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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
Even so Alexander McGillivray was a striking man, with dark eyes that burned from a handsome face made odd by a peculiarly prominent forehead. He was tall but unusually thin. One striking feature was his long fingers, with which he wrote at prodigious speed. His manner of dress was sometimes Indian, sometimes white, but most often a mixture of the two. Observers agree that he was witty, charming, and polite. At his plantation, the Apple Grove, he entertained guests graciously. His wife there bore him two children, Alexander and Elizabeth. From his quiet retreat on the Coosa this strange man turned himself to the problems of his people.
The outcome of the Revolution left the Creeks hemmed in by white settlement—Americans to the north and east, Spaniards to the south. As settlement pressed in on the Creeks and as game disappeared, trade with the whites became essential to survival. It was a fatal weakness, and only genius could accomplish the double magic of obtaining recognition of Creek sovereignty and establishing satisfactory trade with one of the powers on their borders. McGillivray had little faith in the “distracted republick” of the United States, which he viewed as hopelessly divided. So he turned to Spain, winning for himself a position as commissary of the Creek nation, which garnered for him the dual responsibility of representing the Spanish among the southern tribes and enforcing trade regulations established by the Creeks and the Spanish governor at New Orleans. With somewhat more difficulty he was able to persuade the Spanish to grant a trading monopoly to the British firm of Panton, Leslie, & Co., operated by McGillivray’s friend William Panton, a notorious Georgia Tory who shared his hatred of the Americans. With this accomplished, McGillivray could closely oversee Creek trade, and his power was assured. These successes countered most of his difficulties, and in the spring of 1786 he daringly turned to the major problem remaining. On April 2, 1786, the council of the Creek nation declared war on the state of Georgia.
The origin of the conflict lay in the insistence of Georgia that Creek lands had been ceded by authorized representatives of the Creeks at Augusta in 1783 and at Galphinton in 1785. Both claims rested on very shaky foundations. In the autumn of 1783 Georgia had called a conference with the Creeks. The invitation was ignored by the Indians with the exception of two minor civil chiefs whose names translated as “Tame King” and “Fat King.” On November 1, 1783, these two chiefs signed over a relatively small tract of land between the Oconee and Tugaloo rivers to the commissioners of Georgia. The main result was to ensure McGillivray’s ascendancy among the Creeks, who repudiated the treaty at his urging.
In February, 1785, the Georgia legislature inflamed the volatile Indian question even more by organizing a huge area of the Yazoo Strip into Bourbon County, precipitating war with the Creeks. Congress, fearful of war with Spain, appointed a commission to deal with the southern tribes; the Creeks were to meet the commissioners at Galphinton. McGillivray refused to attend but sent four chiefs as his representatives. When only a few Indians appeared, the United States commissioners abandoned treaty plans and departed. The Georgia agents did not share their reluctance to deal with only a part of the tribe, however, and negotiated the Treaty of Galphinton on November ia, 1785, not with the deputies of McGillivray but with the same two dissident chiefs responsible for the Augusta cession. The Galphinton treaty gave Georgia claim to Creek lands south of the Altamaha River from its junction with the Oconee to the Saint Marys River, but it too was repudiated almost before the ink was dry. Both the Creeks and the Georgians continued to claim the Oconee Strip, as the disputed area was called, as their own. Soon fighting was begun in earnest.
McGillivray did not loose his warriors to raid the settlements indiscriminately. He wisely concluded that unrestricted attacks would bring American retaliation of great force. He tempered his war, confining sorties to territory still claimed by the Creeks. Attacks were balanced with truces that lasted until the settlers encroached again on Creek lands. Thus by an application of the principles of limited war McGillivray prevented an outriffht American invasion.
Even so, there remained elements of the tribe opposed to McGillivray. In the fall of 1786, at a conference with Creek dissidents at Shoulderbone Creek, the Georgia commissioners blundered badly by seizing ‘fame King and Fat King as hostages. Instead of the results expected by Georgia, the incident united the Creeks under McGillivray’s leadership. At the year’s end the Creeks had stalled settlement on the Georgia frontier and pushed the Cumberland settlers back into the Carolinas. Moreover, McGillivray’s alliance with Spain was still in force. With prudence and skill McGillivray had entrenched the Creeks in a strong position.