portions of land between the Savannah and Chattachoochee rivers in the Long Swamp Treaty signed in what is currently Pickens County, Georgia. Pickens was well regarded by Native Americans that he dealt with and was given the name Skyagunsta, “The Wizard Owl.”
He and three hundred of his men went home to sit out the war on parole.
Pickens’ parole did not last, however. After Tory raiders destroyed most of his property and frightened his family, he informed the British that they had violated the terms of parole and rejoined the war. During this period of the war, Pickens would join Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter as the most well-known partisan leaders in the Carolinas. Sumter also resumed fighting under similar circumstances. Pickens was soon operating in the Ninety Six District.
* Cowpens, South Carolina: Jan. 17, 1781:
> At the Battle of Cowpens, Brig. General Daniel Morgan gave Pickens command of the militia, which played a key role in the battle. On the evening of January 16, Morgan personally instructed the militia to hold its ground while firing two rounds and then retreat. On the morning of January 17, Pickens and the militia carried out the plan perfectly, which led Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton and British to believe that the militia was fleeing. The British blindly charged ahead and were drawn into a double flanking and soundly defeated. Following Cowpens, South Carolina Governor John Rutledge promoted Pickens to brigadier general. He would also be awarded a sword by Congress.
* Augusta, Georgia: May 22-June 5, 1781:
> Pickens’ militia was soon recalled to defend their own homes and so he missed the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. In April, he raised a regiments of state regulars. In May 1781, Maj. General Nathanael Greene sent Pickens and Lt. Colonel Henry Lee to support Elijah Clarke in operations against Augusta, Georgia. The siege began on May 22 and after maneuvering, securing outposts and the cutting off of reinforcements by the Patriots, Colonel Thomas Brown surrendered Augusta on June 5, 1781.
* Ninety Six, South Carolina: May 22-June 19, 1781:
> Following the surrender of Augusta, Pickens and Lt. Colonel Lee joined General Greene in his siege at Ninety Six, South Carolina. Greene had begun his siege on May 22, 1781, the same day that Augusta had been besieged. On June 11, Greene ordered Pickens and Lt. Colonel William Washington to aid Thomas Sumter in blocking a relief column led by Lord Rawdon. However, Sumter instead moved to Fort Granby, allowing Rawdon to make his way to Ninety Six. On June 19, Greene had to give up the siege and retreat after a failed assault.
He married Rebecca Floride Calhoun in 1765. They had 12 children, including Andrew Pickens who later became governor of South Carolina. He was also an uncle of Floride Calhoun, the wife of John C. Calhoun.
Andrew Pickens died near Tamassee, South Carolina, in Oconee County, on Aug. 11, 1817. He is buried at Old Stone Church Cemetery in Clemson, South Carolina.
Fort Pickens in Florida is named in his honor as is Pickens County, Alabama; Pickens County, Georgia; and Pickens and Pickens County in his adopted home state of South Carolina.
Pickens was a 7th great grandfather of former Senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Edwards.
He is also the namesake of Pickens High School. He is a very huge part of the “South” history.
Pickens and his actions served as one of the sources for the fictional character of Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, a motion picture released in 2000.