A Journey to the Northwest Frontier in 1783: The Journal of George McCully

(The following is a guest post by Julie Miller, early American specialist in the Manuscript Division.)

People who visit the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress often ask where our collections come from. Sometimes the answers are surprising. This is true for a journal kept in 1783 by a Revolutionary War veteran from Pennsylvania named George McCully. The journal, which is currently featured in a Library of Congress exhibition, “Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784,” came to the Library in a roundabout way.

Many years after McCully’s death in 1793 his widow, Ann McCully, submitted an application for a widow’s pension to the War Department’s Pension Bureau in Washington D.C. To support her application she included the journal. After Ann McCully received her pension in 1837, her application, with the journal, was filed away as entry 7-411 in the Pension Bureau’s “Widow File.” There it remained until 1906, when an official named C.M. Bryant realized that after three-quarters of a century the journal had shed its original function and acquired a new one as a historical document. In 1909 the Pension Bureau transferred the journal to the Library of Congress, where it soon caught the eye of Detroit lawyer and local historian Clarence Monroe Burton. He published it in The Magazine of History in 1910.

McCully’s journal is a record of his trip from Pittsburgh to Detroit in the summer of 1783.  McCully went as a companion to Ephraim Douglass, who had been sent by Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln on a mission to the Indians of the Northwest frontier. Like McCully, Douglass was a Pennsylvanian and a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Secretary Lincoln may have chosen him because he knew him as his aide-de-camp during the war, but Douglass also had the necessary skills: he was an Indian trader (as McCully may also have been), and he knew his way along the trade routes. He also knew the languages of the tribes he was sent to meet with.

Douglass’s instructions were to tell these tribes – many of whom had sided with the British – that now that a treaty ending the war was about to be signed, they would have to accept American sovereignty. This message would be a bitter one for these people to receive. Although many had been important players in the war and all would be profoundly affected by the redistribution of land that followed, they had been excluded from the treaty negotiations then in progress.

As a primary source McCully’s journal has some problems. It is a copy – probably made by Ann McCully – and an imperfect one. A few dates are mixed up, and the journal’s account of the trip goes only from June 7, when Douglass and McCully left Pittsburgh, to July 4, when they were just outside Fort Detroit. But Douglass’s August 18, 1783, report to Secretary Lincoln shows that the little delegation reached Detroit, visited the British commander there then continued on to the British forts at Niagara and Oswego before returning to Princeton, New Jersey, where Congress was meeting. (Are you wondering what Congress was doing in Princeton? See here.)

"Indian of the Nation of the Shawanoes." 1826. Prints and Photographs Division.

“Indian of the Nation of the Shawanoes.” 1826. Prints and Photographs Division.

McCully’s vivid descriptions make up for the journal’s shortcomings. Despite his sometimes iffy spelling and punctuation, he brings the landscape of the Pennsylvania and Ohio wilderness and its people to life. McCully shows how difficult this landscape was to travel through, even for those who knew the way. The trading path they took from Pittsburgh, where they both lived, was “intricate” and “impossible to follow” since “the bushes were lofty and in many places enterlocked in each other.” Near a place with the picturesque name of Hell Town they “met with intolerable swamps and thickets,” then “lost the road and lost ourselves.” McCully describes a very wet landscape, full of streams and rivers to cross, swamps to get lost in and plenty of rain. On several occasions they had to get themselves and their horses over deep, fast-moving rivers. At Mohican John’s Town in Ohio, heavy rain forced them to spend an extra night with “a large swarm of bees . . . They were our companions during our stay at the place.”

McCully also documented the social complexity of life on the frontier. This was a place where plenty of Indians spoke French, the result of centuries of interaction with French explorers, trappers and missionaries, and it was not unusual to meet white people who wore feathers in their hair. The Delaware, Shawnee and Wyandot lived in this area. So did traders, Moravian missionaries, settlers taken captive by Indian tribes and the agents the British used to manage relations with their Indian allies. This multilingual blend of cultures sometimes produced confusion. McCully describes how one evening when he and Douglass were camped near a stream they heard an Indian call. Douglass replied in the same language, asking the caller to “come up to us,” apparently so fluently that when the Indian arrived he was surprised to find a white man. McCully tells what happened: “Seeing him much alarmed Mr. Douglass and I stepped to him and took him by the hand, told our business, took every method to dissipate his fear.” The Indian, his two companions and McCully and Douglass then spent the evening “very sociably together.”

At a Delaware settlement on the Sandusky River in Ohio, McCully and Douglass met several captive settlers. One woman captive they met there “as soon as she saw us burst into tears and began to make a complaint of ill treatment as though we would have relieved her.” Another “behaved with more prudence and bore her misfortune well.” McCully’s surprising lack of sympathy for these women may be the result of what he knew and what historians have documented about the mixed experiences of white settlers taken captive by Indians. Some, especially women and children, were adopted by their captors, adapted to Indian life and chose to stay, even when they had the chance to return home. Eunice Williams, captured as a 7-year-old from Deerfield, Mass., in 1704, and Mary Jemison, captured in Pennsylvania as a 15-year-old in 1758, are two examples of this phenomenon. McCully may have seen such acculturated captives and reasoned that misery was not a given.

Frances and Almira Hall, taken captive by the Fox and Sauk at Indian Creek, Illinois, 1832. Their experience may have been similar to that of the captives George McCully met on the Sandusky River in Ohio in 1783.

Frances and Almira Hall, taken captive by the Fox and Sauk at Indian Creek, Illinois, 1832. Their experience may have been similar to that of the captives George McCully met on the Sandusky River in Ohio in 1783.

Just as Indian captives could become hybrid figures – at home in more than one world – so could the agents who worked for the British Indian Department. One of these was Matthew Elliot, who McCully and Douglass encountered on their journey. Before the Revolution, according to Clarence Burton, Douglass and Elliot – both Indian traders around Pittsburgh – were “intimate acquaintances.” But early in the war Elliot left Pittsburgh to side with the British while Douglass fought on the American side. Elliot, who lived with the Shawnees and worked for the British at Detroit, developed a fearsome reputation among the Americans. Lorenzo Sabine, author of “The American Loyalists; or, Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown in the War of the Revolution” (1847) noted his “revengeful disposition and infamous deeds.”

Sabine may have been indulging in colorful hyperbole, but Douglass does appear to have mistrusted Elliot. At Sandusky, Douglass wrote him, asking him to invite the Shawnees to meet with him there. “Though I promised to myself very little from this Letter,” Douglass reported to Lincoln, “I knew it could do no possible harm–and though I did not hope he would give himself any trouble to serve me, I thought the possibility that the compliment of it might prevent his opposition worth the trouble of writing it.” Instead of delivering Douglass’s message to his Shawnee hosts, Elliot, taking orders from Detroit, obstructed him as Douglass guessed he might. After Douglass and McCully left Sandusky for Detroit, they met Elliot on the road. He had been sent from Detroit to conduct them there and, McCully recorded in his journal, “to prevent our speaking with the Indians.”

Joseph Brant, engraving of a portrait by George Romney, ca. 1776.  Ephraim Douglass met with Joseph Brant at Fort Niagara, which was in British hands in 1783.

Joseph Brant, engraving of a portrait by George Romney, ca. 1776. Ephraim Douglass met with Joseph Brant at Fort Niagara, which was in British hands in 1783.

In the end, Douglass’s mission was not a success. Everywhere he went Indian leaders politely rejected his message. The British commanders at forts Detroit, Niagara and Oswego, wanting to maintain their relations with their Indian allies and unwilling to give up their forts (which they held onto for more than a decade after the Treaty of Paris), were not interested in helping. At Fort Detroit commander Arent Schuyler Depeyster (a New York loyalist) told Douglass that “he could not consent that any thing should be said to the Indians relative to the boundary of the United States.” But at Fort Niagara the great Mohawk leader Joseph Brant defied the resistance of the British commander there and came to speak with Douglass. In his report, Douglass described how, in an evening of “friendly argument” Brant “insisted that they would make a point of having them [Indian lands] secured before they would enter into any farther or other Treaty.” Brant later left for Canada, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Even though Douglass’s mission didn’t succeed, it produced one lasting prize, long hidden in the Widow File at the Pension Bureau: George McCully’s perceptive and revealing journal, which shows the land and the original people of Pennsylvania Ohio, and the Great Lakes as they were in the summer of 1783.

“Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784,” is in the North Gallery, first floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington DC.  “Across a New Nation,” a section of the exhibition’s computer interactive, is based on George McCully’s journal.

3 Comments

  1. Larry Cole
    April 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I would like to subscribe to an emailing that would contain more journals like this. It is quite interesting. I like reading things written by the actual people experiencing the story. Like the journals of Lewis & Clark, I would much rather read a copy of the actual journals that someone’s “cleaned-up” version. I don’t need spelling corrected or someone else’s interpretation of what the journalist really meant as I think those can slant the true meaning of the original journal.

  2. Garry Whittall
    April 29, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    A really interesting post; I had no idea until reading this that following the War of Independence, the British not only remained in garrisons but continued to try and influence local politics so brazenly!

  3. George McCully
    April 29, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks so much for publishing this journal of my ancestor’s. It merits further scholarship, needless to say.

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