Irish Settlers and the Indians

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Appendix II.

MANY anecdotes of the early Irish settlers and the Indians might be given in this place, if the graver facts of a history too long neglected did not press for precedence. One or two points of chapter IV. will, nevertheless, be the better for some slight illustration.

It appears that Irish pedlers, or traders, were the most successful in dealing with the Indian tribes. In Western Pennsylvania, "McKee's Place" and "Mahoney" were founded by two traders. In 1763, we find mention of an Irish trader, "named Tracey, killed in the massacre" at Michilimackinac. In a dramatic piece called, "Ponteach, or the Savages in America," published at London in 1766, (republished at Boston, in Drake's "Tragedies of the Wilderness,") we find the Irish traders introduced among the dramatis personae. The piece opens with—"Act I. Scene I. An Indian trading house; enter McDole (McDowell?) and Murphy, two Indian traders, and their servants." Dr. Parkman judges, from the actual knowledge of the wilderness displayed in this piece, "that Major Rogers," the famous pioneer, "had a hand in it."[1] Messrs. McDole and Murphy are plentifully supplied with rum, by administering a preparation of which, they make excellent bargains for furs with the intoxicated red men,—too true a picture of the times, we fear.

It is possible that the Irish traders being Catholics, as many of the Indians visited by the Jesuits were also, that, therefore, a peaceable intimacy was more easily established between them. There seems to have been something in an Irish education particularly suited to make Indian traders, interpreters, and allies. The Irish in the valleys of the Susquehanna and Juniata, at first, managed their savage neighbors very well. Afterwards, like the other inhabitants of the Sylvania, they were, in the middle of the last century, divided into two parties, for and against extermination. Colonel Stewart, of Donegal, was one of the leaders of the party for exterminating the reds; O'Hara, an alderman of Philadelphia, was at the head of the opposite one. In a satiric poem, in the Hudibras style, called "the Paxtoniade," published at Philadelphia in 1764, one of O'Hara's philanthropic speeches is travestied with some humor. Charles Thompson, who was, of course, of the humane party, published at London, in 1759, his "Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawnee Indians from the British Interest." In the border wars of Pennsylvania, we find the brothers Croghan and McCulloch, whose cotemporary narratives are still accessible.

In the insurrection under Pontiac, which lasted from 1763 to 1769, and was the most formidable attempt ever made by the red race, many Irish lives were lost. This formidable league was crushed by William Johnson, "a young Irishman, who came to New York" in 1734, in 1754 was made a major-general, and created a baronet, for his services. He died, on his plantation in western New York, in 1774. His life is a curious and instructive story, hardly inferior in interest to Clive's or Hastings'. In a cotemporaneous poem upon the Pontiac War, published at Philadelphia, the author informs his readers that he "received his education in the great city of Dublin." If he did not fight better than he wrote, he could have been no great hero.[2]

In Mrs. Ellet's interesting memoirs of the "Women of the American Revolution," (New York, Baker and Scribner, 1849,) there are some capital anecdotes of the intrepidity displayed by the wives, sisters, and daughters of Irish settlers, against the armed Indians, and their worthy allies, the savage old Tories. Many others are scattered through old local histories.

Of the interpreters employed in the Indian territories, several were Irishmen; Henry Conner, long the interpreter at Detroit, is mentioned with commendation by Mr. Cass and Dr. Parkman.[3] He is quoted by all writers on the history of the north-western tribes.

Indian fighting seems to have come as naturally to our versatile predecessors as trading or translating. More than one Irishman of education was naturalized in the forest, like Stark and Houston, and obeyed as chiefs. Of the number was the strange character known as Tiger Roche, at one time the friend of Chesterfield, and the idol of Dublin drawing-rooms; at another, the tattooed leader of an Iroquois war-party. A Dublin barrister at law, and a Fermanagh landlord, went through similar scenes and adventures, some of which furnished Lever With the hints for his best character in "The Knight of Gwyne." Jackson and Harrison well knew the aptitude of Irishmen for Indian warfare, and we find them promoting many of them for valuable services and daring expeditions.[4] Perhaps, on the whole, our account of good and ill with the poor Indian is nearly balanced; but there should have been some credit on our side.

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[1] "Conspiracy of Pontiac," Appendix, p. 581. Boston, 1852.

[2] Parkman's Conspiracy of Pontiac, p. 543.

[3] Ibid, p. 591.

[4] Butler, in his "History of Kentucky," gives us the following glimpse at one of Harrison's bivouacs:

"The general, seated round a small fire, with his staff, wrapped in his cloak, and taking the rain as it fell, directed one of his officers to sing an Irish glee. The humor of this song, and the determination which seemed to exist at headquarters to put circumstances at defiance, soon produced cheerfulness and good-humor throughout the camp.

"The general was afterwards joined by a Kentucky officer, who sung a glee beginning with—

'Now's the time for mirth and glee,
Sing and dance and laugh with me.'"