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The Chief Of State And The Chief
In the snarled disputes over the Yazoo land claims in 1790 George Washington and an educated Creek chieftain turned out to be the diplomatic kingpins
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
Shortly past noon on April 30, 1789, a tall, somber man, dressed in a simple brown suit, was inaugurated as the first President of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City. For the people who watched the ceremony it was a day of celebration and of enthusiastic confidence in the man who now led them. But the emotion that stirred the crowd, the cannon salutes, the cheers, could not soothe the anxiety of the new President. The future promised only crisis in every area of national life, and the agitated and nervous bearing of George Washington that April afternoon suggested the dread he felt as he contemplated the “Ocean of difficulties” that lay before him.
That spring few problems of state demanded more immediate attention than those related to the western frontier. It was not merely the inevitable conflict between white man and red that cried for solution. In the years since the War for Independence the presence of Spain in the Southwest and the continued loitering of British troops and trading interests in the Northwest had encouraged Indian harassment of the frontier and fomented political intrigue and threats of secession in the hinterlands. Washington knew the western problem. He understood the dissatisfaction and frustration of frontiersmen and the success of foreign agents. “The Western Settlers,” he had warned in 1784, “stand as it were on a pivot—a touch of a feather would turn them away.”
The government under the Articles of Confederation had failed to cope with frontier problems, and attempts to restrict settlement had only enraged land-hungry settlers and speculators, while divergent interests made the East unsympathetic to western needs. Nor had American diplomats obtained the free navigation of the Mississippi River so vital to American commerce in the West from Spanish ministers delighted with American discomfiture and keenly aware of the importance of their position at New Orleans.
By the time Washington was inaugurated, the American position in the Northwest Territory seemed to dictate a military solution to quell the divided tribes of the area. Affairs in the Southwest, however, were much more complicated and demanded a more cautious approach. Spain continued to use the Indians as an effective buffer against the United States in the Yazoo Strip, an area along the Georgia-West Florida boundary, north of the thirty-first parallel, claimed by both nations. Here the Indian question took on added significance. If the United States could woo the southern tribes away from their attachment to Spain, Spain’s claims in the Southwest would be seriously weakened and western disloyalty might be curtailed.
In order to accomplish this, however, Washington had to contend not only with Spain but also with opposition from within the United States itself. Unlike the Northwest Territory, which was nominally controlled by the federal government as the result of western land cessions by the states and federal land policies in force there, the disputed territory south of the Tennessee River was still claimed by the state of Georgia. Washington was anxious to extinguish Georgia’s claims and extend federal jurisdiction to the troubled area, but national intervention was certain to arouse a storm of disapproval from Georgia politicians and their supporters among speculators and settlers. Georgia’s aggressive land policies and attitudes toward the southern Indians had already precipitated a continuing war with the powerful Creek confederacy, which was the primary obstacle to the state’s westward expansion as well as the focus of Spanish attention in dealing with the Indians. Moreover, the summer of 1789 saw Georgia legislators sedulously courted by speculators anxious to acquire lands in the disputed zone for sale to settlers. If Georgia succumbed to the pressure of the land companies and ceded lands not yet surrendered by the Creeks, both Spain and the Creeks could be expected to regard the act as deliberately provocative. So long as Georgia maintained her claims, the other states were in danger of being dragged into a war with Spain. To avoid disaster Washington prepared to assert federal power by negotiating directly with the southern tribes. His task might have been much simpler had it not been for the masterful manipulations of an Indian statesman named Alexander McGillivray, Hoboi-Hili-Miko , the “Good Child King” of the Creek confederacy.
For more than two decades McGillivray enjoyed political success never equalled by any other leader of the American Indians. Yet he lacked the quality most often associated with Indian leadership—physical courage. Once, according to his brother-in-law, a French soldier of fortune named Louis Milfort, McGillivray donned war paint, stripped to breechcloth and moccasins, and joined a war party “to witness” a foray against the Americans. When the skirmish began, McGillivray was so unnerved that he hid himself in the bushes until the fighting was over. Then he stole a cloak from the body of a dead soldier to cover himself from the cold. Milfort recalled that McGillivray often laughed about the incident but added: “When one has so much administrative capacity and so many qualities of heart as had Alexander McGillivray, he does not need the military virtues to be a great man.” If he was not a warrior chief, he was a superb diplomat who achieved eminence among a warrior people and directed the Creek nation through a period of momentous importance to the major nations vying for power in the Old Southwest.