McGillivray, Alexander

views updated May 17 2018

McGillivray, Alexander

Born 1759 (Present-day Alabama)
Died February 17, 1793 (Pensacola, Florida)

Creek Indian leader

Alexander McGillivray was an important Native American political leader during the early years of the United States. He came to power in the Creek Confederacy at a time when white settlements were expanding farther into traditional Native American homelands and threatening Native American society. McGillivray used his influence to introduce reforms and protect Creek interests. As the son of a European father and a Native American mother, McGillivray made a unique contribution to the history of the newly formed United States.

"For the good of my Country I have sacrificed my all and it is a duty incumbent on me in this critical situation. . . . The protection of a great Monarch is to be preferred to that of a distracted Republic."

McGillivray's domestic policy urged the centralization of power among the Native Americans; the concept of centralization was characteristic of European-style governments but had never been tried in the Creek nation. His foreign policy in the mid-1780s resulted in an alliance with Spain, the country that controlled the Gulf Coast region and the area that makes up present-day Florida. The alliance guaranteed the Creek their political and territorial rights within Florida. After George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) was inaugurated as the first president of the United States in 1789, McGillivray met with him to sign the Treaty of New York. The treaty established a formal relationship between the United States and the Creek nation and provided a federal guarantee of Creek territorial rights.

A native Creek

Alexander McGillivray was born around 1759 at his father's Little Tallassee plantation, near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. Little Tallassee was located close to the ruins of the old French fort Toulouse outside the Creek Indian town of Otcipofa, on the Coosa River. Alexander's mother was Sehoy Marchand, a Creek Indian of the influential Wind Clan. She was a member of the Koasati tribe of the Muskogee or Creek confederacy. The Koasati were a matriarchal tribe, which means they traced their descent and inheritance through female family members. Alexander developed close ties with his mother's family and culture as he was growing up. Because the Creek viewed heritage through the mother's side of the family, they considered McGillivray fully as a Native American despite his European name and schooling. As a child, he participated in Native American rituals, including annual public ceremonies celebrating the New Year and the change of seasons. He learned the unwritten Creek rules and expectations of the Creek people, and this knowledge equipped him in a unique way to serve them once he grew to be a man.

Alexander's father was Lachlan McGillivray, a wealthy trader from Scotland who established a trading post among the Creek Indian nation (see box). The Native Americans resisted white men who came to farm their land but welcomed those who brought the benefits of trade. Young Alexander was comfortable in the colonial environment of his father and learned the English language and culture from an early age. When he was about fourteen years old after growing up in Creek society, Alexander was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, where his cousin, the Reverend Farquhar McGillivray, became his tutor. Alexander studied Greek, Latin, English history, and literature. He was also sent briefly to Savannah, Georgia, where he studied business before returning to Charleston. However, the outbreak of the American Revolution (1775–83) cut short Alexander's formal education. In 1777, he returned from Charleston to his mother's people on the Little Tallassee.

The Creek Confederacy

The Creek confederacy was a loose alliance of various Native American groups. The members of the alliance occupied a large and fertile area in the Gulf Coast region of North America. Their land covered a major portion of the present-day states of Alabama and Georgia. Most of their white neighbors were situated to the east along the Atlantic seaboard. Neighboring Native American nations included the Seminoles to the southeast, the Choctaw and Chickasaw to the west, and the Cherokee to the north. Of these nations, the Creek were by far the largest, in land, population, and power; they added to their strength by adopting or absorbing other tribes into their confederacy. Throughout the Creek world, each tribe spoke its native language as well as a common language called the "trade language."

The Creek people were sometimes known as Muskogee, the name of their dominant tribe, but the English called them the Creek. The origin of the name is uncertain, but it may have come from the fact that they built their clustered towns on the many streams that watered their country. The Creek often gave their towns names that described the town location or a natural feature: Tallasi meant old or abandoned town, Wewoka meant barking or roaring water, and Concharty meant red earth. Sometimes a town was named for a historic event; for example, Nuyaka was named to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of New York.

Although Creek women had little influence in religious or governmental ceremonies, eligibility for political office was determined through the female line. Creek headmen (chiefs) were chosen from particular clans in the mother's line, just as Alexander McGillivray was brought to power in the prominent Wind Clan. The clan system was of utmost importance to the Creek people. Clan members had strong obligations to one another, even if one did not know a fellow member personally.

Changing alliances

White traders who lived and worked among the Creek Nation for decades had close ties to Britain and placed their loyalties with the British. At the start of the American Revolution, many of these traders had their properties taken away by the American rebels. They either fled to Europe or in some cases were hanged. Lachlan McGillivray's estate in South Carolina was seized by the revolutionaries, and he immediately returned to Scotland. Alexander corresponded with his father on occasion throughout the following years but never saw him again. Back home on the Little Tallassee in 1777, his mother's position in the Wind Clan made him eligible for appointment as a lesser chief. With his linguistic ability and his understanding of both Creek and colonial societies, Alexander soon took a prominent place in Creek political life. He discovered that his father's departure had left the Native Americans without European trading goods that had become essential to them. McGillivray took action himself and arranged for renewed trade between the Creek and their French, British, and Spanish neighbors.

The British commissioned McGillivray as a colonel in the British army, and he went to work for the British superintendent of Indian Affairs. His job was to maintain the loyalty of the Creek to the British Crown (royalty) during the war. Although he was unable to move the Creek confederacy into an open alliance with Britain, he organized raiding parties that inflicted heavy damages throughout the Georgia frontier on American settlements and became known as a Creek war chief, even though he rarely participated in battle. When General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796; see entry in volume 2) killed the Creek chief Emistesigo in Savannah, Georgia, near the end of the war, McGillivray became leader of the Creek nation.

By this time, he had secured his place as a trustworthy interpreter and representative of his people to the outside world. It would be McGillivray's role to direct tribal affairs in the critical decade following the American Revolution. The Creek nation itself had been divided along pro-British and pro-American lines throughout the conflict. Still angry with the Americans for seizing his father's estate, McGillivray continued to support the British.

Shift away from the British

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 formally ended the American Revolution. Great Britain ceded (gave up) all its claims to lands east of the Mississippi River to the Americans and ordered all British troops to withdraw from the United States. The treaty betrayed Britain's Native American allies, because it made no mention of Native American claims of independence and separate political status within the new United States. At the end of the war, McGillivray found himself at the head of a Creek confederacy that was still only a loose alliance of independent tribes. The confederacy had originally banded together because of a mutual interest in defending tribal lands, but because of their independence the Creek bands were unable to make and carry out policies like the American colonists did.

McGillivray attempted to establish some unity among the separate Creek townships through a National Council. The Council met once a year in late spring and brought together all of the Upper and Lower Creek towns. The National Council was usually held at Tuckabatchee, capital of the Upper Creek, or Coweta, capital of the Lower Creek. Both towns had facilities for large gatherings. The Council was the place where the Creek addressed international affairs, which included issues involving the United States, European nations, and other Native American tribes. McGillivray used the Council to unite Creek tribes and increase their power. He proposed to further their cause in 1784 by signing a treaty with the Spaniards in Florida.

Tribal treaties

Because of the ongoing conflicts with the Americans over land, only the Spanish could offer the Creek confederacy the protection it needed and the trade that it desired in postwar times. Americans were interested in taking more and more land, not establishing trade relations. McGillivray secured a Spanish alliance for the confederacy when he signed the Treaty of Pensacola on June 1, 1784. The treaty was beneficial to both sides: The Spanish gained the pledge of continued Creek support, and the Native Americans maintained secure trade routes and an ally against the land-hungry Americans pushing against Creek boundaries. McGillivray arranged a Spanish-Creek trade arrangement for a British trading firm, a deal that worked to his advantage because he was a partner in the business. Although the Creek nation had many chiefs, McGillivray became known as the Great Beloved Man, or chief counselor, because he carried on all the tribe's correspondence, arranged their trade agreements, and acted as spokesman at the signing of treaties.

The state of Georgia soon challenged Creek independence by arranging treaties with McGillivray's political rivals within the Creek confederacy. Settlers began moving onto large sections of Creek lands, claiming them as their own. McGillivray denied the legality of these treaties and sent warriors to block the settlements. Between 1785 and 1787, he sent out numerous war parties, some as far north as the Cumberland River in present-day Tennessee. McGillivray became famous in the United States for his success in driving off would-be settlers from the contested areas.

President George Washington invited McGillivray to come to New York to discuss peace and a U.S. plan to promote "civilization" among the Creek. The civilization program consisted largely of encouraging the tribes to take up farming. In the summer of 1790, McGillivray led a delegation of twenty-six Creek chiefs to the U.S. capital in order to negotiate a settlement. McGillivray agreed to negotiate but refused any settlement that recognized the Georgia treaties, which he considered illegal.

On August 7, 1790, the U.S. government and the Creek nation signed the Treaty of New York, establishing a direct relationship between the two for the first time. The arrangements surrounding the treaty set a precedent: U.S. leaders asked the Native American chiefs to meet with them at the U.S. government seat rather than elsewhere. This allowed the U.S. leaders to impress upon the Native American chiefs the size, wealth, population, and power of the United States. In the Treaty of New York, Creek leaders relinquished millions of acres of Creek land and agreed to the U.S. demand that they turn over runaway slaves to the federal authorities. In return, the United States promised to defend Creek territorial rights and gave the confederacy the right to punish any American who invaded Creek lands.

The Treaty of New York was a personal victory for Alexander McGillivray. It affirmed his position as a legitimate Creek national leader. The treaty also strengthened his control over Creek trade by granting him permission to import goods through the Spanish port of Pensacola without paying American duties (taxes). These gains served McGillivray in his efforts to centralize power and protect the sovereignty (political independence) of the Creek nation. In addition, the treaty included some secret articles, which were not made public until the treaty was published in full, several months after the signing. McGillivray had sworn allegiance to the United States and received a commission in the U.S. military along with a salary of twelve hundred dollars a year for life. He had become a master at playing the British, Spanish, and Americans against each other and in receiving personal gains from his dealings; this resulted in many Creek viewing him with suspicion if not disrespect.

An untimely end

McGillivray did not live long enough to enjoy the provisions of the treaty or to see his dream of Creek national unity within a fully functioning confederacy. His health had been poor for some time as he suffered from the effects of several diseases throughout his adult life. His letters hold references to gout and rheumatism, splitting headaches, fevers, and long periods of bed rest. The rheumatism and pain would sometimes keep him from the administration of tribal business. Many times, he was so weakened that he could not mount a horse. Although McGillivray maintained active control over Creek affairs, continued internal rivalry in the Creek confederacy wore him down.

Eventually he was forced to turn away from the Treaty of New York because he could not get the various Creek groups to honor the treaty's conditions, including the boundaries it established between Creek and American land. In the summer of 1792, he renewed the alliance with Spain. The position of the southeastern Native Americans was further threatened in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin, a device that made it easier to remove seeds from harvested cotton. Cotton quickly replaced deerskins as the most valuable commodity in the South, and white farmers wanted more land to grow more cotton. The Creek still possessed much of the land in the area; however, the rise of cotton as a cash crop brought increased pressure from American settlers.

McGillivray's personal life is not well documented, but it is known that he had at least two wives, which was customary for a Creek chief. He owned several plantations that resembled those of prosperous American planters. McGillivray kept about sixty slaves, all of whom lived in slave quarters; they were supervised by a white overseer. McGillivray had a plantation near Tensaw on the Little River, just above Mobile, Alabama, and another at Little Tallassee on the Coosa River. He built a log house with dormer windows (vertical windows set in a sloping roof) and a stone chimney and kept several small apple and peach orchards on his property. He owned a large stock of horses, hogs, and cattle, and he hired a crew to maintain them.

On February 17, 1793, Alexander McGillivray died at the Pensacola, Florida, home of his British business partner, William Panton. McGillivray was only thirty-four years old at the time of his death. He was buried in Panton's garden, far from his home in Little Tallassee. McGillivray left his estate to his three surviving children. This was contrary to Creek custom, which would have dictated that he leave all his property to his sisters.

McGillivray's death left the Spaniards and the United States without someone to represent their interests to the Creek confederacy. The increasingly vulnerable Creek nation was left to search for another leader with McGillivray's diplomatic gifts and influence. Future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) later observed that McGillivray's diplomacy allowed the Creeks to maintain their lands and customs for a generation longer than other tribes in the face of U.S. expansion during the late eighteenth century.

For More Information


Caughey, John Walton. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938.

Debo, Angie. The Road to Disappearance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941.

Ethridge, Robbie. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Web Sites

"Alexander McGillivray (ca. 1750–1793)." The New Georgia Encyclopedia. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

"Pensacola, 300 Years, 1698–1998." Pensacola Historical Society. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

Alexander McGillivray

views updated May 17 2018

Alexander McGillivray

Alexander McGillivray (ca. 1759-1793) was the American Indian chief of the Creek nation during the period of Spanish and American rivalries for Florida.

Alexander McGillivray lived until the age of 14 at his father's trading post on the Tallapoosa River. His mother belonged to a clan of the Creek Indians and was half French; his father, a Scot, was a trader with political influence among the Creeks. In 1773 McGillivray went to Charleston, S.C., and then to Savannah, Ga., where he received a good education. He then worked in a mercantile firm and continued to study history.

During the American Revolution, McGillivray's father served the British. Because he was a loyalist, his property was confiscated, and he fled to Scotland; McGillivray returned to his mother's people. After the war, McGillivray's alliance with British traders in Spanish Florida against the Americans was of great importance, for, at his mother's death, the council chose him as their tribal leader. Soon he was called Emperor of the Creek Nation, a title he fancied.

McGillivray's goal was to form an alliance of southern Indians and use aid from England and Spain to force the United States to withdraw from Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In 1784 he signed a treaty with Spain making him a colonel on a salary of $50 per month. In return Spain would monopolize trade with the Creeks, and McGillivray was to expel the Americans.

Hating the Americans for confiscating his family's property, McGillivray began a war on the United States; battles soon were being fought from Georgia to Cumberland, Tenn. This war was so successful that in 1787 a congressional agent visited McGillivray. Possibly the Creek chief suggested that the Creeks be organized and admitted as a state. That same year the Spaniards stopped supplying munitions to McGillivray. This supplying resumed in 1789, but the Spaniards never fully trusted him again.

With the organization of a stronger U.S. government, President George Washington sent agents to negotiate with the Creeks. The first attempt failed. But in 1790 McGillivray was persuaded to journey to New York City; there he repudiated his treaty with Spain and signed an agreement with the United States ceding some Creek lands and making him a brigadier general with pay of $1,200 per year. With his income McGillivray became owner of three plantations and 60 slaves.

Soon after his return from New York, McGillivray made a new agreement with Spain repudiating the Treaty of New York; he received $2,000 per year from the Spaniards (raised later to $3,500 annually). On Feb. 17, 1793, while negotiating with the Spaniards to raise another Indian confederation to oppose the United States, he died of a fever.

Further Reading

The best work on McGillivray is John Walton Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks (1938). Other details may be secured from John Pope, A Tour through the Southern and Western Territories of the United States (1792), and David H. Corkran, The Creek Frontier, 1540-1783 (1967). □

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