Thursday, April 2, 2009

White Women in History: The Death of Jane McCrea

White folks love their white women in distress, the more virginal and helpless the better. Perhaps the most famous example of this love in American history is the adoration and use of Jane McCrea.

I had some difficulty researching this subject, as most writing on Jane McCrea still buys at least partially into the myths surrounding her death, and a lot of the books and websites that mention her were created by white supremacists. I had to quickly close a lot of links once swastikas started showing up on my webpage.

The legend of Jane McCrea is as follows:

Jane McCrea, a tall, pretty young woman engaged to a Loyalist who had joined the British Army in the Adirondacks, had left her brother’s home in Saratoga to join her fiancĂ© in the north. She was staying temporarily in Fort Edward, not far from Fort Ticonderoga.

On July 27, 1777, McCrea was killed just outside of Fort Edward. Indians allied with the British (specifically General Burgoyne) raided the village outside of the Fort, captured McCrea and scalped her. Her scalp was recognized by her hostess in Fort Edward and fellow companion, Sarah McNeill, in the hands of a brave.

The story of McCrea’s murder quickly spread and bolstered the rebel cause, leading to General John Burgoyne’s defeat in the battle for Saratoga.

This story inspired John Vanderlyn’s famous painting, “The Death of Jane McCrea.”

I have seen this painting in person many times, as it hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum. It’s a beautiful painting, if propagandistic.

In the painting we have, of course, two hulking, merciless savages, and one extremely pale, nicely dressed, shapely young victim. And her boob is about to pop out, just to give the image a little sexual oomph.

It’s impossible to know anything about McCrea personally. She was engaged to a loyalist, but her siblings joined the rebel army. It’s impossible to know if she had a firm opinion on which rich white men would control the land she called home. She was a human being and likely had an opinion, but her “loyalist” stance was mostly confirmed by the man she fell in love with. I’ve loved a republican…love can override political differences. But in choosing to follow her husband to Canada she had effectively chosen her side in life. In death, she would be recruited by the other.

McCrea was born in either 1751 or 1752, according to most sources, and was therefore about 25 when she died.

A far more probable account of Jane McCrea’s death was given in Plymouth Magazine by David R. Starbuck. ( Fort Edward was not being raided, as most of it’s inhabitants would have fled to Albany in anticipation of the coming battle. Only Jane McCrea and Sarah McNeill remained behind. McCrea, I imagine, stayed because her husband was stationed nearby and she imagined that he would send for her. Burgoyne sent some American Indian “contractors” (I guess you could call them) to retrieve the two women. McCrea and McNeill saw the American Indian’s coming and, like any god fearing white woman would, hid in the basement.

The men entered the house where they knew the women would be, and found them in the basement, where they were probably having all kinds of womanly hysterics. The men reportedly dragged McCrea and McNeill out of the basement by their hair. Now, it is likely that these men spoke limited English, and these women had of course no reason to learn anything of the native languages of the people whose land they were presently living on. So we have two freaked out women who think they are being captured, and some Native Americans just trying to earn the paycheck promised to them if the two women were retrieved. So, after much confusing back and forth, the men grabbed the ladies by an unbruisable part and hauled them out of the house.

No one is exactly sure what happened next. Starbuck leans toward the theory that some other Indians showed up, having heard about the reward and hoping to turn the women over to Burgoyne themselves, and in the kerfuffle that followed Jane was killed. The Indians claimed (but who would trust them? Am I right? Sure they were there, but being tan can skew one’s perception of reality) that McCrea was killed when Americans opened fire on the Indians in transit with McCrea. This is certainly possible, as there may have been rebels remaining in the Fort Edward area who recognized the Indians as British allies, and therefore a target. They also may have been attempting, ill advisably given the accuracy of musket fire, to defend the two women who appeared to be being held hostage. Other historians claim it could just have been a stray bullet. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, McCrea’s body was found with several bullets in it. With a dead woman on their hands, and the potential loss of any reward at all, the men posthumously scalp McCrea and pass her scalp off as one taken in a raid the British would have approved of.

Or maybe in the confusion, signals got crossed and McCrea was scalped because someone thought that was why they were going to get her. McCrea’s scalp turned up in the British camp among others, where it was recognized by David Jones (McCrea apparently had some memorable blonde hair). Jones somehow recovered her body (somewhere near the memorial below) and had it buried south of Fort Edward.
Another very different account ( claims that McNeill and McCrea were indeed captured when they were discovered at McNeill’s house near Fort Edward. The British allied Indians were patrolling the area capturing white stragglers and were unaware that McCrea and McNeill (who foolishly stayed in Fort Edward alone believing their connection to the troops would keep them safe) were loyalists and therefore on the “same team.” The Huron “Le Loup” hopes to ransom the young woman, but this plan is thwarted when Indians sent by McCrea’s fiancĂ© show up to claim her. An argument ensues, and Le Loup spitefully kills McCrea and scalps her.

Indians were questioned but no one was punished in connection with the death, possibly to avoid losing the allegiance of the Huron. Angered colonists blamed Burgoyne (and, by extension, the cruelty of the British Empire and its use of such savage natives) for McCrea’s death, and many may have joined the rebel militias because of this outrage. The use of Indians by the British was also discouraged from this point forward by the government back home, where Edmund Burke ( denounced their use.

A loyalist woman is killed most likely due to some accident or misunderstanding, and she becomes a martyr to the Revolutionary cause. Go figure. McCrea’s death becomes a popular inspiration for art and fiction (such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans). As a result, McCrea would never rest in piece. Many of her bones, including her skull, have been stolen. She has been moved from grave to grave (at one point sharing coffin space with Sarah McNeill, who died of natural causes in 1799). Starbuck’s article gives an interesting account of one of McCrea’s multiple exhumations.

Another thing I found interesting was that in many stories, McCrea is described as tall (for example: , when in fact she was only between 5’ and 5’4”, according to the last examination of her remains (which were genetically tested and confirmed as related by mitochondrial DNA to the oldest living McCrea descendant). It’s hard to say if she was beautiful, but if her husband recognized her scalp she likely had some awesome hair. Roy Lichtenstein didn't paint her as blonde, though.

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