Revolutionary War Martyr Remains a Mystery

Associated Press Writer

Doomed maiden. Frontier martyr. Murder victim. Propaganda fodder. Calendar girl.

More than two centuries after Jane McCrea was supposedly killed by British-allied Indians just before one of history’s most significant battles, she remains a tragic and elusive historical figure, an American icon shrouded in myth, mystery and misconception.

This year, the 225th anniversary of her death, has seen renewed interest in McCrea, whose death is credited by some historians with helping the Americans defeat the British at the Battles of Saratoga in 1777.


But finding the real McCrea among the versions offered by history proves difficult.

“It’s a huge, huge detective story,” said David Starbuck, an assistant professor of anthropology at New Hampshire’s Plymouth State College.

With the approval of a Kansas woman believed to be the oldest living McCrea descendant, Starbuck is seeking a state court’s permission to exhume McCrea’s remains and try to answer some of the questions that have baffled historians.

“We still may not answer some of the big questions, but with forensics, maybe we can fill in some of the details,” he said.

Even the Jane McCrea House, located in the middle of this Hudson River village 40 miles north of Albany, is misnamed.

“There’s a nice state historic marker and it’s a beautiful house, but she was never in the building,” said Eileen Hannay, director of the nearby Rogers Island Visitor Center, where a McCrea exhibit takes up most of one room.

The exhibit tells of a young woman living on the northern fringe of New York’s settlements who becomes a victim of frontier warfare. The displays include artwork, literature and artifacts stemming from a Jane McCrea craze that began a generation after her death.

By the 1850s, pieces of wood -- reputedly from a pine tree that stood at the spot where she died -- were being fashioned into canes and boxes, and sold with certificates authenticating their source as the famous “Jane McCrea Tree.”

And in the early 1900s, a local insurance company produced calendars with artwork depicting a doomed McCrea awaiting her fate while Indians gather in the background.

“She’s always been a historical celebrity,” said Starbuck, who calls McCrea “the most famous woman killed during the American Revolution.”

What is known about McCrea is that she was born in New Jersey in the 1750s and was living at her brother’s farm near Ft. Edward when the British army began marching south from Canada in the summer of 1777. Among the loyalist officers serving with the British was McCrea’s fiance.

Scouting for the British were hundreds of American Indians, who were under orders to attack militia patrols but avoid harming the elderly, women and children.

According to most accounts, McCrea was captured by Indians on July 27, 1777, while trying to hide in a friend’s house in Ft. Edward. Those accounts say an argument arose between two warriors claiming her as their captive, with one of the Indians killing and scalping McCrea.

McCrea’s betrothed, it is said, first learned of her death when he spotted her hair being paraded about the British camp by the returning Indians.

Word of McCrea’s grisly demise quickly spread through the colonies, where it was reported in newspapers from New England to Virginia. The specter of Indian atrocities convinced American troops to rally behind the army arrayed against the British at Bemis Heights, just south of Ft. Edward.

Some historians credit the fallout from McCrea’s death with helping the Americans defeat the British weeks later at the Battles of Saratoga, an outcome that changed the course of history. The Saratoga victory convinced the French to join the fight against England, and the Franco-American alliance led to the British surrender at Yorktown, Va., in 1781.

The cultural effect of McCrea’s death rippled well into the 1800s, thanks to an American artist living in Paris, according to Robert Venables, a senior lecturer on American Indian studies at Cornell University.

John Vanderlyn’s 1804 painting titled “Death of Jane McCrea” depicted a young white woman in the clutches of two hulking warriors about to deliver the fatal blow. His lurid image would be copied and reproduced in the decades before the Civil War. Books, plays, pageants and poems retelling her story also were popular as the United States expanded westward.

As white settlers clashed with Native American tribes, the outpouring of McCrea images and literature mirrored the nation’s image of Indians, according to Venables.

“It helps to have pegs that you can hang certain themes on, and Jane McCrea is a convenient peg, and that peg is: Indians are savages and whites deserve to conquer the North American continent,” he said.

Starbuck, who has excavated colonial military sites in this region for two decades, hopes to exhume McCrea’s remains from a cemetery just north of the village and perhaps learn details such as her height, hair color and how she died.

McCrea seemed to get taller and more attractive, her hair longer and lighter, with each retelling of her story, Hannay said. But some accounts say she had dark hair, and at least one contemporary described her as a country girl “without either beauty or accomplishments.”

As for her death, the accounts of McCrea being tomahawked and scalped by her Indian captors are countered by contemporary British reports that she may have been mistakenly shot by jittery American militiamen.

A forensic anthropologist could uncover evidence of bone damage from gunshots or other wounds, but determining which side killed her is unlikely, Starbuck said.

He said he got the idea for the exhumation after hearing that a 97-year-old McCrea descendant living in Wichita, Kan., was concerned that McCrea’s story would fade from history.

With Mary McCrea Deeter’s blessing and the court’s approval, the anthropologist hopes to exhume the remains in the spring and try to solve the 225-year-old mystery.