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Jane McCrea: An Oral History from a Mr. Robert Blake [1777]

"The Death of Jane McCrea" as painted by John Vanderlyn in 1804. – John Vanderlyn

The following is an excerpt from the book: In Their Own Voices: Oral Accounts of Early Settlers in Washington County, New York by Jeanne Winston Adler.

Author's Notes:

It is possible that Jane McCrea was more or less accidentally killed by an American bullet instead of by the Indians who were taking her into Burgoyne's camp --supposedly at the direction of her fiance, a loyalist officer. Mrs. McNeil later claimed that this is what happened, and the following accounts in some ways suggest this too. But the fact that Burgoyne, himself, always believed the Indians had committed the murder is powerful evidence of the opposite case. Gerald Howson's Burgoyne of Saratoga (New York, 1979) has an interesting discussion of all the evidence on this question.

Mrs. McNeil and the "Widow Campbell" were one and the same person. Campbell was the name of her first husband; McNeil that of her last.

Robert Blake:

I have often heard Mistress Sarah McNeil tell of her and Miss Jane McCrea's capture and flight toward Burgoyne's camp.

She [Mrs. McNeil] was sixty or seventy years old at the time, and had buried three husbands. She was a large fat woman with a good deal of vanity and pride about her. Her maiden name was Fraser, and she claimed to be a cousin of General Fraser of Burgoyne's army. Her house stood, say forty rods from the fort, up the river a few rods from the river and a few rods from the main road.

Jane McCrea lived with her brother Colonel John McCrea. They lived at that time on the west side of the river, several miles below Fort Edward. Miss McCrea left her brother's house voluntarily and came to Mistress McNeil's hoping for a chance to get from there into the British camp.

Miss McCrea and Mistress McNeil were, as the latter has often told me, sitting outside of the door in the shade on the north side of the house, it being a warm summer's day, engaged in sewing. A party of American soldiers had passed along the road and up the hill a short time before, and their going out had been observed by the ladies, and they had expressed their wishes that them fellows "might get a scattering before they came back." Sitting there and sewing, they were in rather a jocular way conversing when all at once there was a rattling of musket shots among the brushes on the hillside about half a mile distant; and soon emerging from the bushes they descried the party of Americans pursed hotly by a band of Indians. Alarmed, the ladies ran into the house. As the combatants came on rushing confusedly along the road, to their consternation, some half a dozen Indians separated from the party and made directly for the house. Some of them held of each others' hands, jumping and yelling as they leaped forwards toward the house.

Terror-stricken, they raised a trap-door in the floor and jumped into a small cellar-hole under it -- Miss McCrea, Mistress McNeil, and a younger man about twenty years old named Norman Morrison. A Negress and her children were the only other persons about the house. The wench and her children got partly though the trap door, when Mistress McNeil pushed her back, telling her there was not room for her there, and thereupon pulled down the trap door. The wench hereupon send [sic]up stairs with her children, and there found a more secure hiding-place than her mistress, for the Indians did not go into the chamber.

Instantly they rushed into the house and probably perceived some motion to the trap door, for they ran directly to it, pulled it up, reached down with their hands, grasped the young man and ladies by their hair and pulled the up through the trap door. Morrison has often told me how they lifted him out of the cellar by the hair on his head. An Indian on each side of Morrison grasped his arms, locked theirs in with his and ran out with him and up the hill. An Indian on each side of Mistress McNeil ran her off in the same way, whilst others placed Miss McCrea in the saddle of the horse and taking hold of the reins ran as fast as they could -- for by this time the American party having gained the fort and given the alarm, several companies were drawn up outside the fort and paraded upon the green and commenced firing at the Indians. [This was the last Mrs. McNeil or Morrison saw of Jane.]

They fired by platoons, as Morrison told me, and instantly as a platoon fired, the Indians would all drop flat upon the ground -- that the bullets might pass over them-- ordering Morrison to do the same and pulling him down with them as often as they fell. Then jumping up, they would run at their utmost speed till another platoon fired. Thus they scampered up the hill. Morrison being lightest of foot was ahead of the ladies. Mistress McNeil being large and fat could not run to advantage, but the two Indians, one on each side of her holding her arms, pulled her along as fleetly as possible. Mistress McNeil was so exhausted with the race that she was scarcely able to stand when they reached the camp. How far this was, I don't know. Probably two miles or more from her house.

As soon as the Indians were out of sight up the hill, the six hundred American troops at Fort Edward evacuated the fort and retreated down the river to Schuylerville. The British and Tories sneered at this cowardly act -- their making no attempt to defend themselves. There were a number of Americans killed by the Indians in the encounter that first alarmed Mistress McNeil. These were gathered up by the British a few days after, and buried just at the foot of the hill near the edge of the bushes. I was passed there to my Uncle Bell's when the British soldiers were gathering up the bodies to bury them or rather to burn them, for they covered them over with logs and wood of pitch pine and set the logs on fire to char and partly consume the bodies, so that they would not taint the air -- this was their only object -- but for this they would not have touched them I suppose. They were covered up with their clothes on, and when burning, the explosion of their cartridges was repeatedly heard as the fire reached them.

She [Jane McCrea] was not buried by the Americans, for they had all fled, but by the Tories in the neighborhood. My uncle's folks assisted in her burial and showed me her grave only a few days after it.

I have repeatedly heard her [Mrs. McNeil] tell how the Indians held of her arms and made her run, they running like grey-hounds and dragging her along and that she was tired all but to death ere she got to the camp. When Burgoyne lay at Fort Edward, Archy Livingston, my father, and all the other families around here went over to get protection from Burgoyne. We were there over a week. I stayed during the time at my Uncle Bell's. Mistress McNeil put up at his house all the time I was there and I knew her well. She used to go down every day from Uncle's to visit her cousin General Fraser, I do not know -- and was telling how she was going to give the use of such a house to this officer and such a house to that for their quarters on their arrival in New York -- for that they would reach New York was a fixed fact at that time.

Norman Morrison was a Highlander, about twenty years old at this time. He was with the army some little time. And I have often heard him say that whenever he met either of the Indians that aided in running him into the camp, they recognized him and would give a grunt and smile and shake hands with him.