- Historic Sites
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
At the Creek town of Ositchy on May 17, 1790, Willett stood before the assembled leaders of the Creek nation. Through an interpreter he assured the Indians that the American government was not interested in Creek lands and that Washington was as anxious as they to jettison the designs of Georgia and the Yazoo companies. The President was prepared to yield great concessions to the Creeks to demonstrate the supremacy of the federal government. He invited them to “repair with me to the council fire that is kindled in our beloved town [New York], that we may form a treaty, which shall be as strong as the hills, and lasting as the rivers.”
The chiefs argued the proposal for an hour before reaching a decision. What McGillivray said to them is unknown, but it may be surmised that he impressed upon them the manifold possibilities. When Willett was recalled, Hollowing King, a great orator, told him that “the road is very long, and the weather is very hot; but our beloved chief will go with you. … All that our beloved chief shall do we will agree to. … We will count the time our beloved chief is away; and when he comes back, we shall be very glad to see him, with a treaty that shall be as strong as the hills, and last as long as the rivers.”
Alexander McGillivray set about making preparations for the journey to New York with obvious pleasure. He greatly admired George Washington, and the opportunity to meet and treat with him as an equal appealed to his sense of history and his own place in it. He mused in a letter to a friend that “a Treaty concluded on at N. York ratified with the signature of Washington and McGillivray would be the bond of Long Peace and revered by Americans to a very distant period.” Even so, he did not lose his skepticism of Washington’s motives. To another correspondent he confided that “all the eagerness with which Washington shows to treat with me on such liberal terms is not based … on principles of justice and humanity. Rather, I believe that his true end is that of restraining the malevolence of the northern and eastern states against the southern.” Letters to the Spanish officials at New Orleans assured them that he would watch out for their interests and give a full report upon his return. “Tho I do not pretend to the ability of a Machiavel in Politics,” he wrote Miro, “Yet I can find out from my Slender abilities pretty near the disposition of the American Politics so far as they respect the Spanish Nation. …”
McGillivray did not post these letters until he was certain that they could not be answered before his departure for New York. The belated news of the venture was not received graciously by the Spanish at New Orleans. “Terms of accomodation” arrived at in the Creek country were one thing. A treaty concluded so far away from Spanish intelligence was quite another. Moreover, an international crisis loomed between Spain and Great Britain over the Nootka Sound controversy. McGillivray was sure to learn of this, and the Spanish feared that he might transfer his loyalty to the Americans in the belief that an Anglo-Spanish war would cut off his source of supply and leave him helpless against the Georgians. Diego de Gardoqui, Spanish minister to the United States, was at home in Spain. Accordingly Carlos Howard, a Spanish secret agent, was dispatched from St. Augustine to New York to remind McGillivray of his commitments. For the moment that was all that could be done.
On June 1, 1790, Willett and McGillivray, with the chief’s nephew, eight warriors, and two servants, departed from Little Tallassie for New York. At Stone Mountain they were joined by other chiefs, and Willett could not resist the temptation to climb the huge granite rock. By June 14 the procession had reached General Pickens’ plantation, where they waited for Chinabie, the great Natchez warrior, and Hopothle Mico, the Tallassie king. Finally, on June 18, the journey to New York resumed.
The original plan had been to conduct McGillivray to New York by ship, but the Creek claimed a “mortal aversion” to water, so the trip was made overland. The journey had all the appearances of a tour of state for a visiting monarch. For most of the time McGillivray rode a horse at the head of the column, laughing and jesting with Willett and the military escort provided for the chiefs. But there were times when his ill health forced him to retire to Willett’s sulky. Twenty-six Creek chiefs bounced along in three wagons, and four others rode on horseback.
Curious crowds gathered in the hamlets and towns along the route. No incidents marred the journey, although many of the Carolina settlers had suffered from the forays of McGillivray’s warriors. Indeed, at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, a woman broke from the spectators and approached the chief. Recognizing her as a captive he had freed, McGillivray embraced her tearfully to the applause of the crowd. “The meeting was truly affecting,” recorded Willett. At Richmond, Virginia, the company dined with Governor Beverley Randolph and other dignitaries. At Fredericksburg the chiefs sat stoically through a theatre performance, and Willett and McGillivray were shown Washington’s birthplace. At Philadelphia more public dinners awaited, and the chiefs were forced to endure yet another play.