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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
Alexander McGillivray was in fact not more than half Indian. He was the son of Lachlan McGillivray, a shrewd Scot who ventured into the southern wilderness and stayed to extract a fortune from trading along the Creek frontier. Meanwhile, Lachlan met a young girl of extraordinary beauty whose name was Sehoy. Accounts differ as to whether she was a half-breed; it is known for certain that her mother was a full-blooded Creek of high rank in the powerful and aristocratic Wind clan. The young Scot wooed and married Sehoy, adhering to Creek tribal ritual, and in 1759 Alexander was born to them. The child’s future seemed bright, tradition says, for Sehoy dreamed often of ink and quills and paper during her pregnancy.
Alexander’s childhood was a peculiar mixture of red and white. His father built a fine log house on the Hickory Ground near the Creek town of Little Tallassie and not far from where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers pour their waters into the Alabama River a few miles north of the present city of Montgomery. As years passed an apple grove was planted, and a row of cottages housing a complement of Negro slaves attested to McGillivray prosperity. Nor was the young Alexander denied his father’s tongue, since knowledge of white language was invaluable to a people increasingly encircled by white men. Even so, Alexander was never far from his Indian relatives, and the dominant forces of his youth were Indian.
Among the Creeks child rearing was left to the mother and her family. Even the manly skills were taught by the uncles rather than the father. So it was that Alexander learned the ways and life values of the Creeks from Sehoy and her brothers, including the leader of the Wind clan, Red Shoes. Lachlan McGillivray must have restrained himself as much as his Scottish temperament and fatherly pride would permit. Doubtless he chafed under the Creek system, and when the boy reached his teens, the elder McGillivray took him from the woodland home of his youth and thrust him into the white man’s world of books and manners and counting houses. For three years the youth studied at Charleston and Savannah under the tutelage of a minister cousin. Numbers bored him, but he demonstrated a voracious appetite for history, and he acquired a remarkable facility for expressing himself in writing. But when the thunderings of revolution drove his loyalist father back to the British Isles, the younger McGillivray returned to the Coosa and to his people, the Creeks. His three years among the whites had uniquely prepared him for the task that would be his. They gave him his greatest weapon—the pen- but the turbulent Creek frontier provided the ambitious young man the opportunity to achieve the place in history that he desired.
McGillivray rarely left the Creek country thereafter. When Louis Milfort found him there at the town of Coweta in 1776, sitting on a bearskin among his warriors, there was nothing to suggest that he was anything.more than a savage. He was only seventeen then, but already his rise to power had begun. Before long he had obtained a commission in the British service, and Creek warriors were pillaging the Georgia frontier.
In the career that followed, Alexander McGillivray acquired a sophisticated understanding of international affairs but continued to baffle those with whom he dealt with Indian subtlety and capriciousness. He had the qualities of leadership that the Creeks needed more than military might, and, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, he was “perhaps the only man who could have used aright such a rope of sand as was the Creek confederacy.” Much of his success may be attributed to his ability to write, and the existence of a large body of his correspondence provides a unique opportunity to see those years from the Indian point of view.
The end of the American Revolution saw McGillivray’s leadership of the Creeks assured, but although he was the pre-eminent man of his nation, his position was far from enviable. The British withdrawal left the Creeks without trade and under the guns of the E-cun-nau-nux-ulgee (“Peoplegreedily-grasping-after-land”), as the Creeks derisively called the Georgians. McGillivray’s personal fortune was gone, his landholdings in Georgia confiscated by the patriots. Moreover, Great Britain had ceded away much of the Creek country without the consent of the Indians.
In addition, dissipation and disease were serious impediments for McGillivray. Often he was so beset with pain that he could not rise from his bed for weeks, his fingers so stiff he could not lift a quill. Much of his suffering apparently resulted from venereal disease and drunkenness. Contemporary sources suggest that he had several “wives,” and David Humphreys, Washington’s former aide-decamp, who dealt with him in 1789, described him as “so much addicted to debauchery that he will not live four years.”