George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 15 February 1790

From Henry Knox

War Office [New York] February 15th 1790


The serious crisis of affairs, in which the United States are involved with the Creeks requires that every honorable and probable expedient that can be devised should be used to avert a War with that tribe—The untoward circumstances of the case are such, that no degree of success, could render a War either honorable or profitable to the United States.1

Events may be expected soon to arise which will interrupt the present tranquillity. The headlong passions of the young Creek Warriors are too impetuous to be restrained by the feeble advice of the Cheifs even supposing their authority exerted to that end.

But were the dispositions of the Creeks generally favorable to peace, the corrosive conduct of the lawless Whites inhabiting the frontiers may be supposed to bring on partial quarrels—These may be easily fomented, and the flame of War suddenly lighted up without a possibility of extinguishing it, but by the most powerful exertions.

A War with the Creeks besides being attended with its own embarrassments may lead to extensive and complicated evils—Part of the lower Creeks or Semanolies reside within the territory of Spain—and a strong connection appears to subsist between the Creeks generally and the Colonies of east and west Florida belonging to that power.

In case of a War with the Creeks, and they should be pushed to take refuge within the limits of either of the aforesaid Colonies, the United States would be reduced to a most embarrassed predicament—For they must either follow the Creeks in order to extinguish the War; establish posts in their country; or retire: In the first case, they would seriously be embroiled with Spain—In the second, the operation would be extremely hazardous and expensive—In the third the impression made would not be attended with adequate or permanent effects to the expence incurred by the expedition.

This subject therefore in every point of view in which it can be placed, has an unfavorable aspect to the interests of the United States—Acting under this impression my mind has been anxiously employed in endevoring to avoid if possible so injurious an event.

In examining the proposition of the late Commissioners to send the draft of a treaty for the Creeks to sign and in case of their refusal to declare War against them2 it appears as if the measure proposed would inevitably precipitate an event which it is the interest of the United States to avoid—For if such treaty should be transmitted to the Creeks, with a declaration that they must receive and sign it, or War should ensue, it is highly probable that the latter event would take place by an irruption of the Creeks, long before the Messenger could reach the seat of Government.

In search of expedients to avert the evils impending on this subject, I have been led into repeated conversations with the Honorable Benjamin Hawkins Senator for North Carolina who is well acquainted with the influential characters among the Creeks—He appears to entertain the opinion pretty strongly that the designs and character of Alexander McGillivray the influential Creek Chief are opposed to a War with the United States, and that he would at this time gladly embrace any rational mean that could be offered to avoid that event—It seems probable to Mr Hawkins, arising from some former intimations of Mr McGillivray that he might at this time be influenced to repair to the seat of the general Government, provided that every facility and security should be offered for that purpose.3

In maturely contemplating this idea of Mr Hawkins, and confiding in his knowledge and judgement of the character alluded to, I am inclined to conclude that it is an expedient deserving of experiment—and that let its success be what it may, the result cannot fail of being honorable to the United States.

For although it is proposed the overture shall have the aspect of a private transaction, yet that it shall have so much of the collateral countenance of government as to convince Mr McGillivray, that he may safely confide in the proposition as it relates to his own and the other cheifs personal security until their return to their own Country.

I have shown Mr Hawkins the enclosed draft of a letter to Alexander McGillivray, it has received his approbation, and he is willing to copy and sign the same, adding thereto some circumstances relative to a former correspondence on some philosophical enquiries.4

The bearer of the letter ought to be a man of real talents and judgement—Although the ostensible object of his mission should be the charge of the letter, yet the real object should be much more extensive—He should be capable of observing the effects of the proposition, on the mind of Mr McGillivray and the other chiefs—He should be of such character and manners as to insinuate himself into their confidence—of obviating their objections to the proposition—of exhibiting in still stronger colours than the letter the ruinous effects of a War to the Creeks—In the prosecution of his designs he should not be in a hurry—but wait with attention and patience the symptoms of compliance—confirm them in such dispositions—and be calm and firm when opposed—And if after all his labor and exertions he should fail of success, he should be capable of giving a clear narrative of the means he used, and the obstacles which prevented his success.5

On this persons negotiation, would depend much blood and treasure and in any event the reputation of the United States.

The objects therefore of the mission would require an important character who although not invested with any apparently dignified public commission ought to have such private powers and compensation as would be a sufficient inducement to a performance of the intended service.

The time which the proposed negociation would require might be four months or one hundred and twenty days—If the compensation should be eight dollars per day the amount would be nine hundred & sixty dollars—The expences would probably amount to four hundred dollars in addition—Should several of the Chiefs repair to New York, the expences for that purpose would amount at least to 1000 dollars—so that the expence of one thousand three hundred and sixty dollars at least; and perhaps 2360, would be incurred by the proposed measure—and this sum would be independent of the probable expences of presents and returning the Chiefs to their own Country which would require a much larger sum—But there cannot be any doubt of the oeconomy of the proposed application of the money herein required when compared with the expence which must attend a War.

The proposed experiment would probably be attended with either one or the other of the following consequences.

1st That it would be successful, and thereby prevent a War— For most probably if Mr McGillivray and the other influential chiefs should embrace the measure, and repair to the seat of Government their dispositions would be sufficiently pacific to conclude a treaty, especially as no terms inconsistent with the principles of justice or humanity would be imposed on them.

2dly In case the proposition should be unsuccessful—The fair and honorable dispositions of the United States would be highly illustrated, and however great the evils which might afterwards result from hostilities, the executive government would not in any degree be responsible for them.

But as this transaction may be liable to the most unworthy imputations arising from some former local prejudices against Mr Hawkins in consequence of his services and zeal for the honor and justice of the United States while a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, it seems fair and reasonable that his conduct in this instance should receive its just approbation, and be shielded from all malevolence and misrepresentations.

I have the honor therefore humbly to submit the measure herein proposed to your consideration—If you should be pleased to approve the principal parts thereof, your direction appears to be essential on the following points.

1st Your approbation of my request to Mr Hawkins in writing, to copy and sign the letter to Alexander McGillivray.

2dly An ample passport for the protection of Mr McGillivray and such chiefs as shall accompany him from the time of their entering the limits of the United States to their return to their own Country.

3dly A direction to me to make the necessary expenditures of money in pursuance of the plan proposed, and to appoint a suitable person to conduct the business.6 I have the honor to be Sir, With the greatest respect Your Most Obedient Servant

H. Knox
Secretary of War


1For the unsuccessful negotiations between Creek chief Alexander McGillivray and the commissioners sent by GW in the administration’s attempt to avoid a war with the Creek, see GW to the Commissioners to the Southern Indians, 29 Aug. 1789, David Humphreys to GW, 21, 26, 27 Sept., 13, 28 Oct. 1789, Alexander Hamilton to GW, 20 Oct. 1789, and Knox to GW, 18 Oct., 21, 27 Nov. 1789. See also GW’s Memoranda on Indian Affairs, 1789, printed above. By early 1790 the three-way relationship between the United States, the state of Georgia, and the Creek and allied tribes was in a state of crisis. The raids by Georgia frontiersmen on Native American villages on the Georgia and Tennessee frontier and retaliation by the tribes brought the southern frontier to the point of war. The situation was further exacerbated by the Georgia legislature’s 1789 sale of over 15 million acres of land to three land companies—the Virginia Yazoo Company, the South Carolina Yazoo Company, and the Tennessee Company. The land, portions of which were claimed by the United States, by Georgia as part of its colonial territory, by the Indians, and by the Spanish, and extending over much of what is now Alabama and Mississippi, cost the companies approximately $200,000 (“An Act for disposing of certain vacant lands or territory within this State,” 21 Dec. 1789, ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:114). In early 1790, in an attempt to gain Indian support for the companies’ ambitions, “Rambling Agents” of the Yazoo companies made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade McGillivray to accept shares in the speculation (McGillivray to William Panton, 8 May 1790, in Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 259–63). Settlers had already begun moving into the area during the Confederation, under the authority of “An Act for laying out a district of Land situated on the river Mississippi and within the Limits of this State to be called Bourbon,” 7 Feb. 1785 (MS “Journal of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia” in Library of Congress Microfilm of Early State Records, 212). In March 1790, as a result of Indian depredations evoked by increasing Georgian encroachment on Indian lands, the government sent three companies of federal troops to Georgia to maintain order on the frontier (Knox to Anthony Wayne, 10 April 1790, NNGL). The federal government took as strong an action as possible during the summer of 1790 to prevent the Yazoo companies from putting their plans into operation, offering assurances to Alexander McGillivray during the negotiations for the Treaty of New York that the companies would be disbanded (McGillivray to Carlos Howard, 11 Aug. 1790, in Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 273–76). “An Act to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes,” passed by Congress in July, provided that “no sale of lands made by any Indians, or any nation or tribe of Indians within the United States, shall be valid to any person or persons, or to any state, whether having the right of pre-emption to such lands or not, unless the same shall be made and duly executed at some public treaty, held under the authority of the United States” (1 Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends 137–38 [22 July 1790]). For GW’s warnings to U.S. citizens not to encroach on Indian lands, see his proclamations of 14 and 26 Aug. 1790.

2Benjamin Lincoln, Cyrus Griffin, and David Humphreys, the U.S. commissioners to the southern Indians, concluded their report to Knox, 17 Nov. 1789, with the advice that “some Person should be dispatched to the said Nation with the ultimate Draught of a Treaty, to establish perpetual Peace and Amity, That when such a Draught of a Treaty shall be properly executed by the leading Men of the Nation, all the Presents intended for the Indians, and now in the State of Georgia should be distributed among them. That if the Indians shall refuse to execute such Draught of a Treaty The Commissioners humbly submit That the Arms of the Union should be called forth for the Protection of the People of Georgia, in the peaceable and just possession of their Lands; and in case the Creeks shall commit further hostilities and depredations upon the Citizens of the United States, that the Creek Nation ought to be deemed the Enemies of the United States and punished accordingly” (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 2:236). The Creek policy adopted by the administration was considerably less bellicose.

3Benjamin Hawkins (1754–1818), at this time U.S. senator from North Carolina, had served in the Confederation Congress from 1781 to 1784 and in 1786–87. His extensive experience on the frontier as an Indian commissioner and his correspondence with Alexander McGillivray during the 1780s made him a frequent source of information on Indian affairs on the southern frontier for the Washington administration.

4The letter to McGillivray, signed by Hawkins, indicates the Washington administration’s views on the treaty with the Creek. Hawkins expressed his “Surprise when I learned that the mission of three uninterested dignified Characters Commissioned by the President of the U. States to enquire into & adjust the disputes between the State of Georgia & Creeks have proved abortive! That the cause of the disappointment appears principally to be a disinclination on your part & the other Chiefs to form any Treaty with the U. States & that your Conduct on the occasion fully Supported this opinion. By your thus refusing to treat with the U. States when so solemnly invited thereto you have placed yourself & Nation in a new & Critical Situation. The U. States have offered to interpose & settle the disputes on terms of mutual advantage which had arisen between part of their Citizens & your nation the Creeks, & you have apparently refused to Submit the disputes to a fair hearing & decision.

“The main purport of this Letter is to place before you and the Creek Nation in Strong Colours, the exigence in which the Nation is involved, & to endeavour if possible to point out those evils which are impending & which you & the other Chiefs seem only to have power to Avert.

“The U. States cannot advance one Step further, they have already proceeded to the utmost lengths that could be required of them either by the principle of Justice or humanity, and they will not be responsible for any Consequences that may ensue however dreadfull.

“You and the other Chiefs seem desireous to preserve the peace. But you understand too well the feeble restraints your people are under to believe Seriously you can prevent partial hostillities, hence arises the extreme danger to which the Creek Nation is exposed. If you Strike, the U. States must punish, it will then become a Contest of power the events of which may be dissagreable and expensive to the United States, but the result must be ruin to the Creeks. . . .

“The U. States have the means of estimating properly the value of your Character. They are disposed to be favorable and friendly to You, but they Cannot Sacrifice their national Dignity and Justice. If then You Should be Seriously desireous of extricating the Creek Nation from their present embarrassed Situation, Manifest Candidly your disposition for that purpose, Come forward Yourself with a few of the principal Chiefs of the Upper & Lower Creeks to the President of the U. States, lay before him a real State of the Case, & I will answer with my Honour & my life that you will be received & treated with, on the footing of Justice & humanity. . . .

“Receive this Letter with the Candour it is written & let your Conduct thereon be open & undisguised. Artifices of which your Enemies accuse you would at this time be ill advised and immediately detected, & the result would be as pernicious as the most bitter Enemies of the Creeks could devise. . . .

“Remember that the United States are disposed to be favorable and friendly to you and that I shall rejoice if my efforts Should prove Serviceable to your Nation” (Hawkins to McGillivray, 6 Mar. 1790, in Caughey, McGillivray and the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 256–59).

5The agent employed by the federal government to carry Hawkins’s letter to McGillivray and to observe its effect on the Creek was Marinus Willett (1740–1830), a New York merchant and a veteran of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. According to an account based on Willett’s papers, “the day after the arrival of the commissioners from Georgia, with an account of the failure of the negociation, General Knox called upon Colonel Willett, informed him of the circumstance, and the desire of the president to see him, which was complied with. By the president, Colonel Willett was given to understand, that suspicions were entertained that the people of Georgia were not friendly to a peace, but anxious to procure from Congress a force sufficient to subdue them; that by the statement of the secretary of war, it would require fifteen millions of dollars to effect this, and that a considerable portion of the troops were to be furnished from the northern strates. The president, at the same time, mentioned it as his opinion, that if a person acquainted with Indians, could enter the country, with such instructions as he would furnish, without the knowledge of the people of Georgia, a war might be prevented, and proper treaties entered into between the United States and the Creek Indians. The president closed with requesting Colonel Willett to undertake the mission” (Willett, Narrative of the Military Actions of Col. Marinus Willett, description begins William M. Willett, ed. A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, Taken Chiefly from His Own Manuscript. New York, 1831. description ends 96). On 10 Mar. 1790 GW entered a similar version of the conversation in his diary, noting that he had “a long conversation with Colo. Willet, who was engaged to go as a private Agent, but for public purposes, to Mr. McGillivray principal chief of the Creek Nation. In this conversation he was impressed with the critical situation of our Affairs with that Nation—the importance of getting him & some other chiefs to this City—the arguments justifiable for him to use to effect this—with such lures as respected McGillivray personally & might be held out to him. His (Colo. Willits) going, was not to have the appearance of a Governmental act. He & the business he went upon, would be introduced to McGillivray by Colo. Hawkins of the Senate (from No. Carolina) who was a corrispondant of McGillivrays—but he would be provided with a Passport for him and other Indian chiefs if they inclined to make use of it; but not to part with it if they did not. The letter from Colo. Hawkins to McGillivray was calculated to bring to his, & the view of the Crk. Nation the direful consequences of a rupture with the United States. The disposition of the General government to deal justly and honorably by them and the means by which they, the Creeks, may avert the calamities of War which must be brought on by the disorderly people of both nations, if a Treaty is not made & observed. His instructions relative to the principal points to be negotiated would be given to Colo. Willet in writing by the Secretary of War” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:41–42). Willett left New York on 15 Mar. and met with McGillivray at the house of an Indian trader “living at the Killebees” (Willett, Narrative of the Military Actions of Col. Marinus Willett, description begins William M. Willett, ed. A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, Taken Chiefly from His Own Manuscript. New York, 1831. description ends 96, 101). Willett was warmly received by the Creek, McGillivray finding him “a Candid and Benevolent Character, possessing abilitys but without Show or parade” (McGillivray to William Panton, 8 May 1790, in Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 260). For Willett’s own account of his journey and his negotiations with McGillivray, see Willett, Narrative of the Military Actions of Col. Marinus Willett, description begins William M. Willett, ed. A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, Taken Chiefly from His Own Manuscript. New York, 1831. description ends 96–113. The manuscript diary of his mission is in NN: Tomlinson Collection. In the course of his conversations with McGillivray, Willett assured the Creek chief that the administration had not credited reports that McGillivray himself was implicated in the Yazoo schemes “& it was recommended to the Georgians to revoke the Grants as it would farther embroil Matters & it appeared there was a view by that measure to drag the U. States into an Indian War, which if successfull after much loss of Blood and Treasure Georgia would reap the whole advantage. . . . After arguing the foregoing & adding further Encouragement he pressed much on the Necessity of my Accompanying him to N. York with a few Chiefs. Such a measure would certainly give us peace and Security; for a Treaty concluded on at N. York ratified with the signature of Washington and McGillivray would be the bond of Long Peace and revered by Americans to a very distant period” (McGillivray to William Panton, 8 May 1790, in Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 259–63). On 1 June Willett set out “from Colonel M’Gillivray’s house, at Little Tallasee, on my return for New York, accompanied by Colonel M’Gillivray, his nephew and two servants, with eight warriors belonging to the Upper Creeks, my man John, and several bow, and some spare horses” (Willett, Narrative of the Military Actions of Col. Marinus Willett, description begins William M. Willett, ed. A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, Taken Chiefly from His Own Manuscript. New York, 1831. description ends 110).

6GW addressed each of these requests in his letter to Knox of 8 Mar. 1790.

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