Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gather the Bones, 6: Who was George Croghan?

That was easy. And I'm in a hurry today. Win!

 Okay, maybe I'll natter on some more. But after the jump, so I don't spoil any of James Fenimore Cooper's novels. The Great Spirit knows that they're hard enough to get through as it is.

I can't start at the beginning here: no-one knows the beginning. There have been two published biographies of George Croghan, but each iteration seems to get worse. Albert Volwiler's George Croghan and the Westward Movement is a quaint product of the 1920s and treats some of the evidence available with a light hand. It is still better (apparently) than what Nicholas Wainwright, author of George Croghan: Wilderness Diplomat produced in 1959, even with major new sources. The Wikipedia article isn't that much better, chained to the prevailing historical consensus. I've made my argument that it should say less than it does: Turn over to the Discussion side, which I conceive to be a place where you can let a little (a lot?) more hang out. The argument, as you will see, turns on the question of whether George Croghan did, in fact, immigrate from Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1741, or merely returned to America as a young man after being educated in Ireland.

 What we do know is that in 1744, Croghan held one of the few annually-renewable available licenses allotted by Pennsylvania to Indian traders and might have held one before. What this meant was that Croghan had by this time accumulated substantial capital in business assets and land, employed many people, had a factory on the Pennsylvania side of the Alleghenies and various village trading posts in the Ohio Country, and ran packhorse trains between the two. The perennial problem of shortage of ready money was resolved through credit relations with backers in Philadelphia and agents in London, and Croghan had as few difficulties with these as any. To make all of this work, Croghan must have made close contacts amongst the Indians, learned the country and at least two major Indian languages. He had to have gained access to elite circles of Philadelphia society (Benjamin Franklin was one of his major backers). Incidentally, his Indian contacts led to his appointment as an Onondaga tribal sachem (civil counsellor) in 1746. Perhaps no wonder that on the British side of the frontier he became Deputy Superintendant of Indian Affairs in 1756, and on the Indian side a member of the Iroquois federal council at around the same time. Both the latter achievements reflect the influence of Croghan's new patron, Sir William Johnson, but to gain such a patron was to make a major step in the world in its own right, and the same can be said of his later partnership with the Royal Governor of New Jersey, Sir William Franklin (Benjamin Franklin's illegitimate son.) It is hard to say whether his marital success in marrying the mother of Catherine Adonwentishon Croghan Brant, arguably the first woman of the entire Iroquois Confederacy, and certainly of the Mohawks, had anything to do with Johnson, as he married the daughter of Karaghtadie (possibly the Karaghtadie) before 1756.

In theory, once at Indian Affairs, Croghan became a "wilderness diplomat" and had to leave his trading business behind. In reality, the two were organically linked by Britain's abiding interest in the fur trade. Because of the way that international monetary flows worked in the late 1700s, prestige trades such as these were vital to foreign military commitments by mobilising ready money within the markets where armies and navies had to be supplied. So Croghan kept working the trade, working the Indians, and working British authorities, and probably the French as well, to keep the pelts flowing. Multilingual and eloquent, even his most exasperated creditors and enemies agreed that he was vital in keeping order in the Ohio country. As the Seven Years War wound down, the triumphant new British colonial regime tried to turn the fur trade into the basis of a new new trading relationship with the Indians that would keep the American colonies in money so that they could pay imperial taxes. Croghan was vital to that effort. When he saw that it would fail, he was probably the first to turn against it (on a false flag presumption; it's all about the conspiracy theories today, isn't it?). The relationship was doomed, and the Revolution brought that much closer. That's Walter Dunn's theory, anyway, and let's face it, we've got to give some face time to the crazy historians who insist on working out of the sources.

The British having ruined trading, Croghan and many of his colleagues turned to a new profit centre, land dealing. Croghan excelled at the game of getting large land grants from Indian communities and then selling the land that has made observers of Indian Country so chronically ambivalent ever since. One dispiriting aspect of the trade was that he often sold land to the squatters already living on it, so that they would have colour of title. Only the fact that the squatters were free and clear in their title made this anything but feudalism, and there were mortgages to consider.

And the enemies he made in the process! men with their own schemes for the land, men like George Washington, and men that he may or may not have cheated in the process, such as the Franklins and the Whartons. (Although various generations of Franklins managed to end up on more or less all three of both sides.) I say "may have" because  ....Well, it turns out, not-so-recently-now, that many of the residential homes built in Vancouver in the 1980s and 90s were inadequately waterproofed, a rather serious issue here on the raincoast that led to major maintenance costs and an understandable desire to make the builders pay. Which led to the uncomfortable discovery that the "builders" were all limited-liability numbered companies. I don't know that many of the people who actually built and sold these homes were ever held liable in any way. On the contrary, one would imagine that on the basis of generous donations to party coffers, they have gone on from strength to strength.

It's this kind of thing that gives property developers in general a bad name, and these lawsuits suggest that Croghan anticipated these tactics. Specifically, he used "assignments," in which he apparently sold land that were actually trusteeship deals. In the 1819 Chancery case of Phillips versus Prevost, the Phillips were not granted discovery to investigate the Prevost papers and learn if such a false sale created a trusteeship in favour of Croghan's daughter, Susannah, and her Prevost heirs. In Prevost versus Gratz accused Croghan's former business agents of violating just such an arrangement, suggesting that they existed, and that, in the nature of the process, there must have been a great many (says Wikipedia, so it must be true!) Taking into account the extent of Croghan's land dealings in eastern Pennsylvania, around Pittsburgh, in Ohio, Indiana, and New York, that's a great many assignments. One would logically expect provision for Catherine and his nephew (or possibly nephews), and given that the Croghans were one of the great families of old Pittsburgh, we can safely assume that there were. The thing is, though, given that Croghan appears to have been polygamous, we can hardly rule out the existence of even more heirs.

Well, that's an interesting fact! And you can tell that I'm proud of uncovering the Phillips vs. Prevost decision that seems to have been missed by the (very small) Croghan industry. On the other hand, the research was very easy thanks to the Google! (I'm going to throw it out there that in some sense, digital history is already here.) But what does it mean?

I'll throw out another tangential fact and point in the direction it leads: James Fenimore Cooper wasn't just the first major American writer. He also set the modern American trend of turning his native locale into an imagined country and taking possession of it in fiction that used its particularity to illuminate the general American condition. Thus, his real home of "Cooperstown" became "Templeton," Lake Otsego became "Glimmerglass," the 40,000 acre Otsego tract owned by his father became the Effingham/Temple Patent, and a local woodsman became the peerless frontiersman, Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstockings, Deerslayer, and Hawkeye. And it happens that the Cooper Patent had an earlier history. Before the come-from-nothing Judge William Cooper (I believe that Alan Taylor has established that Judge Cooper is the only son of his father for whom that man did not pay school fees) bought it in a highly disputable auction, it was the Croghan Patent.

Take my first tangent. Clearly, Croghan had an adventurous life that mirrors Hawkeye's, except in achieving rather more secular success. By the received biography, he was a penniless, 21 year-old immigrant in 1741, the same year that a 20 year-old Natty emerges from the shadows of the forest in The Deerslayer (1841). In 1744, Croghan was a rich, established figure respected not least for his matchless knowledge of the frontier but also well connected. He was eloquently multilingual in at least two major Indian languages, but unable to purge his own Irish brogue in order to get ahead in the White man's world --not in my experience the way that natural linguistic ability works. The documentary hissy-fighting that I've already done there will have to stand for itself.  It is all so very much less important than Croghan's sachemates, marriage, or marriages. Although there are precedents to the contrary, it is not plausible that Croghan would have held the offices he held, or made the marriages he made, without distinguished Indian ancestry. And the Onondagas, Mohawks, and, indeed, all of the Eastern Woodlands Indian peoples practiced matrilinear inheritance while the Irish are apparently patrilineal. So there's no real reason why a fur trader of the mid-eighteenth century couldn't be both Irish and Indian. (And, indeed, Croghan refers to himself as both.)

It is, anyway, far more plausible than the idea of a man of the eighteenth century making his way in life on his own merits. You know, like William Cooper. So let's go with the intuition: what if, behind the charming Horatio Alger tales of the American past lie shadows of influence and lines of relationships on both sides of the blanket. That's, perhaps, not surprising. But what if those connections aren't secret., or are only secret from the most naive? What if the beneficiary of one such tidy little connection founds American literature? What if he gives us cowboy heroes and rural idylls, baseball museum and frontiersman gliding across the shimmering Glimmerglass under a June sun in the midst of a virgin, trackless forest.

And what if he writes those books as one long confession/declaration that America was founded, not by self-reliant individuals come from nothing, but by a merger of the interest of Indian nobility with English to create a Mestizo aristocracy no different from any other in the Western Hemisphere? What if that narrative has always been available as the secret history of America? It's not the only secret history of America. That's the whole point of the "Pilgrims versus Pocahontas" thing. But if there are two secret histories, and two American political parties.....

To defend this, I'm going to have to read James Fenimore Cooper more closely. But that's okay, because I still haven't connected George Croghan to the hill of Croghan.  

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