October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
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
Shortly past noon on April 30, 1789, a tall, somber man, dressed in a simple brown suit, was inaugurated as the first President of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City. For the people who watched the ceremony it was a day of celebration and of enthusiastic confidence in the man who now led them. But the emotion that stirred the crowd, the cannon salutes, the cheers, could not soothe the anxiety of the new President. The future promised only crisis in every area of national life, and the agitated and nervous bearing of George Washington that April afternoon suggested the dread he felt as he contemplated the “Ocean of difficulties” that lay before him.
That spring few problems of state demanded more immediate attention than those related to the western frontier. It was not merely the inevitable conflict between white man and red that cried for solution. In the years since the War for Independence the presence of Spain in the Southwest and the continued loitering of British troops and trading interests in the Northwest had encouraged Indian harassment of the frontier and fomented political intrigue and threats of secession in the hinterlands. Washington knew the western problem. He understood the dissatisfaction and frustration of frontiersmen and the success of foreign agents. “The Western Settlers,” he had warned in 1784, “stand as it were on a pivot—a touch of a feather would turn them away.”
The government under the Articles of Confederation had failed to cope with frontier problems, and attempts to restrict settlement had only enraged land-hungry settlers and speculators, while divergent interests made the East unsympathetic to western needs. Nor had American diplomats obtained the free navigation of the Mississippi River so vital to American commerce in the West from Spanish ministers delighted with American discomfiture and keenly aware of the importance of their position at New Orleans.
By the time Washington was inaugurated, the American position in the Northwest Territory seemed to dictate a military solution to quell the divided tribes of the area. Affairs in the Southwest, however, were much more complicated and demanded a more cautious approach. Spain continued to use the Indians as an effective buffer against the United States in the Yazoo Strip, an area along the Georgia-West Florida boundary, north of the thirty-first parallel, claimed by both nations. Here the Indian question took on added significance. If the United States could woo the southern tribes away from their attachment to Spain, Spain’s claims in the Southwest would be seriously weakened and western disloyalty might be curtailed.
In order to accomplish this, however, Washington had to contend not only with Spain but also with opposition from within the United States itself. Unlike the Northwest Territory, which was nominally controlled by the federal government as the result of western land cessions by the states and federal land policies in force there, the disputed territory south of the Tennessee River was still claimed by the state of Georgia. Washington was anxious to extinguish Georgia’s claims and extend federal jurisdiction to the troubled area, but national intervention was certain to arouse a storm of disapproval from Georgia politicians and their supporters among speculators and settlers. Georgia’s aggressive land policies and attitudes toward the southern Indians had already precipitated a continuing war with the powerful Creek confederacy, which was the primary obstacle to the state’s westward expansion as well as the focus of Spanish attention in dealing with the Indians. Moreover, the summer of 1789 saw Georgia legislators sedulously courted by speculators anxious to acquire lands in the disputed zone for sale to settlers. If Georgia succumbed to the pressure of the land companies and ceded lands not yet surrendered by the Creeks, both Spain and the Creeks could be expected to regard the act as deliberately provocative. So long as Georgia maintained her claims, the other states were in danger of being dragged into a war with Spain. To avoid disaster Washington prepared to assert federal power by negotiating directly with the southern tribes. His task might have been much simpler had it not been for the masterful manipulations of an Indian statesman named Alexander McGillivray, Hoboi-Hili-Miko , the “Good Child King” of the Creek confederacy.
For more than two decades McGillivray enjoyed political success never equalled by any other leader of the American Indians. Yet he lacked the quality most often associated with Indian leadership—physical courage. Once, according to his brother-in-law, a French soldier of fortune named Louis Milfort, McGillivray donned war paint, stripped to breechcloth and moccasins, and joined a war party “to witness” a foray against the Americans. When the skirmish began, McGillivray was so unnerved that he hid himself in the bushes until the fighting was over. Then he stole a cloak from the body of a dead soldier to cover himself from the cold. Milfort recalled that McGillivray often laughed about the incident but added: “When one has so much administrative capacity and so many qualities of heart as had Alexander McGillivray, he does not need the military virtues to be a great man.” If he was not a warrior chief, he was a superb diplomat who achieved eminence among a warrior people and directed the Creek nation through a period of momentous importance to the major nations vying for power in the Old Southwest.
Alexander McGillivray was in fact not more than half Indian. He was the son of Lachlan McGillivray, a shrewd Scot who ventured into the southern wilderness and stayed to extract a fortune from trading along the Creek frontier. Meanwhile, Lachlan met a young girl of extraordinary beauty whose name was Sehoy. Accounts differ as to whether she was a half-breed; it is known for certain that her mother was a full-blooded Creek of high rank in the powerful and aristocratic Wind clan. The young Scot wooed and married Sehoy, adhering to Creek tribal ritual, and in 1759 Alexander was born to them. The child’s future seemed bright, tradition says, for Sehoy dreamed often of ink and quills and paper during her pregnancy.
Alexander’s childhood was a peculiar mixture of red and white. His father built a fine log house on the Hickory Ground near the Creek town of Little Tallassie and not far from where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers pour their waters into the Alabama River a few miles north of the present city of Montgomery. As years passed an apple grove was planted, and a row of cottages housing a complement of Negro slaves attested to McGillivray prosperity. Nor was the young Alexander denied his father’s tongue, since knowledge of white language was invaluable to a people increasingly encircled by white men. Even so, Alexander was never far from his Indian relatives, and the dominant forces of his youth were Indian.
Among the Creeks child rearing was left to the mother and her family. Even the manly skills were taught by the uncles rather than the father. So it was that Alexander learned the ways and life values of the Creeks from Sehoy and her brothers, including the leader of the Wind clan, Red Shoes. Lachlan McGillivray must have restrained himself as much as his Scottish temperament and fatherly pride would permit. Doubtless he chafed under the Creek system, and when the boy reached his teens, the elder McGillivray took him from the woodland home of his youth and thrust him into the white man’s world of books and manners and counting houses. For three years the youth studied at Charleston and Savannah under the tutelage of a minister cousin. Numbers bored him, but he demonstrated a voracious appetite for history, and he acquired a remarkable facility for expressing himself in writing. But when the thunderings of revolution drove his loyalist father back to the British Isles, the younger McGillivray returned to the Coosa and to his people, the Creeks. His three years among the whites had uniquely prepared him for the task that would be his. They gave him his greatest weapon—the pen- but the turbulent Creek frontier provided the ambitious young man the opportunity to achieve the place in history that he desired.
McGillivray rarely left the Creek country thereafter. When Louis Milfort found him there at the town of Coweta in 1776, sitting on a bearskin among his warriors, there was nothing to suggest that he was anything.more than a savage. He was only seventeen then, but already his rise to power had begun. Before long he had obtained a commission in the British service, and Creek warriors were pillaging the Georgia frontier.
In the career that followed, Alexander McGillivray acquired a sophisticated understanding of international affairs but continued to baffle those with whom he dealt with Indian subtlety and capriciousness. He had the qualities of leadership that the Creeks needed more than military might, and, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, he was “perhaps the only man who could have used aright such a rope of sand as was the Creek confederacy.” Much of his success may be attributed to his ability to write, and the existence of a large body of his correspondence provides a unique opportunity to see those years from the Indian point of view.
The end of the American Revolution saw McGillivray’s leadership of the Creeks assured, but although he was the pre-eminent man of his nation, his position was far from enviable. The British withdrawal left the Creeks without trade and under the guns of the E-cun-nau-nux-ulgee (“Peoplegreedily-grasping-after-land”), as the Creeks derisively called the Georgians. McGillivray’s personal fortune was gone, his landholdings in Georgia confiscated by the patriots. Moreover, Great Britain had ceded away much of the Creek country without the consent of the Indians.
In addition, dissipation and disease were serious impediments for McGillivray. Often he was so beset with pain that he could not rise from his bed for weeks, his fingers so stiff he could not lift a quill. Much of his suffering apparently resulted from venereal disease and drunkenness. Contemporary sources suggest that he had several “wives,” and David Humphreys, Washington’s former aide-decamp, who dealt with him in 1789, described him as “so much addicted to debauchery that he will not live four years.”
Even so Alexander McGillivray was a striking man, with dark eyes that burned from a handsome face made odd by a peculiarly prominent forehead. He was tall but unusually thin. One striking feature was his long fingers, with which he wrote at prodigious speed. His manner of dress was sometimes Indian, sometimes white, but most often a mixture of the two. Observers agree that he was witty, charming, and polite. At his plantation, the Apple Grove, he entertained guests graciously. His wife there bore him two children, Alexander and Elizabeth. From his quiet retreat on the Coosa this strange man turned himself to the problems of his people.
The outcome of the Revolution left the Creeks hemmed in by white settlement—Americans to the north and east, Spaniards to the south. As settlement pressed in on the Creeks and as game disappeared, trade with the whites became essential to survival. It was a fatal weakness, and only genius could accomplish the double magic of obtaining recognition of Creek sovereignty and establishing satisfactory trade with one of the powers on their borders. McGillivray had little faith in the “distracted republick” of the United States, which he viewed as hopelessly divided. So he turned to Spain, winning for himself a position as commissary of the Creek nation, which garnered for him the dual responsibility of representing the Spanish among the southern tribes and enforcing trade regulations established by the Creeks and the Spanish governor at New Orleans. With somewhat more difficulty he was able to persuade the Spanish to grant a trading monopoly to the British firm of Panton, Leslie, & Co., operated by McGillivray’s friend William Panton, a notorious Georgia Tory who shared his hatred of the Americans. With this accomplished, McGillivray could closely oversee Creek trade, and his power was assured. These successes countered most of his difficulties, and in the spring of 1786 he daringly turned to the major problem remaining. On April 2, 1786, the council of the Creek nation declared war on the state of Georgia.
The origin of the conflict lay in the insistence of Georgia that Creek lands had been ceded by authorized representatives of the Creeks at Augusta in 1783 and at Galphinton in 1785. Both claims rested on very shaky foundations. In the autumn of 1783 Georgia had called a conference with the Creeks. The invitation was ignored by the Indians with the exception of two minor civil chiefs whose names translated as “Tame King” and “Fat King.” On November 1, 1783, these two chiefs signed over a relatively small tract of land between the Oconee and Tugaloo rivers to the commissioners of Georgia. The main result was to ensure McGillivray’s ascendancy among the Creeks, who repudiated the treaty at his urging.
In February, 1785, the Georgia legislature inflamed the volatile Indian question even more by organizing a huge area of the Yazoo Strip into Bourbon County, precipitating war with the Creeks. Congress, fearful of war with Spain, appointed a commission to deal with the southern tribes; the Creeks were to meet the commissioners at Galphinton. McGillivray refused to attend but sent four chiefs as his representatives. When only a few Indians appeared, the United States commissioners abandoned treaty plans and departed. The Georgia agents did not share their reluctance to deal with only a part of the tribe, however, and negotiated the Treaty of Galphinton on November ia, 1785, not with the deputies of McGillivray but with the same two dissident chiefs responsible for the Augusta cession. The Galphinton treaty gave Georgia claim to Creek lands south of the Altamaha River from its junction with the Oconee to the Saint Marys River, but it too was repudiated almost before the ink was dry. Both the Creeks and the Georgians continued to claim the Oconee Strip, as the disputed area was called, as their own. Soon fighting was begun in earnest.
McGillivray did not loose his warriors to raid the settlements indiscriminately. He wisely concluded that unrestricted attacks would bring American retaliation of great force. He tempered his war, confining sorties to territory still claimed by the Creeks. Attacks were balanced with truces that lasted until the settlers encroached again on Creek lands. Thus by an application of the principles of limited war McGillivray prevented an outriffht American invasion.
Even so, there remained elements of the tribe opposed to McGillivray. In the fall of 1786, at a conference with Creek dissidents at Shoulderbone Creek, the Georgia commissioners blundered badly by seizing ‘fame King and Fat King as hostages. Instead of the results expected by Georgia, the incident united the Creeks under McGillivray’s leadership. At the year’s end the Creeks had stalled settlement on the Georgia frontier and pushed the Cumberland settlers back into the Carolinas. Moreover, McGillivray’s alliance with Spain was still in force. With prudence and skill McGillivray had entrenched the Creeks in a strong position.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The most persistent theme in Georgia’s protest was states’ rights. “It is not the Gonstitution we complain of, but the stretch and attempt to violate it,” cried one author. “The late Indian treaty made at New-York, will … become now a test , whether the United States have any separate territorial rights or privileges at all,” declared another. “The same power which can separate the Talassee county from Georgia can separate the state of Georgia, or any other state from the Union,” warned a writer for the Augusta Chronicle . In December the Georgia legislature published a report that, while recognizing the binding character of the treaty, severely criticized every provision as a violation of states’ rights.
In Congress, Georgia’s firebrand congressman, James jackson, bellowed his denunciation of the treaty: “It has ceded away, without any compensation whatever, three millions of acres of land guaranteed to Georgia by the Constitution. … It has given away her land, invited a savage of the Creek nation to the seat of Government, caressed him in a most extraordinary manner, and sent him home loaded with favors.” Said Fisher Ames to a friend: “Mr. Jackson of Georgia, yesterday let off” a balloon about the treaty with the Creeks.”
For the moment Ames was right. Jackson’s bellicose statements were mere hot air. Georgia stood alone. But the bitterness implanted in that southern state by the treaty had a lasting effect upon her attitudes toward the federal government and forecast ill for the future. Georgia’s protest was the first issue to raise the question of states’ rights after the adoption of the Constitution of 1787.
Georgia’s bitterness was overwhelmed in a general feeling of pride over the accomplishments of the treaty. Only a few die-hard Antifederalists stood by her. The rest of the country optimistically expected, like Washington, that “this event will leave us in peace from one end of our borders to the other.” His administration had ably averted the resumption of the Georgia-Creek war. More importantly, the treaty neatly parried Spanish designs in the Southwest. It may well have influenced Spain’s growing tendency toward negotiations with the United States, which came to fruition in the Pinckney Treaty of 1794, recognizing the American claim to the Yazoo Strip, granting free navigation of the Mississippi River, and bringing a measure of stability to the Southwest.
From the standpoint of the new government’s Indian policy the treaty was also significant. It firmly established federal supremacy in Indian affairs. It established the precedent of entertaining Indian delegations at the capital and outlined the manner in which future Indian treaties would be conducted.
Alexander McGillivray had entered into the treaty in the hope that it would solve his problems, and for a time it did. In the year that followed he was invincible among the Creeks, courted by the Spanish, and respected by the Americans. But as a basis for a lasting peace the agreement at New York fell far short of the expectations of both Washington and McGillivray. Renewal of the Georgia-Creek war was averted for a time, but the treaty was never carried out. The settlement required that a strip of land be cleared to mark the Georgia-Creek boundary. That in itself was a monumental task, but there is every indication that McGillivray intended to comply. Some preliminary plans were actually made. However, the Spanish were increasingly suspicious of him, and he was forced to devote much time to placating them.
Going to New Orleans in the spring of 1792 in an effort to steady his wavering power, McGillivray concluded another treaty with the Spanish that recommended the Creeks demand that the United States withdraw to the limits of 1773. Significantly, there was no commitment on McGillivray’s part to use force to achieve American withdrawal, and the evidence suggests that McGillivray had no intention of carrying out this aspect of the treaty. Still, the convention clearly conflicted with the Treaty of New York. The harried Creek desired a status quo situation. He gave up his American “salary” and failed to carry out the provisions of either treaty, pleading to the Americans that mutual depredations made it unsafe to run the line and to the Spanish that he lacked arms to force an American retreat.
Many have seen in McGillivray an unscrupulous and mercenary man. He could indeed be unscrupulous, even ruthless, in his dealings—lessons he learned well from the white officials with whom he dealt—but assertions that he callously “shifted his allegiance to the higher bidder,” as one historian put it, are unconvincing. His first loyalty was to the Creek nation, and his first duty was to further policies in line with Creek interests. Though he dickered, cajoled, and coaxed the Spanish and the Americans to the point of subterfuge, he scrupulously adhered to a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest. If he played the great powers against one another, he did so to preserve and improve the Creek nation.
But Alexander McGillivray knew better than anyone that the stalemate could not last indefinitely. The suggestion is unmistakable that he did not know which power on his borders held the key to Creek happiness and order. He had dreams of an Indian confederacy including both southern and northern tribes to hold back the Americans from further encroachments, plans the Spanish were encouraging. Yet he still showed visitors a pair of golden epaulets given to him by Washington, whom he described as “my political and adopted father.” In his uncertainty he saw all the signs of ‘crumbling authority. His dilemma was made the more excruciating by his shattered health. Had it not been for that, he might yet have recovered his position.
In January, 1793, he decided to visit a friend at Pensacola. By the time he arrived, he was very ill. At eleven o’clock on the evening of February 17, 1793, Alexander McGillivray died, a despondent and afflicted man. He was buried in the sands of Pensacola, far from the Coosa and his beloved Hickory Ground.
The strange, brilliant enigma, the greatest diplomat produced by the native American tribes, was dead. In faraway England the London Gentleman’s, Magazine noted his passing in space usually reserved for the obituaries of lords and dignitaries of state. President Washington learned of his death from a traveller in Baltimore, and when he returned to Mount Vernon, he wrote to Knox that “advice had been received and generally believed that our friend McGillivray was dead.” Two generations later that statement moved a Georgia historian to declare: “When we remember … how chary Washington was of praise, and how few and chosen were the men to whom he ever applied the sympathetic phrase of friend, this simple spontaneous testimonial … goes to the heart and arrests the mind by its high value and touching significance.”
The Creeks recognized their loss but were unable to replace Alexander McGillivray. Plans for an Indian alliance among the southern tribes crumbled, Spain’s position was weakened even more, and Indian affairs regressed to a more primitive level. In time both the Creeks and the Spaniards would succumb to the westward expansion of the United States. Within two years the Spanish recognized the American claim to the Yazoo lands. The Creeks resisted until 1814, when their power was broken at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River, not far from where Marinus Wille met McGillivray, and the last traces of the Indian past vanished into plowed furrow and pine woodland.