Of Note: Thomas Jefferson Thinks Again: A New Letter about Logan, Cresap, and the Yellow Creek Massacre

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and early America specialist Julie Miller.

In 1797 Vice President Thomas Jefferson learned that a murder committed near the Ohio River twenty-five years earlier had been carried out by someone other than the man he had named in his 1784 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. In a 1799 letter to Kentucky judge Harry Innes, Jefferson argued that his old mistake had been “raked up from party hatred, as furnishing some ground which might aid the design of writing me down.” The Manuscript Division has just acquired the received copy of this letter with funds generously contributed by the Library’s Madison Council. It has been added to the Manuscript Division’s Thomas Jefferson Papers.

In the spring of 1774 approximately eight people from the Native American village of Yellow Creek were murdered by white settlers, an event known to historians as the Yellow Creek Massacre. Among the group was the sister and other family members of the Mingo leader Soyechtowa, or Tocaniadorogon, who had taken the name James Logan. Logan belonged to a Haudenosaunee people, then known as the Mingo (a term no longer in use), who had moved from New York to the Ohio River valley. In a note addressed to John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, then governor of Virginia, Logan lamented the loss of his family: “Col. Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature . . . Who is there to mourn for Logan?—Not one.”[1]

Black and white printed clipping of Logan's speech

Advertisement for The Little Reader’s Assistant in the Hampshire Gazette, including a reference to “Story and speech of Logan, a Mingo Chief” (Northampton, Massachusetts), September 21, 1791.

Jefferson told the story of the Yellow Creek Massacre in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and named the murderer, as Logan had, as “Col. Cresap,” or Michael Cresap, whom he described as “a man infamous for the many murders he had committed on those much-injured people,” the Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, and other peoples of the Ohio River Valley.[2] He included the text of “Logan’s lament.” Jefferson’s book brought Logan’s words into the American canon. “Logan’s lament” was recited by orators and included in books, including McGuffey’s Readers for children and Noah Webster’s 1791 Little Reader’s Assistant.

The man who in 1797 alerted Jefferson to his mistake was Luther Martin, Maryland’s attorney general. Martin was a political foe of Jefferson and the son-in-law of Michael Cresap, who had died in 1775. He learned of Jefferson’s characterization of Cresap when an orator named James Fennell performed Logan’s speech. Martin responded with a series of eight angry letters to Jefferson denying Cresap’s involvement, defending his reputation, and doubting the authenticity of Logan’s speech. He sent the first of these to Jefferson in December 1797, and then published it and the rest in Porcupine’s Gazette, an anti-Jeffersonian newspaper (its editor, William Cobbett, used the pseudonym Peter Porcupine).[3]

Jefferson refused to reply to Martin, but he did begin a search for information to try to learn whether or not Cresap had murdered Logan’s family, and if not, who had. Judge Innes was one of Jefferson’s informants. As a result of Innes’s information, Jefferson discovered that even though Cresap had committed murders on the Ohio frontier, the man who killed Logan’s family was someone else, a man named Daniel Greathouse. Jefferson added an appendix to the 1800 edition of his book with the information he had uncovered.[4]

The images shows Native Americans taking captives from Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities.

This nineteenth-century representation of the Yellow Creek Massacre is from Frost’s Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities. Logan finding his murdered family,” wood engraving, 1873. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress contains significant documentation of this controversy. It holds many editions of Notes on the State of Virginia, copies of Porcupine’s Gazette, and, of course, Jefferson’s papers, including the correspondence documenting his search for the truth. The papers already contain a copy, made by Jefferson on his copying press, of his June 20, 1799, letter to Judge Innes, but the copy was so faint that the editors of the published edition of Jefferson’s papers had difficulty making it out.[5] The newly acquired letter adds to a story of Native Americans, settlers, violence, American education and entertainment, and Jefferson’s state of mind as he approached the presidency.

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[1] Jefferson published Logan’s speech in his Notes on the State of Virginia (London: John Stockdale, 1787), p.106, online at: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100693043. For a modern retelling of the Yellow Creek Massacre, see Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 357-362.

[2] For Michael Cresap, see Robert G. Parkinson, “From Indian Killer to Worthy Citizen: The Revolutionary Transformation of Michael Cresap,” William and Mary Quarterly 63 (January 2006): 97-122, and Cameron B. Strang, “Michael Cresap and the Promulgation of Settler Land-Claiming Methods in the Back-Country, 1665-1775,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 118 (2010): 106-135.

[3] Porcupine’s Gazette is available in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room, and online at America’s Historical Newspapers, accessible onsite at the Library of Congress at //eresources.loc.gov/.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia with an Appendix Relative to the Murder of Logan’s Family (Trenton, printed by Wilson and Blackwell for Mathew Carey, Philadelphia, 1803). Some key letters that document Jefferson’s search for the perpetrator of the Yellow Creek Massacre are Thomas Jefferson to John Gibson, May 31, 1797; Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Brown, March 25, 1798; Samuel Brown to Thomas Jefferson, September 4, 1798; Harry Innes to Thomas Jefferson, March 2, 1799; Harry Innes to Thomas Jefferson, November 15, 1799, all in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Thomas Jefferson to Harry Innes, press copy, June 20, 1799, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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