McCREA ATROCITY. Daughter of a New Jersey Presbyterian minister, Jane McCrea (also known as Jenny) lived with a brother who had settled along the Hudson River about halfway between Saratoga and Fort Edward. She was engaged to Lieutenant David Jones, a Loyalist with Burgoyne's invading army. When her brother moved to Albany in early 1777, McCrea went to Fort Edward with the hope of meeting her fiancé when the invaders arrived. She was taken in as a guest by the elderly Mrs. McNeil, a cousin of British General Simon Fraser. On 27 July 1777 a band of Burgoyne's Indians reached abandoned Fort Edward, two days ahead of the main body of the British army. Taking the two women, they started back to Fort Ann, where the army had its headquarters at the time. They arrived with Mrs. McNeil and a scalp that was promptly identified by Jones as that of his fiancée, Jane McCrea. The most generally accepted version of her death is that she had been shot, scalped, and stripped of her clothing after her drunken captors had gotten into an altercation as to which should be her guard.
Burgoyne was put in a difficult position. If he disciplined the murderer he risked losing his Indian allies; but doing nothing would be condoning the murder. Burgoyne chose to pardon the murderer and deliver a lecture to his allies on the need to show restraint in warfare. The lecture did not go over well, and most of the Indians left Burgoyne's camp.
General Horatio Gates wrote Burgoyne personally, holding him responsible for the murder. Burgoyne wrote back in a lame attempt to defend his pardoning of the murderer as "more efficacious than an execution to prevent similar mischiefs."
The Patriots skillfully exploited this atrocity to whip up popular indignation against the invaders. Ironically, the murder of this Loyalist woman became a very effective recruiting tool for the United States. Washington wrote militia officers throughout New England urging them to turn out to save their own wives and daughters from a fate similar to McCrea's. The story spread with remarkable rapidity. Newspapers in every state published it as a dire warning of the fate that faced all American women if the British won. The first fruit of this propaganda campaign came at Bennington, where an unexpectedly large and effective body of militia turned out and annihilated a detachment from Burgoyne's army. Militiamen continued to gather, and they proved a major factor in the ultimate defeat of Burgoyne. The story of Jenny McCrea's murder, as improved by American propagandists, played a large part in mustering this mushroom army.
Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
revised by Michael Bellesiles