- 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
Despite McGillivray’s aversion the last lap of the trip was made by water. OnJuIy 21, 1790, the delegation disembarked at Murray’s Wharf to gun salutes, church bells, and cheering crowds. Not since Washington’s inauguration had New York enjoyed such a holiday. The newly organized Society of St. Tammany acted as the official welcoming committee, and the Indians, decked out in savage finery for the occasion, must have been startled by the “Indian” regalia of their hosts. Secretary of War Knox conducted the procession up Wall Street, past Federal Hall, where Congress was in session, to the home of President Washington, where they were subjected to a grand levee. Afterward a visit to the home of New York’s governor, George Clinton, was in order.
In the evening the Indians were entertained at the City Tavern. McGillivray was made an honorary member of the St. Andrews Society, an organization of true Scotsmen, and- most amazing of all—the Creek chieftain ate at the same table with the somewhat uncomfortable senators and representatives of Georgia. A festive evening was assured by a series of seven toasts that left, according to the Gazette of the United States , “an apparent satisfaction … on the brows of all present.” Further activities were planned, including a reception aboard a ship recently returned from Canton, China, and a religious service at Christ Church. The Creek delegation was appropriately lodged at the Indian Queen Hotel, while McGillivray was entertained at the home of Knox.
Washington’s impressions of the chief have not survived, since his diaries for this period have been lost, but other sources suggest that McGillivray made a favorable impression upon his hosts. Abigail Adams, the wife of Vice President John Adams, found McGillivray to be “grave and solid, intelligent and much of a gentleman,” but in very bad health. She described him as dressed in white man’s fashion, not dark-skinned, and capable of discussing “politics, philosophy, art and literature—and in several languages.” Even the mordant Fisher Ames, the archconservative Massachusetts congressman, remarked, “He is decent and not very black.”
Observers were equally fascinated by McGillivray’s companions. “These are the very first savages I ever saw,” Mrs. Adams wrote excitedly to her sister. “They are very fond of visiting us. We entertain them kindly, and they behave with civility.” She found them to be “very fine looking men, placid countenance and fine shape. Mr. Trumble says they are many of them perfect models. …” “Mr. Trumble” was the noted artist John Trumbull, who was devoting his life and talent to commemorating the people and events of the American Revolution on canvas. He was in New York in connection with this work when McGillivray and his chiefs arrived. Trumbull had never painted Indian subjects, nor did he afterward, but he was fascinated by the Creek chiefs. Later he declared that they “possessed a dignity of manner, form, countenance and expression, worthy of Roman senators.” The artist was so impressed by the Indians that he desired to paint portraits of some of them, but he was prevented from doing so by President Washington’s curiosity.
One of Trumbull’s projects was a life-size, full-length portrait of the President. It was finished while the Creeks were in New York, and Wash- ington was “curious to see the effect it would produce on their untutored minds.” One evening he entertained a group of them at dinner. The President was dressed in full military uniform, and after dinner he invited the Indians to take a walk that, by prearrangement, took them to the portrait room. Washington opened the door and stepped back to allow the chiefs to enter. Then they stopped short. There in the middle of the room stood another “Great Father” dressed exactly like the one who stood beside them. “They were for a time mute with astonishment,” Trumbull wrote years later. “At length one of the chiefs advanced toward the picture, and slowly stretched out his hand to touch it, and was still more astonished to feel, instead of a round object, a flat surface, cold to the touch. He started back with an exclamation of astonishment— ‘Ugh!’ Another then approached and placing one hand on the surface and the other behind, was still more astounded to perceive that his hands almost met.”
Humorous as the incident must have been to Washington, it had one unfortunate result. The Creeks were so awed by the painting that Trumbull was unable to do portraits of them, because “they had received the impression that there must be magic in an art which could render a smooth, flat surface so like to a real man.” McGillivray was not mentioned by Trumbull, so it is impossible to know if he was present, although it would be incredible to suppose that with his background he would have been awed by a portrait, however lifelike. The artist did succeed in making pencil portraits of five of the Indians “by stealth,” providing the only pictorial record of the meeting. Unfortunately McGillivray was not one of them.
As early as July 1, 1790, Washington had received word of possible attempts by foreign powers to thwart the proceedings. Consequently McGillivray was carefully “protected” against the Spanish agent, Carlos Howard, and British representatives from Canada. It was impossible to prevent all contact with foreign diplomats, however, and McGillivray was convinced that their presence assisted him in obtaining favorable terms from the Americans.