History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne
and The Expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger.
by William L. Stone.
Albany, NY, Joel Munsell. 1877.
Part IV. The Jane McCrea Tragedy.
Probably no event, either in ancient or modern war-fare, has received so many versions as the killing of Miss Jane McCrea, during the revolutionary war. It has been commemorated in story and in song, and narrated in grave histories, in as many different ways as there have been writers upon the subject. As an incident merely, of the Revolution, accuracy in its relation is not, perhaps, of much moment. When measured, however, by its results, it at once assumes an importance which justifies such an investigation as shall bring out the truth.
The slaying of Miss McCrea was, to the people of New York, what the battle of Lexington was to the New England colonies. In each case, the effect was to consolidate the inhabitants more firmly against the invader. The blood of the unfortunate girl was not shed in vain. From every drop, hundreds of armed yeomen arose ; and, as has been justly said, her name was passed as a note of alarm along the banks of the Hudson, and as a rallying cry among the Green mountains of Vermont brought down her hardy sons. It thus contributed to Burgoyne's defeat, which became a precursor and principal cause of American independence.
The story, as told by Bancroft, Irving and others is, that as Jane McCrea was on her way from Fort Edward to meet her lover. Lieutenant Jones, at the British camp, under the protection of the Indians, a quarrel arose between the latter as to which should have the promised reward , when one of them, to terminate the dispute, " sunk," as Mr. Bancroft says, " his tomahawk into the skull" of their unfortunate charge. The correct account, however, of the Jane McCrea Tragedy, gathered from the statement made by Mrs. McNeal to General Burgoyne on the 28th of July, 1777, in the marquee of her cousin. General Fraser, and corroborated by several people well acquainted with Jane McCrea, and by whom it was related to the late Judge Hay, of Saratoga Springs - a veracious and industrious historian - and taken down, from their lips, is different from the version given by Mr. Bancroft.
On the morning of the 27th of July, 1777, Miss McCrea and Mrs. McNeal were in the latter's house at Fort Edward, preparing to set out for Fort Miller for greater security, as rumors had been rife of Indians in the vicinity. Their action was the result of a message sent to them early in the morning by General Arnold, who had, at the same time, despatched to their assistance Lieutenant Palmer, with some twenty men, with orders to place their furniture and effects on board a bateau and row the family down to Fort Miller Lieutenant Palmer, having been informed by Mrs. McNeal that nearly all her household goods had been put on board the bateau; remarked that he, with the soldiers, was going up the hill as far as an old block-house, for the purpose of reconnoitering, but would not be long absent. The lieutenant and his party, however, not returning, Mrs. McNeal, and Jane McCrea concluded not to wait longer, but to ride on horseback to Col. McCrea's ferry, leaving the further lading of the boat in charge of a black servant. When the horses, however, were brought up to the door, it was found that one side-saddle was missing, and a boy1 was accordingly despatched to the house of a Mr. Gillis for the purpose of borrowing a sidesaddle or a pillion.
1 His name was Norman Morrison. It is not known what became of him, though tradition states, that being small and active, he escaped from the savages and reached his house in Hartford, Washington Co., N. Y.
While watching for the boy's return, Mrs. McNeal heard a discharge of fire arms, 1 and looking out of a window, saw one of Lieutenant Palmer's soldiers running along the military road toward the fort, pursued by several Indians. The fugitive, seeing Mrs. McNeal, waved his hat as a signal of danger, and passed on ; which the Indians perceiving, left off the pursuit, and came toward the house.
Seeing their intention, Mrs. McNeal, screamed ; "get down cellar for your lives!" On this, Jane McCrea and the black woman. Eve, with her infant, retreated safely to the cellar, but Mrs. McNeal was caught on the stairs by the Indians, and dragged back by the hair of her head by a powerful savage, who was addressed by his companions, as the " Wyandot Panther." A search in the cellar was then begun, and the result was the discovery of Jane McCrea, who was brought up from her concealment, 2 the Wyandot exclaiming upon seeing her. " My squaw, me find um agin-me keep um fast now, forebet, ugh ! " By this time the soldiers had arrived at the fort, the alarm drum was beaten, and a party of soldiers started in pursuit. Alarmed by the noise of the drum-which
1 So fatal was this discharge, that out of Lieutenant PalmeR's party of twenty men, only eight remained. Palmer himself being killed on the spot.
2 Judge Hay was informed by Adam, after he became a man, that his mother. Eve, had often described to him how she continued to conceal him and herself in an ash-bin beneath a fire-place, he luckily not awaking to cry while the search was going on around them in the cellar. This was also confirmed by the late Mrs. Judge Cowen.
" I never saw Jenny afterwards," says Mrs. McNeal, "nor anything that appertained to her person until my arrival in the British camp, when an aide-de-camp showed me a fresh scalp-lock which I could not mistake, because the hair was unusually fine, luxuriant, lustrous, and dark as the wing of a raven. Till that evidence of her death was exhibited, I hoped, almost against hope, that poor Jenny had been either rescued by our pursuers (in whose army her brother, Stephen McCrea, was a surgeon), or brought by our captors to some part of the British encampment."
While at Griffith's house, Mrs. McNeal endeavored to hire an Indian, named Captain Tommo, to go back and search for her companion, but neither he nor any of the Indians could be prevailed upon to venture even as far back as the brow of the Fort Edward hill to look down it for the " white squaw," as they called Jenny.
The remains of Miss McCrea were gathered up by those who would have rescued her, and buried-together with those of Lieutenant Palmer-under the supervision of Colonel Morgan Lewis (then deputy quarter-master general), on the bank of the creek, three miles south of Fort Edward, and two miles south other brother John McCrea's farm, which was across the Hudson, and directly opposite the principal encampment of General Schuyler.
The only statements which, while disproving Mr. Bancroft's relation, seems to conflict with the above account of the manner of her death, is the one made by Dr. John Bartlett, a surgeon in the American army. This occurs in his report to the director-general of the hospitals of the Northern department, dated at Moses creek at head-quarters, at ten o'clock of the night of July 27, 1777, and is as follows : "
" I have this moment returned from Fort Edward, where a party of hell-hounds, in conjunction with their brethren, the British troops, fell upon an advanced guard, inhumanly butchered, scalped and stripped four of them, wounded two more, each in the thigh, and four more are missing.
" Poor Miss Jenny McCrea, and the woman with whom she lived, were taken by the savages, led up the hill to where there was a body of British troops, and there the poor girl was shot to death in cold blood, scalped and left on the ground, and the other woman not yet found.
"The alarm came to camp at two P.M. I was at dinner. I immediately sent off to collect all the regular surgeons, in order to take some one or two of them along with me, but the devil a bit of one was to be found. * * * * There is neither amputating instrument, crooked needle, nor tourniquet in all the camp. I have a handful of lint and two or three bandages, and that is all.
What in the name of wonder I am to do in case of an attack, God only knows. Without assistance, without instruments, without anything ! "
This statement, however, was made, as is apparent on its face, hurriedly, and under great excitement. A thousand rumors were flying in the air, and there had been no time in which to sift the kernels of truth from the chaff. But, in addition to this, the story of the surgeon is flatly contradicted by testimony, both at the time of the occurrence and afterward. General Burgoyne's famous " Bouquet order" of the 21st of May, and his efforts, by appealing to their fears and love of gain, to prevent any species of cruelty on the part of his savage allies-facts well known to his officers and men - render it simply impossible to believe the statement of Surgeon Bartlett, that a "body of British troops" stood calmly by and witnessed the murder of a defenceless maiden - and a maiden, too, between whom and one of their comrades-in-arms there was known to be a betrothment. Leaving, however, probabilities, we have the entirely different and detailed account of Jenny's companion, Mrs. McNeal, " the woman with whom she lived," and who, as " the woman not yet found," was endeavoring-while the surgeon was penning his account - to prevail upon the Indians to go back and search for Jenny's body, left behind in their hurried flight.
The entire matter, however, seems to be placed beyond all doubt, not only by the corroborative statement of the Wyandot Panther, when brought into the presence of Burgoyne - to the effect that it was not he, but the enemy, that had killed her - but by the statement of General Morgan Lewis, afterward governor of New York state. His account is thus given by the late Judge Hay in a letter, to the writer :
"Several years after Mrs. Teasse had departed this-to her-eventful life, I conversed (in the hearing of Mr. David Banks, at his law-book store in New York) with Governor Lewis. Morgan Lewis then stated his distinct recollection that there were three gun shot wounds upon Miss McCrea's corpse, which, on the day of her death, was, by direction of himself- and, in fact, under his own personal supervision- removed, together with a subaltern's remains, from a hill near Fort Edward to the Three Mile creek, where they were- interred. The fact of the bullet wounds - of which I had not before heard, but which was consistent with Mrs. Teasse's statement - was to me ' confirmation strong as proof from Holy writ,' that Jane McCrea had not been killed exclusively by Indians, who would have done that deed either with a tomahawk or scalping-knife, and would not, therefore, be likely (pardon the phrase in this connection) to have wasted their ammunition. In that opinion Governor Lewis, an experienced jurist-if not general-familiar with rules of evidence, concurred." This opinion of two eminent lawyers, as well as the statement of the Wyandot, receives, moreover, additional confirmation in the fact that when the remains of Jane McCrea, a few years since were disinterred and removed to the old Fort Edward burial ground, and consigned to Mrs. McNeal's grave. Dr. William S. Norton, a respectable and highly intelligent practitioner of physic and surgery, examined her skull, and found no marks whatever of a cut or a gash. 1
1 Miss McCrea's remains have recently again been removed, for the third time, to the new Union cemetery, situated half way between Fort Edward and Sandy Hill. A large slab of white marble has been placed over the spot by Miss McCrea's niece, Mrs. Sarah H. Payne.
This fact, also, strongly confirms the opinion expressed at the time by General Fraser, 1 at the post-mortem camp investigation, that Jane McCrea was accidentally, or rather unintentionally, killed by American troops pursuing the Indians, and, as General Fraser said he had often witnessed, aiming too high, when the mark was on elevated ground, as had occurred at Bunker's (Breed's) hill.
It thus appears, first, that Jane McCrea was accidentally killed by the Americans, and, secondly, that the American loyalist, David Jones, did not send the Indians, much less the ferocious Wyandot Panther, whom he abhorred and dreaded, on their errand.
Indeed, the falsity of this latter statement (which, by the way, General Burgoyne never believed) is also susceptible of proof. The well established fact that Jones had sent Robert Ayers (father-in-law of Mr. Ransom Cook, now residing at Saratoga Springs, N. Y.), with a letter to Miss Jane McCrea asking her to visit the British encampment and accompany its commander-in-chief, with his lady guests, on an excursion to Lake George, clearly shows how the charge against Jones had crept into a whig accusation concerning misconduct and meanness, and the dialogue (also well authenticated) between two of her captors, in relation to the comparative value of a white squaw-estimated at a barrel of rum--and her scalp-lock, accounts perhaps, for the story of the pretended proffered reward (a barrel of rum), alleged to have caused the quarrel among the Indians which resulted in
1 Afterwards killed at the battle of Saratoga, Oct. 7th, 1777.
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