Half-Scottish, half-Native American, two men at the turn of the 19th century shaped the future of U.S.-Indian relations.

Once, American historians offered a simpler story with clearer lines. We the people were white Europeans, fighting Indians and enslaving blacks, then, eventually, atoning for it. Even with today’s more multidimensional and multicultural perspective, few realize how much Colonial Americans mixed socially and demographically. Important Creek-Scotsmen like Alexander McGillivray and William McIntosh remain obscure.

Theodore Roosevelt deemed McGillivray “perhaps the most gifted man who was ever born on the soil of Alabama.” McIntosh, McGillivray’s relative and doppelganger, was a wealthy Indian chief and slaveowner assassinated by his own people for caving to the Americans. This April 6, National Tartan Day, Americans should salute Scots by remembering these two Native American Machiavellian diplomats in kilts and headdress.

The son of a once-penniless Scottish immigrant who prospered in America and a Creek princess with French blood, Alexander McGillivray was born in 1750 near today’s Montgomery, Alabama. He grew up in his tribe as a member of the privileged Wind clan, until sent to Charleston for a European education when he was 14, featuring Greek and Latin instruction.

When he returned, his mastery of white ways and his aristocratic blood made him a natural leader, dubbed Hippo-ilk-mico, the Good Child King. Living on one of his father’s plantations, he led the Creek confederacy of 10,000 warriors including the Seminole and Chickamauga tribes. During the Revolutionary War, the McGillivrays and Creeks fought with the British—an expensive miscalculation. The patriots seized the McGillivray estates.

After the war, McGillivray rebuilt his wealth by allying with the Spanish and another Scot, William Panton. Panton, Leslie & company would become the Southeast’s largest trader—exploiting the access granted in the Treaty of Pensacola McGillivray negotiated in 1784.

McGillivray hated the Americans for seizing what he claimed was 39,999 pounds sterling worth of property—and encroaching on the Creek kingdom. He raided strategically and negotiated belligerently, “for the desirable purpose,” he wrote with typical elegance in 1785, “of adjusting and settling matters, on an equitable footing, between the United States and the Indian nations.”

McGillivray dealt with America’s weak central government because he feared the rabid Georgia state government. Describing the armed Georgians’ hostility in 1788, he wrote, “If I fall by the hand of such, I shall fall the victim of the noblest of causes, that of maintaining the just rights of my country.” Growing up, my U.S. history textbooks never described such Creek nationalism and Western sophistication.

McGillivray’s shenanigans were so grating that President George Washington considered declaring war on the Creeks. When General Henry Knox estimated Indian wars would cost the bankrupt new nation $15 million, Washington shifted, hosting the chief and his entourage in the nation’s capital—New York. The resulting treaty gave the tribal chieftains payments and “handsome medals,” while McGillivray scored annual payments of $1,200 and an appointment as brigadier-general. Ah, for the good ol’ days of shameless graft.

The Creeks’ ceded some land to their east but gained present-day Alabama, and parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida. Shortly after signing the Treaty of New Yorkin 1790, McGivillray negotiated a $2,000 annual salary from the Spanish, securing the title of Superintendent-general.

Alexander McGillivray and William McIntosh.


Alexander McGillivray and William McIntosh.

Beleaguered by the duped Americans and churlish Creeks, trying to centralize power within his squabbling nation, the sickly McGillivray kept maneuvering until he died in February 1793. He was only 43. The Harvard historian Theodore Roosevelt would marvel at McGillivray’s “consummate craft and utterly selfish but cool and masterly diplomacy.” Other historians appreciated how he reflected “cultural and economic changes within Southeastern Indian society,” trading, settling down, owning slaves, herding cattle, encouraging literacy, running plantations, while respecting Indian traditions including polygamy and matrilineal power lines.

William McIntosh, born in 1778, proved friendlier to America than his ancestor. The son of another coupling between a Scottish trader and a Creek princess from the Wind clan, McIntosh would be known as Tustunnuggee Hutkee, White Warrior. He sided with General Andrew Jackson during the Creek War of 1813 to 1814 and the First Seminole War, 1817-1818, becoming a brigadier general.

McIntosh, too, wanted to “civilize” his nomadic people, making them settled farmers with private property. He profited from trading and diplomacy, enjoying two plantations, three wives, and at least 40 slaves. Both his plantations, Lockchau Talofau, or Acorn Bluff and Indian Springs are today public parks in Georgia and evocative heritage sites.

In 1823, McIntosh built a hotel on his Indian Springs property. There, on February 12, 1825, he signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, receiving $200,000 while ceding 4.7 million acres to the United States—much of present-day Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. “The white tide rises,” he explained, “we can’t fight or stop it and if we don’t sell, we will be cast aside, homeless and treated like animals without any place to go.”

McIntosh’s move defied a new Creek ban on further land sales. McIntosh trusted his cousin, George Troup, Georgia’s governor, and his old friend Andrew Jackson to protect him. But on April 30, 1825, Chief Menawa’s raiding party burned Indian Springs, shooting, stabbing, and scalping McIntosh.

Today, a plaque from the William McIntosh Chapter of the Georgia Daughters of the American Revolution marks his grave, praising this “Distinguished and Patriotic Son of Georgia…. Who negotiated the treaty with the Creek Indians which gave the state all lands lying west of the Flint River. Who sacrificed his life for his patriotism.”

A century ago, the few historians who noticed deemed “the half-breed” McGillivray a scoundrel and “the half-breed” McIntosh a hero. Today, McGillivray is the noble yet greedy intriguer, McIntosh a sleazy traitor. This battle is not over the facts but over the meaning of America. Can we expand our horizons to incorporate Native American frustrations without debasing our own narrative?

Too many historians today fail that test, offering a mirror image, equally simplistic version of America the greedy, the corrupt, perennially infected by the McIntosh virus. We need a subtle, multidimensional narrative that delights in the good we have done, the progress we have made, without whitewashing our sins. I can toast McGillivray, bash McIntosh, but celebrate George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and the entire enterprise. We also must end this constant moralizing, learning about the past without always judging.

So on Tartan day, let’s sport our red, white, and blue kilts. Let’s relish the cultural medley that spawned two supple diplomats who mastered the Old World and the New, and today shapes a nation grand enough to own up to its faults but mature enough to appreciate its strengths too.