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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
The Yazoo cession was not merely provocative. Washington doubted its legality, since the Indians had not surrendered the lands in question. His advisers agreed, and herein lay his justification for intervening. Georgia did not have title to the land and could not secure it, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, and Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, argued. Jefferson pointed out that there were but two means of acquiring title to native land, namely war and treaty—both powers granted expressly to the federal government by the Constitution of 1787, which Georgia had ratified. On this basis Jefferson and Knox concluded that the whole Yazoo transaction was unconstitutional.
In January, 1790, Washington conferred with his closest adviser, Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, and Knox. Reliable information from south of the Ohio suggested that McGillivray was still interested in negotiations. By March, Washington was ready. Existing conditions and past experience argued cogently for persuading McGillivray to visit New York rather than sending another commission to the Indian country. Yet because of Georgia’s bellicose attitude toward federal intervention—and to avoid a recurrence of the embarrassment of Rock Landing should the attempt fail—Washington proceeded with as much secrecy as possible. In order that the government would not “suffer in its dignity” if something went wrong, he proposed to send one man to McGillivray without the knowledge of the people of Georgia. Such a plan required not only someone with courage enough to face the Creek frontier without an escort, but also a person who could deal with a man of McGillivray’s intellectual powers. Knox suggested Colonel Marinus Willett, a Revolutionary War hero who had won distinction for his daring in western New York, and Washington agreed.
On the morning of March 10, 1790, Colonel Willett accepted the assignment. Washington had made every effort to ensure the success of the mission. Now he briefed Willett on the arguments to be used to persuade McGillivray of the dire consequences of a rupture with the United States. Apparently Washington believed the stories that McGillivray was motivated by “his own pecuniary emolument,” as Humphreys had suggested at Rock Landing. To capitalize on this he provided Willett “with such lures as respected McGillivray personally and might be held out to him.”
On March 15, 1790, Colonel Willett set sail on a sloop bound for Charleston, South Carolina, with written instructions to induce McGillivray to visit New York. He carried a formal letter of introduction and a passport that guaranteed the safety of McGillivray and other chiefs should they accept Washington’s invitation. If Willett reached McGillivray, these would be most useful, but if he fell into the hands of McGillivray’s less civilized cousins, the prospects were grim.
Willett’s brief sojourn at Charleston did not pass without notice, and he departed for the Indian country amid speculation about his purpose. He paused at the plantation of General Andrew Pickens to take advantage of that gentleman’s knowledge of McGillivray. Then he pushed westward through the pinelands of central Georgia to the stronghold of McGillivray with the assistance of a servant and a Cherokee guide named Young Corn. He was well received in the Cherokee towns, and on April 30 he reached the first Creek town. He learned that McGillivray was expected at the home of a trader named Grierson. That evening his search came to an end. McGillivray received him warmly, and Willett recorded in his diary: “After delivering my introductory letter, I had some conversation with him; and after a good supper, and most kind entertainment, I went to bed, happy in being under the same roof with the man I have travelled thus far to see.”
Willett spent two pleasant days at the Grierson cottage, observing Creek life. On May 3 McGillivray escorted him to his own home at Hickory Ground. Willett was especially impressed with the Apple Grove, McGillivray’s plantation. Instead of a council fire, Willett found himself in a drawing room beside a fireplace. McGillivray was the gracious host, the easy conversationalist, all the things that Indians were not supposed to be. His “open, candid, generous mind … good judgment, and very tenacious memory” impressed Willett. But McGillivray was also impressed. He found Willett to be “a Candid and Benevolent character, possessing abilitys but without Show or parade.”
Spain had not been pleased with the Creek’s abrupt walkout on the three American commissioners at Rock Landing, fearing, as Mir’f4 wrote McGillivray, that his action would be interpreted as proof that McGillivray was not “really disposed toward peace.” He was still smarting from that rebuke when Willett arrived. Washington’s offer provided the means of complying with Spanish demands for conciliation with the Americans. He saw that if he failed to take advantage of the offer, “Georgia would reap the whole advantage” of the war that would surely follow. He also saw that Spain might be more generous with her support if it appeared that his negotiations with the United States were serious. Once again he discerned the possibility of improving his circumstances at the expense of the major powers. Shortly he dispatched runners to call the Creek chiefs to council.