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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
By August 7 McGillivray and Knox had agreed upon the conditions of the treaty. The adroitness of the Creek was clearly reflected in the terms. The treaty recognized American protection —but not suzerainty—over the Creek country north of the Georgia-West Florida boundary when Spain and the United States established a permanent line . The Oconee Strip was surrendered by the Creeks, except for a small section Georgia claimed under the Treaty of Galphinton and had established as Tallassee County. McGillivray had not demanded the Oconee lands, for he realized the impossibility of uprooting the Georgia settlers already implanted there. Even so an annuity of fifteen hundred dollars was granted to the Creek nation for this land.
Of greater significance were certain secret articles. Throughout the negotiations McGillivray stubbornly refused to betray the Spanish and resisted efforts on the part of Washington and Knox to undermine their trade monopoly with the Creeks. The best the Americans could do was to obtain a secret article to the treaty by which McGillivray agreed to a trading arrangement on his terms if circumstances upset his present arrangement. He considered this a polite way of declining trade while leaving the door open in case the Creeks were forced to some other source of supply. By other secret articles McGillivray was commissioned a brigadier general at twelve hundred dollars a year, and several of the lesser chiefs were granted hundred-dollar annuities.
The treaty was an impressive victory for McGillivray. It was negotiated practically cm his terms. He acquired formal recognition from the United States and assurances that American military forces would prevent further encroachments by Georgia, the Cumberland settlements, and the Yazoo companies. From every perspective his position in the Southwest was greatly strengthened.
On August 7, 1790, the treaty was laid before the Senate, which ratified it by a vote of fifteen to four. Four days later Washington voiced his conviction to the Senate that the treaty would provide “the main foundation of the future peace and prosperity of the Southwestern frontier of the United States.” On August 13 Washington, Knox, Willett, and numerous dignitaries gathered with the Creek delegation for the formal signing at Federal Hall. At noon President Washington read the treaty and addressed the Indians through an interpreter. Then he signed the treaty and, according to the Savannah Georgia Gazette , “presented a string of beads as a token of perpetual peace, and a paper of tobacco to smoke in remembrance of it.” McGillivray replied for the Creeks. When he had finished, he and all the Creeks gave Washington “the shake of peace.” The ceremony was concluded with a “song of peace” by the Indians. Then McGillivray signed the treaty, twenty-three other chiefs made their x’s, and the Treaty of New York was fully ratified. That evening, according to Mrs. Adams, the Creeks “had a great bonfire, dancing around it like so many spirits, hopping, yelling, and expressing their pleasure in true savage style.”
Predictably, the state of Georgia reacted angrily to the news of the treaty. “I scarcely ever knew any matter so generally objected to, & yet in which the people disagree so much in their objections,” Joseph Clay, a Savannah merchant, confided to a friend. The animosities of the past overflowed, and Georgia’s newspapers were flooded with invective against the treaty. “Is it not ludicrous to mention, that a power who would not think herself too much honored by the alliance of the greatest monarch on earth, should condescend to enter into a formal treaty with a halfbreed Spanish Golonel ?” thundered a newspaper correspondent, with dubious reference to McGillivray, “and shall America conclude negotiations with tour and twenty Creek plunderers and hope for national respect?”
Even the secret provisions were soon published in the public press in an anonymous letter signed “Mentor.” Mentor’s identity cannot be established with certainty, but judging from his knowledge of the treaty negotiations and his familiarity with the Georgia situation, the chances are great that the author was a member of the Georgia congressional delegation, probably James Jackson. The disclosure of the secret articles caused letter writers to envision McGillivray in the blue and buff of an American general at the head of Creek armies, marching against Georgia with the sanction of the federal government. Mentor summarized Georgia’s arguments by saying that the “dignity of the state of Georgia, the friendship of her citizens, and the state rights have been sold to purchase a detestable Indian connexion.”