A controversial eighteenth-century Creek leader, Alexander McGillivray (c. 1750-1793) pushed to centralize Creek authority, negotiated treaties, alliances, and trade with Great Britain, Spain, and the United States, signed secret diplomatic deals that augmented his private holdings, and helped control much of the Indian trade in the Lower South. As a result, he amassed a tremendous fortune in slaves, cattle, and land and became one of the most powerful Creek Indians of his era, arousing the animosity of a large Creek opposition.
McGillivray, also known as Hoboi-Hili-Miko, was born around 1750 in the Creek village of Little Tallassee, located near present-day Montgomery. His mother, Sehoy, belonged to the powerful Creek Wind Clan, and his father, Lachlan McGillivray, was a prominent Scottish trader. Alexander spent his first six years fully immersed in the matrilineal Creek society, under the guidance of his mother and other members of her clan. In addition to learning the Muskogee language, he also was immersed in the daily customs and seasonal rituals that defined Creek society.
Colonial Society and the Revolution
Although Creek cultural norms marginalized the parenting roles of biological fathers in favor of matrilineal uncles, Lachlan also helped raise McGillivray, physically moving him into colonial society in Augusta, Georgia, for several years. There, he learned firsthand many of the details of plantation life. Lachlan introduced Alexander to the privileges of colonial wealth, as his land holdings exceeded 10,000 acres and his mercantile firm profited from the sale of African slaves and various commodities. In 1773, Alexander moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he studied under his cousin Reverend Farquhar McGillivray and then briefly took an apprenticeship at the countinghouse of Samuel Elbert in Savannah, Georgia.
McGillivray returned to Little Tallassee in 1777, shortly after his Loyalist father’s property was confiscated by pro-Revolutionary leaders in South Carolina. By this time, McGillivray, also a Loyalist, was fluent in the ways of both Creek and colonial society. He quickly began to make use of his diverse social and political skills. With the ability to communicate with the British and Spanish at a premium, McGillivray increasingly inserted himself in inter-colonial affairs. For example, while representing the interests of Creek society as an offical negotiator, he also obtained a commission as a colonel in the British army, which charged him with helping to secure a British-Creek alliance. He obtained supplies for the Creeks and organized war parties to protect British and Creek interests against the United States. McGillivray rarely participated as a warrior, and he experienced few military successes. In 1781, with the support of approximately 2,000 Creek warriors, McGillivray helped defend Pensacola against American troops, but he would later protest British West Florida’s policy of offering bounties for Indian leaders. McGillivray also worked for John Stuart and Thomas Brown—two successive British superintendents of Indian Affairs—providing information and further securing the British-Creek alliance.
At the Center of Creek Diplomacy
When the American Revolution ended, McGillivray maintained his place at the center of Creek diplomacy as he sought to secure the Creek’s sovereignty in the Lower South. McGillivray’s strategy relied on a series of controversial nationalist reforms. He believed that successful diplomacy required the Creeks to have a more centralized form of government. This meant an end to the traditional political decentralization of Creek society, a system that allowed individual villages to sign autonomous treaties, wage war, and make trade arrangements. Despite opposition from various village and clan leaders, McGillivray sought to formalize and strengthen the Creek National Council. Through successful negotiations with the United States and by playing U.S., British, and Spanish interests off one another, McGillivray emerged as an accepted Creek leader. The resources that he received through his various connections to European-Americans further strengthened his position among the Creeks. He subsequently created and imposed laws and regulations that permeated all villages, and he pushed for an authoritative national leader like himself to negotiate with the imperial powers.
Centralized power also helped McGillivray secure an atypical economic position in Creek society. An active merchant in the deerskin trade, McGillivray was unlike the majority of Creek men in his capacity as a seller rather than a supplier of raw-goods. McGillivray also owned African slaves, plantations, cattle, and various other forms of private property, such as mattresses and books, that were of types unevenly embraced in Creek society and he used new laws to protect these interests. As much as he embraced elements of white society, McGillivray remained a part of Creek society. He participated in the annual Green Corn Ceremony, followed the unwritten expectations of his matrilineage and clan, and like some other prominent Creek men had multiple wives.
McGillivray spent much of his years after the American Revolution as a Creek diplomat. Immediately after the war, he opposed Georgia’s attempt to seize three million acres of Creek land and in 1784 negotiated the Treaty of Pensacola with Spain to secure rights to that land. This treaty, which guaranteed Creek land only in Florida, helped McGillivray convince Georgia and the United States that they needed to respect Creek territorial claims and sovereignty elsewhere. The treaty also guaranteed that the Creeks would continue to have access to the British trading firm of Panton, Leslie and Company, and it made McGillivray an official representative to the Spanish, an appointment that carried with it a $50 monthly salary. McGillivray soon became an employee and partner of Panton, Leslie and Company and used his connections to expand his personal authority.
Playing Powers Against Each Other
In the ensuing years, McGillivray continued to resist American efforts to confiscate Creek lands and obtain trading privileges in Creek country. He also played the European powers off of one another and ensured that Creek hunters continued to have access to the deerskin market. Occasionally, this required military action; between 1785 and 1787, for example, he sent war parties into the Cumberland settlements in Tennessee to clear the hunting grounds of squatters and other illegal settlements. Most of his efforts, however, rested on his diplomatic skills. In 1788, when Spanish officials informed McGillivray that they would have to reduce their assistance to the Creeks, McGillivray opened up communication with the United States. These talks began in 1789, as U.S. commissioners appointed by Pres. George Washington proposed a boundary on Creek land that cut deep into well-established Creek lands in Georgia. McGillivray and other Creeks protested, and the commissioners returned home empty-handed.
In 1790, at the invitation of President Washington, McGillivray and a delegation travelled to New York City to meet with Secretary of War Henry Knox about Creek land rights. The resulting Treaty of New York established a boundary between Georgian and Creek lands near the Altamaha River and established American sovereignty over Creek lands within the United States. The treaty also secured the private interests of McGillivray, who received a commission in the U.S. Army as a brigadier general and a salary of $100 a month.
After 1790, McGillivray attempted to strengthen the Creeks’ position through his various roles and continued negotiations with the Spanish, British, and Americans. In 1792, he met with Spanish officials in Louisiana to conduct his final treaty. In this treaty, Spain promised to respect Creek sovereignty within its borders. On February 17, 1793, McGillivray died in Pensacola, Florida. Although there is an early drawing that has been widely circulated as being a depiction of McGillivray, many scholars believe that it is unlikely to be him.
- Caughey, John Walton. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938.
- Frank, Andrew K. Creeks and Southerners: Biculturalism on the Early American Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
- Green, Michael D. “Alexander McGillivray” in American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity, edited by R. David Edmunds, pp. 41-63. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
- Saunt, Claudio. The New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.