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Pensacola Beach History Alexander McGillivray
(1759- Feb. 17, 1793)
The remarkable life of Creek Indian chief Alexander McGillivray illustrates how sophisticated the Creek Indians were in the years immediately before and after American independence, and how narrowly they missed achieving diplomatic success by allying with British forces.
Had the American Revolution failed, or had Spain or England somehow managed to retain their hold on Western Florida, a very different course could well have been charted for Pensacola. Imagine a West Florida still tied to the Crown, like Canada, in which Creek Indians play a central role. That, and more, was Chief McGillivray's vision. But for events beyond his control at Yorktown, where the British surrendered to George Washington's revolutionary army, he might well have achieved it.
Scholars are not in total agreement about McGillivray's earliest years, but the most important details are well documented. He was born "Hoboi-Hilr-Miko" not far from Montgomery, Alabama, at Little Tallassees on the Coosa River. His father, Lachlan McGillivray, was a Scott fur trapper and frontier trader. His mother, Sehoy Marchand, was half-French and half-Creek. She had been born into the Wind tribe (sometimes also known as Red Sticks). Her father was a French Army Captain.
Until the age of 14, Hoboi Hilr Miko lived and worked at his father's trading post on the Tallapoosa River in Alabama. This was during a time when Spain, England, and France were competing for control of the West Florida colonial land.
As he was approaching adulthood, it is believed, his father sent him east to be educated at Charleston and Savannah. Some evidence exists to suggest that there he became a scholar of Latin and Greek. In any event, surviving correspondence shortly after this period reveals him to have been a learned, erudite young man with a bold, rounded, flowing penmanship characteristic of classically educated men of the era.
McGillivray's father, Lachlan, was a Loyalist. When fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord between Great Britain and the North American colonies, his property was subject to confiscation by American revolutionaries, so he decamped to Scotland, leaving his son behind.
McGillivray left Georgia himself and returned to his homeland among the Creek Indians in Little Tallassees. There, he was offered the position of assistant commissary, or storekeeper, at the British trading post maintained by David Tait. Tait was also a Scot. He had come to Georgia and there had gained appointment as chief Commissary to all of the Upper Creek for the British Southern Indian Department.
Creek social and political organization was matrilineal, so McGillivray was able to draw upon his mother's extended family relationships for political and economic support. Since it was one of Tait's responsibilities to be the British crown's representative to the Upper Creek, and maintain cordial diplomatic relations with them, he turned to young Alexander McGillivray as a natural ally in the effort to maintain a British presence in Creek territory and to maintain order in the Indian trade.
Creek Alliance Against The Colonies
Beginning in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence, McGillivray began to gain ascendance as one of the young leaders of the Upper Creek bands even as he continued working for Tait. Because of his dual role, in 1777 he fortuitously learned of an assassination plot hatched by Georgian revolutionaries who intended to use pro-American Lower Creek Indians to kill David Tait. McGillivray warned Tait in time and the Scot fled.
With Tait gone and Britain still entangled in war, McGillivray became the chief Commissary of the trading post himself.
In January, 1779, he led a band of Creek Warriors who assisted the British army which was then invading Georgia. For several months after that, McGillivray and his warrior band remained with the British forces as auxiliaries.
In 1780, the Spanish besieged British forces in Pensacola. McGillivray led seventeen hundred warriors to support the British defenders there. The Spanish commander, Bernardo de Gálvez, later remarked that the presence of the "forest soldiers" there was one of the reasons he decided to withdraw his fleet.
All was not well between the Creeks and the British, however. One historian has written that mocking cries of 'wolf, wolf' by the British commander in 1780 so infuriated the Creeks that, the following year, even McGillivray could not persuade them to return to Pensacola when the Spanish besieged the town a second time. This time, de Gálvez landed forces on Santa Rosa Island and besieged Pensacola. The resulting Battle of Pensacola Bay has gone down in history as one of the watershed vents of the Revolutionary War.
Creek Alliance With Spain
After the defeat of Britain at Yorktown, McGillivray settled in Pensacola, which returned to Spanish control under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. In Pensacola, the Creek chieftain joined the Masonic Order and took up the occupation of trader for the Panton, Leslie & Company.
Shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1782, the head warrior of the Upper Creek Indians, Emistisiguo, was killed in a battle with American troops in Georgia. The Upper Creek chose McGillivray as his successor in 1783.
McGillivray calculated (correctly) that Americans soon would be descending into Spanish territory and threatening their trading interests as well as Spanish political control of West Florida. At the beginning of 1784, he wrote the Spanish Governor of Pensacola, Arturo O'Neill, urging him to sign a treaty with the Creek. McGillivray hoped to secure a trading concession for the Creeks to Mobile, and in return he was promising Creek assistance in resisting the American expansionist pressure.
Already the acknowledged leader of Creeks all along the Gulf Coast, Chief McGillivray now envisioned an alliance of southern Indians as far north as Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, backed by England and Spain, which would force the infant United States republic to withdraw from that frontier. In 1784, Spain and the Creek nation signed a treaty granting Spain a monopoly of the Creek trade, appointing McGillivray a colonel in the Spanish army, and authorizing McGillivray to expel the Americans.
McGillivray then began a war against the United States. Battles were fought from Georgia to Cumberland, Tenn. The war was so successful that in 1787 the Congress operating under Articles of Confederation sent a delegation to negotiate with McGillivray.
Some evidence suggests the Creek chief suggested that the aboriginal Creek lands be organized and admitted to the new republic as a state. Possibly because word of this got back to the Spanish governor, Spain stopped supplying munitions to McGillivray. (Munitions supplies for the Creeks resumed in 1789, but historians have concluded the Spanish never fully trusted him again.)
Treaty with the United States
One early result of the re-organization of the United States under the Constitution was that the central government was better able to manage its diplomatic affairs with foreign states and Indian tribes.
In 1790, the newly elected President of the United States, George Washington, dispatched treaty negotiators to make contact with McGillivray. Eventually, McGillivray was persuaded to journey to New York City. There, he repudiated the 1784 treaty with Spain and signed a new agreement with the United States. Under this treaty, McGillivray agreed to settle certain described borders and was made a brigadier general at a pay rate of $1,200 per year.
Soon after his return from New York, McGillivray made a new agreement with Spain repudiating the Treaty of New York. Spain agreed to pay him $2,000 a year (raised later to $3,500) and not to demand any land concessions.
The Death of McGillivray
While visiting his friend and supporter, William Panton, in Pensacola, in the winter of 1793, McGillivray fell ill with a fever. He died of pneumonia and complications of gout on February 17, 1793.
Historians agree that Alexander McGillivray was a shrewd and effective leader of his people at a time when their world was radically changing in unpredictable ways. No longer was Spain the unchallengable power she had once been. Yet, the power of Britain, too, was being challenged by upstart colonials in the New World and ancient enemies in the old. All the while, unrelenting pressure was building along a frontier populated by violence-prone, lawless land-grabbing settlers
For more than a decade, McGillivray "performed a delicate diplomatic juggling act" of keeping American expansionism at bay, aligning the Creeks with Spanish power, yet at the same time keeping Spain in an almost submissive role in the face of his power. As chief of the Creeks, McGillivray had to placate many factions of the Upper and Lower Creek tribes, keep internal rivals within the tribe at bay, knit factions of Upper Creeks and Lower Creeks together for their common defense, and still serve the interests of his employer, Panton, Leslie, and Company, which wanted no interruption in the flow of trade goods.
McGillivray clearly profited personally from his activities. He held title to vast stretches of productive land and more than 60 slaves. His growing personal wealth excited the jealousies of many, white and Indian alike. Owing to his personal wealth and power, it is said, "virtually anyone doing business on the frontier of the old Southwest from 1783 to 1793 had to reckon with McGillivray."
But he is best remembered for his acumen as a leader of his people. As James H. O'Donnell III has written:"Time and circumstance favored him, but his own diplomatic and intellectual abilities were fundamental to the success which he enjoyed. He was the first of the Creek mixed-blood leaders. None of those who followed him equaled him in skills or accomplishments; no one could truly replace him as the 'Great Beloved Man'' of the Creek."
John Walton Caughey, MCGILLIVRAY OF THE CREEKS (1938).
David H. Corkran, THE CREEK FRONTIER, 1540-1783 (1967).
Arthus Orrmont, DIPLOMAT IN WAR PAINT: CHIEF ALEXANDER MCGILLIVRAY OF THE CREEKS (1967)
James H. O'Donnell III, Alexander McGillivray: Training for Leadership, 1777-1783 Georgia Historical Quarterly, v. 49 (1965)
Select Letters of Alexander McGillivray
Collected from web genology and historical sites.
A Creek Indian Bibliography
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