12. The Murder of Jane McCrea

If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. There is no better example of venerable Murphy’s Law   than what happened to Burgoyne’s campaign once it started down from Fort Ticonderoga. Certainly, one of the worst, if not the worst calamity to befall it before the final disaster at Saratoga, was the event depicted in the above painting by American artist, John Vanderlyn, in 1804, “The Murder of Jane McCrea.” The picture was based on a true occurrence, although not quite as it’s here represented, but which did happen near Fort Edward, New York on July  27, 1777.

But  let us return for the moment to Burgoyne’s army. After a sharp exchange with the Green Mountain Boys at Hubbardton on July 7, in which he suffered some heavy losses, Burgoyne had only progressed as far as Skenesborough by mid-month (now called Whitehall, NY) near the South Bay of Lake Champlain. Here he decided not to follow the Lake George water route, but chose instead to march his army further south by the overland trails east of the lake. It proved to be another of the many bad decisions that marred this star-crossed campaign. Burgoyne found the whole trail cluttered with fallen trees and other obstacles purposely dropped there to delay him by the American General Phillip Schuyler.  The British army was compelled to remain in Skeneborough for nearly two weeks while engineers cleared the road so that the heavy baggage could finally reach Fort Edward, just twenty-two miles away (this route is now traversed by NY highway 4).

While Burgoyne was in Skenesborough, some five hundred more Indians led by an extraordinary French Canadian chief, arrived unexpectedly to reinforce the British army. His name was St. Luc de la Corne, an elder but still quite dapper white man whom the French employed because he was fluent in several Indian languages. He was so trusted by the natives that the French put him in command as “general of the Indians” whenever they hired indigenous mercenaries. In fact, St.Luc  had actually been the leader of the Indians involved in the Fort William Henry massacre twenty years before, and was roundly blamed along with Montcalm for not keeping his warriors under control. After the French defeat in 1763 St. Luc took the British side, and was now willing to lead his Indian cohorts against whomever the enemy of his latest loyalty.

Burgoyne, was quite unhappy with the unseen Americans harrying him guerilla-style from behind trees,  and so apparently encouraged these recent native arrivals to roam  through the neighboring forests, hunting down and killing any lurking American rebel fighters.  Of course, the British took for granted that they should kill only armed male soldiers, and not innocent farmers or their women and children. On the other hand from their cultural point of view, the Indians understood the mission was to kill anybody who had white skin and not wearing the uniforms of their current employers.

The Indians leaped into action. Within days, news circulated throughout the region of Indian atrocities; several bodies were discovered not only scalped but horribly mutilated. The local residents whose traditional loyalty Burgoyne had counted on to support his cause grew apprehensive of his ability to control his wild allies. Settlers in the near-by neighborhood where Fort William Henry once stood,  had never forgotten that terrible massacre.,  It was still believed that the  number of victims (including many relatives) was  in the hundreds – maybe thousands. In the midst of all this uneasiness, the most inflaming incident of all was about to happen.

As Burgoyne’s army was approaching the small town of Fort Edward, many residents, fearing an imminent battle, fled south to Albany. Among the few who decided to remain was a  twenty-something maiden named Jane McCrea. She had just arrived from her home in New Jersey, to meet her betrothed who was  a loyalist soldier currently serving in Burgoyne’s army. In hopes of joining up with him as his unit moved into the town, she was boarding in the home of a female friend. What happened next, on the morning of July 27, 1777, was to become the most sensational tale of terror, and most fortuitous propaganda coup for the American cause in the entire Revolution.

No one is certain of what actually happened. Whatever did became so quickly rendered into myth, that it’s better to hear the myth, which is what really empowered the story and turned it into an international cause célèbre.

The most compelling version at the time had Jane’s lover, on their intended wedding day, sending supposedly friendly Indian scouts to conduct her safely to the British lines, but on the way, the Indians’ “true nature” was aroused. There was an argument among them, and in the melee Jane was shot, brutally tomahawked and scalped. Of course, she had to be sensuously beautiful with glorious long golden hair. Every Caucasian soldier and settler at the time imagined the event pretty much as artists depicted it with obvious racist signifiers: swarthy savage hands clutching pure white feminine skin! When the Indians showed up in the English camp with her bloody scalp and demanded the promised bounty, the British were aghast!  When the Americans  heard about it,  they were even more horrified, and more determined than ever to take revenge upon the British who would set such cut-throats loose in their civilized neighborhoods. Pundits in all the  newspapers responded in purple rhetoric. Describing Jane’s lover’s reaction upon seeing the scalp, one writer exclaimed,

“He knew the long golden tresses of Miss M’Crea, and in defiance of all danger,  flew to the  spot, to realize the horrid tale. He tore away the thinly spread leaves and earth, clasped the still bleeding body to his arms, and wrapping it in his cloak, bore it to the first wagon he could find, and  there hid it from the sight of the world, until he could dispose of it according to his affection. The driver was bribed to silence. The lover sat by the wagon all night, in a state a little short of quiet delirium, now and then rousing himself to a furious determination to immolate the first Indian he could find, but they were all in their lairs….”

The Boston Independent Chronicle published a satirical verse, mimicking Burgoyne’s intent :

I will let loose the dogs of hell,

Ten Thousand Indians who shall yell,

And foam and tear, and grin and roar,

And drench their maukasins in gore,

To these I give full scope and play,

From Ticonderoga to Florida;

They’ll scalp your heads, and kick your shins, \

And rip your guts, and flay your skins

And of your ears be nimble croppers,

And make your thumbs tobacco stoppers,

I swear by St. George, and by St. Paul,

I will exterminate you all!

As soon as American General Gates took command of the troops opposing Burgoyne in early August, he fired off a letter to his opponent which was also widely published:

“The miserable fate of Miss McCrea was particularly aggravated by her being dressed to meet her promised husband, but instead she met her murderers employed by you!”

And so it went, the rhetoric and fury ever intensifying. Even London was shocked, as Edmund Burke once more railed in stinging irony against Crown policies in America.[i] For years hence, the macabre story  continued to fascinate. Vanderlyn’s painting above was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1804, the first American tableau d’histoire ever to be accepted in that most prestigious international art exposition. James Fenimore Cooper was clearly inspired by the tragedy in his description of the murder of Cora in his 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans.

Near the site where Jane McCrea was murdered stood a tall pine tree which became a kind of melancholy symbol of her sad fate in the primeval wilderness, just as depicted in the 1846 Currier (before Ives) print below. The tree was eventually cut down, and supposedly from the original wood, canes and small boxes were fashioned as souvenirs.  So many were sold that it was estimated an entire forest must have been felled to meet the huge demand. Moreover, in 1822, as Jane’s remains were being moved to a new grave-site in the current Union Cemetery, other souvenir seekers ghoulishly stole her bones to keep as relics.

Back in Burgoyne’s camp after this horrible event,  everyone took to recriminating and finger-pointing. Many of his officers demanded that the Indians surrender the culprits for prosecution and even execution. St. Luc refused. The Indians, feeling rebuked, complained that they’d had enough of English deceit, and began to desert. By early August some thousand of them had returned home. When Burgoyne and his reduced forces at last arrived in Fort Edward, he was hoping the local population, which he had believed were mostly loyalists, would help supply him with much needed provisions, especially horses and pack animals to draw his carts through the thick forest mud.  There was little cooperation. Horrified by the murder of Jane McCrea, many former loyalists not only deserted the British but switched allegiance and joined the rebel militias.

There was still more bad news. The expected reinforcements from the Mohawk Valley under General St. Leger would not be arriving. His army was seriously engaged in a series of bloody battles at Oriskany and Fort Stanwyx,[ii] involving again the ubiquitous Benedict Arnold,  who happened to be on his way north  to reinforce the Americans under General Phillip Schuyler. Furthermore, Burgoyne’s frantic attempts to communicate with the armies in New York finally revealed that General Howe had decided not to come north to Albany but to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and that General Clinton would remain in New York for fear of an attack by Washington.

He did hear a bit of encouraging news, however. Not far off in the town of Bennington, the rebels were known to keep stores of provisions and numbers of draft animals, especially horses. His German mercenaries, formerly cavalrymen, were forever complaining about having to  tramp on foot with heavy packs through the marshy countryside.  No American forces of any serious size were reported in that Vermont vicinity, so the taking should be easy

Next installment: BATTLE  OF  BENNINGTON

[i]”What would the keeper of His Majesty’s lions do? Would he not fling open the dens of wild beasts and address them thus? My gentle lions –my humane bears – my tender-hearted hyenas, go forth! But I exhort you, as you are Christians and members of civilized society, to take care not to hurt any man, woman or child!”


[ii] The British-American engagements at Oriskany  and Fort Stanwyx were the subject of a great 1936 novel, Drums Along the Mohawk, by Walter Edmonds; made into an equally excellent early technicolor film by John Ford starring Henry Fonda. The two battles were among the bloodiest in our nation’s history, but which did result in the Americans securing the agriculturally rich Mohawk River valley from Albany to Lake Ontario.

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