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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
Despite their support of him, however, the Spanish grew increasingly fearful that McGillivray’s war with Georgia would precipitate a wider struggle that would result in American domination of the buffer zone. By 1788 the Spanish ministry urged the Creeks to seek “terms of accomodation with the United States of America.” McGillivray resisted Spain’s prodding at first, but he soon realized the need for rapprochement with the new federal government. In the summer he grudgingly advised Estevan Miró, the Spanish governor at New Orleans, that he would hegin negotiations with “these Americans who are a sett of crafty, cunning republicans, who will endeavor to avail themselves of every circumstance in which I cannot speak or act with decission.”
This was the man with whom Washington was determined to deal in 1789. On August 7 of that year, after careful study of the Indian problem, the President urged the “immediate interposition of the General Government” into Indian affairs. Before the month was out, three commissioners—Benjamin Lincoln, Cyrus Griffin, and David Humphreys—were appointed to treat with the Creeks. It was a distinguished commission. Benjamin Lincoln had an impressive record as a soldier during the Revolutionary War and had commanded the forces that suppressed Shays’ Rebellion in 1787; Griffin had been the last president of the Articles of Confederation Congress; and Humphreys was a member of Washington’s household, with some experience in diplomatic affairs. With high hopes Humphreys advised Washington that Georgia approved the commission and that “it is pretty well ascertained that McGillivray is desirous of peace.”
The commission thereupon hurried “through a dreary wilderness in which there was not a single house,” to Rock Landing on the Oconee near the present site of Milledgeville, Georgia. Initially the federal agents felt certain of success. On September 21, 1789, Humphreys, who assumed the leading role in the negotiations, assured Washington that the Creeks wished “to brush our faces with the white wing of reconciliation” and provided the President with his impressions of McGillivray. “His countenance has nothing liberal or open in it,” he wrote. “It has, however, sufficient marks of understanding. In short he appears to have the good sense of an American, the shrewdness of a Scotchman, and the cunning of an Indian. … He dresses altogether in the Indian fashion & is rather slovenly than otherwise.”
As the negotiations proceeded, however, the optimism of the commissioners faltered. Their impatience was agitated by the Georgians, anxious to convince Humphreys, Griffin, and Lincoln of McGillivray’s perfidy. “I apprehend that we can never depend upon McGillivray for his firm attachment to the United States,” Humphreys wrote Washington on September 27. “If I mistake not his character, his own importance and pecuniary emolument are the objects which will altogether influence his conduct.”
The letter reflected the attitude that doomed the council to failure. The delegation completely misunderstood McGillivray. Negotiations were clumsy, and the proposed treaty failed utterly to recognize Creek grievances. Acting as spokesman, Humphreys threatened, cajoled, tried to bribe, and thoroughly antagonized McGillivray, even questioning his right to speak for the Creeks. Finally, as McGillivray later wrote a friend, the Creek chief angrily told “that puppy Humphries” that “by G— I would not have such a Treaty cram’d down my throat.” He was so angry that he almost ordered an attack on the commissioners, but encouraged by word that Spain had finally ratified the treaty of 1783, he gathered his warriors and simply departed.
The Creeks’ withdrawal, particularly as portrayed in the report of the commissioners, disappointed Washington. Yet if he approved the report, he would be placed in the difficult position of accepting Georgia’s obviously invalid treaties and consequently forced to defend them militarily if the CreekGeorgia war continued. This course was fraught with danger. It meant that he could scarcely avoid a war in disputed territory. Spain’s claims in the Southwest and the financial situation of the yearling government argued cogently against such an outcome. The standing army was only six hundred strong and scattered among frontier garrisons located primarily north of the Ohio. A campaign against the northern tribes seemed imminent. The cost of outfitting an expedition against the Creeks would be prohibitive. The President was also forced to consider the widespread ill feeling toward Georgia because of her failure to surrender her western lands, like other states.
On December 21, 1789, Georgia further antagonized the President by ceding 25,400,000 acres of land in the present states of Alabama and Mississippi to the South Carolina Yazoo Company, the Virginia Yazoo Company, and the Tennessee Yazoo Company. It was the move Washington had feared. The thought of hundreds of settlers pouring into lands so close by the Creeks and within territory claimed by Spain chilled him. If the claims were successfully planted, the Creeks would be faced by enemies on three sides, and chances of bringing peace to the turbulent southern frontier would be even less likely.